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Friday, June 1

The First Commandment and American Law

By Austin Cline, Guide

So many Christians insist that the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law and/or government. But where and how is the First Commandment to be found in American law — in particular, in the Constitution which is the foundation for American law and government? Is there really any justification for claiming that American law owes anything whatsoever to the First Commandment?

Which First Commandment?

In popular culture and politics, the First Commandment is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," but identifying the First Commandment is a matter of some debate. For Jews, it's the words that come before those just quoted: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Thus choosing "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" means choosing a Christian interpretation of Jewish scripture over any Jewish reading.

So if anyone claims that this commandment plays any role whatsoever in the foundation of American law, they will first have to explain which of the two possible commandments they mean. Then they will have to justify how and why American law should give such preference to Christianity or Judaism over the other.

What Does the First Commandment Mean?

The meaning and purpose of the First Commandment is debated more than it's wording. Focusing just on the familiar "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," Jews have traditionally read this literally and simply: don't worship any other gods and don't convert to any other religions. In the ancient world the presence of so many polytheistic systems created real temptations for worshipping other gods. In the modern world, there are many temptations to convert.

Christians have read the commandment more metaphorically. The Christian tradition has generally been to read the commandment as forbidding the worship of money, sex, power, beauty — in other words, a ban on allowing anything to distract one from God, which should be one's primary focus in life.

If this commandment is supposed to play any role in the foundation of American law, which interpretation are we supposed to believe is being expressed in the law? Does American law forbid having any gods before the Jewish god or does American law forbid worshipping money, fame, power, etc.? Does American law favor Christian or Jewish interpretations of what this text means?

The First Commandment and the Constitution

The foundation of American law and government is the Constitution. So if the First Commandment is part of the basis for American law, then it must be present in some fashion in the American Constitution — either explicitly or implicitly.

No one who reads the Constitution, though, will be able to find even a hint of the command "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Just the opposite is the case, in fact, because religious tests for public office are banned and religious liberty is guaranteed. Neither of those two provisions would make any sense in a nation where worship of one god in particular is promoted or favored, never mind mandated.

A civil society in which all religions are equal cannot very well take such an obvious and significant move that basically insists that one religion or religious tradition is True and all others are False. Individual believers may hold such a position, but it is certainly beyond the scope of government authority.

Attempts to Legislate the First Commandment

Although there is no evidence for this commandment in the Constitution, there have been many attempts to write it into other parts of American law. They have mostly been implicit expressions or endorsements of the First Commandment but they have nevertheless been clear in their intention: to tell people that belief in a particular God is favored, endorsed, and preferred.

Two of the most prominent examples of this are the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the use of "In God We Trust" as the National Motto. There are also innumerable smaller examples to be found across America: sectarian prayers at government meetings, sectarian prayers at school functions, declarations of a "Year of the Bible" and similar government acts.

So while we can't find any trace of the First Commandment in any of the foundations of American law or government, we do see lots of evidence of conservative Christians trying to inject the First Commandment into the body of American law. Unfortunately for them, that commandment doesn't really fit because it's contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the law — it endorses particular theistic and religious beliefs which is something that the American Constitution does not permit.

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