There has been a great deal of fuss over a federal judge’s ruling that the National Day of Prayer is a violation of the ban on government-backed religion. We’ve had 59 of them since Truman instituted the practice in 1952, and you’d think, from all the outrage from the Right, that we had more on the order of 234 (dating from 1776).
It’s time for a reality check.
Christian fundamentalists in the United States, and this would include by extension the now largely reactionary WASP GOP/Tea Party, would have us believe that morality is impossible outside of the Bible, that without its teaching there can be no conception of right vs. wrong. For example, Rev. Franklin Graham claims that the removal from the classroom of prayer means that “young people today don’t understand what’s right or wrong.”
Never mind that thousands of years of human history disprove Graham’s contention. Society functioned just fine for many centuries before the Hebrew Bible came to be written – indeed, before there was anything known as Israel.
Israel does not appear in the historical record until 1200 B.C.E., when it receives mention in the Merneptah Stele, and then not as a nation, but as an ethnic group – one that had been defeated by the Egyptians. The Hebrew Bible itself is a product of later centuries, and no one can say with any certainty when the so-called Ten Commandments were written down other than the event took place centuries after earlier law codes had been put into place.
Yes, there was morality before the Decalogue. Yes, people understood the difference between right and wrong long before the Bible.
Yes, morality exists outside the Christian religion. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Many concepts found in Hammurabi’s laws will sound familiar to modern ears:
If a man strikes a pregnant woman, thereby causing her to miscarry and die, the assailant’s daughter shall be put to death.
If anyone commits a robbery and is caught, he shall be put to death.
If anyone brings an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if a capital offense is charged, be put to death.
In short, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not commit murder.
Yes, it’s safe to say people had a pretty good understanding of right and wrong long before anyone had heard of Moses or YHWH.
And Hammurabi’s code is not the oldest. The oldest we possess of is the Code of Ur-Nammuca ( 2100-2050 BCE) , which predates Hammurabi by three centuries, but we know of at least one other that is older yet, that of Urukagina of Lagash, who reigned ca. 2380 BCE–2360 BCE.
It’s safe to say there were earlier law codes, now forgotten. Every culture codifies the behavior of its members. This is Anthropology 101, and the Bible has nothing to do with it.
Incredible, isn’t it? How dare these ancient pre-Christian people, these Pagans, know what’s right and wrong without benefit of Jesus!
These fundamentalists are outraged by the audacity of those who suggests we can get along just fine without the Ten Commandments. National Day of Prayer organizer Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, claims that “America was birthed in prayer and founded on the God of the Bible, on his biblical principles and on his moral values.”
It is true that the population was largely Christian when our government came into existence, but it is manifestly untrue that the government was founded as a Christian government based on Biblical principles.
The laws of the United States are based on English common law, not the Bible, and English common law had Roman influences thanks to a revival of interest in Roman law in the Middle Ages (11th century on). In fact most of our legal influences derive from Roman, not Hebrew Law. For example, it was the Romans who differentiated between the public and private spheres (civil law) and it was the Romans who give us indictments and trials by jury – even the idea of being innocent until proven guilty is Pagan Roman, found nowhere in the Bible. The purpose of a written law was seen not to define a god’s relations with his people (a covenant) but to protect people from the potentially abusive power of the state.
The influence of the Bible is glaringly absent.
So what we have is the idea put forward by fundamentalists and endorsed by the GOP/Tea Party that America was founded as a Christian nation and based on Biblical principles, an idea that is nowhere supported by the facts.
Indeed, if we want to look at the facts, we can see that the Founding Fathers chose not to make “In God We Trust” our national motto; they chose not to appeal to the Christian god in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; they chose not to make the Decalogue the legal basis of the Bill of Rights; and they notably failed to initiate a “national day of prayer” – an event that came about during the same time period in which “In God We Trust” was foisted upon us – the very conservative 1950s.
The dawn of our nation’s history? Hardly.
Rather, a reactionary period, much like our own, in which conservatives engage in an unthinking knee-jerk reaction to pluralistic influences on American society.
It is not the Founding Fathers who established America as a Christian nation, but the conservatives of the 1950s – nearly two centuries after the fact.