August 19, 2003 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Ten Commandments

The standoff over the Ten Commandments illustrates two extremes in the ongoing battle to define America.

On one side are Judge Moore and his allies, who want to turn the Constitution into a religious document. They've been prepared to defy a federal court order to remove the 2.5-ton monument from the Alabama judicial building. Moore says he would be "guilty of treason" if he didn't fight to keep the Ten Commandments in place. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a big supporter, says that "breaking man's law is needed to preserve God's law."

But America is not a Biblical commonwealth, and the Constitution is not the Law of Moses. The American Framers wanted religious doctrine kept out of it. That's why Article VI declares that there can be "no religious test" for public office.

It's also a bit curious that Moore, an evangelical Protestant, is so devoted to the public symbols of religion. The Ten Commandments, school prayer, Christmas Nativity scenes-these have been some of the great rallying points for conservative Christians.

Yet it was the Catholic Medieval obsession with icons and church-based legalism that helped ignite the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicals hold the Ten Commandments in high regard, but have always insisted that a love for God's moral laws must become the inner disposition of the believer.

Evangelical preachers call this "religion of the heart"-a personal relationship with Jesus that goes far beyond observing any code of behavior. They often warn against the snare of confusing a living faith with the tokens and trappings of orthodoxy. Even the evangelical magazine Christianity Today has cautioned that a fixation with posting the Ten Commandments "runs the danger of becoming an idol."

Does anyone really believe that keeping the Ten Commandments in public view will spark spiritual renewal or reverse cultural rot?

If Judge Moore is pressing for a sacred public square, most of his critics want to secularize it. They blatantly ignore the profound influence of Christianity on the American Founding.

That influence was such that even Thomas Jefferson, a frequent critic of organized religion, allowed church services to be conducted in the chambers of the Supreme Court. And it's no accident that the central figure in the frieze adorning the east facade of the High Court is Moses, clutching the Ten Commandments, above the words "the guardian of liberty."

Yes, the Framers drafted a secular Constitution. But Americans had, and in many ways still have, an unofficial creed: a belief in the God of the Bible. The consensus among the Founders was that democracy would collapse without the support of religious ideals. As French observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s: "I don't know if all Americans have faith in their religion…but I am sure they think it necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions."

We don't need a two-ton monument in every courthouse in America to recover that idea. But we could use a few more judges who live by it.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Transcript of discussion which originally aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"