I thought I'd repost something I discussed a couple of years ago, related to one particular argument about the Ten Commandments. This is not a core argument in the opinions in these cases, but it's popular enough that I thought I'd speak to it here.
I have often heard it said that the Ten Commandments are an important part of the foundation of American law, and I think that's true to a point. But here's a quick question for you: How many of the Ten Commandments are actually implemented as legally binding obligations under modern American law? (To avoid confusion, let's focus on the list in Exodus, chapter 20, King James Version, available here.)
It turns out that the answer today is pretty much three, #6, #8, and #9:
1. "I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." This is fortunately not legally enforceable; in fact, the First Amendment would prohibit the government from enforcing this.
2. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them . . . ." Again, this is fortunately not legally enforceable, neither as to the prohibition on graven images, nor on the visiting of the fathers' sins upon the sons.
3. "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Some states have enacted blasphemy laws in the past, though to my knowledge they've generally been limited to public blasphemy. Fortunately they are not enforced today.
4. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates . . . ." This is generally not the law today; some states still require some businesses to be closed Sundays, but there's no general prohibition on work on the Sabbath -- no-one is going to arrest you for working from home on Sundays, and that too is very good.
5. "Honour thy father and thy mother . . . ." Not legally enforceable.
6. "Thou shalt not kill." Legally enforceable, though of course with the usual qualifiers.
7. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Not in practice legally enforced today, though I believe that some states do still have criminal prohibitions on adultery on the books. There are plausible arguments for enforcing these prohibitions, and also for considering adultery in various civil contexts (in property settlements in divorce and the like), though I think that on balance the current approach is better for a wide range of practical reasons.
8. "Thou shalt not steal." Legally enforceable.
9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." Legally enforceable, at least in a wide range of contexts (such as perjury and libel).
10. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." Not legally enforceable -- can you imagine a law prohibiting coveting?
So there it is: Many of these rules may be morally good, and all may be theologically important to some people. But only three (no killing, stealing, and false witness) are currently enforceable under American law, though there are plausible arguments that adultery should also be included.
All Related Posts (on one page) | Some Related Posts:
- Justice Scalia and Monotheism:
- Breyer's God and Bright-Line Rules:
- Coming Soon to a Ninth Circuit Near You:...
- ScrappleFace on the Ten Commandments.
- Ten Commandments and Modern Law?
- Discussion on the Ten Commandments Cases at SCOTUSblog:
- Divisiveness and the Ten Commandments Cases:
- "Crossover Sensation, Justice Breyer":