This is one of my favorite myths because it’s so silly and easy to debunk. As far back as the 11th Century Thomas Aquinas the famous Catholic theologian argued that the Ten Commandments formed the basis of all secular laws because the true purpose of all laws is to get us to heaven. This kind of reasoning permeates much of history right up to the present. In 2001 the rabid Ten Commandments advocate, Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore, placed a 5,300 pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the State Judicial Building (which eventually cost him his job).
Michele Bachman said “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were the foundation for our law.” Virtually all the Republican candidates have made similar claims. Just go to American United’s website, au.org, for an overview of all the judicial time and energy wasted over the years of courts constantly telling the Religious Right that these sorts of displays are unconstitutional.
The primary problem with the claim that the Ten Commandments are the source of American law is the facts simply don’t support it. To the contrary, legal scholars agree there are many sources for American law.
Even a quick reading of the Ten Commandments shows how difficult it would be to claim that American law derives from them. The first four commandments deal with God saying we shouldn’t honor false gods, shouldn’t take his name in vain and we should honor the Sabbath. If the first four commandments were enacted into law today, they would constitute clear constitutional violations because they are mandating how we should approach religion. It’s an exceedingly strained argument to say the Ten Commandments are the source of our laws when the first four prove that the Commandments are religious rules, not civil law.
So as a starting point, only the latter six could possibly be nominees as sources of our laws. Two of those six can be immediately ruled out. Number Five, honor one’s mother and father, is not a legal rule, but rather a moral imperative. So is Number Seven, the prohibition on cheating on one’s spouse. If tested by the Supreme Court, a criminal prohibition against adultery would likely be struck down as unconstitutional. Similarly, the Tenth Commandment’s ban on coveting thy neighbor’s wife might play a role in a divorce proceeding, but not in a criminal case.
That leaves Commandments Six, Eight, and Nine which command us not to kill, steal, or lie. Even these are not entirely reflected in our law. Granted, the ban on lying does appear as a legal rule in some contexts for instance, a misrepresentation can be the basis for fraud. But many lies are not legally regulated, e.g., telling your best friend you love her new, disastrous hairdo is not legally a lie. That leaves us with only two commandments that are somewhat accurately echoed in current law: the rule against murder, and the rule against stealing.
And even the rule against murder is not exactly the same as the Commandment: We recognize exceptions, such as self-defense and capital punishment. The Tenth Commandment simply does not recognize these exceptions. Furthermore, the origin of the Ten Commandments is not unique. These common sense dictates are found widespread among human cultures and are not distinctively Christian. No one would argue that any nation prohibiting such actions is therefore a Christian nation.
Legal scholars hold that American law was borrowed in whole or in part from British common law which itself was viewed either as rising from natural law or from custom, not from the Ten Commandments. To me, having the Ten Commandments acknowledged as a basis for our country’s laws is a transparent attempt by certain Christians to regain power over a country that has become the most pluralistic religious culture in world history. So it’s clear that contrary to what Religious fundamentalists would like us to believe, United States law is not based on the Ten Commandments.