The 10 Commandments and the United States

The 10 Commandments are Irrelevant to the U.S. Founding

The other day I was out cycling.  That is my hobby for those of you who wish to know.  I was 20 miles from my house, on a country road when I passed a home with a sign that caught my attention.  The background on the sign was the American flag.  The picture in the foreground of the sign on the right was of two tablets.  On the left the words read as follows: “The Ten Commandments—The Values of America’s Founding”.

It is accurate to say that this sign occupied my thoughts as I was returning home.  What bothered me was not this families’ religiosity.  I was most offended by the false statement on the sign..  I was offended by the lack of historical and political knowledge behind the sign.  I was offended by the idea that some other passers by would read that sign and buy into it.

I feel the need, perhaps therapeutically for myself, to dispel the myth propagated by this small lawn sign in the middle of nowhere northern Minnesota.  A quick refresher course for you (if you need it)…the Ten Commandments are in summary:

  1. I am the Lord your God
  2. Thou shall bring no false idols before me (no other gods but me)
  3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
  5. Honor thy mother and father
  6. Thou shall not kill/murder
  7. Thou shall not commit adultery
  8. Thou shall not steal
  9. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor
  10. Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife (or any other of your neighbor’s property).

Leaving aside, at least for now, our Founding Father’s deistic and, often times, anti-Christian beliefs, let us look at the commandments alone and see how they fit as “Founding Values” of the American Republic.

Commandments one and two are offensively un-American.  We can debate the nuances of religious freedom all we want.  However, one thing remains clear.  Our Constitution clearly allows any American to worship any deity they choose, or none at all.  The idea that Yahweh is the official god of the United States is purely ludicrous.  There is no way that anyone can reasonably argue against this point.

The third and fourth commandments are also way off the mark as a founding value of our republic.  We will not find any prohibition against cursing of any sort.  In fact, one could even argue that the third commandment is in direction violation of our First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause.  The fourth commandment is completely meaningless to our way of life—in all respects.  It would violate the freedom of religion protections of the First Amendment.  The idea of not working on Sunday would violate the spirit of our capitalist society.  The list is endless.

In summary, the first four commandments are at worst in opposition too or they are completely silent at best,  when it comes to the founding values of our country.

The fifth commandment is also irrelevant to our founding.  It is a nice idea to honor our parents, and I would recommend that we all try to follow something along those lines often in our lives.  However, what happens when our parents are not worthy of our honor?  What happens if, for example, our parents are abusive?  Should we still honor them?  Should we not seek legal recourse?  I would argue that our society places many things above honoring our parents: The rule of law, self-determination, and our own individual needs, pursuits, dreams, goals, ideas, etc.

I want to skip around a bit and look at commandments seven and ten.  Neither of these are against the law in our country.  I realize that this does not necessarily indicate their lack of value.  In no way am I advocating for adultery, however, staying faithful to one’s spouse is not a founding value or principle of our democracy—it is just a really good idea—in all societies.  The tenth commandment can, in some ways, be seen to be in opposition to the “American Dream”.  I am not advocating for jealousy.  Rather, so many of us look around and see the types of things that we would like to have in life.  Many Americans have pushed themselves to work hard in an attempt to secure those same things.  (This does not always work, and I do not intend to turn this into a debate over the inequality of opportunity—which I do believe exists.  That is a topic for another time).  In short, if I see that my neighbor has a nice new boat, and I want that boat, our society places value on the idea that perhaps I too can have that boat.  Neither of these two commandments are founding values.

This leaves us with commandments six, eight, and nine.  I would argue that each of these three commandments are founding values of our country—and just about every other civilized country on the planet.  The ideas that murdering, stealing, and dishonesty are negative human behavior are more or less ubiquitous in the developed world.  They are not unique to the U.S. or to the Ten Commandments for that matter.  These three commandments are nothing more than good ideas that humans have accepted for a very long time.  The fact that they can be considered founding “values” to our democracy does not make either the U.S. or the Commandments special.

In short, the Ten Commandments are not the values of America’s Founding.  To imply otherwise displays a profound lack of historical and political knowledge or purposeful deceit.

Thanks for Reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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12 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments and the United States

  1. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    For those who want to insist that the US is built on the bible or the 10 commandments or whatever suchlike garbage they wish to believe, I heartily suggest to them that they actually read the primary operational document of the United States: its Constitution:

    Have them check to see how many times god or Jesus is mentioned in that document. The answer is NONE. Indeed, the document is a product of and intended for MEN (and women, of course), and stated boldly so with the opening three words, "We, The PEOPLE." As for religion, certainly it is mentioned, but only twice. One mention is the one everyone knows about: the First Amendment, but the other may not be so well known. It is found in Article VI, and states that: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Note what that says. It states that the government has no interest and will make no requirement regarding religious affiliation or belief (or LACK of such!) as a prerequisite for position. Believe what you will or don't believe.

    Once again, I think the shibboleth of the US being a christian nation or built on christian principles is a product of ignorance. Most people who make such a claim haven't read the document, and are as conversant with it as they are with their bible, which is to say, NOT VERY!

    1. Ahab from United States

      Loren — You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that the Christian nation myth is built on ignorance. When a fundamentalist friend started spouting "America-is-a-Christian-nation" rhetoric, I got an encyclopedia and read the First Amendment to him. He was genuinely surprised to to learn about that whole "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" part, suggesting that he hadn't actually read the Constitution in depth.

  2. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    Good comment, Loren, but you have to remember that most people who think that way are as ignorant of the U.S. Constitution as they are of the Bible. They believe what they've been told and aren't remotely interested in finding out if it's actually true. Their claims about the founding of the U.S. are based on faith, not fact and it ought to take no more than an article like RB's to prove it, but faith isn't vulnerable to reality and we know that even if they read it, they'd keep on believing their fantasy version anyhow.

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