Decalogue Part of Nation’s Foundation

Peter W. Schramm

March 2, 2005

George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.”

This was the mantra for the revisionism carried out by the party in Oceania in his novel 1984. Adhering to this credo, the fictional ruling party systematically eliminated anything from history that was inconvenient to its vision for the future.

In America, a real group seems to be driven by the same credo, as they bring lawsuits around the country attempting to remove from courthouses and schools history they deem inappropriate. That group is the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in McCreary County v. ACLU, a case in which the ACLU sued over the presence of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and schoolhouses in Kentucky. This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments were posted in religious context. Rather, they were posted alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Charter, the Magna Carta and other documents as part of a display concerning the “Foundations of American Law and Government.”

One doesn’t need to be particularly disposed to religion to understand the prominent role that the Ten Commandments played in this country’s founding and in the formation of our laws. As the Kentucky counties noted at trial, 12 of 13 original colonies simply codified the Ten Commandments as law. This should not be surprising because the Founders were profoundly influenced by Judeo-Christian writings. Indeed, a study by University of Houston political scientist Donald Lutz found that approximately 34 percent of the Founders’ citations to authority were to the Bible, while the French jurist and political philosopher Baron de la Montesquieu, the next-most cited source, garnered a mere 8 percent. Even Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase wall of separation in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, admited the strong influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition on this country by suggesting that the Seal of the United States be “a representation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.”

The Supreme Court also has recognized the role of the Ten Commandments in our legal history. Indeed, it is carved on the high court’s very walls; the chief justice sits directly below a frieze that features a man representing the Majesty of Law. The foundation of his throne is the Ten Commandments. Elsewhere in the building, there are three depictions of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Anyone walking into the courtroom must do so by way of doors with Roman numerals I through X carved in them, and the bronze gates on the sides of the courtroom are adorned with tablets depicting the Decalogue.

Not surprising then, the court has acknowledged that the Ten Commandments did not play “an exclusively religious role in the history of Western Civilization.” Individual justices of the court have spoken in stronger terms. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in a previous case, “The Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World.” And former Justice Felix Frankfurter noted: “Innumerable civil regulations enforce conduct which harmonizes with religious canons. State prohibitions of murder, theft and adultery reinforce commands of the Decalogue.”

Yet the ACLU argues with a straight face that the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in a display about history of law “is not a statement supported by history.” However, it is their view—the view that the public square must be devoid of any reference to God or to religion’s place in our history—that finds no support from our founding history. The only way for the ACLU to ultimately prevail is for history to evolve—that is, for someone to rewrite history, erasing public recognition of the influence of religion on the Founders.

This case should, therefore, present an easy question for the Supreme Court. This is not a case in which the state is attempting to impose religious belief on anyone. It is simply a case in which the state is recognizing that certain basic documents—some of them religious in origin—played an important role in our founding and in the development of our laws. At base, the court need only recognize that our country is not Oceania, and the Constitution does not require us to forget our religious origins.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.