The whirlwind of controversy surrounding Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments in Alabama have taken center stage in the popular dialogue today. Pundits, politicians, and members of clergy have taken every side imaginable on this issue. Secularist and legal activist have prophesied doom for America if the Ten Commandments are allowed to stand in the Alabama courthouse. School kids in Adams County, Ohio will suffer irreparable harm if they are allowed to see ten simple words written 3,500 years ago. Such are the claims made by some of the best educated and best thinkers of America.
I can't help but wonder, what would Thomas Jefferson think about all of this? What would he say about this issue? Would Jefferson have an opinion? Would he allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property? Are there any clues that might suggest an answer for us? I think there are.
This article will briefly present the case for why Thomas Jefferson would allow the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Jefferson would support the display of religious text on public property and other activities involving religion in a government setting. Let's consider the evidence.
The best place to start with is the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. In the Declaration of Independence we have the cardinal doctrines of American political philosophy. In one short paragraph, Jefferson distilled the essence of American thinking concerning human existence and the proper role of government. In effect, these words are the guts of America. Jefferson said:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. . ."
In many ways the fight over the Ten Commandments, the national motto, and the pledge of allegiance are really about these words. By far, Judge Moore and modern secularist part company over Jefferson more than the Ten Commandments themselves. The fight over the Ten Commandments is really a fight about what Jefferson said. Clearly, the supporters of the Ten Commandments are very passionate about this issue. But what are they really saying? Are they saying that no one should be allowed to drive a car from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? Or that we should not eat meat with milk?
No. They are saying that Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence are just as true today as they were when they were written. That's their point. They are saying: That a Creator exists. That the Creator gave us our rights. That government as an institution has a moral responsibility to protect those rights. And when government fails to protect those rights, the Creator empowered the people to abolish that government and establish a new one. That's it in a nutshell.
Those who support the display of the Ten Commandments on public property are really affirming nothing more than what Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence. If Jefferson's words are true, that there is a "Supreme Judge of the world" then the display of the Ten Commandments on government property is consistent with American political philosophy.
Secularist who oppose the display of the Ten Commandments are saying that Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence are not relevant. They are not saying that the Creator does not exist. Secularist are not atheist as often claimed. Indeed, most of them believe in God. But secularist believe that in terms of the government it does not matter whether God exists or not. Modern secularism as a concept did not exist when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It is largely a twentieth century concept. The key event that led to the rise of modern secularism was Charles Darwin and his book, "The Origin of Species". Darwin's theory of evolution not only had an impact on science but on government, law and political philosophy as well. The impact of Darwin on government and law was secularism.
Secularism as a philosophy is based on the principle that there is an alternative explanation for the existence of the Universe. They believe that only scientific evolution is valid. The impact of this new thinking on the Constitution and the First Amendment was profound. Secularist have a new way to read the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution would read it in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Secularist read it separately from the Declaration of Independence. In effect, they divorce the two.
The fatal flaw of modern secularism is that they reject the Constitution's moral foundation, the Declaration of Independence. Whenever this happens, a distorted view of the Constitution is inevitable. In contrast, Judge Moore and his supporters keep the marriage together. They read the Constitution wearing a pair of glasses called the Declaration of Independence. Would Jefferson display the Ten Commandments? In Jefferson's day, creationism was the only legitimate view to explain the existence of the Universe. There were atheists to be sure. But prior to Darwin, they lacked a coherent scientific theory to explain the Universe. Since Jefferson was a creationist, there can be no question that he would support the display of the Ten Commandments on government property. See the Note below. However, there is more direct evidence concerning Jefferson's views of the Ten Commandments.
More about this in Part 2.
At one time, even the U.S. Supreme Court believed in keeping the marriage together. Here is what the Court said about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. "The first official action of this nation declared the foundation of government in these words: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuant of happiness.'
While such declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty, and while in all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits, yet the latter is but the body and the letter of which the former is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence." Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe R'Y v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150 at 159-60, (1897).
Congress believed in the marriage as well. In 1889, Congress passed a law which laid out the conditions for South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Washington to be admitted into the Union. Their state constitutions may "not be repugnant to the Constitution of the United States and the principles of the Declaration of Independence." 25 Statutes at Large 676 at 677, February 22, 1889.
Would Thomas Jefferson Display the Ten Commandments? Part 2