The Ten Commandments Vs the Constitution

I decided I’d post an entry in the blogswarm supporting the separation of church and state. It seems appropriate to do it on Easter. My blogging has risen again.

For most of my adult life I’ve lived in the south and periodically down here a state senator or congressman or judge starts a furor to get plaques of the Ten Commandments put in a civic space – government buildings or courthouses or such. I saw the episode of the Colbert Report where Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who sponsored legislation to display the commandments in the Federal House of Representatives and the Senate buildings could only name three. There was much blogosphere hooting and hollering as a follow on about how dumb this guy was, but friends, you were played. There is a reason he could only name three:

Stephen Colbert: What are the Ten Commandments?

Lynn Westmoreland: What are all of them?

SC: Yes.

LW: You want me to name them all?

SC: Yes.

LW: Uhhh.

LW: Ummmm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.

LW: I can’t name them all.

He didn’t name any more than that, because those are the only three that have any place in a government building. Like most people, my original inclination was to make fun of the dumb guy. “Hell” I said, “I can name more than that. Remember the sabbath, have no other gods … Hey!!!” When you sit and down and think about the balance of the commandments, most are actually illegal and unconstitutional to enforce. As an exercise in thoroughness of thought, lets go down the list and see the legal implications of each of the Ten Commandments and see how appropriate we think this list is for government buildings. I am using the list as distilled by Wikipedia.

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me
    By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to have other gods than Jehovah.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
    By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to have and make graven images of other gods. I have an image of Ganesa hanging on my desktop monitor right now. That violates the 2nd commandment, but I am in compliance with United States law.
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
    By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to take in vain the name of Jehovah, Jesus or any other god that is holy to any other citizen. It is part of my right of free speech.
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
    By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to keep the Sabbath as holy or unholy as I choose. I chose to go grocery shopping this morning whilst Christians were at church celebrating their dead god. There was no one in the checkout line. Thank you, 4th commandment!
  5. Honor your parents
    While this is a good idea, there is no legal implications of it. I am permitted by American law to not honor my parents. It would make me a dick, but you couldn’t send me to jail for it unless accompanied by an action that was illegal in and of itself.
  6. You shall not murder
    Commandment #1 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
  7. You shall not commit adultery
    At the federal level, there is no legal implication of this commandment. Depending on the sodomy laws of the state or locality, this may or may not be in compliance with the law.
  8. You shall not steal
    Commandment #2 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
  9. You shall not bear false witness
    Commandment #3 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife and house
    Under United States law, I am allowed to covet my neighbor’s wife, house and donkey. I could not commit an action that was illegal in and of itself to act on that, but there is nothing illegal in thinking about it. If you talk your neighbor’s wife into divorcing him and marrying you, there is no legal implication of that.

So there you have it. Depending on how you score the adultery issue, there are 3 or 4 commandments in line with United States law, 2 or 3 that the law is indifferent to, and 4 that are contrary to the rights spelled out under the United State Constitution. That is why conservatives who push this issue “can’t remember” all the Commandments. If they named them all as part of the debate, it is obvious on its face that this document has no place being associated with the United States Goverment. 65% of it is illegal for the government to attempt to enforce. When someone wants to display the Ten Commandments in a civic space, question #1 to ask is “Are you planning to show all 10, or just the 3 that aren’t illegal?”

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

11 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments Vs the Constitution”

  1. Actually, some of your translations of the 10 Commandments are a bit off. For instance, #6 is actually: “You shall not kill”. It doesn’t say anything about murder, but there people that have translated it with the thought that, that’s what was said. But the supposed actual word, is “kill” not “murder”.

    Watch the “The Ten Commandments” documentary on the History channel. It’s actually very enlightening on how people do not take into context the historical times of the documents against the document’s words itself.

    Everything else is pretty much on the ball though… layman’s terms wise anyways.

  2. I have yet to see a logical, reasoned argument as to why religion and state should be entwined.

    I’ve lost count of the number of people who state the US is a “Christian Democracy” – which is hilarious, because one cannot have a genuine, open democracy and a religious state at the same time.

    And IMHO, Colbert wasn’t targeting just “relevant to the law” commandments – he wanted all ten. Because it’s ALL TEN that the guy wanted displayed. Many of which, as you quite rightly point out, fly in the face of your constitution.

