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Ten Commandments: Basis for American Law?

Comparing American Law with the Ten Commandments


One of the arguments most frequently offered for the creation of Ten Commandments plaques, monuments, or displays on government property is that they are the foundation of American (or Western) law. Having the Ten Commandments displayed is thus supposed to be a way of acknowledging the roots of our laws and our government. But is this really valid?

It is difficult to make any sort of case for the idea that the Ten Commandments, taken as a whole, really constitute the basis for American law. It’s obvious that some of the Commandments forbid actions that are also forbidden in American law, but then again the same parallels can be found in laws throughout the world. Are the Ten Commandments the basis for Chinese law, merely because murder and theft are forbidden in China?

Perhaps the problems with this claim will become more clear if we take the Commandments individually and ask where in American law they are expressed. We’ll use a pseudo-Protestant version of the Commandments which is similar to the most popular listings found in public displays.

Ten Commandments and the Origins of Law

One possible interpretation of the claim that the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law is that "the law," as an abstract notion, has its origins outside of humanity. Laws are ultimately based upon commands stemming from God and are binding upon all people — including kings, aristocrats, and other "higher" members of society.

Of course, it is obvious that this is a theological proposition. There is nothing the least bit secular about this and the government has no authority to endorse such a view. It is even arguably a sectarian theological proposition because it singles out the Ten Commandments for special treatment as coming from "outside humanity," a position which traditional Jews would not accept because they regard the entire Torah has having divine origins. If this is what people mean when they say that the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law, then it's an invalid reason for posting the commandments on government property.

Ten Commandments and Moral Law

Another way of interpreting this position is to see the Ten Commandments as a "moral" basis for the general legal order of the West. In this interpretation the Ten Commandments are treated as moral principles dictated by God and serving as the ethical foundation for all laws, even if they can't be traced directly back to any specific commandment. Thus, while most individual laws in America don't derive directly from the Ten Commandments, "the law" as a whole does and this deserves recognition.

This, too, is a theological proposition which the American government has no authority endorsing or supporting. It may be true or it may not, but it's not a subject on which the government can take sides. If this is what people man when they say that the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law, then posting them on government property is still invalid. The only way to argue that "they are the basis for American law" is a reason for posting the Ten Commandments on government property is if there is a non-religious connection between the two — preferably a legal connection.

On the next page, we will look at each commandment individually to see if any commandments are reflected in American law today.

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