For decades, secular groups have worked overtime to have religious displays, mostly of the Ten Commandments, removed from government buildings. They’ve started small by attacking cash-strapped jurisdictions that can’t afford to defend themselves against the legal onslaught brought by these heavily financed organizations.
Leftists don’t want commandments that have their origin in the character of a transcendent God. They would rather have the authority to make their own laws and change them at will if a voting constituency demands a change. We’ve seen it with abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and governmental theft.
The first drive-in movie I ever saw was The Ten Commandments (1956). If you’ve only seen the film on television, you have not heard the introductory words spoken by Cecil B. de Mille, the director of The Ten Commandments. De Mille comes out on stage before the movie begins and speaks about the significance of the story of Moses and Pharaoh:
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… 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.
Contrary to what Liberals say, it is impossible to avoid legislating morality. Laws against theft and murder are legislated, and they reflect some moral code. There are few people who would object to laws being made that would punish thieves and murderers. Such laws impose a moral system on all of us. Although thieves and murderers might object, no one is calling for these laws to be rescinded because they impose a moral code:
Every system of government exists to produce or enforce certain laws, and every law necessarily entails a set of moral assumptions. All morality—even that which is usually supposed to be, or touted as being, based upon an “irreligious” or anti-religious” philosophical foundation—is ultimately religious in its nature, since it is founded upon a set of pretheoretical presuppositions, fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, about God, man, and things, which are taken on (a usually unacknowledged) faith. In this deepest sense, then, the question for every legal system is not whether it will be based upon “religion” but rather which religion or religious philosophy will be its foundation?1
Rousas J. Rushdoony says something similar:
All law is inescapably a reflection of morality, and all morality is an expression of a religious faith. Laws against murder and adultery represent moral judgments that these acts are evil, and these judgments are as[ects of a religious faith which requires that man live in terms of God’s righteous faith rather than in contempt of it. Law is always inescapably religious. Modern “law” increasingly represents the new established religion of many courts.2
One system of morality is set against another in the debate over legislative action. Moral persuasion is always used. “It is immoral to allow people to live in cardboard boxes or in abandoned automobiles when there is so much wealth in a country like the United States,” advocates for the homeless claim. Champions of peace push their cause with, “It’s immoral to make bombs when there are so many needy people in the world.” These moral crusaders work for change at every level of government to secure legislative support for their cause. Moral arguments are always used. But how do we know what’s moral?
President Harry S. Truman voiced the common and prevailing sentiment of his day:
The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we comprehend that enough these days. If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody.3
How times and laws have changed. Today’s religious and political leftists would identify Truman’s beliefs with those of the Taliban. He would be denounced as an opponent of religious diversity.
Who’s right in the battle over the Ten Commandments? If as the ACLU maintains the posting of the Ten Commandments is “fundamentally religious” and the “endorsement of religion in general and Christianity in particular,” doesn’t this mean that the displays are, by definition, unconstitutional? Ultimately, a ruling would have to come from the Supreme Court. But how would the court rule since displays of the Ten Commandments have a long history without any legal challenge? For example, a visitor who enters the National Archives to view the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other official documents must first pass by a copy of the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in the entryway to the Archives.
As Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in his majority opinion of Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court Chamber in which cases related to religion are “heard is decorated with a notable and permanent-not seasonal-symbol of religion: Moses with the Ten Commandments.”4
In addition to the Supreme Court, state courtrooms and capitals across our land have housed similar displays for decades without any legal challenges or constitutional prohibitions: The Texas State Capitol, the chambers of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and scores of other legislatures, courthouses, and public buildings. “In fact, the Ten Commandments are more easily found in America’s government buildings than in her religious buildings, thus demonstrating the understanding by generations of Americans from coast to coast that the Ten Commandments formed the basis of America’s civil laws.”5
In one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the United States , you will find a beautiful mural titled “Mosaic Law” in the New York State Courthouse in Jamaica, Queens, New York, that “shows a crowd of Hebrews surrounding Moses as he descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew script.” (Mark Movsesian/First Things)
There’s a second painting titled “Constitutional Law” that “shows a crowd of historical figures—Washington, the Framers, and Chief Justices from John Jay to Charles Evans Hughes—gathered around a stone plaque with the words of the Preamble: ‘We the People.’”
The murals “make up a unified work.” You can’t have one without the other.
The United States would not have become the nation that it did without the rule of law and the people’s belief that morality is determined by God and not the State.
- Archie P. Jones, “Christianity and the First Amendment: The Truth about the Religion Clauses of the Constitution,” (unpublished manuscript), 3. [↩]
- The Religion of Revolution (Victoria, TX: A Publication of Trinity Episcopal Church, 1965), . [↩]
- Harry S. Truman, Harry S. Truman: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President—January 1 to December 31, 1950 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1965), 197. [↩]
- U.S. Supreme Court Lynch v. Donnelley, 465 U.S. 668 (decided March 5, 1984), II.C. [↩]
- David Barton, “The Ten Commandments: A Part of America’s Legal System for Almost 400 years!,” Prepared and presented in response to multiple ACLU lawsuits against public displays of the Ten Commandments, United States District Court, Eastern District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky, London Division (March 2001). [↩]
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