The myth of American law being based on the Ten Commandments

It’s a common refrain from among religious and political fundamentalists. The so-called ten commandments of the Judeo-Christian religions are supposed to be the bedrock upon which all Western — or at least American — law is based. People who don’t think it through and who have been raised up among such nonsense generally nod in agreement. The argument is important because some use this premise as a basis to further argue the historical and legal importance of their commandments, with the idea of making the public display of same not a religious but a civic matter.

So it makes sense to examine the claim — is American law based in any way on the ten commandments?

Lets run though them, one at a time and see how much of our laws are reflective of these scriptures. I will use the version recorded in Exodus 20 from the King James Version. (There are many other versions, even in the same Bibles. That’s another whole can of worms. But they are generally taught in this way in fundamentalist protestant churches.)

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    Right off the bat, we hit a major snag. I don’t know of too many laws in this country that specify that no other gods shall be before the Jewish/Christian God Yahweh. Actually, I know of exactly zero.
  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. 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.
    Wow. Never mind how terribly vain and vindictive this makes Yahweh sound. (Seriously, this is a being worthy of worship?) But once again, we see no legal concept in American law that specifies that no images can be made of things in heaven, under the Earth, or in the sea.
  3. 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.
    This one is weird because no one can agree even on what the hell it means. Depending on your definition of what taking in vain the name of your deity means, this could be an admonition against swearing, embarrassing your God, or even speaking his name. Whoops. Guess I’m in trouble on that one. Anyway, this could very well be the one commandment that is not only not upheld by American law, it is routinely broken every time a witness is sworn in to testify in an American court room! If you’re keeping score with us at home, we’re now 0 for 3.
  4. 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.
    Now for the first time we have possible room to quibble over one. Yes, for a long time in this country we had so-called “blue laws” which regulated certain forms of commerce on Sundays. There are still a few, mostly relating to alcohol sales. On the other hand, this commandment was written with the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) in mind, so we actually had the day wrong. And beyond that, the way this commandment was (and is still) practiced by Jews actually related to a whole host of activities, of which commerce was only a small part. I’m pretty sure no police in the U.S. ever arrested anyone for pulling his oxen out of a ditch. On the whole, it would be a tremendous stretch to call this a pillar of American law, but I’m going to be kind and give this one partial credit.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
    Finally a sentiment that is actually noble and somewhat useful. Assuming of course you make allowances for horrible parents, who need not be honored. However, again I see little evidence of legal precedent here. There is no requirement in American law that requires “honoring” one’s parents any more than one would honor any other human being.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
    Well hot diggety! Finally, into the second half of the top ten and we actually get to one that is reflective of an important principle of all American and Western law: the right no not have one’s life taken unjustly. There are many caveats of course: acts of war, self-defense, and retribution by the state being the most notable exceptions. And the Bible too is full of exceptions to this law. Yet it is a very old bedrock principle of all civilized societies and hardly one that needs an edict from on High. But we’ll give it to the commandments anyway.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    Adultery is generally understood to mean sex between two people, at least one of which is legally married to another person. It can also be used to apply to sex between unmarried persons, although in the Bible that is generally referred to as fornication. Either way, most Americans might see it as an immoral act, but hardly an illegal one. If it were, I’m afraid there would be a lot more people in jail than on the streets.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
    This is easily the clearest win for the commandments. It is certainly a bedrock principle of Western civilization that a person’s property is to be protected from unlawful taking by others, even the state (with exceptions). Again, it could be argued that these private property rights are so common in most civilizations as to need no appeal to the Bible. And like number 6, this idea existed long before Charleton Heston — I mean Moses — handed down the Jewish laws. But again feeling generous, we’ll concede this one.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
    If you only take this to mean what it literally says, then this could be considered a win for the commandments. Because it is illegal to falsely testify against someone in a court of law. We call that perjury. But every Christian I know applies this much more broadly, to be a prohibition on any telling of untruths — even “white lies.” And honestly, if they locked up every liar in the country, the jails would be full of politicians and preachers. Okay, we’d all be in there, wouldn’t we? Sorry, this is another fail.
  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.
    The prohibition against coveting is a fascinating one. I think they put this one in to keep people from being dissatisfied with their lot in life and therefore better able to be controlled — by the religious leaders, of course. But actually, the free market economies of all western societies not only do not prohibit the desiring of our neighbors’ possessions, they thrive on it. Here in America, we call it “keeping up with the Joneses.” The “heathen” natives of this continent were actually much better at keeping this commandment than were their Christian conquerors, as they had no concept of personal property. It was the invaders who coveted what the natives had: a bountiful land. You see how that worked out.

So there you have it. Even by the most generous of scoring, at least 7 of the ten commandments have absolutely no manifestation in American law, much less are they “pillars of Western law.” Why do some Christians continue to get away with claiming that our laws are somehow based upon these commandments?

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