Dr. Mark Hamilton
What is the basis for law and order? Can we know that our laws are just and good? When I was growing up a generation ago the answer to these questions was relatively easy. Forty years ago many Americans would have simply answered that the foundation for American law is the Constitution derived from The Ten Commandments and the Biblical beliefs of the founding fathers. But in the past generation this understanding has been under assault and the idea of a Christian America has eroded. The belief that American law is based on Biblical law has been trampled by secularism. We now stand at a crossroads where this issue regarding the rule of law versus the rule of men has become the most important issue in American law and politics. It has become front page news with the Judge Roy Moore case in Alabama and the Supreme Court’s refusal to rehear his case. The spotlight has also been on Ohio with the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from public property in Adams County and the Judge James Deweese case in Richland County (Mansfield).
There are tremendous moral, legal, and philosophical issues being raised in these cases. What policy issues are involved in these cases? How should Christians view the relationship between the Ten Commandments and American law? Should Christians side with Judges Moore and Deweese? These are the concerns to be addressed in this issue of “In The Gates”. The cases of Moore and Deweese focus on the legal issue of free speech (see article by Judge Deweese) and the philosophical issue of the source for our legal authority (the primary issue of this article).
In considering the foundation for our legal authority there are only two real options: is the state ultimately sovereign or is God sovereign. There is no getting around it. Every law rests on a system of morality and this presupposes a type of greater belief system. We have made the state our Savior. This is statism when the state is sovereign and has no higher accountability. Either God or the state must be the greater sovereign because it is logically and logistically impossible for two sovereigns to coexist at the same point of time and space each claiming the same jurisdiction. “Because the claims of God and the sovereign state are mutually exclusive, their conflict is inevitable.”1 There are no other alternatives. There cannot be two sovereigns. If the state alone becomes sovereign (statism) rather than God, what are the consequences?
Everyone knows that something is wrong in America today. This is something the humanist, the liberal “Christian”, and the evangelical Christian knows. Our nation is sorely troubled with a spiritual and moral malaise. “The mandatory need of our time is the discovery or recovery of an ethical creed that can give Western man, at this juncture in his history, steady moral guidance.”2 A sense of morality has vanished from the people. “Every thoughtful person now knows that the major problem of our time is the ethical problem. Even the most superficial optimist now sees that we could destroy ourselves.”3 Aware of this crisis a generation ago Karl Menninger wrote his famous book, Whatever Happened to Sin? Now we can answer his question with another question, “Whatever happened to law?” There is no sin where lawlessness reigns.
When there is no law, there is no sin, there is no immorality, and there is no law-breaking. No one is responsible for their actions. The criminal is viewed as ill rather than immoral.4 Everyone can now feel good about themselves, even the criminal needs self-esteem and we do not want to give the prisoner or anyone else the law because it doesn’t feed self-esteem; it feeds guilt.
What is the definition of sin? It is “transgression of the law of God; disobedience to the divine will or moral failure. It is failure to realize in conduct and character the moral ideal”5 Do you remember the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind”? This has great psychological relevance to this issue of the public posting of the Ten Commandments. Humans, particularly in our day and age, do not want their personal autonomy lessened or threatened. They certainly do not want to be called “sinners.” The Ten Commandments do this. The Commandments call attention to a greater authority than the individual or the state, namely God, and that this Deity is a Holy God who demands proper ethical behavior of the people He has made. If we can hide the Ten Commandments, maybe we can hide from God. If we can get rid of the laws of God, maybe we can even get rid of God.
Some have thought this is not a mainstream Christian issue because interest in the law is only held by those in some narrow Christian traditions. But this is not so. There are advocates of the Ten Commandments as the foundation for a moral and legal society in most every Christian tradition. In 1946, Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood recognized the need to reestablish the Ten Commandments as the foundation for the reconstruction of Western society. He wrote, “(T)he problem of moral reconstruction is the primary problem. No matter how powerful we are, and no matter how rich we are in physical resources, we shall decline as a people unless we can produce and maintain an ethical system that will make our technological discoveries the boon to mankind which they might be, if rightly directed and keep them from being the means of disaster which they may so easily be, and which, without such effort, they will certainly be.”6 This was written almost sixty years ago, how much more so is it true today?
Trueblood’s book on the Ten Commandments adds, “Fortunately, we do not need to hunt for such an ethical creed. We already have it. We already have a cluster of convictions which belong to all strands of our culture. One of the ways in which our fundamental faith can be restored and reinterpreted for our time is by an attempt to state the moral principles which have provided, in large measure, the chief standard of conduct in the life of the West for almost two millennia. Many generations have given conscious assent to these principles, and other generations have accepted them as the unconscious basis of judgment in common life. Without these principles the whole history of the West would have been utterly different.”7
To be free from God’s law means that humans become their own law. If we reject God’s law humans will find another source of authority. Law always comes from somewhere. This origin is what gives it moral authority. “Law is an enacted moral code.”8 People in the West are without foundations, guidelines, or reference points in moral decision making. When this occurs people do what is right in their own mind, which is equivalent to saying they follow their personal feelings. Or they create a person or people with great legal and moral power to establish arbitrary law.
The ruling against Judge Moore represents once again the breakup of the spiritual inheritance of the West. It is a succession from the tradition. Humans can thus make themselves what they want to be under the laws that they want. In his classic work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis anticipates the effects of this breakdown by asking who will be the conditioners of humanity. Who will make the laws? The conditioners will be the lawmakers. They will be the great planners of society. As Lewis observes, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as man.”9 And “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”10
“God’s law is the prescription for justice—man’s law, for tyranny. All human lawmakers have an axe to grind, an agenda in mind, and man is the victim. Moreover, the essence of God’s law is its moral character. It provides an order and stability to society. Statist law leaves behind, in time, the moral nature of law to promote regulations for the benefit of some men and parts of society at the expense of others.”11
People think of these Ten Commandments as sectarian and divisive. This is far from the truth. They have united Jews, Protestants, and Catholics for centuries because all accept their validity. They have historically constituted an underlying unifying element to American social life. It was not until secularism and subsequent humanistic statism emerged with its atheism, relativistic morality and lawlessness that they created division and it is a division grounded in metaphysical beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of God. It is this loss of a foundation resulting in judicial tyranny which has given us the slaughter of millions through abortion and a general loss of value toward human life.
The Ten Commandments of God contain the fundamental law of the covenant and were directly spoken to the people. They demonstrate the character and nature of a Holy God. We can accept God as our King and place ourselves under the authority of His law or we can be secular and reject the authority of God and His law over us with a state that is accountable to no higher authority. We cannot have it both ways. It is a logical contradiction and a ridiculous notion to think we can be under God and not under His law.
The symbolic removal of these laws from the public is literally a tearing away of the foundation of law and morality for Western society. “In all non-Christian systems, the source of ethics and of law is the state; it is the polis, the empire, or the kingdom….Either God is the true source of morality and law, or the state is. If God is the true source, then the Word of God must be harkened to by church, state, school, and every sphere of life as the one authoritative source of morality and law.”12 In Rome it was the worship of the state represented by the divine Emperor that was the force to unify the people of Rome during the time of Christ.13 This was a type of totalitarian regime. It was “against the totalitarianism of the pagan world empires, Christ taught the limitation of state power.”14
Many Christians respond to this argument by appealing to natural law and to reason. They believe that humans can use reason to understand the moral structure in nature and then apply that structure to society as a form of legal policy. They point to Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” But is this so? In the light of such passages as Ephesians 4:17-19, can fallen human reason really deduce God’s moral law from observing nature? Maybe it can work for awhile in a culture that is predominately Christian and there is already a solid established Biblical morality abounding, but is it so easy to see for those who have lost their Judeo-Christian foundations? Even Paul, who was grounded in Old Testament Scripture and the force of the law, states in Romans 7:7 that he would not have known the immorality of coveting unless he had read the law (Ten Commandments) which said, “Thou shall not covet.” It was the written Old Testament Law that exposed his sinfulness and drove him to Christ, not the natural law and not human reason.
There is little room for negotiation. There are only those who keep the Law and those who have contempt for it. In the nineteenth century David McAllister wrote, “Secularism in our country is the main assailant to Christian civil government. It seeks the overthrow of existing Christian institutions. It aims at the utter de-Christianizing of the state. Whenever there is a bond of connection between Christianity and the state or nation, it would ruthlessly sunder the tie” (McAllister 20).15
In the ninth century Alfred the Great was king of England. He thought highly of the Bible and had parts of it translated into the common language. Alfred also used the Scriptures to reform the legal structure of British common law. “To do this he wrote the Ten Commandments and case-law examples from Exodus chapters 21-24 into the laws of England. While the Bible may not have been the only source of his laws, as he borrowed from other sources when it suited him, Alfred at least indicated that Biblical law—Old Testament law—was a very significant source for English law….The legacy that Alfred the Great left is…well, great, and remains with us in many respects. Unfortunately, those principles of Biblical law are gradually being undermined and lost.”16 This may help Christians to see and think through the need to be consistent and to apply Biblical law to government. Of course this will take a Reformation of its own to do so—”to force Christians to accept the necessity of Biblical law, then work to change the surrounding culture.”17
The program opposing Christianity is obvious. Isn’t the order by a federal court to a judge to get rid of a display of the Ten Commandments an act of war by the government against Christianity? Humanists want the end of Christianity or to at least reduce it to the closet. Put Christianity in the closet and bring sodomy out could be the modern statist’s battle cry.
“The Ten Commandments are as relevant today as they were when Moses brought them down from Mount Sinai. They remain the basic tenets of morality for all who believe the Bible. Therefore, it is time for Christians to start publishing a variety of books and pamphlets promoting the Ten Commandments to be given out to everyone in the United States. Let them know that there is an alternative to our present chaos: It is Biblical law, and its essence is summed up in the Ten Commandments.”18 Trueblood writes, “(S)o many of the upholders of the tradition of the West do not know what they believe or why they believe it. We have inherited a glorious ethical tradition which has inspired some of the best life this planet has known, but for millions of our people it is no longer a living tradition. We in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century have inherited a morality, but we have not thought deeply about it as we have thought deeply about scientific research.”19
The Ten Commandments constitute the most memorable and succinct statement of the ethical creed of the West. They provide a view of life that is the fundamental foundation for a total view of life. A good society cannot be constructed or reconstructed without reference to them. What moral inheritance are we leaving our children? An important part of our legacy should include leaving them a belief in an unchanging basis for law and morality. “The truth is that, in our task of rebuilding a shattered civilization, the ancient moral law comes to us again with startling relevance. It does not provide the superstructure, but it does provide the foundation, and it is the foundation which we must build first.”20
1 Rousas Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968, 222.
2 Elton Trueblood, Foundations for Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946, 9.
4 For more on this see C.S. Lewis’ famous essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.”
5 Karl Menninger. Whatever Became of Sin? New York: Hawthorne Books, 1973, 18.
6 Trueblood, 7.
7 Ibid., 9.
8 Mark Rushdoony, “The Grace of Law,” Chalcedon Report, October 2003, 4.
9 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1947, 71.
10 Lewis, 69.
11 Rousas Rushdoony, “Christ versus Satan,” Chalcedon Report, May 2003, 2.
12 Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order, 5.
13 John Robbins, Christ and Civilization, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2003, 14.
14 Robbins, 15.
15 David McAlllister, “The Secular Assault on Christian Civil Government,” The Christian Statesman, May-June 2003, 20.
16 Ian Hodge, “Biblical Law,” Chalcedon Report, October 2003, 7.
17 Hodge, 8
18 Samuel L. Blumenfeld, “American Decadence and Biblical Law,” Chalcedon Report, October 2003, 26.
19 Trueblood, 8.
20 Ibid., 11.