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Is Modern Law Really Based On The Ten Commandments ? No, It’s Not

by @ 11:03 pm on June 15, 2010. Filed under History, Individual Liberty, Legal, Religion

One blogger undertook the task:

As we ramp up to the mid-term elections in November 2010 — sure to be just a warmup to the insanity that will be the Presidential election in 2012 — you can bet your bottom shekel that we’ll be hearing from a lot of “family values” politicians decrying our lack of morality. That’s de rigeur for any election, but every cycle it seems to get worse.

A lot of these claim that the United States is either a Christian nation — a ridiculous and easily-disprovable notion — or that it was founded on Judeo-Christian principles (the “Judeo” part is a giveaway that these politicians are Leviticans: they seem to keep their noses buried more in the fiery wrath of the Old Testament than in the actually gentle, politically-correct teachings of Jesus… more on this later, promise). Specifically, they claim quite often that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments.

I was thinking about this recently. People seem to accept that our laws are based on the morals of the Old Testament laid out in the Commandments, but as a proper skeptic, I decided to take a look myself. Why not go over the Commandments, said I to myself, and compare them to our actual laws, as well as the Constitution, the legal document framed by the Founding Fathers, and upon which our laws are actually based?

So I did.

And what did he find ?

at the very best — and I think I was generous — not even half the Commandments translate into law, and those that do have a suspicious pedigree. Moreover, the first four Commandments, and the ones that most pertain to religion and Judeo-Christianity specifically, are expressly forbidden by our Constitution (and the fifth is arguably unconstitutional as well). If the Founding Fathers really wanted our country’s system of laws to be based on the Commandments, then this is not an auspicious way to do it.

One might even think they were trying on purpose, very hard, to prevent such a thing.

Now, some people say that it’s not really our laws, but our morality that’s based on the Ten Commandments. I think that’s a silly claim as well, for many of the same reasons outlined above. Remember too that many civilizations had codes of ethics and legal systems that had similar ideas long before Moses climbed Mt. Sinai.

Moreover, reading through the teachings of Jesus, I see a lot of things like (paraphrasing a bit) “Be nice to each other”, “Forgive one another”, “Look at your own failings before sniping at someone else”, and others. Not only are these not in the Ten Commandments, most of them aren’t even hinted at. Sure, not coveting and stealing your neighbor’s possessions is a good place to start for morality, but I think those could both be encompassed by saying “Your neighbor’s a person too, and you should respect that.”

I might even claim that rule to be golden. Say.

So the Ten Commandments are clearly neither the moral nor legal basis of the United States of America. At best, you can say that 2 (rounding up) overlap our laws, but they are a hardly a basis for laws. And they fall far, far short of being a basis of morality. I would think a lot of the things (but not all of them!) in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount would be in a better position for claims of our moral basis, but I don’t see anyone saying a transcript of that speech should be hung in a courtroom.

And it would be illegal in many cases to do so anyway.

Don’t tell Sarah Paln.

3 Responses to “Is Modern Law Really Based On The Ten Commandments ? No, It’s Not”

  1. James Young says:

    “Is Modern Law Really Based On The Ten Commandments?”

    I guess it depends upon what you mean by “based on.” Since the Ten Commandments created the very notion of “law” for a significant portion of human culture, it’s really nonsense to say “No, it’s not.”

  2. Brent Friar says:

    Guess you didn’t pay attention much in history class James. The beginnings of what is considered codified law predates Moses by a couple of thousand years with the Code of Hammurabi. The Babylonians evolved the code in to quite a complex system long before there were any Commandments.

  3. James Young says:

    Uh, Brent, I did, and I don’t re-write it to suit my own agenda. I said they “created the very notion of ‘law’ for a significant portion of human culture,” NOT that they did so for ALL of human culture, nor even exclusively.

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