Ten Amendments FAQ
How do the first Ten Amendments limit government and empower citizens?
How does declaring the United States a “Christian nation” threaten the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights?
Has anyone ever taken legal steps to change the Constitution’s separation of church and state?
What were the founders’ personal religious beliefs?
It is often said that the Constitution was designed only to protect religion from government, not to protect government from religion. Is that true?
Some people think the protections guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t apply to nonreligious and atheistic citizens? Is this true?
If this isn't a Christian nation, why does all our money have 'In God We Trust' on it?
Is the United States Constitution based on the Ten Commandments?
If not the Ten Commandments, isn't American law is based on the Golden Rule and isn't that from the Bible?
If we're not a Christian Nation, why does the Pledge of Allegiance say "One Nation, Under God"?
What's wrong with posting the Ten Commandments in public/government buildings?
Q: How do the first Ten Amendments limit government and empower citizens?
A: The Bill of Rights does not create rights, it recognizes certain inherent liberties and prevents the government from intruding upon them. In all respects, the first Ten Amendments limit the ability of government to do certain things, such as: search and seize, quarter soldiers, prohibit ownership of arms, prohibit speech, etc. Many other legal systems and constitutions have since been modeled upon this notion that individuals have liberties and dignities that cannot be infringed upon by government, except under very limited circumstances. The Supreme Court's role in deciding when those circumstances occur is in constant flux, following the landmark decision of Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review, and an organic, living Constitution.
Q: How does declaring the United States a “Christian nation” threaten the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights?
First, such a declaration is diametrically opposed to the current language of the First Amendment, which expressly prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Second, if the purpose of such a declaration is to reflect the actual history of the United States, then it constitutes a complete distortion of that history. Many early Americans did regard themselves as Christians, but the Framers of the Constitution explicitly rejected the proposition that the new nation should be founded on the doctrine or teachings of any religion. The Constitution is a wholly secular document.
The Framers had very good reasons for keeping church and state separate -- and those reasons are still relevant today. Fresh in the minds of the Founders was the history of the immediately preceding centuries, which were filled with turmoil, civil strife and bloody persecutions caused by disputes between religious sects and misguided efforts to establish religious uniformity. Any effort to provide a privileged position for Christianity today would engender even greater discord given the wide diversity of beliefs in this country.
Moreover, religion does not provide a basis for effective governance. It never has and never will. Religious dogma does not allow for democratic debate. Instead, religious principles and texts are always “interpreted” by self-appointed spokespersons for the deity to further their own interests. For example, Christianity supported the divine right of kings to govern when the kings and their allies were charged with determining the meaning of scripture. If one looks at history, one finds that Christianity has been considered compatible with nearly every form of non-democratic government and odious institutions such as slavery. Let us not forget that the Spanish Inquisition was very much a Christian institution.
The United States is a democracy committed to the respect of certain fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and religion. Liberty and personal autonomy are the hallmarks of our nation. The Bill of Rights protects the ability of each individual to decide for himself/herself what to believe and to criticize (or praise) any and all religious beliefs and institutions. Declaring the United States to be a Christian nation would severely abridge, if not eliminate entirely, those fundamental freedoms. - Ronald A. Lindsay
Q: Has anyone ever taken legal steps to change the Constitution’s separation of church and state?
A: The current assaults on the constitutional separation of church and state by the religious Right are only the latest round in a longstanding battle to undo what the framers did. There have been many attempts to amend the Constitution to “correct” its omission of God. The most important of these took place during the Civil War, when a group of Protestant ministers proposed to President Abraham Lincoln that the Constitution be amended to acknowledge the governmental authority not only of God in general but of Jesus Christ specifically. The proposal would have replaced “We the People…” with “Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land….” Lincoln cannily responded by promising to “take such action upon it as my responsibility to my Maker and our country demands.” His action, for which posterity must thank him, was to take no action at all and let the proposed amendment die. - Susan Jacoby
Q: What were the founders’ personal religious beliefs?
