The Ten Commandments & Inalienable Rights

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It is vital that students learn how their world is a better place because of Christianity's influence.

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." What isn't so well known is how Reformation thinkers, two hundred years before America's founding, saw the Ten Commandments as the basis for these rights.

John Witte, Jr., Professor of Law at Emory University, points out in his essay, "Calvinist Contributions to Freedom in Early Modern Europe," that Reformers saw the Ten Commandments (also referred to as the Decalogue) as more than merely laws about what not to do. The commandments logically assumed certain rights from the Creator. Witte points out:

"While the First Table of the Decalogue anchored each person's religious rights...the Second Table anchored each person's natural social rights and correlative duties."

Religious Freedom

While "You shall have no other gods before Me" did not allow much freedom (without consequences) for Israel, Reformation leaders believed the commandment implied that people must have the right to religious freedom. If people throughout the world are to fulfill this command they must have freedom from government coercion. They cannot be made to violate their religious conscience and worship another god. (Think of Daniel and his friends in Babylon.)

Right to Life and Self-Defense

Reformation thinkers understood the command, "you shall not murder," to also mean that people have the right not to be murdered - a right to self-defense, as well as a right to care for and protect life. 

Right to Property

Reformers saw, "You shall not steal," as affirming the right to own things--property rights. This also means that, in order to afford property, people have the right to be paid for their labor.

Right to Reputation

"You shall not bear false witness" also means that everyone has the right to a good reputation and protection from slander and defamation.

Protection of Marriage and Family

Reformers saw, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife; and you shall not covet your neighbor's house..." to also mean that their household should be respected and protected by the government and from the government (as in, the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful search and seizure).

Johannes Althusius (pronounced alt-housus) was a lawyer, a Calvinist, and a leader in the new Dutch legal system developed in the late 1560s and 1570s. Witte comments that Althusisus expanded on other Calvinist thinkers' ideas and more fully developed...

"the ideas that the republic is formed by a covenant between the rulers and the people before God; that the foundation of this covenant is the law of God and nature; that the Decalogue is the best expression of this higher law...that violations of these rights and liberties or of the divine and natural laws that inform and empower them, are instances of tyranny that must trigger organized constitutional resistance."

The Pilgrims were Calvinists who carried these ideas to America which ultimately led to the Founding Fathers' thinking about ordered liberty and revolution against tyranny.

Where This Can be Taught in Public Schools

This history lesson can be taught in any class that addresses subjects such as the ancient Israelites, the Reformation, the Puritans, the Pilgrims, America's founding, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Conflict in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the Cumberland County Board of Education recently voted 6-3 to keep the Ten Commandments posted in some of its schools. The Ten Commandments have been part of "Freedom Walls" which display a variety of historical documents including Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and the Declaration of Independence.

Educators in Cumberland County as well as all of North Carolina need to look beyond the symbolism of "Freedom Walls" (which few students will even read). I urge them to also teach about how the Ten Commandments impacted Western Civilization and, indeed, the world. Here are just three examples of where public school students in North Carolina are EXPECTED to learn this:

Sixth Grade Civics & Government - "The student will know: The basic tenets of major world religions and philosophies such as ...Judaism ...Christianity...; Examples of how ...Judaism... Christianity... transformed various societies."

High School World History - "Students will know: How written laws such as ...the Ten Commandments reinforced the belief that government had a responsibility for what behaviors were acceptable in a society and the consequences of unacceptable behaviors."

High School American History 1 - "Student will know: How the Protestant Reformation impacted European exploration and settlement of North America. How the social and religious movements (e.g., Great Awakening) impacted religions in the colonies, family and educational practices. How and to what extent specific factors such as ...religion... helped lead to the political, social and economic development of North American colonies."

Symbolism has its place. But symbolism is only valuable when those who see it understand the substance behind it.


"Calvinist Contributions to Freedom in Early Modern Europe," Chapter eight in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1: Historical Perspectives, Edited by Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke; Cambridge University Press, 2016, NY, NY