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Words to govern by?

March 12, 2005

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the legality of

maintaining displays of the Ten Commandments on government property

-- courtrooms, in particular. Among the arguments bandied about in

the media for keeping the displays has been the assertion that the

Ten Commandments reflect the historical makeup of the country, but

not the spiritual -- that they are an artifact and nothing more. Does

the display of the Ten Commandments in public settings -- meaning

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government and school buildings -- necessarily imply an endorsement

of Christianity over other religions? Or do they simply reflect the

historical heritage of the United States without any religious

implication?

The Founding Framers of our freedom expressed a greater debt for

their inspiration to English political philosopher John Locke than to

God. Their discipleship was evident in their intellectual views and

political values. They owed more to Locke's "2nd Treatise of Civil

Government" than to the Bible; they paid homage to nature's God more

than to the God of providence; they were more persuaded by the God of

the philosophers than the God of the theologians. The Founder's

worldview was a scientific rationalism, not a devotional Christian

theism.

In the book "The Godless Constitution," we read: "For Locke, the

state's origin was not shrouded in the impenetrable mystery of divine

gift or dispensation. The source of the 'powers that be,' the

magistrates and monarchs that governed, was the people."

John Adams was united with his colleagues in proclaiming that the

state was a secular enterprise that could claim no divine

participation. The creators of American government "never had

interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration

of Heaven." The Founders espoused standard enlightenment deism,

positing a God who hardly interfered in the affairs of men. In

matters of statecraft, Locke demonstrated to the Founders'

satisfaction that both church and state were diminished when united

in unholy partnership.

The Ten Commandments is not a founding document of America.

Disobeying the first three of the Commandments, in which the believer

swears fealty to the God of Israel, would have made blasphemy a

crime. Does American jurisprudence distinguish between monotheism,

polytheism or atheism? Did not Jefferson himself say, in his "Notes

on the State of Virginia," that "The legitimate powers of government

extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me

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