Two main arguments are being put forward these days about state-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments. The first is that they are the basis of Anglo-Saxon law, leading to ancient British law, leading to American law. The second is that sometimes the displays of them are purely decorative, part of a larger display of other legal and/or religious symbols (as is seen in the Supreme Court chamber itself).

Published on Thursday, March 3, 2005 by

Two main arguments are being put forward these days about state-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments. The first is that they are the basis of Anglo-Saxon law, leading to ancient British law, leading to American law. The second is that sometimes the displays of them are purely decorative, part of a larger display of other legal and/or religious symbols (as is seen in the Supreme Court chamber itself).

The decorative/art argument is a reasonable one, and probably the one the Supreme Court will adopt with relation to the Texas display. As the nations' most competent word police, conservatives have apparently focus-group tested the word "museum" and found that it works best to frame this argument (expect to see more of that word soon) and in the real context of a real museum the argument would have legitimacy. Religion - which the Ten Commandments symbolize - is, after all, a very real part of the history of America, for better or worse (just ask the women hanged as witches for over a century in Massachusetts).

But the real issue here is a "camel's nose under the tent" plan of religious conservatives and the new American Christian Taliban to convince the American people that the Ten Commandments are the very basis of American law, and thus should be both displayed in public places and taught in our schools.

The next step from this argument is the assertion that religion is the basis of America itself, and that twisted half-truth that the Founders and Framers did not write a "wall of separation between church and state" into the First Amendment of the Constitution. And then, conservatives will say, religion should inform the decisions of government; government should be subsidizing religion (as it is already with tax breaks and "faith based initiatives"); and religion-based legal perspectives (particularly on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality) are necessary, since the basis of American law is religion.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams disagreed.

In a February 10, 1814 letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson addressed the question directly. "Finally, in answer to Fortescue Aland's question why the Ten Commandments should not now be a part of the common law of England we may say they are not because they never were." Anybody who asserted that the Ten Commandments were the basis of American or British law was, Jefferson said, mistakenly believing a document put forth by Massachusetts and British Puritan zealots which was "a manifest forgery."

The reason was simple, Jefferson said. British common law, on which much American law was based, existed before Christianity had arrived in England.

"Sir Matthew Hale [a conservative advocate for church/state "cooperation"] lays it down in these words," wrote Jefferson to Cooper: "'Christianity is parcel of the laws of England.'"

But, Jefferson rebuts in his letter, it couldn't be. Just looking at the timeline of English history demonstrated it was impossible:

"But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here, then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it...."

Not only was Christianity - or Judaism, or the Ten Commandments - not a part of the foundation of British and American common law, Jefferson noted, but those who were suggesting it was were promoting a lie that any person familiar with the commonly-known history of England would recognize as absurd.

"We might as well say that the Newtonian system of philosophy is a part of the common law, as that the Christian religion is," wrote Jefferson. "...In truth, the alliance between Church and State in England has ever made their judges accomplices in the frauds of the clergy; and even bolder than they are."

In a January 24, 1814 letter to John Adams, Jefferson went through a detailed lawyer's brief to show that the entire idea that the laws of both England and the United States came from the Ten Commandments rests on a single man's mistranslation in 1658, often repeated, and totally false.

"It is not only the sacred volumes they [the churches] have thus interpolated, gutted, and falsified, but the works of others relating to them, and even the laws of the land," he wrote. "Our judges, too, have lent a ready hand to further these frauds, and have been willing to lay the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of others; to extend the coercions of municipal law to the dogmas of their religion, by declaring that these [Ten Commandments] make a part of the law of the land."

It was a long-running topic of agreement between Jefferson and John Adams, who, on September 24, 1821, wrote to Jefferson noting their mutual hope that America would embrace a purely secular, rational view of what human society could become:

"Hope springs eternal," wrote Adams of the preachers trying to take over government. "Eight millions of Jews hope for a Messiah more powerful and glorious than Moses, David, or Solomon; who is to make them as powerful as he pleases. Some hundreds of millions of Mussulmans expect another prophet more powerful than Mahomet, who is to spread Islamism over the whole earth. Hundreds of millions of Christians expect and hope for a millennium in which Jesus is to reign for a thousand years over the whole world before it is burnt up. The Hindoos expect another and final incarnation of Vishnu, who is to do great and wonderful things, I know not what."