A: They varied widely. The religious views of the framers of the Constitution, as indicated by their own writings, ran the gamut from traditional Christianity to freethought, which included the kind of Enlightenment Deism that posited a god who set the universe in motion but subsequently took no part in the affairs of men-the “unconcerned deity” to whom Scalia refers in his McCreary opinion. The founders’ favorite word for God was “Providence.” Thomas Jefferson wrote a book during his first term as president in which he explicitly stated his belief that Jesus was a great prophet and a good man but not divine-or the son of a divinity. What the founders shared, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, was the Enlightenment conviction that if God existed, he expected humans to rely on their own reason to determine the course of human destiny; the assignment of faith to the sphere of individual conscience rather than public duty; and hostility to all ecclesiastical hierarchies. These rationalist convictions carried the day when the former revolutionaries sat down to write the Constitution. The nature of our government was determined not by the founders’ private religious beliefs but by their public actions, which separated church and state. - Susan Jacoby
Q. It is often said that the Constitution was designed only to protect religion from government, not to protect government from religion. Is that true?
A: No. The body of the Constitution, with what was regarded as its conspicuous omission of any reference to a deity as the source of governmental power, as well as its prohibition of religious requirements for public office, was designed to protect government from religious interference. The subsequent First Amendment to the Bill of Rights was written to protect religion from government interference. The result was the first secular government in the world, guaranteeing complete freedom of conscience-the right to believe, or not to believe, in any form of a deity, and to enjoy the full rights of citizenship regardless of one’s faith, or lack of faith. At the time, most state governments did in fact make Christianity-usually Protestantism-a condition for holding public office. The framers of the Constitution wanted the federal government to set a different standard by eschewing any relationship between church and state. During the next twenty-five years, most states followed the federal Constitutional model and eliminated religious tests for public office from their own constitutions. - Susan Jacoby
Q: Some people think the protections guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t apply to nonreligious and atheistic citizens? Is this true?
A: In 2005, in a dissenting opinion in a case involving displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses (McCreary County v. the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky), Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the Constitution permits “disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.” However, there is no Constitutional justification for such a claim. Justice Scalia’s opinion cannot be based on anything but his own religiously motivated wishes. The Constitution has nothing to say about God, gods, or any form of religious belief or nonbelief-apart from its absolute prohibition, in Article 6, of any religious test for public office and the First Amendment’s familiar declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founders deliberately omitted any mention of God from the Constitution, instead granting supreme governmental authority to “We the People.” The omission of God from the nation’s founding document was vigorously debated in state ratifying conventions, and the eighteenth-century religious Right lost that battle. - Susan Jacoby
Q: If this isn't a Christian nation, why does all our money have 'In God We Trust' on it?
A: The religious motto found on American money, In God We Trust, if often cited as proof that the United States is a Christian nation. Though the use of the motto does tell us something about American history, it says nothing about the intentions of the Founding Fathers . Their choice of a motto was "E Pluribus Unum." It was chosen by a committee appointed on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress 'to prepare a device for a Seal of the United States of America.' Committee member Benjamin Franklin proposed the motto 'Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,' but the phrase 'e pluribus unum' was chosen by the committee and officially adopted on June 20, 1782. The phrase-which was well known, having appeared for many years on the cover of the Gentleman's Magazine-is from 'Moretum,' attributed to Vergil." ( Grolier Encyclopedia , Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1999) As has been noted, it is interesting that our allegedly pious Christian Founding Fathers had an opportunity to choose a national motto with the word "God" in it and rejected it in favor of a secular one.
"E Pluribus Unum" has appeared on most U.S. coins, beginning in the late 1790s. The motto "In God We Trust" did not appear on any U.S. coin until 1864, when "Its presence on the new coin was due largely to the increased religious sentiment during the Civil War Crisis," according to R. S. Yeoman, A Guide Book of United States Coins , 38th ed., Racine, Wisconsin: Western Publishing Co., p. 89.
The religious motto "In God We Trust" was not printed on all U.S. money until required under the McCarthy-inspired law enacting the motto in the 1950s. The courts have held, by the way, that the motto is constitutional because it is not Christian or even religious , but merely ceremonial . - Ed Buckner
Q: Is the United States Constitution based on the Ten Commandments?
Jefferson argued at length and at various times in his long life that our American laws derive from English common law and that common law in turn owed nothing to Christianity or to the Ten Commandments. He explained:
" . . . we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of the Magna Charta [1215 CE], which terminates the period of the common law...and commences that of the statute law.... This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century.... Here, then, was a space of about two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it.... If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are able to find among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. .." (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814. From Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson , Vol. XIV, Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903, pp. 85-97.)
