Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Relevance of the 10 Commandments

There's an ongoing furor over the display of the 10 commandments on government across the United States, and the matter is now before the Supreme Court. A common complaint is that our laws were based upon these commandments and that therefore we should bestow upon them some special sort of recognition and prominence. But why?

What relevance do the 10 Commandments really have upon our common rule of law today in the United States? Let's have a quick look at each commandment.

1. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." - This certainly isn't governed by U.S. law, is it? In fact, you can be sure that many Americans worship other gods, both literally and figuratively (mammon anyone?) with great freedom. So why would we want a commandment placed on public property that says otherwise?

2. "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." - Not at all governed by U.S. law either. Additionally, as many have noted, this commandment is the one perhaps most often broken by Christians. Crucifixes, images of Mary and Christ--all of these things could reasonably be considered graven images. Americans are free to make any sort of graven image they like, so why would we want a commandment placed on public property that says otherwise?

3. "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain." - Certainly not governed by U.S. law. Additionally, though many people now assume this commandment refers to swearing or literally speaking God's name, it more likely referred to not making contracts lightly in God's name. This may be a sensible commandment to follow if more out of decency or in pursuit of integrity, but since it's not U.S. law, why would we want a commandment placed on public property that says otherwise?

4. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." - Not at all governed by U.S. law. If taken literally, most Christians don't adhere to this commandment, since they attend church on the first day of the week, not the last and they don't rest at all on Saturdays. Americans are free to attend the church, synagogue, mosque, etc of their choice or not, so why would we want a commandment placed on public property that says otherwise?

5. "Honour thy father and thy mother." - Certainly not a U.S. law. Additionally, are there not circumstances in which honor for one's parent might be unwarranted? Perhaps most of the time, this commandment would be an excellent guideline for living, but Americans are, in fact, free to dishonor their parents, so why would we want a commandment placed on public property that says otherwise?

6. "Thou shalt not kill." - This I'm sure we can all agree is an excellent commandment. At first glance. But what does "Thou shalt not kill" mean exactly? Does that include self defense? Does that include killing people in times of war? Does that include animals? The death penalty? Some would argue, perhaps convincingly, that the verse refers to murder. The truth may be somewhat more complicated, and many, many Christians disagree on the exact meaning of the verse. Arguably, our law not only allows killing in some cases, but it also *requires* some people to kill in certain situations. Nonetheless, I'm sure most would agree that as it pertains to murder, this is an excellent commandment, the principle of which most cultures would come to without having had any exposure to the Ten Commandments. Would it be worth posting this commandment in places if most people agreed that it applied to murder, which our country's laws certainly prohibits? Perhaps. On the other hand, most of our citizens probably don't need to be reminded that murder is a criminal offense in the United States.

7. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." - Generally not governed within the United States, and largely ignored even in those states which supposedly prohibit it. No doubt an excellent guideline in many if not most places, though individuals may be able to make compelling cases for breaking this commandment in particular instances. (Interestingly enough, none of the 10 Commandments prohibit homosexuality. Can we safely assume that means God had more of a problem with adultery than homosexuality?) Rightly or not, adultery is commonly practiced in all 50 states and the laws against it are either non-existent or seldom enforced, so why would we want a commandment placed on public property that suggests otherwise?

8. "Thou shalt not steal." - Another excellent and sensible commandment for which many laws do exist within the United States. (That's 2 of 10 so far.) Apparently, however, this commandment originally referred to the theft of *human* property or slaves, so even its modern-day relevance may be questionable if one is to take the Biblical injunction literally.

9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." A very sensible commandment to be sure, but not necessarily governed by U.S. law unless referring specifically to perjury in a court of law. If used in the sense of gossiping, back-biting, or lying in general, none of these activities are illegal when practiced in general life, however despicable they may be. Can we really justify placing a commandment on public property that suggests otherwise?

10. "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." However inadvisable coveting another person's spouse or belongings may be, this activity is certainly not a crime in the United States by any stretch of the imagination. Most people are probably guilty of violating this commandment at one time or another. This commandment also possesses the unfortunate distinction of highlighting the Old Testament practice of considering a man's wife to be his property. It would hardly seem appropriate to place a commandment on public property that suggests that a woman is a man's property or that any laws exist in this country, which prohibit coveting. On the contrary, we have entire industries built upon the hope that men and women will "covet." Indeed, the very term seems quaint.

Having considered each of the commandments--even briefly--we can quickly conclude that they really have little relevance when compared to the American code of law and in fact contradict much of what we know to be true of our laws. It seems quite reasonable to say that it would be highly inappropriate to post these commandments in public places about the United States, when they so clearly do not reflect our country's culture or laws.

Perhaps placed among other historic examples of law (the Code of Hammurabi, for example, upon which, no doubt, the Ten Commandments were actually based) in an educational context, the appearance of the Ten Commandments might be appropriate, but standing alone and without context, they seem to suggest an influence upon the American judicial system which simpy cannot be proven or justified.

For more information on the commandments, consult this detailed listing of the commandments over at, which I also consulted in preparing the above.

And another important question to consider: "Which Ten Commandments are the 'real' ones?"

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