Bill of Rights Versus Ten Commandments

David Limbaugh argues that America is indeed a Christian nation. He quotes John Eidsmoe, “If by the term Christian nation one means a nation that was founded on biblical values that were brought to the nation by mostly professing Christians, then in that sense the United States may truly be called a Christian nation.”

Limbaugh also quotes Gary Amos to the effect that the Christian Creator is what endowed us with inalienable rights, whereas the Greeks “believed that rights were a product of society and state.”

Finally, Limbaugh states, “Much of our Bill of Rights is biblically based, as well, and the Ten Commandments and further laws set out in the book of Exodus form the basis of our Western law.”

As for the first argument, the easy claim is that the Founding generation mostly was Christian. The difficulty is establishing that the nation, after centuries of religious oppression and war in Europe, arose from Christian principles, or from fundamentally different principles that happened to be adopted by Christians. The template neither for the Declaration of Independence nor for the Constitution is found within the Bible.

As for the claim about the Greeks, Limbaugh grossly simplifies the matter, as illustrated by my review of John Lewis’s Solon the Thinker.

What is essential about rights is that they arise by our nature as human beings, not how we were created. Those who argue we were “endowed” with rights by God rarely pretend that God surrounded us with some sort of magical “rights” force field. Instead, they argue that, by our nature, we have rights. But then our nature is separable from religious myth.

Here I want to focus on Limbaugh’s last claim, that American law is based on Biblical law. Notably, he quotes not a single Biblical passage that supposedly laid the groundwork for American liberty. As he mentions the Ten Commandments as well as the Bill of Rights, it is only fair to compare those texts, to see just how well they line up. (I’ll use the usual division of the Exodus Chapter 20 version of the Ten Commandments.)

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

First Commandment: Do not have any other gods before me.

Second Commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Third Commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The first four Commandments are all about establishing religion and curtailing speech.

Second Amendment: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Third Amendment: No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Relevant Commandment: The Ten Commandments do not bear directly on the matter, though the Tenth Commandment states, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”

Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Fifth Amendment: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Second Commandment: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me…”

Obviously, the Old Testament doctrine of “punishing children for the iniquity of parents” is contrary to the Bill of Rights and American justice. Also, while God was at it, you’d think he would have said something against slavery, rather than sanctioning it within the Ten Commandments.

It’s arguable that the bit about covetousness applies to just compensation.

Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Seventh Amendment: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Eighth Amendment: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Relevant Commandment: None.

Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Relevant Commandment: None.

In summary, not only do the Ten Commandments fail to support most of the Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments partly contradict the Amendments.

Some may counter that I’m playing games by comparing two texts that obviously weren’t meant to be compared. But that’s the entire point. The Bible has nothing to do with the American legal system. For every Biblical passage you can stretch to fit American law, I can find several passages that obviously contradict the basic principles of American law.

The rest of the Ten Commandments offer pretty good moral advice.

Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

It’s a good idea to honor one’s parents — provided they are honorable. I know of parents to horribly abused their children; they deserve prison, not honor. So the Biblical advice is good in a particular context.

Sixth Commandment: You shall not kill.

This is generally good advice, but it neglects justifiable homicide. The problem is that Christians interpret this passage differently, some assuming it allows room for lethal self-defense, other taking it in a more pacifist direction.

Seventh Commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

Eighth Commandment: You shall not steal.

This is good advice, but, contrary to the assertions of various Christians, it does not translate directly into governmental policy. Is a 70 percent tax rate “stealing,” or is it good government? The Old Testament has little bearing on such disputes.

Ninth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Again good advice, with the exception that you should not covet slaves but call the police to arrest your slave-holding neighbor.

But what is notable about these final Commandments is that, to the extent that they offer good advice, that advice is separable from religious mythology. Such advice long predated the advent of the Bible and arose independently in many other cultures.

The upshot is that Limbaugh hardly makes his case.

3 thoughts on “Bill of Rights Versus Ten Commandments”

  1. You are right. Limbaugh’s comparison is facile, but not true. One does not even need to do a step-by-step comparison. The biblical Hebrews had a certain concept of freedom as a value (as opposed to slavery), but they had no concept at all about individual rights at the time the ten words (as they are called in Hebrew)were conceived. Rudimentary concepts of individual identity (as opposed to group identity) only begin to be seen in the later prophets. These ideas had to do with individual responsibility for one’s actions–that the children are not responsible for the sins of the father.

    The Bill of Rights is not, in any meaningful sense, based on the Bible. There is no reference to the Bible in the Constitution at all. Nor, I suspect, did the founders strain to find such a connection.

    Is America a Christian nation? Yes, in the sense that the majority of her citizens profess various forms of Christianity as their religion. BUT in the important sense of having a state religion that is Christianity, the answer is no. America is not a Christian nation. The United States has no state religion, and leaves the citizen free to determine his own religious behavior or lack thereof.

    Finally, though, David Limbaugh’s assertions are meant to refute Obama’s speech in Turkey. In that speech, he exaggerated Islam’s contribution to the United States. This is a gross distortion of history. Islam has had no meaningful contribution to American politics or culture. Mr. Limbaugh would have been better off sticking to that point, rather than to make such an unreal comparison between the Ten Words and the Bill of Rights.

    I get so frustrated when people distort history and the Bible in order to fit their pet theories.

  2. Your interpretation thus:

    “Sixth Commandment: You shall not kill.

    This is generally good advice, but it neglects justifiable homicide. The problem is that Christians interpret this passage differently, some assuming it allows room for lethal self-defense, other taking it in a more pacifist direction.”

    This is based on an incorrect translation that is unfortunately ubiquitous in Christian Bibles.
    The correct translation is: “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew root in question is different than the root for kill. Murder mean an unlawful taking of the life of another human being. It does not apply to war, self-defense, or the accidental killing of another person.

    This makes the commandment good moral advice, and reflects the laws and morality of almost every organized human society.

    I believe you are right that this commandment did not specifically apply to American jurisprudence. It is far more likely that our jurisprudence on murder has its roots in English common law.

  3. I appreciate Levin’s comments about the Biblical distinction between murder and homicide. However, this still doesn’t take us very far. The Bible also seems to condone obliterating a group of people to take over their land, and it sanctions killing people for such “crimes” as homosexuality. We need far more than a religious Commandment to develop a rich theory of what constitutes murder.

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