Q: If not the Ten Commandments, isn't American law is based on the Golden Rule and isn't that from the Bible?
The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or similar words, is not a Christian invention. Versions of it do occur in the Old and New Testaments (see Matthew 7:12 for one version). But versions of it also occur in many other places, including in texts that predate the New Testament and that are not part of Judeo-Christian heritage. For example, Confucius is believed to have written, about 500 years before the start of the Common/Christian era, "Do to every man as thou would'st have him do to thee; and do not unto another what thou would'st not have done to thee" (George Seldes , The Great Quotations , The Citadel Press, 1983, p. 174). And, according to The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952, Volume 7, p. 329), The Golden Rule "is not a new rule. Lao-tzu, Confucius, Plato, and the Old Testament all taught it in positive or negative forms."
Any good anthropologist can provide you with a coherent, logical explanation of how specific moral principles have evolved in specific cultures. And any competent anthropologist will assure you that moral ideas are specific to cultures-that what is considered abhorrent in one culture may be admired in another. There is really no good reason to believe that any moral standard is absolute or that any ethical principle is not a product of cultural evolution. The religious debaters who like to claim a God-given absolute moral foundation for morality cannot escape the fact that moral ideas change over time and from one group to another within the doctrines of any religion.
Christians in the Southern United States 150 years ago, including leading preachers, believed-with plenty of Biblical support for their ideas-that human slavery was not only acceptable but explicitly ordained by God. Few Christians today would attempt to defend the notion, though God does not seem to have issued any corrected Scriptures in the meantime. It is hard to believe that an omniscient God would not have foreseen how ambiguous his commandments are; believing that it is all up to us human beings to determine what is right, and to do it, is much easier to accept.
Conscience, the critical idea on which popular Christian apologist C. S. Lewis hung his own belief (in Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan Paperback edition, 1969; see especially Book I, "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe," pp. 17-39), is much more reasonably understood as the product of cultural evolution, biology, and education. The Aztec who could, in good conscience, sacrifice a virgin to the gods or the early nineteenth century Christian Southerner who could, also in good conscience, justify owning his fellow human beings both demonstrate that consciences are not divine products. -- Ed Buckner
Q: If we're not a Christian Nation, why does the Pledge of Allegiance say "One Nation, Under God"?
The original Pledge was introduced more than a century after our nation's founding and did not include the words "one nation, under God." The author, the Reverend Francis Bellamy, grew up during the Civil War and was acutely aware of the struggle that would decide whether "E Pluribus Unum" was true, or if our states were in fact divisible. Accordingly, in 1892, he composed "one nation indivisible," with no comma separating nation from indivisible. Liberty and justice, words with religious as well as democratic connotations, were selected from the preamble of the U. S. Constitution. He recognized that "for some" ought to be the concluding phrase if a description of his contemporary America was intended, but he thought that the Pledge should affirm the unfulfilled ideal of "liberty and justice for all" toward which America was moving.
In 1953, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, lobbied to amend the Pledge in their effort to galvanize Americans against the country's enemies. The group urged Congress to add "under God" in order to make official what they believed to be essential for distinguishing genuine Americans from "godless communists." The next year, the Reverend George Docherty became a catalyst for their cause by preaching "one nation under God" with President Eisenhower in attendance. The Scottish minister had come to Washington's historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church several years earlier from the homogeneous British culture where he assumed that, "It was everybody's belief that God was part of society." Without the phrase 'under God,'" Docherty said, "the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag might have been recited with similar sincerity by Muscovite children." (This assumes that a Soviet dictator would have permitted his subjects to express a longing for democratic liberty and justice. Docherty also unintentionally gave affront to atheistic service personnel who have fought and died for America in every war when he declared that "an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms.") -- William E. Phipps
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Q: What's wrong with posting the Ten Commandments in public/government buildings?
The answer to this question is based on a simple notion that we all have trouble remembering. As Jefferson wrote, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803.). Only two concepts are relevant in these cases: 1.) U.S. citizens are not unanimous in their views on religion (and the differences are important ones) and 2.) Neither the majority nor any government acting on behalf of the majority has any right to make any religious decisions for any citizens. If religious freedom is valued, it follows as a matter of straightforward logic that governmental neutrality regarding religion is necessary and desirable, as much for any Christian as for any non-Christian. -- Ed Buckner