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The Ten Commandments in American History

This page is taken from America OnLine's "Separation of Church and State" Bulletin Board. (Jump works only for AOL subscribers.) I was told that Christianity had nothing to do with the legal system created by the Founding Fathers.

America and "The God of Justice"
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
Pepperdine Univ. Press, 1977

True, the ancient civilizations desperately desired some principles of private and public order. One can make out an attempt to reach such principles in certain Greek myths; and the Egyptians, or some of them, endeavored to find ethical authority that would make life worth living. In the Egyptian "Coffin Text" entitled "Dispute over Suicide," written about the year 2,000 B.C., we find an awareness by the nameless author that all men are guilty of the disorder that afflicts society, and that only by participating in the divine essence of existence can a person—who is both man and soul—work to redeem the people from their degradation. [5]  The quest for enduring order is a natural and necessary search among any people. But the first real success in that quest was achieved by Israel, and that surprising triumph has not been forgotten by mankind. See James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament (second edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), pp. 405–07; also Eric Voegelin. Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), pp. 98–101.

To the Israelites, the One God revealed himself: that is, divine wisdom and power were made known to Israel by a deliberate act of God. Divine authority informed a people how they should live. The terror of existence without object or rule was dissipated by the revelation that man is not alone in the universe; that an Other exists; and that Other is the One God, who makes it possible for human beings to be something better than the beasts that perish. Through the revelation of order in the universe, men and women are given the possibility of becoming fully human—of finding pattern and purpose in existence, unlike dogs that live from day to day only.

So the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, are not a set of harsh prohibitions imposed by an arbitrary tribal deity. Instead, they are liberating rules that enable a people to diminish the tyranny of sin; that teach a people how to live with one another and in relation with God, how to restrain violence and fraud, how to know justice and to raise themselves above the level of predatory animals.

Those Commandments are simple enough. They declare that there exists a Supreme Being; that all other "gods" are false; that material images delude; that God's name must not be used for evil purposes; that one day of the week should be devoted to contemplation of the divine; that parents must be honored; that murder and adultery and theft are evil; that in [p.28] a process at law, one must not lie; that the inner desire for another's possessions is sinful. These principles are not the whole of morality, of course; but they are essential to morality. And they are as true for a complex modern civilization as they were for desert wanderers.

Through Moses, the Israelites received a body of lesser laws, still observed in large part by Orthodox Jews. Long later, after the remnant of the people of Judah had returned from their Babylonian exile, these rules and the revelations of the Hebrew prophets were written down in the Torah, the code of divine law, so that the Jews might govern their whole daily existence by religious principles. The Torah, and the rabbis who expounded it, would hold the Judaic faith and observance together while all the other creeds and religious communities of the ancient world dissolved. So it is that the Jews are known as the people of the Law; they possessed the Law before they possessed the Book, or the Bible.

The Law is not merely the decree of a monarch who may pretend to divine powers—that the Israelites learned. The Law is not merely a body of convenient customs and usages that men have developed for themselves. The Law is not the instrument of oppression by a class or a hierarchy. For the true Law is derived from the Covenant that God has made and reaffirmed with his people. The Law is revealed to save man from self-destruction; to redeem man from sin and its consequences; to keep man from becoming a Cain, his hand against every man's; to enable man to resemble the God in whose image he was created.

Throughout western civilization, and indeed in some degree through the later world, the Hebraic understanding of Covenant and Law would spread, in forms both religious and secular. The idea of an enduring Covenant, or compact, whether between God and people or merely between man and man, took various styles in various lands and ages; it passed into medieval society through Christian teaching, and became essential to the social order of Britain, from which society most settlers in North America came. This concept and reality of Covenant was not confined to those American colonies—notably the New England settlements and Pennsylvania—which [p.29] were fundamentally religious in their motive. Like the people of Israel and Judah, the Americans broke solemn covenants repeatedly; but like Israel, America nevertheless knew that without a covenant, the people would be lost.

And from Israel, even more than from the Roman juris-consults, America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of law. Certain root principles of justice exist, arising from the nature which God has conferred upon man; law is a means for realizing those principles, so far as we can. That assumption was in the minds of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. A conviction of man's sinfulness, and of the need for laws to restrain every man's will and appetite, influenced the legislators of the colonies and of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, rationalist though he was, declared that in matters of political power, one must not trust in the alleged goodness of man, but "bind him down with the chains of the Constitution."

A principal difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was this: the American revolutionaries in general held a biblical view of man and his bent toward sin, while the French revolutionaries in general attempted to substitute for the biblical understanding an optimistic doctrine of human goodness advanced by the philosophes of the rationalistic Enlightenment. The American view led to the Constitution of 1787; the French view, to the Terror and to a new autocracy. The American Constitution is a practical secular covenant, drawn up by men who (with few exceptions) believed in a sacred Covenant, designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud; the American Constitution is a fundamental law deliberately meant to place checks upon will and appetite. The French innovators would endure no such checks upon popular impulses; they ended under a far more arbitrary domination.

