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A Biblical Foundation for American Freedoms?

I have no problem with someone admiring the Ten Commandments from a Christian standpoint. It’s an important part of the Old Testament story. The problem is when that admiration moves the Ten Commandments from holding sway in the religious domain to being relevant in society, public policy, laws, and the like. Consider this critique for example: “Has there ever been a more perfect and concise moral code than the one Moses brought down from the mountain?” (I respond here.)

The Ten Commandments and biblical governance in general are at odds with the things that Americans value about America.

What do the Ten Commandments say?

Let’s ignore the confusion about what the Ten Commandments say and use the Exodus 20 version. The first four commandments (no other gods, no blasphemy, no artwork, keep the Sabbath holy) are in violation of our freedom of religion (or atheism) and our freedom of speech. God punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation”—also unthinkable in modern secular society.

Commandments 6, 8, and 9 (no murder, no stealing, no lying) are indeed laws in America, though we never needed the Ten Commandments to inform us of the importance of such laws. Indeed, the Egyptian Papyrus of Ani (1250 BCE) and the Code of Hammurabi (1772 BCE) show that biblical morality didn’t break much new ground.

Commandments 5 and 10 (honor your parents, no coveting) can be great advice. But surely we wouldn’t demand a blanket respect of abusive parents who didn’t deserve the honor. And where is the boundary between corrosive coveting and capitalism?

Another difference with the Constitution is that the penalty for breaking the Ten Commandments is death—not just for murder but also for worshiping another god or blasphemy. And this isn’t something that the Christian can dismiss as no longer relevant: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24–5).

What does the Constitution say?

Contrast biblical law with the rights given to us by the U.S. Constitution. As you read the highlights below, consider how most of these vital elements of government and society are either opposed to what the Bible says or uninteresting from the Bible’s standpoint.

  • The Constitution gives us democracy and representative government, separation of powers, and a limited executive branch.
  • The First Amendment: freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and the right to petition.
  • Fourth Amendment: protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
  • Fifth: right of due process, protection from self-incrimination and double jeopardy, limits on eminent domain.
  • Sixth: speedy and public trial, impartial jury, rights to confront witnesses and to counsel.
  • Seventh: trial by jury.
  • Eighth: prohibition of excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Thirteenth: slavery prohibited.
  • Fourteenth: equal protection.

Historical revisionists enjoy assigning credit for some of these constitutional ideas to the Bible. Can they be serious?

Democracy, limited government, freedom of religion and speech, right to a jury trial, prohibition against slavery—not only did these not come from the Bible, but most of them conflict with the Bible. In fact, the very reason that the Ten Commandments (and any other religious document) are welcome in the United States is because of the Constitution’s protection of religion.

How do we know that these fundamental rights didn’t come from Christianity? Because when Christianity was in charge, society didn’t have them! Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Bible’s definition of a working society was wrong, just that it’s different from that defined by the Constitution (history revisionists like David Barton, take note).

Those who laud the Ten Commandments as the most sublime wisdom ever written must keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution takes us in a very different direction. An incompatible direction. And, I submit, a far better direction.

Science doesn’t know everything.
Religion doesn’t know anything.
— Aron Ra

Photo credit: Dana Simpson

About Bob Seidensticker
  • smrnda

    I note that aside from stealing and murdering, you can get away with breaking the rest of the 8 commandments, with some exceptions for being false witness in particular situations.

    All said, I think was it John Adams who said that our constitution was in no way founded on the Christian religion in a communique with Morocco? I should really google that but my connection is horribly slow at moment.

    • Greg G.

      It was the Treaty of Tripoli which was submitted by Adams.

      • smrnda

        I need to drill that into my memory, as it’s one of the best things to bust out when somebody pulls the “Christian nation” nonsense.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          smrnda: It begins:

          As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…

        • Pulse

          So it says in the English version but not in the Arabic.

        • Greg G.

          It was the English version that was unanimously ratified by the forefathers of this country.

  • Greg G.

    The Romans were into bloodsports and public executions but even they blanched at the punishments of the Hebrew scriptures. Remember that the Sanhedrin had to get permission from the Romans before they could execute someone.

  • Kodie

    I want to say that I am extremely in favor of the freedoms granted in the 1st amendment, especially religion. No government body is supposedly allowed to impose upon and enforce the thoughts you keep in your own head. The free expression of religion is great and the free speech thing is great. What I don’t understand is how Christians get along with it. They don’t like our laws at all. They hate freedom as far as I can tell. All they want is the freedom to take over the government and impose and enforce one way of thinking on everyone else. They think that’s what majority rule means – that they can tell me how to think because they number more than everyone else. That’s a theocracy, it’s no longer a democratic process. Another thing I don’t understand is why they have one particular god-belief that they want to be true, as if making it the law of the land insures its veracity, or insures this god’s protection and everything will be somehow better. Lower taxes, safety from crime, natural disasters, and diseases? No matter if the law of the land adheres to a religious belief, no one can implement the change of my thoughts on the matter: there still is no god. They can try to suppress knowledge and censor the internet, and we can be like North Korea. That is exactly the kind of cult nation they seem to desire to live in. Shielding their children from the evils of public schools, and what they might learn there that differs from what garbage they want to teach them at home – is how they want the country run. They love their freedom but they don’t love mine, which makes them as unAmerican as Iraq. Ted Seeber just accused the “immoral” atheists of bribing scientists, and I had nothing to that but paranoia and absolute hypocrisy. See: Discovery Institute, et al.

