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 Chapter 14

The Ten Commandments and Civil Law

 

ANDREW Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, asserted that, "The Bible is the Book upon which this Republic rests." It is much more difficult to make a statement like that today because of the rapid growth of the non-Christian faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, together with atheism in the United States. No doubt this demographic shift has resulted in the increasing pluralism in regard to the basic principles of morality and social order.

In the early nineteenth century, Noah Webster, the developer of the American dictionary, stated,

The moral principles and precepts contained in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible. Citizenís Rulebook, p. 8

Such a statement, by a man who has contributed so greatly to the American understanding of the English language, should not be put aside lightly. If Americans take seriously the words embossed on the coins of the United States, "In God we trust," then they are driven back to the Word of God as the foundation principle of moral, ethical, and spiritual precepts. There can be no question that the founders and architects of the American nation established their laws upon the principles of Christianity as found in the Word of God. It might be argued that today such laws cannot pertain, because America is a multi-religious nation. But every nation must establish law and order on the basis of principles that transcend the human race itself. Surely the Law of God enshrined in Exodus 20:3Ė17 ,is the greatest set of precepts ever enunciated to the human race, for they are divine commandments. These are laws, many of which transcend diversity of culture, ethnic consideration, or religious heritage. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness are examples of commandments accepted as desired principles in most societies. Even in the primitive culture of the Australian aborigines these precepts are to be found.

The extent to which we withdraw ourselves from this paradigm is the extent to which we threaten the safety, the security, and the freedom of the citizens of the nation. Some argue that the promotion of these precepts as the basis of national law intrudes upon the separation of church and state. However, that would be too impulsive a conclusion. The law of God is the greatest liberating principle for all the human race, whether one be Christian, non-Christian, or atheist. The Bible declares Godís law to be a law of liberty. Jesus Himself said,

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32

James makes this fact as plain as any Bible writer.

But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. James 1:25

So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. James 2:12

In the Supreme Court of the United States, above the Chief Justiceís chair, is a tablet representing the Ten Commandments. This symbolizes the specific divine basis for the laws of the United States of America. But significant changes have taken place. When the Constitution of the United States was framed, the law of God was held supreme by almost all citizens in the country, and by the citizens of many of the countries of the western world, as the basis for the formulation of human law. However, with the erosion of Christian faith, with the increasing dominance of evolutionary theorizing and non-Christian and anti-Christian sentiments, there has been a none-too-subtle erosion of the primacy of Godís moral law.

By the early part of the nineteenth century, the advocacy of social mores built upon "what is best for society" began to exert their impact upon the more irreligious elements of society seeking a basis, independent of the principles of divine writ, for the establishment of human codes. It is true that, initially, most of the social mores that began to be established had a remarkable similarity to the principles of Godís law, for in reality they represent the generally agreed principles for the protection and freedom of mankind. But later in the nineteenth century, the Danish theological philosopher, SÝren Kierkegaard, enumerated the principles of modern existentialism. This revolutionary figure in Protestant history has done much to affect the thinking of many modern day Christians, as well as of those of other faiths. The philosophy of existentialism basically asserts that each person has the right to determine that which is right and proper, thus challenging the immutable law of God as the ultimate foundation of all moral codes of conduct.

Kierkegaardís preoccupation with the significance of the subjective has led to an increasing emphasis upon the primacy of the individual in the determination of morality and right. Some have suggested that "Christian" existentialism encompasses the noble concept of manís personal relationship with God. While this idea is sometimes expressed, the main thrust of "Christian" existentialism is away from the claims of Godís eternal law upon human life. For untold generations, Christianity had held unitedly to the immutability of the law of God as the basis of truth and morality. Thus, right and wrong were clearly defined, and the parameters of acceptable behavior were early taught in the lives of children.

In the nineteenth century, however, there was a marked shift away from belief in the immutables of God, to a reliance upon human judgment and evaluation. Often, existentialism is clothed in the idealistic concept of love and respect for the rights of the individual. It has become increasingly popular to assume that each person has a right to his own values and viewpoints. There is an essence of truth in this, in the fact that God coerces no man, and permits each one freedom of the will to make his choices. Unfortunately, this concept is often extrapolated further, to suggest that each personís opinion or concept has equal merit. Indeed, the merit of an idea can be determined only in the spotlight of the law and the Word of God. Those ideals which are consistent with the revelation of the Eternal, alone are concepts of value. All other concepts are valueless, irrespective of the linguistic opulence in which they have been couched or the titillating stimulation of the intellect which they elicit. The law of God must be set forth as the sole basis of the standard of moral conduct in society.

