In honor of Arkansas’s decision to place the Decalogue at the state capitol, today I will look at whether or not our government is based on the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are as follows:
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
- Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
To break this down, we will ask but a simple question: Are any of the commandments upheld in the US Constitution?
To answer this, the obvious solution is to go through the list and see where it applies to the Constitution. As a reminder, the body of the Constitution sets up the how the government works, the only bit of law is an outline of preceding of treason. Since treason is not expressed in the Ten Commandments, we can disregard the bulk of the Constitution. That leaves us with the Amendments which spell out individual rights. We must limit ourselves to the first ten Amendments as the others were added after our founding fathers.
Ok, so Commandment 1: Only worship God (Yahweh).
Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
We can stop there. The First Amendment directly invalidated the First Commandment. Where God commands worship only for him, the Constitution says that the government neither force you to, or force you not to.
But I shall go on.
The second Commandment is also annulled by the First Amendment. Again, you have the right to make a statue of Marduk out of your boogers and worship him as you please.
The third Commandment is to not take the Lord’s name in vain. This is often interpreted in two ways. One is to not blaspheme. Again the First Amendment trumps the Commandment as blasphemy is protected speech. The second interpretation of the third Commandment is to hold to your word, to keep your contracts. Between individuals, there are no contract laws written in the Constitution, which would satisfy the name-in-vain Commandment. However, there are limitations to what kinds of (essentially) contracts the States can make. But Article I, Section 10 outlines prohibitions on contracts and treaties between states and with foreign powers without consent of Congress.* I think we can safely say that keeping contracts are as much of secular life and be it between governments or individuals, it is better for the general assumption that one’s word will be true. Otherwise, why bother with contracts?
The fourth Commandment is not mentioned in the Constitution at all. In fact, most businesses are open seven days a week. In fact, it is generally held that laws forcing businesses to close on a certain day, or limiting sales of certain goods on a certain day are thought to be a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of promoting religion.
The fifth Commandment is not a matter of Constitutional law. The closest thing to it are state laws that require not the child to honor the parents, but that the parents honor (provide for) the child. A child can neglect a parent, and nothing happens legally. But it is illegal for a parent to neglect a child.
The sixth through eighth Commandments are also not in the Constitution. Homicide, and theft are defined by the states, not the federal government, except in rare cases. But in any case, murder and theft are not in the Constitution. Neither is adultery, which is legal everywhere.
The ninth Commandment prohibits perjury, libel, and slander. Again, this is found in common law, not in the Constitution nor in any of the Amendments. While it is found in common law, like murder and theft, all civilized countries have prohibitions against such things.
The tenth Commandment says not to covet your neighbor’s property. Included in that property are slaves and wives. Yes, slavery is in the Constitution, and before the 13th Amendment it allowed slavery, just like the teachings of the Abrahamic prophets. But you could covet them as much as you wanted to! In the Constitution thought crimes are not addressed, and to say coveting is evil is to create thought crime. Fortunately, Amendments past the Tenth in the Constitution not only freed humans from slavery, but gave women the vote, recognizing them as no longer property of their husbands.
So before you vote on or petition for the Ten Commandments displayed on or in a government building, remember that not only is the Constitution written without them, but to adhere to them would be a step backwards for civilization.
So, what is the point of all of this? If you want to put up the Decalogue on government property, it is the same as “respecting an establishment of religion”. It is no different than a Muslim group wanting to post Sharia law, or Buddhists wanting to post the Eight Fold Path. Want to post something in your town square? Try the Ten Amendments, not the Ten Commandments!
*Thanks to Mike Wyner for pointing this out.