Civics 101 Lesson

The Ten Commandments are back in the news, thanks to a Supreme Court decision in allowing their display on some government land, but prohibiting it elsewhere. The gist of the ruling seems to be an utterly non-precedent-setting "context is everything," so we are guaranteed to see more of this in the coming years.

The TC-anywhere lobby never says what it's really thinking: arguments in favor of displays tend to be utterly indifferent to context and switch between several different theses--- the freedom of communities to do what they want, the historical significance of Judeo-Christianity in the United States, the historical primacy of Judeo-Christian religions in the United States government, and (perhaps most perplexingly) the statement that the Commandments form the basis for law in this country.

We now explore this last point with a review: Which of the Ten Commandments are also United States law?

Quiz: IS IT LAW?

Open your bible to Exodus 20.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Let me think, here.... Hm....

Verdict: NO

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.

This sounds like it would make all covers of fantasy novels (and most live action role playing games) illegal.

If only!

Verdict: NO

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Maybe in Texas?

Verdict: NO

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: 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, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:

Think of what this would do to our economy! No, we'd better keep our cattle working seven days a week.

Verdict: NO

Honor thy father and thy mother.

That's hardly fair, is it?

Verdict: NO

Thou shalt not kill.

If we interpret "kill" as "commit murder," I think we'll have to include this one. We'll have to ignore things like capital punishment, justifiable homicide, and every military operation ever, but the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) is full of righteous killings, so I guess we'll have to do that.

It's odd, though; even when it comes to killing of the not-OK kind, we separate the violation of the commandment into degrees: first degree, second degree, manslaughter. How can one state-acknowledge commandment violation be any less unholy than another? Sounds a lot like MORAL RELATIVISM to me. Perhaps all murder (except the aforementioned state-sanctioned kinds) will be first degree after Rehnquist dies.

Verdict: YES

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Oh come on.

Verdict: NO

Thou shalt not steal.

Some of us have to learn this one the hard way.

Verdict: YES

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

On the one hand, you can smear people in the press and on the Internet.

On the other, it is indeed illegal to give false testimony in court and to prosecute somebody under false pretenses. (Good thing, too--- otherwise the courts would be full of bullshit cases! Oh wait.)


Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.

Oddly enough, the negation of this is federal law.

Verdict: NO

So the Ten Commandments are batting roughly .250 in the United States. Not bad, but surely they can do better. Write your Congressman!


I think the question is

I think the question is really who doesn't covet his neighbour's ass?