While we concur with the existentialist protest against views of the world, and policies of action, in which the individual human being is regarded as the helpless victim of historical forces, or as the pawn of his environment, nevertheless the existential model is one that has no foundation upon which to build. It is rooted ultimately in the selfish choices and desires of man, often without consideration for the good of others, foró

the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9

There has to be a foundation in law independent of, and wholly separated from, the limited parameters of human desire. The existentialist model is a formula for moral and social chaos, and must bear the responsibility for much of the moral confusion in contemporary society.

The true principles of freedom and liberty are predicated, not upon individualized concepts, but upon eternal verities that affect, not only the good of the individual, but the good of society as a whole. The freedom of one can never be granted if it limits the freedom of another. Two terms today are used to define the morals that form the basis of justice in societyónatural law and common law. The term natural law has been used frequently. That term, as we understand it, deals with that law which represents the best for the common good of all citizens of society, including minorities. These laws are said to be derived from nature and are believed to be binding on human actions apart from or in conjunction with laws established by human authority. Just as surely the term British common law refers to those laws which represent common sense principles for order and justice in society, based upon previous court decisions and on customs established in Britain. These were rooted in the Ten Commandments.

However, today, in dealing with the Ten Commandments, there is one area that is not always well articulated. Indeed, voices are being raised which bring fear to many citizens of the nation. These voices demand a return to Mosaic justice, justice built upon very severe punitive measures for the violation of Godís law. We must keep in mind that the Israelites were under a theocracy, and the punishments meted out represented a more perfect justice than can be expected in the non-theocratic governments of today. Great caution should be exercised in giving support to such forms of justice in the imperfect and often faulted legal systems of today.

Now having clarified that we firmly believe that the Ten Commandments are the basis of true morality, we must delineate between what is the proper sphere of government and what is the individual basis of morality. Chapter 15 entitled "Common Law and Religious Freedom" sets forth the tragedies that have resulted from the enforcement of common law established upon the Ten Commandments. The enforcement of all of the commandments by finite humanity is to rob men and women of their God-given freedom of choice.

Nevertheless, there is an area that must not be overlooked by those who would assert that government has no responsibility to legislate morality. Such concepts represent careless thinking, for it is not only the right, but indeed the responsibility of civil governments to legislate against immorality, and to protect man against wrong actions by his fellow beings. It is not until a man inflicts grievous action against his fellow man or against the property of his fellow man that the state has a right to punish. Too often the advocates of stronger legislation established upon the Ten Commandments fail to recognize that the Ten Commandments are presented by God in two sections. The first four commandments deal with manís relationship with his God, and the last six with manís relationship to his fellow man. It is within the perimeter of the last six commandments that government has responsibility to protect its citizens.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbourís house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbourís wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbourís. Exodus 20:12Ė17

These commandments are the basis of good law against disorderly children; murder; a wide range of immorality, including rape, homosexuality, incest, pornography, lewd conduct, and adulterous practices; against theft, forgery, and all forms of dishonesty including perjury and damaging falsehoods; and even in the area of coveting, some of the antitrust laws do at least modify some of the gross manifestations of coveting, without, of course, necessarily transforming the character of the individual. Any government that does not secure just laws in respect of the final six commandments would indeed be guilty of dereliction of duty. But too few define clearly between the governmentís responsibility in respect of the protection of human rights, and the governmentís non-involvement in areas of manís relationship to his God as articulated in the first four commandments:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

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: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

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.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, 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: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Exodus 20:3Ė11

Governments cannot rightly take any responsibility in the enforcement of manís relationship to God, nor should they seek to read the intents of the heart in relation to the last six commandments. Only God can read the heart. When men make such efforts, many serious errors are inevitable. With the moral decline in society, there are an increasing number of well-meaning people who are urging the legislation of, for example, a return to enforced worship attendance. We have been to countries where the population is punished for breeches of religious laws quite unrelated to civil matters. Such laws have been rigorously enforced in past Christian societies; but they are a violation of the sacred freedom that God has given to men and women to accept or reject His call upon their lives and service.

While we deplore the social situation prevailing in even so-called Christian nations today, yet there must be no enforcement by man of the commandment to have no other gods before the God of heaven, nor against Godís command to prohibit the making and worshiping of graven images, nor even the blasphemous and careless use of the sacred name of our holy God; nor to force men to worship God or to attend religious services.

Citizens, politicians, legislators, and judicial officers can fulfill their rightful responsibility in government only as they clearly define their responsibilities in terms of the last six commandments, and recognize that they possess no mandate to trample upon the consciences of citizens by legislation concerning the first four commandments. Therefore it is altogether appropriate for civil law to reflect the principles of the last six of the divine commandments. But any legislation concerning the first four commandments is a violation of the basic principles of religious freedom.

 


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