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America’s Ten Commandments   

Michael Novak

After a weeklong trial, a federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, heard closing arguments last Wednesday (October 23) in yet one more effort by the ACLU to erase any recognition of God from public life in America — this time, to remove the Ten Commandments from a courthouse.

All over the country, the ACLU has been filing suits like to one in Alabama, winning some, losing some. The oddest thing is, if the ACLU project of removing God from public testimony should win, their victory would hurt the ACLU most of all. For two reasons: The first reason is that a plurality of Americans holds that there are civil liberties because certain inalienable rights were endowed in us by our Creator. This belief was expressed by the Continental Congress in the carefully wrought words of the Declaration of Independence. Our Founders held that the same Creator Who gave the human race the inestimable gift of the Ten Commandments also gave human beings the freedom to follow them — or not. He also laid on them the burden of making an account to Him — and to no other — of how they did so. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time." There are civil liberties because our Creator made us free. And also, responsible finally to Him.

These words of Jefferson are particularly beautiful:

"Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their own minds, that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his Supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint: That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations ...are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone... [A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom]"

Why would the ACLU want to cut out of American consciousness the reason why, for a plurality of Americans, respect for civil liberties is a serious, even a sacred duty? Failure to observe is an offense against the Supreme will of God, and answerable on the last day before an undeceivable Judge?

But the second reason why the ACLU is committing suicide runs even deeper. The reason why there is religious liberty, or at least the sole reason given by three crucial Founding documents on the subject — the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Virginia Statute for the Establishment of Religious Liberty, and James Madison's famous and eloquent Remonstrance — is this rare and precious conception: That prior to any obligation to the state, prior even to any obligation to civil society (prior both in time and in degree of importance), is the inalienable communion between the individual and the Creator, to Whom the human being owes a duty precedent to any he owes state or civil society. This duty cannot be fulfilled by any other than each individual, one by one. For each person, it is inalienable.

This inalienable relation between the individual and the Creator is the ground and foundation of the right to religious liberty, and through that first right, of all the other civil rights and liberties. From that human-divine relation emanates the spiritual power of the ACLU.

A Deeper, More Surprising Turn

However, a deeper and more surprising turn in our reflections must now be taken. The conception of a Creator is specific only to a tiny handful of the world religions. The conception of a Creator Who demands to be recognized "in spirit and in truth," and not simply by outward actions (burning incense, bending the knee, reciting sacred formulae, performing certain ritual actions such as pilgrimages or prostrations, etc.) is specific to even fewer. The conception of a Creator Who, in addition, made every individual free, and glories in the friendship of free women and free men, seems in fact to be limited only to two: to Judaism and its offspring, Christianity.

It is probably true that the Ten Commandments are, with due regard for a modest pluralism of nuance and emphasis and interpretation, universal and recognized among all peoples everywhere. Even more strikingly than that, all ten of them, especially the last five or six, appear to have been reached in many places by the exercise of reason itself, without revelation. That stealing, murder, lying, and bearing false witness, and acting out of covetousness are universally condemned in all world literatures is fairly obvious. But even the first three or four commandments have been arrived at by reason alone.

Thus, for those who form a sufficiently high notion of God, it is also obvious that putting false idols in His place, worshiping as God something that is not God, or mocking and blaspheming Him or His name, are stupid acts of ignorance, arrogance, and pretension among mere mortals, who are like the grass of the fields, here today and tomorrow forgotten.

Nonetheless, the particular relation between the Creator and the individual imagined by the American Founders, and by them made part of the narrative history within which the conception of rights gains traction in our daily lives, is special to Judaism and Christianity. Just possibly, it is also compatible with Islam, that other religion of an almighty, eternal Creator of all things. So far, however, no Muslim thinker has come forward to explain how Islam understands human liberty. And all the other civil, political, and religious rights embodied in the American way of life, and put into words in its Founding documents. How does Islam ground those rights, in a way comparable to the arguments put forward by George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison mentioned above?

According to our own documentary history, the American conception and practice of religious liberty (and the grounding of our other civil and political rights) depends upon the relation between the human individual, female and male, and the Creator of all things, as presented by the Jewish and Christian traditions, and by no other tradition in quite that same way. Not even Thomas Hobbes and John Locke ground their conceptions of natural right in quite the same way as Mason, Jefferson, and Madison do. True, these Americans, especially Jefferson, knew some of the works of Locke well, and learned many turns of thought and expression from him. And why not?

