Alabama Politician Claims Giant Ten Commandments Display Outside Courthouse Not Religious

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Ten Commandments monument via AL.com

It’s safe to say that the ten commandments, the stone tablets inscribed by Moses and bearing the major rules God required his people to follow, are one of the cornerstones of not one, not two, but three of the world’s biggest religions. Just don’t tell Alabama county commissioner Tim Guffey (R); he’s doing his darndest to convince us that they are merely historical documents and therefore totally belong in front of a government building.

Guffey isn’t the first person to want to put the Ten Commandments on government property, of course. For reasons unknown, the Ten Commandments are a popular choice for courthouses. In Guffey’s state of Alabama, the State Supreme Court Justice famously lost his job after he erected a giant Ten Commandments monument in the dead of night and promptly refused to remove it because of his “religious convictions.”

Sure, the tablets have “laws” inscribed on them, although not many that today’s American judicial system would recognize. While we still agree that killing should be off the table, less of us are convinced that coveting thy neighbor’s house is a state or federal crime. At best, the Ten Commandments contains three things that we consider illegal (lie, kill, steal), the rest are simply religious or social taboos. As far as the law is concerned, putting the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse is no more illuminating than putting up a piece of paper that reads “don’t be a jerk.” Still, the need to express their religion on public land is strong and Guffey has just the plan to do it.

When trying to put your religious beliefs on a massive stone monument in front of a courthouse, the obvious hurdle you must overcome is the fact that that is in clear violation of the Constitution. Courts have consistently ruled that it infringes on the separation of church and state, which holds that the government can’t favor a particular religion or god, and of course favoring a particular god is one of the Commandments; the very first, in fact.

To circumvent the Constitution, Guffey thinks he has found an ingenious way to get what he wants: just pretend it’s not religious.

“What I’m trying to do is erect a monument of historical documents,” Guffey said Thursday in an interview with AL.com. “It’s the Constitution, the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence. I feel like that’s what this country was founded on. These documents helped America become the greatest country in history.”

“I just can’t see how you could explain a Constitution – why it was written the way it was written – without understanding why those men wrote it the way they wrote it,” Guffey said. “They don’t teach this at school anymore and a person would have to go back and research and study each one of those men’s writings to find out that that’s what established them. That’s what gave them the inspiration to read the greatest Constitution this world has ever seen.”

By that line of reasoning there are several documents which had a much greater influence on the creation of the Constitution and the modern American system of governance than the Ten Commandments. The English Magna Carta, for instance, was heavily relied upon by the Framers of the Constitution and used that document’s principles when constructing their own democratic rule-of-law.

English Philosopher John Locke and his theories on the “social contract” that exists between a democratic government and the people it was created to serve also inspired much of what the Framers set out to do. If Guffey wanted to teach the origins of the Constitution, he could do worse than chiseling out a monument to Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” in which he famously wrote that governments exist to protect people’s “life, liberty, and property.” Sound familiar?

Then, there was the major influence (all but forgotten, sadly) of the Native Americans, who themselves had already created a profoundly progressive democratically organized government. The Founding Fathers, when designing their own democracy, sought out inspiration from the Native American nations who had figured it out nearly two hundred years before them. Benjamin Franklin especially championed the Iroquois Confederacy as an example of the strength that a democratic society could forge. When he read a transcript from a recent meeting of the Iroquois “Five Nations” which made up the union, Franklin hailed it as an example to derive inspiration from:

Seven years later, he wrote a letter to James Parker, his New York City printing partner, on the importance of gaining and preserving the friendship of the Iroquois Indians. Arguing for a union of the colonies, he mused:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Despite his use of the phrase Ignorant Savages, evidence shows that Franklin had a healthy respect for the Iroquois, and his language seems intended not as an insult to the Six Nations but as a backhanded slap at the colonists—who, in Franklin’s opinion, could learn a lot from the Iroquois about political unity.  In an essay four decades later expressing unabashed admiration for the Iroquois, Franklin wrote: “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs.” [source]

One document that historians rarely bring up when discussing the Constitution and the origins of our current system of governance? The Ten Commandments. While the Founders and Framers were mostly (although not universally) Christian and presumably knew their Commandments well, the rules laid out by God weren’t very helpful when creating a brand new representative government of, by and for the people.

Guffey, who claims he became a “Constitutional scholar” after Barack Obama was elected in 2008 (why am I not surprised?), seems to know very little about the history of the Constitution, but a lot about the religious document he wants placed beside it.