Idols & the King
Francis J. Manion on What the First Commandment Has to Do with the Fourth of July
The Supreme Court’s recent foray into the “Ten Commandments Wars” presented Christians with an opportunity to rob the secularists of one of their most cherished and effective arguments, but sadly, Christians muffed it. By focusing almost exclusively on those provisions of the Decalogue with more obvious secular applications—the “Second Table”—while passing over in embarrassed silence those commands of the “First Table” forbidding the worship of idols, defenders of America’s surprisingly commonplace public depictions of the Ten Commandments (with one exception) practically ceded the field to the currently dominant secularist schools of political science and legal history.
Those schools were represented at the Supreme Court by a group of thirty-one impressively credentialed legal historians and scholars—among them scholars from Baylor, UCLA, University of Virginia, Michigan State, and William and Mary—whose amicus curiae brief filed in support of the ACLU in American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County took the position that “to claim that the Ten Commandments has a special place in the development of American law lacks historical support.” In other words, the references in hundreds of judicial opinions and the writings of political figures to the Decalogue’s foundational role, no less than the widely shared popular assumption of such a role, have as much value as the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree.
The reluctance of those favoring Commandments displays to engage the issue at anything more than a superficial level may be attributable to fear of the secularists’ rhetorical ace-in-the-hole, an ace played memorably by Justice John Paul Stevens against the late Chief Justice Rehnquist in a case about an Indiana city’s display of a Ten Commandments monument.
Stevens was widely considered to have carried the day against Rehnquist’s attribution of a secular role for the Decalogue by pointing to the first and largest words carved on the monument: “I Am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Case closed.
Or is it? For despite the sheepishness of the defenders of such displays and the smirking self-confidence of the anti-display faction (“there is no road leading from Sinai to Philadelphia,” sniffs the ACLU in its briefs), there actually is considerable evidence for the idea that the First Commandment—with its one transcendent, jealous Deity who brooks no rivals—was not merely influential, but essential, in that confluence of historical, political, and philosophical streams that produced the Declaration of July 4, 1776.
The Whig Road
One need not be a Whig, nor approve of all that Whiggery hath wrought, to recognize that there actually is a road from Sinai to Philadelphia and that it runs for a fair stretch through the seventeenth-century English struggle between radical republicans (Whigs) and the defenders of Divine Right. One of the leading opponents of the claims of royal absolutism was Algernon Sidney.
A leader of the Puritan Commonwealth who later opposed Cromwell, he went into voluntary exile on the Continent after the restoration of the monarchy. Returning to England in 1677, he once again involved himself in politics as an outspoken opponent of what he and other Whigs considered the tyrannical aspirations of Charles II. He went to the scaffold for high treason in 1683.
Jefferson would rank him on a par as a political theorist with John Locke. He included Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government with Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, the Virginia Resolution of 1799, and Washington’s Farewell Address to be used in his University of Virginia School of Law as “the best guides” to the distinctive principles of American government.
Sidney’s Discourses were republicanism’s answer to Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Filmer, a prominent English apologist for Divine Right theory, railed against the “desperate assertion” of Jesuits like Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez that political power “depends upon the consent of the multitude.”
One of Sidney’s recurring themes in the Discourses is that hereditary monarchy is idolatry, the very sin proscribed by the First Commandment of the Decalogue. He argues, contra Filmer, that the kingly government of Saul, which replaced the aristocratic government set up by Moses, was given as a punishment, proceeding from the Israelites’ “delight in idolatry to which their neighbors were addicted, and which could be upheld only by a government, in practice and principle contrary to that which God had instituted.” Contrary to God’s ordinance, monarchy was “an idol set up by [the Israelites] to their own destruction.”
In another work, Court Maxims, Sidney struck the same note repeatedly: “What is it [monarchy] but as a worshipping for God that which is not God?” The English monarchy that, since Henry VIII, had formally established itself as head of both church and state “is the idol of their own making that they have set up,” and anyone who, “owning no head but Christ, refuses to worship the impure idol they have set up” is thought “a fanatic and appointed for destruction.”