But, Adams noted in that letter to Jefferson, the hope for a positive future for America was - in his mind and Jefferson's - grounded in rationality and government, not in religion. "You and I hope for splendid improvements in human society, and vast amelioration in the condition of mankind," he wrote. "Our faith may be supposed by more rational arguments than any of the former."

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a June 5, 1824 letter to Major John Cartwright, "Our Revolution commenced on more favorable ground [than the foundation of the Ten Commandments]. It presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts."

After all, only two of the Ten Commandments have long been enshrined in our law - don't kill and don't steal - and those have been part of human society since the stone age (and are even today part of the rules of "stone age" cultures, who have never had contact with modern religion). These two are clearly part of "nature's law," as Jefferson often noted.

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most outspoken of the Founders who saw religious leaders seizing political power by claiming religion as the basis of American law to be a naked threat to American democracy.

One of his most well known quotes is carved into the stone of the awe-inspiring Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man."

Modern religious leaders who aspire to political power often cite it as proof that Jefferson was a Bible-thumping Christian.

What's missing from the Jefferson memorial (and almost all who cite the quote), however, is the context of that statement, the letter and circumstance from which it came.

When Jefferson was Vice President, just two months before the election of 1800 in which he would become President, he wrote to his good friend, the physician Benjamin Rush, who started out as an orthodox Christian and ended up, later in his life, a Deist and Unitarian. Here, in a most surprising context, we find the true basis of one of Jefferson's most famous quotes:

"DEAR SIR, - ... I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten," Jefferson wrote, noting that he knew to discuss the topic would add fuel to the fires of electoral politics swirling all around him. "I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum [the angry poets] who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.

"The delusion ...on the [First Amendment] clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.

"The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the preachers] believe that any portion of power confided to me [such as being elected President], will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion."

Let us hope that the Supreme Court will affirm that decorative displays of the Ten Commandments - or any religious iconography - are fine in the context of art or, as Sandra Day O'Connor said in a previous decision, as "ceremonial Deism." This will probably allow for the display in the Texas case, as they're part of a much larger display of Texas historical icons, and will also prevent both conservative hysteria or anti-religious witch-hunts in which every last symbol of religion is scraped away from our institutions. (The Greek goddess John Ashcroft covered up with fabric is, after all, an ancient religious symbol. We need rationality here.)

But, more importantly, let's hope that the Court will take this opportunity to affirm the absolute separation of church and state in the United States, and to note, as Jefferson so well pointed out and as this nations Founding generation so well knew, that the Ten Commandments have nothing whatsoever to do with American law, or even its history. And, thus, they need not be displayed as major, focal-point monuments on public property (Judge Moore/Alabama); in classrooms next to the flag (a better display would be that subversive document, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the United States [which never once mentions "God"]); or taught in our schools (next on the Christian Taliban hit-list).

History - and our nation's Founders - teach us that religion is best left to religion, and governance best left to a government answerable to We The People, rather than to Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or their self-appointed contemporary spokesmen.


Bewarebias's picture
Bewarebias 11 years 20 weeks ago

As you said, Thom, 'don't kill and don't steal' have obviously been around since way longer than the Bible. We wouldn't have survived as humans if we hadn't adapted those a million years ago or so.

But let's think about a few others - sure, 'bear false witness' could be libel or slander, but what about covet? Since when do any laws tell us what we can think, or what the punishment should be if we even think about or fantasize about how nice it would be to have something someone else has? In capitalism, having only one of something is the free marketer's dream. Don't covet my ox? Are you kidding me, he's one of a kind, how much will you give me for him?

I'm not into mind control I am not pompous or arrogant enough to think that my definition of God is what is in everyone else's heart. Anyone that thinks they have the answer to that is truly a loon or a charlatan.

How will you legislate "honor thy mother and father?" Is a Sunday in May good enough? Can I go to jail if I forget to call or send flowers? What if dear old Dad is a psychopath who killed Mom and got the death penalty? Do I have to 'honor' both their graves?

The first commandment is of course, the most troubling. How shall we legislate, "I am the lord your God?" Who is speaking? Allah? Yahweh? Jesus incarnate? Jesus reincarnated? Actually, I'd like to see someone TRY and define the God that is speaking in that commandment, and then turn it into a law. Here! This is the God we mean! Yeah right. Way to start a war...

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