An all-too-commonly heard claim is that this nation was founded on "Judeo-Christian principles," that its laws are based on the Ten Commandments (hereinafter the "Decalogue"), and that the founding of this "Christian nation" was accomplished by Christian men who undertook an act whose political significance they did not distinguish from an act of religious observance. This claim, in all its many variants, is a lie. (This is not the first time I've made this claim and used words like "lie" and "fraud" to describe it. "Fraud" has a precise legal meaning, and I use it here with that legal definition in mind.)
Like many effective and powerful lies, it has a kernel of truth -- many of the Founders were men of significant faith, some of whom we could classify as "Christians" in something resembling our modern understanding of that phrase and some of whom we should properly refrain from so classifying. James Madison, for instance, was a observant member of what is now called the Episcopal Church; John Adams fit firmly into the mold of what was then called "Unitarianism" (which was very unlike the quasi-religious set of beliefs and social practices going by the same name today) and there is little doubt that Samuel Adams was deeply motivated by a strong Puritan faith.
Like many effective and powerful lies, it rests upon a set of assumptions which are often quite pleasant. When I hear people lie in court, their lies are premised upon the agreeable proposition that they are describing reasonable actions of people undertaken in good faith. In fact, a little cross examination usually brings out the less pleasant truth, but that's a story for another day. The revisionist fraud I'm looking at this morning is based on a set of assumption that includes the idea that the Founders' opinions on matters of faith posses significance for us today, that their religious beliefs were and are somehow correct because they undertook the political act of founding our nation, that they were infalliable and intellectually consistent throughout their careers, and that they were "statesmen" and not politicians willing to compromise their principle or conceal things about themselves to gain favor at the ballot box or trade favors in the cloakrooms of Congress. These assumptions are all quite obviously false when you stop to think about them.
I don't mean to say we shouldn't respect and honor the Founders. Of course we should; they did remarkable things and were remarkable men. Nor do I suggest that their opinions regarding law and particularly the government they created are irrelevant. But they were quite conscious of their own fallibility, of their own vulnerability to political pressures of a decidedly non-transcendent nature, and indeed of their own propensity to engage in sometimes very crass political compromises. What I suggest is that we should keep them in proper perspective and not deify them.
And like all attempts at fraud, it is intended to induce detrimental reliance in the part of its victim -- you are supposed to believe this, and thus give up your liberty by allowing your tax dollars to subsidize Christian churches, to tolerate the use of governmental institutions to evangelize Christianity, and to elect politicians who promise to incorporate Christian religious institutions and religious doctrines into the law and the government. As an intermediate step, you are to associate Christianity with moral good because of its association with the government, and ultimately to equate the moral teachings of Christianity with the law.
So to those who would say that the nation was founded on "Judeo-Christian" principles and who hold the Decalogue up as a model for American law, I would refer you to Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, who recently wrote on the subject. (Via.) Plait is no lawyer but it doesn't take a lawyer to run through the Decalogue and see, point by point, that it has nearly nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States and is quite frequently in conflict with it. To the extent that the Decalogue intersects with actual laws in place in the U.S.A. of either 1787 or 2010, the intersection is close to coincidental -- nearly all civilizations at all times have laws against murder and theft, and aside from that there really isn't all that much congruence between the two sets of laws.
I've previously commented on why display of the Decalogue in governmental institutions creates the appearance of impropriety and favoritism, and thus why it particularly does not belong in courtrooms. In that post, I noted that the Decalogue is not American law. But Plait really drives it home -- not only is it not American law, it in many places contradicts fundamental legal principles of our Republic.