Sidney’s sincerity on this point can hardly be doubted. Brought to the scaffold for his alleged part in a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II (Locke, a co-conspirator, escaped to Holland), Sidney said little—he “came not hither to talk, but to die”—but slipped into the sheriff’s hand a paper with the following dying declaration: “The Lord sanctify these my sufferings unto me, and, though I fall as a sacrifice to idols, suffer not idolatry to be established in this land!”
Fast-forward eight decades. In Boston, James Otis emerges as a spokesman for the colonists in their spreading revolt against Sidney’s “impure idol” of hereditary monarchy. In his 1764 The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, Otis denounced the “opinion that they [kings] have a divine right to absolute power”:
Idolatry again. George III this time instead of Charles II, but the same sin. The secular application of the First Commandment’s prohibition of worshiping other gods seems to have been rather obvious to those whose thoughts and deeds would come to fruition in Philadelphia in July 1776.
One easily overlooks that, even after Lexington and Concord, colonial public opinion was far from sold on the idea of declaring independence from Britain. Those who were there, whether they admired or despised him, credited the January 10, 1776 publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense with providing the needed spark.
Paine’s 47-page pamphlet remains the best-selling political pamphlet written in the English language. Within months, 500,000 copies were printed for a country with a population of 2.5 million. Almost every adult must have read it or heard it read to him.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had arranged for its publication, described the impact of Common Sense: “Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind. It was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in schools, and in one instance, delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon by a clergyman in Connecticut.”
John Adams heard from friends in Massachusetts “that because of Common Sense the clamor for a declaration of independence was never greater.” Washington, commenting on the tenor of the letters he was receiving from fellow Virginians, wrote, “I find Common Sense is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men.”
The second chapter of Common Sense, “Of monarchy and hereditary succession”—one-third of the entire pamphlet—is a diatribe against kingly government as a form of idolatry.
Paine attacks monarchy as the work of Satan: “It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” He compares the idolatrous governments of ancient times with that of his own day: “The Heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings, and the Christian world hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones.”
Paine lays on the Old Testament references he knew would be familiar to his readers, tracing biblical history from the creation “till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king.” Before that time, “Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.” Paine sums up:
Paine was no believer in any form of Christianity. He was a writer who knew his audience. That audience, according to one Revolutionary veteran, consisted in the main of people who read “only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.” Paine’s readers let him know that, like Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, they had been blind until they read Common Sense, but “on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes.”
It is surely difficult to measure the relative impact of the different parts of Common Sense on the fundamental change of national opinion that followed upon its publication. But the prominence Paine gives to his monarchy-equals-idolatry argument, addressed to a
readership for the most part steeped in one form or another of Protestant Christianity with its heavy emphasis on the Decalogue as both the source and symbol of the moral order, must have given a decisive psychological push to those colonials hesitating to make the final break.
What heretofore they had considered lawfully constituted authority worthy of their obedience, now, thanks to Common Sense, they could see as an invention of the devil for the promotion of idolatry—the very first sin denounced by Jehovah in the Commandments given to Moses on Sinai. Thus, a mere seven months following the publication of Common Sense, Jefferson and Franklin saw fit to furnish their countrymen with a seal for the fledgling nation, depicting Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, and a national motto to go along with the Mosaic image: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
A Secular Lord
“ You can’t get the Declaration of Independence out of the Ten Commandments. That’s idiotic!” Thus boomed Justice Antonin Scalia during the oral argument of the McCreary County case. He was responding to the ACLU’s spinning of the county’s statement that the Commandments formed “the moral background” of the Declaration of Independence into a statement of some sort of literal one-to-one correspondence between the commands of the Decalogue and the particular statements of the Declaration.
Of course, in that sense, Scalia was right. But, as shown by this look at the radical republican tradition from the seventeenth-century Whigs through the 1776 spark that produced the Declaration, those who scoff at the very suggestion that there could be any secular application of “I am the Lord thy God” have missed a far more important and profound point.
Not only can you “get the Declaration of Independence out of the Ten Commandments,” in one sense, that is exactly what we did. •
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“Idols & the King” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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