Israel's knowledge of the Law merely commenced with the experience under God imaginatively described in the books of Genesis and Exodus. This knowledge was broadened and deepened by a succession of prophets. The power of the [p.30] prophets diminished with the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Babylon, and ended in the first century of the Christian era. Without venturing rashly here into the labyrinths of biblical scholarship, it is possible to describe the prophets' enduring significance for modern men, and to suggest how deeply interwoven with the fabric of American order this prophetic teaching remains.

The Old Testament and the New America

The New England Puritans not only ordered their commonwealth by the Ten Commandments and the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but constantly drew parallels between themselves and the people of Israel and Judah. The Puritans thought of themselves as experiencing afresh, under God, the tribulations and the successes of the Hebrew people. "For answers to their problems," says Daniel Boorstin, "they drew as readily on Exodus, Kings, or Romans, as on the less narrative portions of the Bible. Their peculiar circumstances and their flair for the dramatic led them to see special significance in these narrative passages. The basic reality in their life was the analogy with the Children of Israel. They conceived that by going out into the Wilderness, they were reliving the story of Exodus and not merely obeying an explicit command to go into the wilderness. For them the Bible was less a body of legislation than a set of binding precedents."[12]
New England's intellectual leadership, which would give that region an influence over the United States disproportionate to New England's population, transmitted this understanding of the Hebrew patrimony far beyond the New England colonies note 12: Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: the Colonial Experience (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 19.
But also the teachings of John Calvin of Geneva, so strongly imprinted upon the Congregational churches of New England, worked as well (if less intensely) upon the other American colonies. The Presbyterians—Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English—who came to the middle and [p.47] southern colonies also were disciples of Calvin; even the Anglican settlers, until the middle of the seventeenth century, often emphasized the Calvinistic element in the doctrines of the Church of England. [13] The Baptists, too, were moved by Calvin. [note 13: On the power of Calvinism in early America, see C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1964), particularly the Introduction.]

John Calvin's Hebrew scholarship, and his expounding of the doctrine of sin and human depravity, impressed the Old Testament aspect of Christianity more strongly upon America than upon European states or other lands where Christians were in the majority. And of course the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Quakers, and other Christian bodies in the American colonies did not neglect the Old Testament, though they might tend to give it less weight than did the Calvinists.

"Because freedom from slavery and oppression were dominant themes in the Old Testament," Neal Riemer writes, the legacy of Israel and Judah nourished American liberty. "It warned—as in the story of the Tower of Babel—against Man's attempt to be God. It forced Man—as in the story of Adam and Eve—to recognize his mortality and fallibility and to appreciate that there can be no Utopia on earth. Again and again, it inveighed against the belief that Utopia can be captured and made concrete in idolatry. On the other hand, however, it left ample room for effort to make life better. This is the central meaning, as I read it, of God's Covenant with Noah and its reaffirmation with Abraham, with Moses, and with the later prophets."[14]
So the Old Testament helped to make social realists of the early Americans. As Edmund Burke would declare at the end of the colonial period, the religion of most of the Americans was "the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion "—suffused with the spirit of liberty. But it was not from the Law and the Prophets that the Americans dissented; the Calvinists' quarrel was not with the Children of Israel, but with the prerogatives of the Church of England. Generally the Calvinists believed more fervently in the authority of the Old Testament than Martin Luther had; the idea of the Covenant colored all their political convictions. Note 14: Neal Riemer, The Democratic Experiment: American Political Theory (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1967), p. 35.

[See also, L. John Van Til, Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea, (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1972). --kc]

Clinton Rossiter expresses succinctly the cardinal point [p.48] that American democratic society rests upon Puritan and other Calvinistic beliefs—and through those, in no small part upon the experience of Israel under God. "For all its faults and falterings, for all the distance it has yet to travel," Rossiter states, "American democracy has been and remains a highly moral adventure. Whatever doubts may exist about the sources of this democracy, there can be none about the chief source of the morality that gives it life and substance..."From this Puritan inheritance, this transplanted Hebrew tradition, there come "the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a 'brooding omnipresence in the sky'; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and the middle-class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build.''[15]

Of course Puritanism, and the other forms of Calvinism in America, were Christian in essence, not renewed Judaism merely. And the stern Calvinism of the early colonial years would be modified, presently, by the growth of a less Calvinistic Anglicanism, by the influence of Lutheranism, by the coming of millions of Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, and by the arrival of masses of immigrants of other confessions or persuasions. As generation succeeded generation, moreover, the New Englanders themselves would relax the strictness of the founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony note 15: Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 55.

That said, nevertheless American political theory and institutions, and the American moral order, cannot be well understood, or maintained, or renewed, without repairing to the Law and the Prophets. "In God we trust," the motto of the United States, is a reaffirmation of the Covenants made with Noah and Abraham and Moses and the Children of Israel, down to the last days of prophecy. The earthly Jerusalem never was an immense city: far more Jews live in New York City today than there were inhabitants of all Palestine at the height of Solomon's glory. But the eternal Jerusalem, the city of spirit, still has more to do with American order than has [p.49] even Boston which the Puritans founded, or New York which the Dutch founded, or Washington which arose out of a political compromise between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Faith and hope may endure when earthly cities are reduced to rubble: that, indeed, is a principal lesson from the experience of Israel under God. [p.51]

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Jefferson Balances Rights and Duties

It is Now Illegal to Teach the Ten Commandments!

The Ten Commandments in American Legal History

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