It had been my intention for some time to write a post like this one, but an entry by Orac finally provided the impetus for me to actually do so. Orac examines the claim that the United States was "founded as a Christian nation," as is so often contended by social conservatives. A variant of this claim is that the the US was "founded on Judeo-Christian values"; this has a more ecumenical ring to it, and accordingly finds more currency with neoconservative Jewish commentators such as Charles Krauthammer and Dennis Prager (who would presumably prefer not to be relegated to ghettoes, excluded from performing trades or holding public office, periodically subjected to pogroms, and generally treated as third-class citizens overall, as their ancestors all too often were in "Christian nations" of yore). The self-styled Ten Commandments Commission asserts that the Ten Commandments, "and all other references to God, have served as the moral foundation" of the United States, and "have had a major influence in shaping our laws and freedoms." The general tenor of this argument is clear, namely to provide justification for dismantling the separation between church and state, and fostering (as the Ten Commandments Commission puts it) "recognition, acceptance, adherence and submission to an absolute authority," i.e. the Biblical God. Pronouncements of this nature, however, regardless of the precise wording, do little more than illustrate a stunning ignorance on the part of the speaker of history (that of America, law and Christianity), the contents of the Constitution, and elementary logic. Precisely how stunningly ignorant is illustrated by the fact that more than one opponent of the separation of church and state with whom I have debated the topic was, it emerged, unaware that the Pilgrim Fathers and the Founding Fathers were not the same people. Similarly, the Concerned Women for America's Director of Government Relations stated last month that:
Our country's founding fathers were men of faith who intentionally included the phrase 'under God' in an oath that serves as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism to our great country.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, decades after the last of the Founding Fathers was laid to rest, and the phrase "under God" was not inserted until 1954, another sixty-two years later. (Moreover, in common American usage, a pledge and an oath are not synonymous; both are a "solemn, binding promise," but the latter requires the invocation of a deity to witness its making and to assist in its fulfilment, as in "so help me God.")
It is undeniably true that an overwhelming majority of the (non-Native) American population is—or at least professes to be—some variety of Christian, and that this has been the case since the first palisade was constructed at Fort James almost four hundred years ago. It is equally indisputable that some (though by no means all) of the English colonies which were to become the United States were founded by certain Christian sects as places where their particular brand of Christianity could be practiced without outside interference; notably, the New England colonies (of which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first and preeminent) were a bastion of Puritanism, while Pennsylvania was founded as a "holy experiment," where the religious and political principles of Quakerism could be put into practice. The key phrase, however, is "particular brand of Christianity." Christianity has been prone to factionalism since the division of the Roman empire into its Eastern (Byzantine) and Western halves in 395 CE, and inter-factional rivalry was never more violent than during the 17th century. Even as the wars of Reformation pitted Protestant against Catholic, in areas where Protestanism had managed to establish itself relatively securely, infighting rapidly ensued. The persecution that the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of the Delaware river valley famously sought to escape did not occur at the hands of non-Christians or Catholics, but at those of Protestants of other denominations, including those that had adherents in other colonies in North America. Thus, during the Colonial Era, the colonies which were to form the United States by no means formed the basis for a homogenous "Christian nation"; they were patchwork of (mostly Protestant) denominations, each of which regarded many (if not all) of the others as heretics. There was no question of mutual tolerance, and the animosity between Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolutionary War was fuelled as much by religious differences as it was by political ones, despite the fact that both groups were overwhelmingly Protestant.
The Founding Fathers of the nascent United States realized better than anyone the challenge that faced them in trying to forge a single country out of disparate religious groups who had shown themselves quite prepared to torture, mutilate and kill each other's members in the past, and were likely to do so again now that their common foe had been defeated. In arguing over whether or not the United States was founded as a "Christian nation," much ink has been wasted concerning the Founding Fathers' personal religious beliefs to support or refute the notion. Such discussion is entirely beside the point. Whatever the framers of the Constitution may have personally thought regarding religion, they understood that religious differences could, if left unaddressed, all too easily tear their fledgling nation apart. Their solution was to set up a government on an entirely secular basis, one that was prohibited from basing policy on any purely religious consideration, and would therefore not be allowed to infringe upon the freedom of religion of any of its citizens by imposing upon them by law a tenet of anyone else's religion, except if such a measure was necessitated by a secular purpose.
The meme that the Ten Commandments form "the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States" (as the Kentucky state legislature claimed when requiring the Commandments to be posted in every public school classroom in the state; see Stone v Graham, 449 U.S. 39), or words to similar effect, holds a tacit acknowledgment of the secular nature of American government. If America had truly been founded as "Christian nation," it would not matter if the Ten Commandments held no other significance than a religious one; thus, the only reason to make the claim is in attempting to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Moreover, it is a complete fabrication, as even the most cursory reading shows. There are, in fact, multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, but for this purpose, I will refer to the set listed on the Ten Commandments Commission's website, which is the Protestant reading of Exodus 20 (NIV).