    Where religious beliefs and actual laws cross over is the problem. As human beings seem to agree, murder is not ok. Ok, it is one of our key laws. But where they want to impose their superstitious beliefs on our laws – where teenagers are too jacked up on hormones to teach them about responsible sexuality; embryos’ souls have to make it to birth, and single mothers should have kept their knees together because our taxes shouldn’t feed their children – the same children it was so vitally important to bring into the world; dressing how you like and walking where you want makes raping someone perfectly expected and an acceptable response; two gay people cannot join in the “sacred” ritual (government-issued piece of paper) of marriage, despite the fact that government offers significant benefits to married people, and religion hardly any. The government and your religious beliefs are separate, separate! You cannot have exclusive rights to government benefits and then be hypocrites about people who have to get by on welfare. Being married is like being on a special kind of welfare, and being heterosexual does not grant exclusive rights to that welfare, this is not your theocracy, it’s the United States of America!

    What the fuck do Christians even like about America anyway? Why do Christians think their theocracy works better than democracy when they shit on democracy? They shit on minorities who don’t believe their beliefs, they are imperialist hogs and they have the gall to prop themselves up as loving America more than anyone else. The idea that this was intended to be a Christian nation does not hold water, and the idea that a miraculous recovery from reality can be cured by turning this into a Christian nation is absolutely ridiculous. The 10 Commandments is absolutely just an idol. It’s the first Commandment! When you remove them from the public places, it’s not “god” being pushed out. If anyone believes their god listens to orders from humans and leaves where he’s not wanted by a couple of people who just want you to respect their rights then he is really shitty at being omnipotent. You might as well throw your daughter into a burbling volcano as post the 10 Commandments in a public school. I could keep going but I’d better not.

  • RichardSRussell

    “And where is the boundary between corrosive coveting and capitalism?”

    Heck, where’s the boundary between ordinary coveting and capitalism? The entire marketing and advertising industries are based on inducing people to covet things they don’t have.

    • smrnda

      If it weren’t for coveting, entire industries would collapse.

      On the definition of coveting, here’s an interesting one:

      I’ve actually heard some Christian conservatives argue that the desire for material wealth itself isn’t bad, but that coveting (desiring things you don’t have but others do) is a sin, meaning that rich people are incapable of coveting, but poor people are automatically guilty of it since they want things that other people currently have. Want a raise? That’s wanting money that your boss has, therefore, it is coveting. The boss slashes wages? Well, it’s his money, he’s in charge.

      I’m kind of glad the 10 commandments aren’t the basis for civil law.

      • Niemand

        I’ve always thought of “coveting” as, essentially, “desiring unjustly”. For example, Donald Trump might covet the new WTC, i.e. want to have it for his own glory and power and to keep others from getting it rather than because he needs it*, but a homeless person can’t covet an apartment because he or she clearly needs it. No, this is not a definition that I can ever see being legal or would ever want to see be part of the legal system, but in terms of what is and is not a sin it makes more sense to me.

        *Not that I have any particular evidence that Trump wants the new WTC, but given his behavior there is probable cause to suspect…

        • Greg G.

          Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass (except during plowing season when you need one.) It’s all in the subtext, then?

        • Niemand

          Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass

          ….

          …Nah, I’m going to leave that one alone. Too obvious.

          Coveting is (or, IMHO, should be) a rich person’s crime. Stealing your neighbor’s…equipment…is immoral and illegal, but envying him when you lack the same resources? That’s just normal.

          The other subtext is that the biblical rules are so vague that one can come up with an interpretation one likes for almost all of them. Therefore, they are effectively meaningless.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          Niemand:

          The other subtext is that the biblical rules are so vague that one can come up with an interpretation one likes for almost all of them. Therefore, they are effectively meaningless.

          Agreed. The 6th commandment is “don’t kill.” But surely you can kill some things, and sometimes you can kill people. So we’re told that, no, it’s actually “don’t murder.” But what good is this? “Murder” is undefined.

          “Don’t do the kinds of killing that you’re not allowed to do”? Not helpful.

        • Greg G.

          Remember that it’s just as illegal for a rich man to sleep under a bridge as it is for a poor man.

          The laws are vague enough to apply to you but not to me.

  • JohnH2

    ” sublime wisdom ever written”

    The Sermon on the Mount would be closer to this then the 10 Commandments, or even the first and second great commandments according to Jesus. .

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

      JohnH2: For a takedown of the Sermon on the Mount, see the commentary in the Iron Chariots Wiki.

      • JohnH2

        Bob, Perhaps you should look for something that explains what Jesus is saying rather then a “takedown”, which is purposefully missing the point of pretty much every verse.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ BobSeidensticker

          JohnH2:

          If you’re saying that my goal shouldn’t be to simply rebut whatever any Christian says in defense of his religion, I agree. My big goal is to find the truth, though smaller goals along the way can certainly be to attack this or that Christian argument.

    • Greg G.

      That’s what Thomas Wolfe said about Ecclesiastes!

      “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”

  • Rick

    The 10 commandments were written for a Jewish theocracy. I’ve never read that anyone claimed they were the sole source for our constitution, which is the straw man argument you’re making in this article. You’re right. They weren’t the sole basis for the constitution. But many principles of Christianity and Judaism were.

    • ZenDruid

      “But many principles of Christianity and Judaism were.”

      Name a couple, please…those which are exclusive to judaeo-christianity.


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