Over the weekend, Mr. wOw was irritably sweaty in the unpleasant late September warmth and humidity. Couldn’t read much, and even TV palled. But while half-watching CNN, I saw there was yet another lawsuit filed by the ACLU against a high school for displaying the Ten Commandments, up against copies of American documents, with the idea of relaying to the students that American law — the declaration of Independence and the Constitution, etc. — were derived from the Hebrew scriptures: the word of God.
Some guy representing the high school was on, and he said straight out: “All of America’s laws are based on the Biblical text, the Ten Commandments.” This struck Mr. wOw as, well, not quite correct. But I turned to the much more clever B., and said: “Isn’t American law based on British law, and isn’t British law based on Roman law?” B. replied: “And here I thought you only knew the color of each of Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding dresses!” (B. was sort of kidding, but he knows I love a shallow subject.)
Furthermore, B. said: “I really wonder which version of the Ten Commandments they are even thinking about; there are a number of wordings. I suppose the King James version of the Bible, translated from the Hebrew and Greek by the English in the 1600’s. That’s not quite the word of God, if one is going to take the Bible literally. The Commandments are not the same in Catholic, Protestant or Jewish Bibles. Sometimes they are not in the same order.”
Hmmmm … I thought. (This is usually where deep thinking ends for Mr. wOw — “Hmmmm!”) I hadn’t looked at the Ten Commandments in quite some time and I wondered, really, how they stacked up as comparative to our legal system, the laws we live by. So I got out my trusty Bible — shocked I even had one, right? — and turned to Exodus 20: 1-17. You’ll find 16 “commandments” here, because that’s how my Bible does it: with considerable lead-in, lots of gravitas.
- “And God spake all these words, saying …” Okay, this is just the intro, we know He is about to lay something heavy on us.
- “I am the LORD thy, God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is kind of a guilt trip, but he is God.
- “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” We get it, we get it! Three commandments in, and I don’t see much that relates to our current form of government.
- “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven and earth, or that is beneath it, is that is in the water under the earth.” Uh, no graven images? Gee, I think we see a lot of those. Far as I know, they ain’t against the law.
- “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them or serve them. For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” So, now we have a bit of a fix on God’s temperament. Still and all, lots of people “bow down” to graven images in churches and such. I don’t believe we have any laws against that. (If so, a lot of Catholics would be languishing in jails.)
- “And shewing mercy unto thousands of that love me, and keep my commandments.” Translation: do as I say and you won’t be smote.
- “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless.” Well, it’s not very nice to take the Lord’s name in vain, I guess, if one is religious. But I don’t recall seeing it in the Constitution.
- “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy.” Again, a religious issue. Just don’t think it’s illegal not to keep the Sabbath.
- “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.” God certainly had a plan, but … eh — are those who don’t work six days liable to be jailed or fined?
- “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, not thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, not thy stranger that is within thy gates.” God is quite specific here. And if I had a man or maidservant I sure wouldn’t let them labor. Still and all, lots of people have to work on Sunday. I haven’t seen them carted off yet.
- “Honour thy father and thy mother.” An admirable goal, not always easily achieved. But we should try. Sigh! Still I have ask: This commandment affects U.S. law how?
- “Thou shalt not kill.” Open to interpretation for sure. After all, if “kill” was the operative word, what would, say, Rick Perry do for a living? Sometimes this one is changed to “Thou shalt not murder.” And of course we shouldn’t. But I think murder has been a crime for centuries.
- “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Adultery was once a crime, but it ain’t anymore. Too many people did it. Mostly Elizabeth Taylor.
- “Thou shalt not steal.” That’s right. But as with murder, thievery has been punishable as a crime for ages — they used to cut people’s hands off in the good old days, in Europe. I don’t think the U.S. legal system has much of a claim on that one.
- “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Essentially, don’t lie. Good to know we made truth-telling so very, very vital in our government process. Because the government always tells us the truth, right?
- “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house … not thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, not his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Covet. Well, that means a kind of jealousy. “I want what he has.” And of course we shouldn’t covet. We should go out and get what we want for ourselves with our own wits and hard work. But, ahhhhh … where do the laws in the U.S. Constitution deal with being envious, jealous, coveting? That’s kind of an in-the-mind thing.
Well, what do have here? I respect everybody’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Or lack thereof. But the Ten Commandments (or the Sixteen Statements of a Very Chatty Deity) have nothing to do with American law. It’s just terrif if people want to abide by these commandments — although good luck on the killing if you support the army, and better luck on coveting thy neighbor’s ass. (We won’t even get into other Biblical strictures such as wearing clothes of different fabrics, or eating shellfish.)
But these commandments have nothing to do with the legal, democratic structure of the United States of America. They are religious homilies to be adhered to as such. Or not.
Separation of Church and State. Now that is an American tradition.