Luther put the Ten Commandments in his Little Catechism. Many churches still include them in their Confirmation teaching, since they are a part of the covenant between God and God’s people. Some commands address the uniqueness of Israel’s God and God’s demands, one preserves the reciprocal care of one generation for the other, four address the essential duties of neighbor to neighbor, and the last one or two, depending on who is counting, go to the heart of neighbor-to-neighbor meanness in human greed.
The numbering and the translations of these Commandments vary. I usually taught them from the simple Hebrew root words, which have no “Thou shalts” but do have definite “No, No’s!” or “Lo, Lo’s!” if we’re going to be literal in the original Hebrew language. We do not need to honor one set of versions above another—two versions from Exodus, one from Leviticus and one from Deuteronomy—but we can see a similar core to all four, and to the various prophets’ applications of them. Chief among the prophetic applications for us come from Jesus, who did not discount the Ten Commandments but reinterpreted them by going to the heart of each one, especially the five neighbor commands, in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7.
Jesus went further, recognizing the chief commandments are not the Ten “No’s” but the two “Yes’s” also from the Torah—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Every other command and every application of them, even the great Ten, are judged according to these two, according to Jesus.
These are special teachings, unique to the tradition of Israel, but they have echoes and parallels to a some extent in several other religions. These teachings are not built into Western jurisprudence. They are not quoted or mentioned in the Constitution. They are not referred to in the Declaration of Independence, though “God” is mentioned there a few times, defined as the source of human liberty. When built into the lives of believers they can influence the direction we should go in law and public life, especially the “love neighbor as self” rule and the “Golden” interpretation of it, “acting toward others as you want them to act toward you.”
None of the founders of this nation, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, or anyone else insisted that any particular biblical law or quotation be a motto or basis for our public life. If they had, they would have spent a great deal of time arguing with each other about what it should be. Today we will still argue about which version and which laws should be used to influence public life. It is a good argument, as long as someone does not insist that his or her own particular version should be enshrined in stone and required of every citizen to be honored above all else.
I would hope that judges and other politicians would teach and preach and study their own positions and versions of faith openly in their communities and houses of worship, but not in their courtrooms nor in their legislative chambers. Let them learn from their Hebrew roots if they have them, and not build idols of things they do not yet understand. Let them testify in court and legislature without bearing false witness.