Brownback, Lieberman, and the "Ten Commandments Weekend"
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 12:19:11 AM EST
On March 13, Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced S. Res. 483, a resolution "recognizing the first weekend of May 2008 as 'Ten Commandments Weekend,'" which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The resolution has one co-sponsor -- Joe Lieberman.

Although not as extensively as H. Res. 888, Congressman Randy Forbes's resolution for the designation of the first week of May as "American Religious History Week," S. Res. 483 also relies on some less than accurate history to support its resolves.

In the "Whereases" of his resolution, Sen. Brownback quotes three presidents. First, George Washington -- using a quote that, while acknowledging the "Almighty Being who rules over the universe," has absolutely nothing to do with the ten commandments. So, why does Sen. Brownback use this quote, and not a quote from Washington about the commandments? Well, because he wouldn't have been able to find one. As far as I know, Washington, in all of his writings, made only one reference to the commandments, but in a context that renders it useless for Sen. Brownback's purposes.

The reference appears in a letter to poet Annis Boudinot Stockton, who, in one of her poems, painted Washington as practically a god, and his actions as little short of divine.(1) Mrs. Stockton sent a copy of this poem to Washington, and in his reply, he chalked her exaggerations up to poetic license, writing:

"Fiction is to be sure the very life and soul of poetry. All poets and poetesses have been indulged in the free and indisputable use of it..."


"...I will not dare to charge you with an intentional breach of the rules of the decalogue in giving so bright a colouring to the service I have been enabled to render my country..."(2)

That's it -- the only reference to the ten commandments that I can find in Washington's writings. If anyone knows of any other, please let me know.

Sen. Brownback's second presidential "Whereas" makes use of a quote from John Quincy Adams, edited in the same manner as it is edited in numerous Christian nationalist American history books.

"Whereas one of the great leaders of the United States, President John Quincy Adams, declared in a letter to his son, 'The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code . . . [many] were of universal application--laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation, which ever professed any code of laws.';"

Here's the full quote, in which Adams actually said that many of these laws were "adapted to that time only" and binding only on the ancient Jews:

"The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code; it contained many statutes adapted to that time only, and to the particular circumstances of the nation to whom it was given; they could of course be binding upon them, and only upon them, until abrogated by the same authority which enacted them, as they afterward were by the Christian dispensation; but many others were of universal application -- laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation, which ever professed any code of laws."(3)

The third president quoted by Sen. Brownback is Harry S Truman, who apparently really did think that the "fundamental basis of this Nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount," a notion that was ably debunked by another, and much earlier, president -- Thomas Jefferson. But, before getting into that, I want to take a look at what's behind Sen. Brownback's resolution, besides his usual disregard of the wall separating church and state.

Last August, a similar resolution, H. Res. 598, was introduced in the House by Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO). That resolution, which was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has 27 co-sponsors, including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), who many will remember as the Congressman who was unable to actually name the ten commandments when asked by Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report.

Sen. Brownback's S. Res. 483 has the same purpose as H. Res. 598. Both resolutions seek to promote the third annual Ten Commandments Weekend, an event instituted by the Ten Commandments Commission (TCC), an organization formed in 2005 in response to court rulings against the display of the ten commandments on government property. The first two Ten Commandments Weekends were celebrated in May 2006 and May 2007, as noted by Sen. Brownback in the last "Whereas" of his resolution.

While S. Res. 483 doesn't mention the TCC by name, H. Res. 598, "Supporting the goals of the Ten Commandments Commission and congratulating such Commission and its supporters for their key role in promoting and ensuring recognition of the Ten Commandments as the cornerstone of Western law," does -- in all but one of its "Whereases" and in both of its resolves.

So what, exactly, are the goals of the TCC -- these goals that H. Res. 598 resolves to support? Well, one is to "restore the supremacy of the tenants [sic], precepts and principles contained in and established by the Ten Commandments." But, the goals of the TCC encompass quite a bit more than just promoting the ten commandments and making them the supreme law, as if that's not bad enough.

