By Rob Boston | October 2015
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Legislators in Arkansas believe that you can’t fathom America without first understanding the Ten Commandments.
“In order that they may understand and appreciate the basic principles of the American system of government, the people of the United States of America and of the State of Arkansas need to identify the Ten Commandments, one of many sources, as influencing the development of what has become modern law,” intoned legislation authorizing placement of a Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
There is one problem, though: No evidence exists that the Ten Commandments, a code of religious behavior found in the Old Testament of the Bible, in any way influenced the development of the American system of government.
The belief that the Decalogue is the font of all American law and the basis of our government is treasured by many Religious Right activists. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. As proposals to display the Ten Commandments on government property spread, it’s important to understand what’s really going on here: Powerful sectarian lobbies are looking for a way to create a symbolic merger between church and state by persuading government bodies to display a code that largely regulates religious behavior.
With that thought in mind, here are 10 myths about the Ten Commandments:
1.) The Founding Fathers relied on the Ten Commandments when creating the American government.
The Founding Fathers rarely, if ever, cited the Ten Commandments during the creation of the American government.
This question of the founders’ relationship to the Ten Commandments was answered definitively in 2003 when 41 professors and legal historians weighed in on a lawsuit challenging Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments in the state Judicial Building in Montgomery. The scholars, brought together by Steven K. Green, former legal director at Americans United and now a law professor at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., filed a friend-of-the-court brief mustering ample historical evidence to debunk claims by Moore’s attorneys that the judge had the right to display the Ten Commandments because they are the foundation of American law.
Nothing in the nation’s legal history supports Moore’s view, the legal scholars and historians said, asserting in part, “Aside from a failed attempt in the seventeenth century to establish a biblically based legal system in the Puritan colonies, American law is generally viewed as having secular origins.”
The brief noted that “various documents and texts” figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and private international law.
American law, they pointed out, was also influenced by the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.
“Each of these documents had a far greater influence on America’s laws than the Ten Commandments,” asserted the brief. “Indeed, the legal and historical record does not include significant and meaningful references to the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch or to biblical law generally…as can best be determined, no delegate ever mentioned the Ten Commandments or the Bible.”
Concluded the brief, “While the Ten Commandments have influenced some of our notions of right and wrong, a wide variety of other documents have played a more dominant and central role in the development of American law. No respected scholar of legal or constitutional history would assert that the Ten Commandments have played a dominant or major role, or even a significant role, in the development of American law as a whole. To insist on a closer relationship or to claim the Ten Commandments has a special place in the development of American law lacks historical support.”
2.) The Ten Commandments provide a perfect foundation for governance.
It would be difficult for the Ten Commandments to be the foundation for any government since the document says nothing about legislative bodies, courts, rulers or how a state is to be ordered and function.
The Decalogue is chiefly a list of rules designed to regulate religious and moral behavior. Several of the Ten Commandments deal with purely theological issues, such as how God is to be worshipped, whether it’s appropriate to make idols, the need to honor the Sabbath, etc. These matters have no reflection in the U.S. Constitution, which is a wholly secular document that contains no references to God, Jesus Christ or Christianity.
The Ten Commandments are a moral/legal code, which is why they are brief (less than 100 words in most versions) and scant on details. By contrast, the Constitution has more than 4,400 words (not including its amendments) because it goes into explicit detail of how a government is to be set up and function.
3.) It’s OK to display the Ten Commandments at city hall. After all, they are displayed at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Ten Commandments are not displayed alone at the U.S. Supreme Court. The courtroom’s main chamber includes an ornate frieze that shows an array of historic lawgivers, and Moses is depicted holding the Ten Commandments – but he’s not alone. Also shown are Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Augustus, Napoleon, William Blackstone, Charlemagne and others. The purpose of this frieze is to educate about the evolution of the law over many centuries; it does not single out the Ten Commandments for special treatment.
Another part of the frieze shows allegorical figures representing concepts like wisdom, justice and the rights of the people. A single tablet with the Roman numerals one through 10 rests between figures representing the majesty of the law and the power of government. For many years, people assumed that this tablet represented the Ten Commandments. But a letter has since surfaced from Adolph A. Weinman, the sculptor who designed the frieze, indicating that it really represents the Bill of Rights.
4.) James Madison once said, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.”
It’s highly unlikely that Madison ever said this. Although this suspect quotation is often promoted by Religious Right groups, no one has ever been able to provide a source for it. The quotation appears in none of Madison’s writings. Furthermore, it cuts against everything Madison ever wrote about separation of church and state.
In 1995, the late Robert S. Alley of the University of Richmond wrote a scholarly piece on the quote that appeared in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal. Alley consulted with John Stagg and David Mattern, the editors of Madison’s papers. In a letter dated Nov. 23, 1993, Mattern wrote, “We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”
Alley concluded that the quotation was fake, writing, “Proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task. If you cannot find it in any extant manuscripts or collections of Madison’s works, just how does one prove it will not turn up in someone’s attic tomorrow? Of course you cannot. That is why the Madison editors were careful in how they phrased their response. But, after all, it is incumbent solely upon the perpetrators of this myth to prove it by at least one citation. This they cannot do. Their style is not revisionism, it is anti-historical.”
