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January 18, 2006

The 10 Commandments vs the Constitution

Religious “conservatives” have been at great pains, and with loud exhortations, making claims that the US is a “Christian nation” and that it is based on the 10 Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, leading to debates and litigation over efforts to display the 10 Commandments on government property.

But the idea that the 10 Commandments form the moral code behind the creation of the US, it's constitution and its laws is a one of the many right-wing myths.

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First, let us consider some historical facts:

  • most founders were Christians of some sort or another
  • when this issue was raised in his own time, Thomas Jefferson noted that the US Constitution is actually based on English common law, which was in force 200 years before Christianity came to the British Isles
  • the founders were much concerned with constructing a US Constitution that prevented tyranny:
      - prevented tyranny from accumulation of power
      - prevented tyranny from influence of excess money
      - prevented tyranny from religions
      - prevented tyranny by the majority

Second, let’s look at the prescriptions of the 10 Commandments:
  1 there is god
  2 there is only one god
  3 don’t take an oath in god's name when lying
  4 honor god weekly
  5 honor your parents
  6 don’t murder people
  7 don’t steal from people
  8 don’t lie about other people
  9 don’t have sex with other people’s spouses
  10 don’t desire other people’s things

Third, let’s look at the US Constitution:

The crimes identified in the US Constitution are:

  • participating in rebellion against the US
  • treason against the US
  • taking bribes

The US Constitution makes referense to other types of crimes, without knowing what the specific crimes might be:

  • “high crimes and misdemeanors”
  • “capital” (that is ones deserving of the death penality) offenses
  • piracy, felonies and offenses against other nations

So, none of the 10 Commandments appear in the US Constitution, nor its ammendments. (*)

Comparing the 10 Commandments to the US Constitution

Now, let’s specifically compare the 10 Commandments to the US Constitution.  This is worth doing because it helps clarify just how distinctly different the two realms are and, second, how little the 10 commandments contribute to forming the basis of the US Constitution.

The US Constitution explicitly omits all refrences to God, any God.  Even in the preamble.  This is because to do so would violate the very principles of separation of church and state, of not establishing a government-sancitioned religion, of religious freedom for all.

In the consitution, you are free to believe and accept as personal commandments the following, but cannot force others to.  In fact, requiring obeisance to the first four commandments is unconstitutional as it would require a particular religious belief and prevent people from being able to say what they believe:
  1 there is god
  2 there is only one god
  3 don’t take an oath in god's name when lying
  4 honor god weekly

In the US Constitution, the following one is not required by law, it is primarily a personal/social moral issue, which may give rise to laws permitting special priveleges to people who have produced offspring.  However, requiring this is unconstitutional because it may compell belief against saying what you  believe:
  5 honor your parents

These two are illegal pretty much everywhere in the world, irrespective of religious belief, government type, etc., but are not constitutional prescriptions:
  6 don’t murder people
  7 don’t steal from people

This is illegal if you do it in egregious ways that affect others deliteriously, but is otherwise a moral issue in your relationships, but again doesn’t appear in the US Constitution except to the extent that it might lead to treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeansors:
  8 don’t lie about other people

This is a personal moral issue since you aren’t violating other’s rights or property (anymore), and aren’t constitutional issues:
  9 don’t have sex with other people’s spouses
  10 don’t desire other people’s things


In other words, the US Constitution and the 10 Commandments really cover very  separate ground, and the 10 Commandments in no way forms the basis of the US Constition, or its laws, though many laws have been passed that address the middle three (murder, theft, certain lies).  In fact they are not even that great a guide to how to live life, having, aside from the issues of god, dealt with only some of the more obviously egregious bad behaviours in humans and stated they are bad, and are bad behaviors opposed by essentially all societies anyway.  Looked at from the side of the constitution, you can't find in the 10 Commandments anything that would hint at things like, “you get to have your day in court”, “you have a right to challenge why the government is imprisoning you”, etc.

The claim of “10 Commandmentists” is that of any fundamentalist organization: to have the one true view of the world that is primary over all others.  This of course, is in direct contradiction to the US Constitution which is the “supreme law of the land” in the United States and respects all religions.

Furthermore, many fundamentalist Republicans, through somewhat tortured logic, claim free market capitalism as a fundamental of the US.  Which it is by convention, but no particular economic system is mandated or implied by the US Constitution.

(*) If you decide that commandments #5, #9 and #10 are really special instances of a more general case, you can come up with a more universal commandment: be respectful of others by not unfairly depriving others of justice, life and property
This is also known as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.  But this generalization of all rules is typically part of most societies, not peculiar to the Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments tradition.
The Golden Rule is only the most general moral prescription without saying how to organize a society, how to create a government that would actually achieve that and what laws would reflect that.  In this sense, the US Constitution is really defining the governmental “commandments” that would implement the general plea contained in the Golden Rule.

This analysis gave rise to the questions, “Are there an equivalent ”10 commandments“ of the US Constitution?”  I organized the US Constitution as 10 “commandments” here.


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