According to the organization's website:

"TCC will become Watchmen for curricula being disseminated throughout American public high schools and colleges, specifically regarding the history of the Middle East and the current conflict that is biased toward Islamic interest...."

"With secular humanists waging their attacks at home, and the looming threat from the international radical Islam - people of faith become the line of defense - this is the 'Wall of Jerusalem,' and we are the watchman God has placed there."

Among the TCC's "who's who" of Christian leaders are founding member John Hagee, advisory board members James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Rod Parsley, and ex-Judge Roy Moore. The TCC also includes in its ranks a number of prominent Jewish leaders, including its founder, Ron Wexler.

In a video message, Wexler, an Orthodox Jew, described the TCC as "a grassroots movement to make a stop to radical Islam and to bring back the word of God, the foundation to the wall of Jerusalem," and said that by getting five million people become TCC supporters they "can change that trend that is going to destroy America. You see," Wexler explained, "America is about to be destroyed by secular humanism and radical Islam."

The TCC has recently partnered with CenterPeace Stone Ministries, whose Vision Statement states:

"Centerpeace Stone Ministries has a global vision for equippingGod's peoplefor the end-time revival and harvest. Through this vision we desire to see the body of Christ come to the unity of the faith and operate in Holy Ghost filled love, power, and authority."

The Centerpeace Stone website repeats the TCC's philosophy, which begins:

"No civilized society or government can exist successfully without the recognition, acceptance, adherence and submission to Moral law and the standard for value judgment."

With its combination of theocratic ambitions, Islamophobia, Christian Zionism, and end-times preparation, it should come as no great surprise that there is a significant overlap of TCC members and CUFI members and supporters. Senators Brownback and Lieberman, now pushing for government sanctioning of the TCC's Ten Commandments Weekend, have both also spoken at CUFI events.

Now, back to that pesky thing about our laws being based on the ten commandments. While Harry S Truman was certainly of this opinion, Thomas Jefferson, who actually traced in great detail the history of this popular notion, was not.

Following a few questions about the credibility of the history of the Bible itself, Jefferson proceeded to explain, in an 1814 letter to John Adams, how the misconception that the Bible was the source of English common law, and thus the source of much of American law, was based on a fallacy that had been around so long that nobody bothered to question it.

