The Ten Commandments, Moral Anarchy, and the Secular State

Another Ten Commandments display has been removed from another school, and a nation is shocked when it reads stories about young people raping classmates and murdering school children and its government passing thousands of page of new laws and regulations that will trample on our basic liberties.

Should we be surprised that a fourth-grade student is told by his teacher to write the following?:

“I am willing to give up some of my constitutional rights in order to be safer or more secure.”

In 1946, juvenile-court judge E.J. Ruegemer confronted a defiant 16-year-old boy accused of stealing a car and causing an accident.

The judge asked the young man if he realized he had broken the Ten Commandments. He admitted that he never heard of the Ten Commandments. Shocked at the teenager’s ignorance, Judge Ruegemer took out a Bible, handed it to him and told him his sentence was to learn the Ten Commandments and obey them.

“I decided to give him a chance; he can’t follow laws he doesn’t know,” said Judge Ruegemer.

The incident prompted the judge to mount a campaign to place prints of the Ten Commandments in courthouses across the nation to serve for the guidance of defendants. He approached the Fraternal Order of Eagles for help in getting the message out. The service organization was inundated with orders from cities across the country.

“I thought that if the commandments could be placed in courtrooms, then judges could point them out to offenders,” he said.1

Consider the following from Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), American film director and Academy Award-winning film producer in both silent and sound films, who steps out on stage at the beginning of his 1956 film The Ten Commandments:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, young and old. This may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject: the birth of freedom. The story of Moses.”

Those who watch The Ten Commandments on television don’t get to see DeMille make his speech.

DeMille considered the topic of freedom under God’s law to be the movie’s most important message. In his rare on-screen appearance, he explained his reason for re-making The Ten Commandments:

“The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s laws or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

We still have our Rameses in the form of government tyranny, but there is an added dimension to that tyranny, one that contends that there are no moral absolutes. These chickens are quickly coming home to roost in the most vulnerable places – like our nation’s schools.

Posting copies of the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses, and other government buildings was a common practice 60 years ago. Here are some examples:

  • A full-scale model of The Interpretation of Law showing Moses holding the tablets of the law is on the same floor as the Attorney General’s office.2
  • A mural of Moses holding the two tables of the law is on the courtroom ceiling of the Supreme Court Chamber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg) contains a large mural that depicts Moses and the Ten Commandments that was painted by Violet Oakley and commissioned by the state of Pennsylvania and dedicated in 1927.

Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in his majority opinion of Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) that the Supreme Court Chamber “is decorated with a notable and permanent-not seasonal-symbol of religion: Moses with the Ten Commandments.”3

In the Georgia General Assembly Unannotated Code the following instructions are given to the state’s archivist: “Encourage the study of historical documents including but not limited to those which reflect our National Motto, the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments, the Constitution of the United States, and such other nationally recognized documents which contributed to the history of the State of Georgia” (45-13-41).

The official souvenir book produced at the time The Ten Commandments was released expressed DeMille’s understanding of the importance of God’s revealed law:

“The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. . . . THE TEN COMMANDMENTS are not laws. They are THE LAW. Man has made 32,000,000 laws since they were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai more than three thousand years ago, but he has never improved on God’s law.”

Former Nightline host Ted Koppel said the following in a 1987 commencement address at Duke University:

“What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves. Power shifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed of light. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior and the commandments governing that behavior remain the same.”4

We are a nation that has lost its moral memory. It’s not that people no longer believe in morality; it’s that they can’t articulate the basis for their moral worldview. They’ve been cajoled into believing that morality is strictly a private affair, all the while being forced to comply with a new set of moral standards that will prove to be destructive of liberty.

  1. This story is related by Jabeen Bhatti in “Statue Wars Have Roots in 1950s,” Washington Times (May 22, 2002). For a more complete story, see “Commanding Presence,” Fraternal Order of Eagles Magazine (March 2002), 7. []
  2. George Gurney, Sculpture and the Federal Triangle (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 177. []
  3. U.S. Supreme Court Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (decided March 5, 1984), II.C. []
  4. Ted Koppel, The Last Word, Commencement Address at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (May 10, 1987). Quoted in Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 164. []