The first three Commandments, prohibiting the worship of other gods, idolatry and the misuses of the proper, ineffable name of God ("Yahweh"), respectively, all stand in direct contradiction to the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from infringing upon its citizens' freedoms of religion and speech. Laws prohibiting "Sabbath breaking" and adultery (fourth and seventh Commandments) have been struck down as unconstitutional in such cases where they did not demonstrably serve a secular purpose distinct from any religious one (in the case of the former, see McGowan v Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, in which the Supreme Court "concluded that, as presently written and administered [i.e. in 1961], most of them [Sunday Closing Laws], at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and that presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion, as those words are used in the Constitution of the United States"; emphasis mine).
The Puritan colonies of New England had laws providing for the punishment of children who physically or verbally abused their parents. These laws were unquestionably based on scripture—the King James bible, to be specific—but the first of these, in Massachusetts, was not adopted until 1648, eighteen years after the founding of the colony. Such laws were not found in the colonies outside New England, nor were they sufficiently commonplace in any western European culture to support the notion that the (fifth) Commandment to "honor your father and your mother" is part of "the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States."
It had been my intention, within the context of this post, to refrain from delving into the nature of the Commandments themselves, and restrict myself to pointing out their irrelevance to western legal codes in general and that of the United States in particular, but the tenth Commandment demands some exposition. Exodus 20:17 (NIV) reads:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The crucial word here is "covet," which is used in almost all English-language versions of the Bible, but very likely fails to convey the implications contained in the original Hebrew. The folklore of many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, including the Jewish one, contained the notion of the "evil eye"; the idea that by gazing with envy—with covetousness—upon the possession of one more fortunate than oneself, one could cause misfortune to befall that possession, even inadvertently. The belief is common to this day among Arabs, Turks, and Ashkenazi Jews. It is, however, not native to the Germanic cultures of northern Europe. Though the concept was introduced there in the Middle Ages, northern Europeans never thought of the "evil eye" as something any covetous person could bestow, but considered it an act of witchcraft, attributed in periodic bouts of mass hysteria to gypsies, Jews and, of course, witches. As a result, northern European cultures have never adopted laws specifically outlawing "coveting," as they did not believe that a "normal" person could inflict harm upon another by doing so.
The ninth Commandment, which prohibits bearing "false witness against thy neighbor," has been credited with serving as the inspiration for laws against slander, libel and perjury. However, such strictures were also adopted by the Roman republic, as part of the Twelve Tables (see in particular Table VIII, items 5 and 23), in 450 BCE, some two centuries before the Torah was first translated from the original Hebrew. The Twelve Tables also prohibited the unlawful taking of life or property (the subjects of the sixth and eighth Commandments, respectively), and were considerably more explicit in defining what was unlawful and what was not. The long and short of it is that only three of the Ten Commandments—the sixth, the eighth, and the ninth—bear any relevancy to the "laws and freedoms" upon which America was founded, and since there is abundant historical evidence that similar prohibitions were developed independently by other cultures, the significance of the influence exerted by those Commandments is dubious indeed.
In fact, the Bible as a whole bears little relation to American law. In continental Europe, the Common Law system is generally referred to as "Anglo-Saxon law," for that is where its origins lie: with a code which Germanic tribes had developed long before they were ever Christianized. That cornerstone of the American legal system, the right to be tried by an impartial jury (as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution), is not derived from any Judeo-Christian tradition—the word "jury" does not appear in the Bible—but from a pre-Christian Germanic custom. The aforementioned Roman Twelve Tables also form a major influence, particularly in the handling of civil litigation (tort law).
But there is another word of even more fundamental importance to the United States, and it, too, cannot be found in the Bible; that word is "republic." The only system of government that merits serious mention in the Bible is the monarchy, from Genesis 10:10 to Revelations 19:16. According to the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, part of Jesus' significance is that he is directly descended in the male line from King David (Matthew 1:1, Luke 1:32), and thus the rightful claimant to the throne of Israel*. The Founding Fathers, by contrast, decided to reject monarchy in favor of a republic. The president holds his office by the grace of the electorate, not that of God.
Much as religious conservatives may wish it otherwise, the political and legal structures of the United States owe nothing to the Bible, and any claim to the contrary is, to put it bluntly, a lie. Individual Americans are free to live their lives according to (their interpretation of) "Judeo-Christian values" if they so wish, but they are not allowed to impose their values system upon their fellow citizens. To do so would be to violate those inalienable rights, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And what could be more un-American than that?
* - Both gospels go on to say almost immediately that Jesus is also not the son of Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:34-35), something which believers in Biblical inerrancy prefer to ignore.