"It is not only the sacred volumes they have thus interpolated, gutted, and falsified, but the works of others relating to them, and even the laws of the land. We have a curious instance of one of these pious frauds in the laws of Alfred. He composed, you know, from the laws of the Heptarchy, a digest for the government of the United Kingdom, and in his preface to that work he tells us expressly the sources from which he drew it, to wit, the laws of Ina, of Offa and Aethelbert (not naming the Pentateuch). But his pious interpolator, very awkwardly, premises to his work four chapters of Exodus (from the 20th to the 23d) as a part of the laws of the land; so that Alfred's preface is made to stand in the body of the work. Our judges, too, have lent a ready hand to further these frauds, and have been willing to lay the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of others; to extend the coercions of municipal law to the dogmas of their religion, by declaring that these make a part of the law of the land. In the Year-Book 34, H. 6, p. 38, in Quare impedit, where the question was how far the common law takes notice of the ecclesiastical law, Prisot, Chief Justice, in the course of his argument, says, 'A tiels leis que ils de seint eglise ont, en ancien scripture, covient a nous a donner credence; car ces common luy sur quels touts manners leis sont fondes; et auxy, sin, nous sumus obliges de canustre lour esy de saint eglise,' etc. Finch begins the business of falsification by mistranslating and misstating the words of Prisot thus: 'to such laws of the church as have warrant in Holy Scripture our law giveth credence.' Citing the above case and the words of Prisot in the mar in Finch s law, B. I, c. 3, here then we find ancien scripture, ancient writing, translated 'holy scripture.' This, Wingate, in 1658, erects into a maxim of law in the very words of Finch, but citing Prisot and not Finch. And, Sheppard, tit. Religion, in 1675 laying it down in the same words of Finch, quotes the Year-Book, Finch and Wingate. Then comes Sir Matthew Hale, in the case of the King v. Taylor, I Ventr. 293, 3 Keb. 607, and declares that 'Christianity is part and parcel of the laws of England.' Citing nobody, and resting it, with his judgment against the witches, on his own authority, which indeed was sound and good in all cases into which no superstition or bigotry could enter. Thus strengthened, the court in 1728, in the King v. Woolston, would not suffer it to be questioned whether to write against Christianity was punishable at common law, saying it had been so settled by Hale in Taylor's case, 2 Stra. 834. Wood, therefore, 409, without scruple, lays down as a principle, that all blaspheming and profaneness are offenses at the common law, and cites Strange. Blackstone, in 1763, repeats, in the words of Sir Matthew Hale, that 'Christianity is part of the laws of England,' citing Ventris and Strange, ubi supra. And Lord Mansfield, in the case of the Chamberlain of London v. Evans, in 1767, qualifying somewhat the position, says that 'the essential principles of revealed religion are part of the common law.' Thus we find this string of authorities all hanging by one another on a single hook, a mistranslation by Finch of the words of Prisot, or on nothing. For all quote Prisot, or one another, or nobody. Thus Finch misquotes Prisot; Wingate also, but using Finch's words; Sheppard quotes Prisot, Finch and Wingate; Hale cites nobody; the court in Woolston's case cite Hale; Wood cites Woolston's case; Blackstone that and Hale, and Lord Mansfield volunteers his own ipse dixit. And who now can question but that the whole Bible and Testament are a part of the common law? And that Connecticut, in her blue laws, laying it down as a principle that the laws of god should be the laws of their land, except where their own contradicted them, did anything more than express, with a salvo, what the English judges had less cautiously declared without any restriction?(4)

This was John Adams's almost prophetic response to Jefferson's research:

"Your research in the Laws of England, establishing Christianity as the Law of the Land and part of the common Law, are curious and very important. Questions without number will arise in this Country. Religious Controversies, and Ecclesiastical Contests are as common and will be as Sharp as any in civil Politicks foreign, or domestick? In what sense and to what extent the Bible is Law, may give rise to as many doubts and quarrels as any of our civil political military or maritime Laws and will intermix with them all to irritate Factions of every sort. I dare not look beyond my Nose into futurity. Our Money, our Commerce, our Religion, even our Arts and Sciences, are so many seed Plotts of Division, Faction, Sedition and Rebellion. Everything is transmuted into an Instrument of Electioneering."(5)

1. Annis B. Stockton to George Washington, August 28, 1783, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799.
2. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, vol. 27, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938), 128.
3. John Quincy Adams, Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son, on the Bible and Its Teachings, (Auburn: James M. Alden, 1850), 61.
4. Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 422-423.
5. ibid., 427.

Great reporting, Chris. Drives me nuts that more mainstream media doesn't pay attention to these religious meaning initiatives in Congress, but I'm glad you're there to nail em.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 01:51:35 AM EST

One wonders why they are interested in posting the Ten Commandments rather than practicing the Beatitudes or the Golden Rule.

by khughes1963 on Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 04:28:52 PM EST

Whose version of the Second Commandment do we use? Catholics and Protestants clearly disagree over its both wording and meaning.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:57:16 PM EST

I love those things, and can't wait to celebrate. Especially the one that starts, "Congress shall make no law..."

But he's got the technical term wrong: it's spelled "amendments." Or is Brownback thinking of something else? Oh, something written in an ancient Mediterranean language? I could make a weekend of 'del dot E is rho over epsilon' et al., but there are only four of those. I hope Brownback can clarify this soon, or perhaps his buddy Joe can whisper a correction in his ear.

I hear there's also a bill to recognize the scientists, freethinkers and rabble-rousers among our founders, and the Constitutions's basis in the Enlightenment and popular sovereignty. Sounds great, but I hope it doesn't get bogged down in numerology and whereas'es.  

by This Burden Shall Pass on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:35:05 PM EST

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