Locke often expressed himself in the full-dress language of a believer in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Yet perhaps even more so than Locke, the innermost convictions of many if not most of the early American patriots were fired by religious conscience. The flames of revolt against kingly abusiveness were fed by the Puritan and evangelical preachers. For this reason, the American documents hewed even more closely than Locke to a Jewish-Christian conception of the main narrative line of human history: The Creator made humans to be free, and to make freedom prevail, against the many formidable obstacles it encounters in "the long course of human events."

In this respect, James Madison's sketch of the relation between the individual and its Lord and Creator, in the inner arena of conscience, calls to mind the first two propositions of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord thy God." The individual needs for a moment to let that sink in.

Then the next proposition follows ineluctably: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

Contained in these two lines is the metaphysical narrative that undergirds the principle of limited government. No absolute power, or absolutist government, can be allowed to prevail. Any such pretense is an idol, usurping the place that belongs to God alone. To God alone, each individual owes the allegiance of an inalienable conscience, which can be exercised by no other person whatever (not by mother nor father, not by brother nor sister, but only by that individual alone). That duty to the Creator is precedent to any duty to the state or even to civil society. In short, our right to religious liberty cannot be abridged by any state or civil society or any other human power whatever. Here is how Madison expresses this truth:

"It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in the order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour [sic] of the Universe. [Remonstrance, para.1]."

The next Commandment reads: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." Benjamin Franklin gave this proposition a practical twist in his proposal for the official motto of the United States: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

The next is: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Commander-in-chief George Washington issued as one of his first written orders to the Continental Army that there must not be any swearing or any blasphemy in the ranks, lest the Army's firm reliance on Divine Providence be compromised and the trust of the People in their Army scandalized. He also commanded his troops to begin every morning with a prayer, their officers present in formation, a chaplain having been assigned to each unit.

After the war, Washington frequently drew attention to, and commended public gratitude for "the many signal interventions of Divine Providence" in the course of the war. Among these, ever fresh in his mind, were the seemingly miraculous turns on his behalf in the battles of Long Island and Monmouth.

Meeting Three Conditions

The singular advantage of the Jewish-Christian conception of the relation between the Creator and his human subjects is that it allows for three things at once: the freedom of the individual conscience; a freedom ordered to law ("Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law") and social unity; and, third, a comfortable pluralism, in which diverse communities live in unity, with the free exercise of conscience. This is an original conception, a new order without precedent on the face of the globe, as Madison justly observed in Federalist #14.

Although this conception may be articulated and defended in more than one way, its particular historical origins in the specific religious traditions of early America, frequently recurred to, maintain a remarkable and continuing vitality. Furthermore, without requiring newcomers or imitators in other lands to become Jews or Christians, or to confess any one faith, these distinctive traditions open the blessings of liberty to all. We can pay homage to their specific origins without being forced to make a confession of faith in those traditions. Few are the historical conceptions so open to sharing their best fruits with others of different faiths.

More impressively still, the early American religions and their attachment to common sense managed to launch a form of pluralism that does not depend upon relativism — "anything goes" and "all opinions are equally valid" — while still honoring freedom of conscience. They did so by recognizing that each soul is in a constant dialog with its Creator, learning and advancing by its own lights, in its own time. No one else has the right to intrude coercively into that sacred conversation. One keen reason for religious liberty is that every soul needs room for that wrestling match, that long journey.

The texture of the American trust in the ultimate victory of liberty and the unshakeable foundation of our rights, from religious liberty to all the others, is knit through and through with the laws of the human universe announced by Governor of the Universe, and honored by our forebears throughout our history.

Defying Reason

Tearing the tangible recollection of these laws from our daily sight in courthouses and elsewhere is an act of unparalleled and suicidal blindness. It can be accounted for only by ideological rage, not by rational self interest.

Even those who do not believe in God should be able to see that many of their fellow citizens do hold such a belief. Moreover, these others hold certain important political truths to be self evident because, in the context of their belief in a God Who offers them friendship, other truths about life and liberty become clear to them. To help these others to lose a vivid memory of this Source of their rights is to help them treat these rights as less than sacred, as mere ideological opinions like any others.

Why would the ACLU desire an outcome like that?

And why would they take a position so flatly contrary to that of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founders?

The current tactics of the ACLU defy reason.


Michael Novak. "America’s Ten Commandments." National Review (October 28, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


Michael Novak, the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize, has served as Ambassador of the U.S. Delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva (1981-82) and head of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1986). His essays and reviews have been published in numerous journals, including The New Republic, Commentary, Harper’s, First Things, and National Review. He has also written some 26 books, including, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Among his many honors are the International Prize by the Institution for World Capitalism (received with Milton Friedman and Va´clav Klaus) and the Antony Fisher Prize for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, presented by Margaret Thatcher.

Copyright © 2002 National Review



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved