The Secular State Without the Decalogue
by James M. Kushiner
Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film The Ten Commandments depicted a founding event of Judeo-Christian civilization, the Exodus and giving of the Law to Hebrew slaves from Egypt. DeMille's Moses says before his death, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land." Not the biblical Moses' final message, these words were lifted from Leviticus 25:10, where they were prescribed to announce the Year of Jubilee and the freeing of slaves.
DeMille was not the first to appropriate this verse about slaves. In 1752, the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned a bell inscribed with Leviticus 25:10, setting LIBERTY in all caps (aka the Liberty Bell). This general liberty was not particularly about slaves, for slavery was legal in Pennsylvania, though contested and eventually outlawed. Nor was it about American independence—the bell was rung in 1760 at King George III's accession to the throne. But it later became an icon of American ideas of liberty.
Many Americans who heard DeMille's Moses proclaim liberty no doubt equated it with the bell's LIBERTY, which America championed as the "sweet land of liberty." To most, this liberty was not secular but God-given. A connection between American liberty and the Judeo-Christian revelation of a God who gives gifts to men was, and still is, assumed by many, and is expressed in such anthems as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee":
Our fathers' God, to Thee,
Author of Liberty,
To thee we sing,
Long may our land be bright
With Freedom's holy light,
Protect us by thy might
Great God, our King.
American ruling elites have by slow degrees disconnected liberty from the Great God of the Decalogue. With the recent retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, we are reminded of perhaps his most famous words: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." In other words, nothing is written in stone, and you're free to make up your own rules of life and revise them as you go. Everyone may do "what is right in his own eyes."
Such liberty requires independence from the Decalogue as eternal law. It is divorced from divine oversight or moral limits from on high. Regardless of whether the Enlightenment philosophy of liberty made this divorce inevitable, the fact is that today a new version of liberty stands in opposition to the biblical revelation of freedom as being rooted in loving obedience to a loving God. The state-approved or mandated removal of the Ten Commandments from various public places and state properties, including courtrooms, is surely a clear manifestation of a deep and longstanding rebellion.
In Justice Kennedy's and liberal America's secular view, citizens are effectively free to sideline every one of the Ten Commandments as a moral foundation for a free society. To assert this kind of liberty is to oppose the God who revealed himself to Moses and the people of Israel. While there are yet many faithful Christians, Jews, and Law-abiding citizens, various features of ascendant secularism are kicking hard against the Decalogue:
• I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. The Lord God is increasingly barred from the public square and the public school. His existence, revelation, and works are private matters, not to be spoken of in public places. Instead, the Self is promoted as the supreme god. Mammon may also serve. Or Eros. We owe God nothing.
• Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Blasphemy and repeated use of the Lord's name in vain permeates daily discourse, entertainment, and the arts. Criticism of such is considered prudish.
• Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. What's a Sabbath? What's "holy"? Commerce is the rule 24/7. The Lord's Day is not set aside for worship. "Holy" days are opposed.
• Honor thy father and thy mother. Mothers and fathers are optional if not passé. Actually, you have no obligation to keep faith with any of your predecessors, because they are generally sexist and less virtuous, enlightened, and advanced than you are.
• Thou shalt not kill. It's wrong to kill human beings, but only if they are deemed "persons." Abortion kills human beings, early and often, but that is promoted and performed without shame as a "constitutional right."
• Thou shalt not commit adultery. Any form of sexual activity is perfectly acceptable, as long as it's consensual. Even adultery is wrong only when and if you think it's wrong. In fact, the encouragement of extra-marital lust is a lucrative and respected industry. It's even appropriate to teach young children to accept and practice various forms of non-marital sex.
• Thou shalt not steal. Individuals can acquire the money or property of others without working or paying for it, via lawsuits, government seizure, legislation, and other means. It's a more depersonalized (and in many cases legal) form of seizure than traditional theft and is much harder to oppose.
• Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. It is fair play to use fake news, false accusations, media spin, Alinsky-style smears—whatever it takes—to get your way, seize power, or defeat an opponent. Victory is all that matters; when truth is a casualty, it is merely collateral damage.
• Thou shalt not covet. Instilling in people an insatiable desire for the things others have, especially if they can also be convinced that they deserve what they have been enticed into craving, is a sure way of making money or gaining political advantage by building up class resentment and envy. Keeping people in a perpetual state of covetousness serves mammon and enables the would-be despot.
To embrace the pseudo-liberty enshrined in law by Justice Kennedy and the other liberals on the Supreme Court is to reject the Decalogue and embrace servitude. This rejection is a reversion to idolatry and immorality, just as it was when Israel worshiped a golden calf and "rose up to play." Much of the political battle in the West is about the moral law, particularly regarding abortion and sexual order. The false gods of today are many and come in many guises, even through the words of Supreme Court justices.
We cannot see perfectly how God regards any nation, for just as in Israel after the Exodus, fidelity and idolatry coexist in varying proportions in every country. But we can see where the moral structure of the world is being opposed in our own nation. Since we know that the Word of the Lord shall not pass away, advocating for and following the moral law is to speak and live the truth, carved not in tablets of stone, but on the human heart.
The Decalogue is the gift of a merciful God, rejected by any nation to its peril. Such rejection again opens the path to slavery. Christians are to proclaim liberty in Christ to captives throughout any land in which they live. This is the liberty that comes from serving the Lord, who alone can bring slaves out of the house of bondage into life everlasting.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.