Is American Law Based on the Ten Commandments?

Freethought on the Road: Debate at Liberty Law School

Dan Barker

Freethought on the Road
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Today I flew to Virginia to debate Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and also the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. Liberty Law School, with about 275 students, is part of Jerry Falwell’s sprawling Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., surrounded by lush green hills. The debate was sponsored by the Federalist Society, a student group at Liberty Law School. Staver has represented the other side in a couple of lawsuits taken by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The afternoon debate — “Is American law based on the Ten Commandments?” — took place in the Supreme Courtroom at Liberty School of Law, a room designed to be a replica of the U.S. Supreme Court. (During the debate, I told Mat that I was coveting that room, but then realized that was a crime.) The moderator sat up where the chief justice would sit, and Mat and I sat down by the audience at tables where the attorneys would sit. The room was full of students, teachers, and about 10 or 12 members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. All of the male students were wearing ties, most of them coats and ties.

Staver’s opening remarks seemed to veer from the topic. He argued that American law was influenced by, not based on the Ten Commandments. He mentioned the theocratic laws of the early colonists, Sunday “blue laws,” the importance of the bible in swearing an oath in court (perjury laws coming straight from the Decalogue, he claimed), and so on.

I started my Opening Statement like this:

“I am going to break the law, and I want all of you to witness. The god of the bible, if he exists, is an evil, immoral, selfish, arrogant, jealous, brutal, bloodthirsty bully, and if he created hell, he can go to hell. I am not merely saying ‘God Damn It,’ I am saying ‘Damn God.’ There: I just broke the Third Commandment. I took the name of the Lord Your God in vain. I committed blasphemy. Is someone going to call the authorities and have me arrested?”

Mat later admitted, answering a question from the audience, that he would not think I should be arrested for blasphemy. Answering another question, he agreed that there is no law or maxim that America should be based on the Ten Commandments, that he would not favor enacting such laws, and that America should not become a theocracy. (Although he had praised the early colonies — mainly theocratic — that did have such laws.) I pointed out that he was making my case for me.

I argued that only three of the Ten Commandments — killing, perjury, and theft — have any relevance to modern American law. “If you get 30% on your final exam, what kind of a grade is that?” I asked the students. I argued that law does not have a “basis” but rather “ancestors,” and is continuously evolving from simpler experiments as society improves. Laws are not handed to us from outside the universe, they come from rebellion. The Roman plebeians rebelled against the patricians, protesting the abuses of those in power, and came to an understanding of equality under the law, due process, innocence until proven guilty, and so on, long before they had contact with Palestine.

The Magna Carta was the result of rebel barons challenging the authority and excesses of the king, and had no reference to the Commandments or the bible. There is nothing in the bible about how much money kings should pay knights, or about habeus corpus or due process.

Neither did the common law have reference to the bible or the Ten Commandments. The United States of America, I pointed out, is a proudly rebellious nation. We kicked the king, dictator, master, sovereign, lord out of our affairs (with a Declaration that is anti-biblical) and turned government upside down, making “We, the people” the supreme authority, producing the first Constitution in history — a completely godless document —t hat separates religion and government.

The debate was civil. Staver was friendly, collegial and articulate; and the audience was polite and attentive. We talked about the architecture at the U.S. Supreme Court, about slavery, women’s suffrage, the Treaty of Tripoli (1796-1797: “The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”), graven images, adultery, death by stoning for breaking the sabbath, Thomas Jefferson's deism, anti-Catholicism, the atheistic basis for morality, and more.

I think they made a videotape, and if true, we should be able to make it available.

After the event, many of the students thanked me for coming. One of them told me I was very brave to come into the “enemy camp,” and I said, “Are you kidding? This is fun!” A few of the students — including a young “Christian feminist” and a professor who talks to God — wanted to argue with me about various points, and that started to get a bit tedious, but I figured this might be a rare chance for them to actually talk with an atheist, so I kept at it until they dragged me away for dinner.

A bunch of us, including Mat Staver and Liberty students, went to a local restaurant, and we talked for more than an hour about everything except the content of the debate, which was fine with me. I actually enjoyed learning about their lives and their plans, and was able to give them a little bit of the picture of the work the Foundation has been doing.

One of them told me that the whole experience was educational, and I said: “It’s good to know that Jerry Falwell’s university does have some educational moments.”

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Tomorrow I will be at Eastern Kentucky University. Friday at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and Saturday at Cleveland State University, all student freethought groups.

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