". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


The Ten Commandments Make Wise Laws

May 31, 2024

The Louisiana legislature has passed a bill that “requires schools that receive public money to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said on Thursday’s “Washington Watch,” and “the anti-Christian Left is convulsing.”

It isn’t hard to imagine their cry: “But what about the separation of church and state?” Posting the Ten Commandments in school classrooms “was common,” Perkins countered, “until the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that such a display was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.” Of course, the Establishment Clause was in effect for 189 years before that, and for most of that time no one objected to the Ten Commandments in schools. Doing so does not establish any religion.

“We’re focused on the historical aspect of the Ten Commandments, which all of our laws are derived from,” bill sponsor Louisiana Rep. Dodie Horton (R) explained to Perkins. “We also included that, if a school would like to put up other historical documents like the Mayflower Compact, the Northwest Ordinance, the Bill of Rights, they’re able to do so.” In other words, displaying the Ten Commandments will teach Louisiana schoolchildren about American history and about how American law developed.

Skeptics will still ask, but why are the Ten Commandments displayed and not other religious ethical statements, like the writings of Confucius or Native American myths? One answer is America’s historical development. This great nation was not built by Confucians or Muslims, but by people informed by the Bible and the moral teachings found therein.

A second answer is that the moral principles found in the Ten Commandments are so wise that even people from other nations, religions, and cultures will recognize the wisdom they contain. “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me,” declared Moses.

“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

After this exhortation, Moses proceeded to recite the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. These form the outline for the rest of the laws set forth in Deuteronomy 6-26, which simply apply these 10. The Ten Commandments, in turn, can be reduced to two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).

Who could dispute this? Who would take issue with laws that prescribed, “You shall not murder, and you shall not commit adultery, and you shall not steal, and you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:17-20)? None of America’s problems are from people following these rules too closely. “When we look at what’s happening in our schools, we look at what is happening in our culture, and we wring our hands, and policymakers try to figure out what they’re going to do,” Perkins said, “it’s pretty simple: go back to the Ten Commandments.”

Of course, real life offers endless applications for these commandments, and people will differ on exactly when and where they apply. Some people would affirm these principles in theory but then deny obvious practical implications.

For example, some people would assent to the statement, “murder is wrong,” but also support abortion, the premeditated, unjust killing of an unborn human being. “I’ve operated on babies that were 25, 26, 27, 28 weeks gestation, and you have to give them anesthesia. They can feel everything,” said retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson on “Washington Watch” Thursday. “What about all those people who are trying to save snail darters? Now a snail darter is considerably less complex than a fetus, even at a few weeks. So, why are you trying to save the one and not the other?” Caring for animal life is arguably related to the prohibition on murder, but caring for unborn human life certainly is.

Yet this backwards reasoning is more common than might be expected. At this week’s World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, Family Research Council Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs Travis Weber reported on “Washington Watch” that national representatives were giving speeches with “references to animal health, about the rights of animals to receive relief,” but also about “reproductive health,” a “euphemistic phrase that includes abortion.” Animals’ lives are never more important than human lives.

Granted, the commandments against murder, adultery, stealing, and false testimony are less controversial in our culture than the rest. But the others provide the basis for these good and wise laws. The tenth commandment, for instance, “you shall not covet…” (Deuteronomy 5:21), is not something governments are competent to enforce, since other fallen human beings can’t know the human heart. But coveting is often the root of many wicked deeds the government should deter. For an example of how coveting can lead to murder, theft, and false testimony, see the account of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16).

The commandment that will likely provoke the most criticism in a public school setting is the first, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). But proponents could respond with a de-escalatory admission followed by a provocative question. “That’s fine, you don’t have to agree with it. We recognize the American tradition of religious freedom. In fact, the God who gave these laws invented religious freedom,” they could say. “But, I wonder, what do you believe the basis is for laws prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, and false testimony?”

According to the Ten Commandments, the ultimate reason is the character of the God who ordered the world. But for a secular humanist, who believes there is no god, and that we are the result of random evolutionary processes, then how do they square these moral principles with the evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest? Not only do the Ten Commandments present a wiser way to live together in society, they also provide a better reason for living that way.

Therefore, “We want our children to see what God’s standard for our moral conduct is,” urged Horton. “We’re not asking the teachers to teach it, but we want our children to be able to see one — that there is a God, and that he does have a moral standard [by] which they need to conduct themselves.” Perkins agreed. “Teach them that there is truth, and we’re accountable to it.”

Perkins appealed to President George Washington’s farewell address, in which the first president declared that morality and religion were the two indispensable supports for political prosperity. If the famously cautious president would publicly endorse morality and religion — after the Establishment Clause had been enacted — surely the mere presence of the Ten Commandments, a basic statement of morality without any proselytization for any religion, should pass constitutional muster. It might even make the students a little bit wiser, if they ever stopped to heed its wisdom.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.