5.) The Ten Commandments are a secular code of behavior, so it’s permissible for the government to acknowledge them.
Many of the commandments deal with explicitly religious matters. These commandments attempt to regulate religious behaviors, and they warn against acknowledging false gods, creating idols, taking the name of God in vain and failing to honor the Sabbath. Government does not (or should not) have an opinion on these matters.
Other commandments outlaw things like murder, stealing and lying. These activities are always detrimental to society and thus have been curbed whenever people have lived together in organized societies.
6.) Local governments in the United States have a long history of displaying the Ten Commandments to promote virtue.
Some communities across the country contain Ten Commandments displays, often in public parks or near the seat of government. Defenders of government-backed Ten Commandments displays sometimes argue that these large tablets were erected to promote virtue and good behavior.
The truth is somewhat different: They were likely part of a publicity campaign for a movie.
A Minnesota juvenile court judge named E.J. Ruegemer started a campaign in 1943 to post the Ten Commandments in juvenile courts. Ruegemer believed, perhaps somewhat naively, that the problem of juvenile delinquency could be combatted by exposing youngsters to the Decalogue.
Ruegemer was active in the Fraternal Order of Eagles and urged that group to promote the project. The effort poked along modestly for a number of years until the mid-1950s, when film producer Cecil B. DeMille got wind of it. DeMille was working on his epic film “The Ten Commandments,” which starred Charlton Heston as Moses, at the time, and he was eager to drum up publicity for the movie. He worked with the Eagles to produce granite Ten Commandments markers that were donated to cities around the country, skillfully exploiting the situation to ensure maximum publicity for his movie.
Some of the monument dedications were timed to tie in with the release of the 1956 film. In one town, Dunseith, N.D., actor Heston appeared personally for the unveiling. In Milwaukee, a Ten Commandments monument was unveiled the same week the film debuted, with actor Yul Brynner (Pharaoh in the movie) on hand for the festivities.
Thus, many of those old Ten Commandments monuments in public parks have more to do with a publicity stunt for a movie than promoting good behavior.
7.) Christians and Jews agree on the wording of the Ten Commandments.
There are at least three different translations of the Ten Commandments – Jewish, Protestant and Catholic versions. Different terms are used in the commandments (“Thou shall not murder” as opposed to “Thou shall not kill,” for example), and the commandments are listed in different orders. In the Roman Catholic tradition, commandment four is “Honor your father and mother.” In most Protestant communities, this is the fifth commandment.
The Catholic version also omits entirely the commandment against making idols, and it breaks the admonishment against coveting into two separate commandments. For Protestants (and Jews) the tenth commandment covers all forms of coveting.
Although some try to gloss over these differences today and assert that they aren’t that important, doctrinal disputes are often taken very seriously by people. Disagreement over doctrine has sparked numerous divisions among religions and led to the many denominations we have today.
8.) The Ten Commandments deserve special recognition because it is the oldest legal code in history.
There are law codes older than the Ten Commandments. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, is estimated to be about 300 years older than the Ten Commandments. Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C.E., published an extensive list of laws, but only about 34 are extant. There are some similarities between the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments, which has led some scholars to believe that the latter borrowed from the former.
9.) The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s legal to display the Ten Commandments at the seat of government.
On June 27, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings concerning the Ten Commandments that provide some guidance on the legality of such displays. When we consider both rulings, it’s clear that the high court did not approve all forms of government-backed Ten Commandments displays.
In the first case, Van Orden v. Perry, the court permitted the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin, Texas. The court majority approved the display in part because it had been there since 1961 and hadn’t sparked an earlier challenge. The court also noted that the Decalogue was only one of 40 monuments and historical markers on the Capitol grounds.
The second case, McCreary County v. ALCU, concerned Ten Commandments displays erected alone in two Kentucky courthouses in recent times. The court ruled that the displays had the effect of endorsing religion.
Thus, the high court did not issue a blanket ruling permitting all Ten Commandments displays. Factors such as the placement of the Ten Commandments, the context of the display and even the motivation of the government officials who erected it must be taken into consideration.
10.) Government-sponsored Ten Commandments displays are mostly harmless and not worth fighting.
When government entities display the Ten Commandments, it sends the message that the state endorses and promotes this particular sectarian code. Many of the commandments deal with issues that the government has no right to meddle in, such as what god (if any) people worship, how they worship and what day they worship.
Public display of the Decalogue at the seat of government is often defended as merely educational. But these displays actually misinform people by implying that a religious list of regulations is the source of U.S. law. This does a disservice because it ignores the rich variety of sources that shaped and informed the development of American law.
Rob Boston is the Director of Communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is the author of four books: Close Encounters with the Religious Right: Journeys into the Twilight Zone of Religion and Politics (Prometheus Books, 2000); The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition (Prometheus Books, 1996); Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (Prometheus Books, 1993; second edition, 2003) and, most recently, Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do (Prometheus Books, 2014).
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