The Truth, Mainly - 09/01/2003

Ten Commandments: foundation of our laws?
by Leon Satterfield

Try to forget for the moment that there's more than one version of the Ten Commandments. Jews have one, Catholics have another, and Protestants have yet another.

But just pretend, for the sake of argument, that there's only one version—the one that Roy S. Moore, Chief Justice (suspended) of the Alabama Supreme Court, inscribed on a two-and-a-half ton granite monument and placed in the rotunda of the state judicial courthouse in Montgomery two years ago. And it's the one that the feds last week moved to a back room out of the public view.

Because, the feds said, it violated separation of church and state.

Protesters hollered "God-haters!" at the feds.

Justice Moore's reason for having the Ten Commandments there in the first place, he said, was that they are "the moral foundation of law," and thus appropriate in any courtroom.

Made sense to me. I hadn't read the commandments in a while.

But then I read a letter to the New York Times pointing out that only three of the commandments have "parallels in U.S. law." So I read them again, and sure enough, only three resembled any laws I'd heard of.

The three are short ones: VI. "Thou shalt not kill," VIII. "Thou shalt not steal," and IX. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."

The other seven talk about things our laws take no interest in.

So I had another thought: if our laws parallel only three of the Ten Commandments, maybe the fault isn't with the commandments so much as with the laws. Maybe we should add at least seven more so that all ten commandments could be represented. You know, because a little legal coercion might make us more pleasing to the Old Testament God who gave the tablets to Moses.

Consider these:

I. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Violators might include over-enthusiastic Husker fans, movie buffs, Elvis worshippers, etc., all of whom would rather pay homage to their idols than go to church. Punishment would be a month of Sundays in the stocks being ridiculed by church-goers chanting "Neener, neener, neener."

II. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images" to be worshipped in place of God. Among the violators would be those just crazy about looking at the graven images on their paper currency, especially those of Grover Cleveland ($1,000), James Madison ($5,000), and Salmon Chase ($10,000). We could sentence them to a year in the U.S. Mint, pouring molten copper into forms for making pennies and not letting them wear gloves to handle the hot stuff.

III. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." This would especially apply to those being sworn into public office who say "So help me God" when they don't intend to follow any Divine Advice other than that of Karl Rove. Violators would be publicly ridiculed and made to appear on "Saturday Night Live."

IV. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Forgetful types would be punished by losing their jobs so that all days are indistinguishable from the sabbath and they'll go nuts trying to keep them all holy just to be safe.

V. "Honour thy father and thy mother." Those who fail to do so, as judged by their fathers and mothers, shall be punished by their own children—who shall, in exchange for ice cream cones, do whatever their grandparents tell them to do.

VII. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Violators shall be tricked by the FBI into renting a motel room next door to the room being rented by their spouses, whereupon TV camera men will catch all four of them exiting their rooms when the fire alarms go off in time to make the ten o'clock news.

X. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." Violators will be sentenced to a lifetime of figuring out why everything the neighbour has is better than everything the violator has, and being asked repeatedly by his wife, "And whose fault is that, Buddy Boy?"

What's that you say? Government already has too much power over us?

If all this seems too controlling, too intrusive, too much an invasion of our privacy, maybe we should give up Justice Roy Moore's notion that the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation of our laws.

Maybe we should acknowledge that the moral foundations of our laws are the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and that both documents are mostly the work of Enlightenment revolutionaries who'd had a bellyful of theocracy.

Whaddya think?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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