    Of the American “topical night shows”, Colbert is one I do watch.. granted some of the politicking is a bit beyond me (I don’t live their) I find his rapier wit to be a refreshing change.

  3. Ben (darkmoon),

    Those aren’t “my” translations, it’s straight off of Wikipedia. I specifically don’t want to referee between different interpretations across different translations, etc etc. I think doing searching for fine nuance in English is silly. If you are going to do that, do it in Hebrew. Thanks for the kind words about the rest of it.

    Brendan, I know he was asking for all but I’m saying no conservative will ever give any but those three in that kind of situation because the others show this up as not appropriate. This whole thing works because the “Ten Commandments” are iconic and thought of as a thing, not 10 statements of varying legality.

  4. The framers used the ten commandements as references for the Constitution. Come on guys, no one is saying following this religion or else.. All it says is live a respectful and moral life. With that said, not everyone is going to agree with ALL the commandments. That’s like all American’s agreeing on our president. We don’t! But, in the end we all want the same outcome. So we all can ginore what we dislike and encourage what we do like. You take some; you give some.

  5. Jen, you are obviously unfamiliar with the text of them, despite them being reprinted in my post. Commandment #1: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Which is saying EXACTLY “follow this religion or else.”

  6. Actually none of the 10 commandments are 100% supported by law.

    Thou shalt not kill: If this were the case, then there would be no death penalty allowed under law. Additionally the congress would not be able to declare war.

    Thou shalt not steal: Eminent domain allows the government to take a citizen’s property without consent for public or civic purposes

    Thou shall not bear false witness: This is only true in a court of law or in the case of slander. In all other cases, american citizens can lie as much as I want

  7. What have bronze age tribal commandments got to do with modern 21st century morals? The first 4 commandments are about the jealous Jehovah only wanted his slaves to worship him. What are people of the other faiths/religions or even no religion in the modern world, let alone USA, going to say about that?

    The Golden Rule (which existed thousands of years before Christianity and is used by all Religions and civilised societies) is the only guide rule necessary.
    Half the 10 Commandments are about a vain, insecure, jealous, angry, despotic yet invisible God’s need to be worshipped!
    The second half of the ten Commandments are about rules for bronze age middle eastern tribes. Who are still hating each other 2000+ years later! So the Bibles morals obviously don’t work!
    5. Honour your Parents (remembering disobedient Children get stoned, I’m not impressed with such violence and biblical morals).
    6. Don’t Kill (Unless it’s for God or the State (justified or Holy War and Capital Punishment)). Incidently if America is a Christian country, then why is it still following the Jewish Eye for an eye principle instead of following Jesus Christs rule of turning the other cheek???
    7. Don’t committ adultery (another stoning offence FOR THE WOMAN).
    8. Don’t Steal (Tell that to Televangelist Priests who get the poor to send money to spread ‘God’s word, impoverishing the poor even more).
    9. Don’t Lie (Tell that to Priests, Politicians etc.).
    10. Dont Covet neighbours house, wife, manservant, maidservant, cattle, nor anything else of HIS (Christian America is the Greediest Nation on Earth).

    If God is supposed to be all knowing then surely his rules would be all encompassing for all time.
    Nothing Unique in those Ten Commandments that hasn’t already been said by other Religions and civilised Countries throughout all History.
    Incidently the ten Commandments arn’t the only commands from God. Study your Bible properly and be prepared to be shocked! Slavery condoned, Woman hating etc.
    First century rules are not adequate for 21st century people.
    Incidently why are there so many different sects and denominations, if the Bibles message is so clear? Each new interpretation of the Holey Bible springs forth yet another new money making venture. Also, If the love of money is the root of all evil, then why do the churches never have enough? And with all that money, why don’t they pay taxes?
    Why should I be taxed on something I don’t believe in, when schools and hospitals really need the money!
    Whilst most modern Christians (hopefully!) wouldn’t condone most of what the wicked Bible verses say. What worries me and most rational people is that Whilst they (the wicked verses) are still left in KJV, they can be pulled forth at any time and used indiscriminately, by any nutter, church or regime (such as the Roman Catholic, Jew Hating, Adolf Hitler did). I am reminded of numerous Catholic Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Witch Hunts or todays right wing Bible belt Pious Christians!!!
    Need a laugh? then watch the late Geroge CARLIN on the 10 Commandments on you Tube:

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