We finish our “Self-Evident Truths” series with the profound truth encapsulated in the Tenth Commandment: Thou shall not covet. The full verse reads:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.1
The commandment reveals a deep understanding of the human heart, which is simply indispensable to the proper governing of any people. Left to our own nature, we covet. We envy. We are not content with what we have, no matter how wonderful. All kinds of societal evils flow from the covetous heart.
The first thing to notice is that it is indeed a matter of the heart and not of the ultimate action that comes as the consequence of our covetousness. Most other commandments dealt with those (not stealing, committing adultery, not murdering, etc.). This commandment gets at the root of the issue: our own heart. You cannot legislate that.
America’s Founders understood that. That is why they constructed a system of government that took into account the reality of man’s natural condition and the importance of God as the only One able to affect the change necessary for a truly free society.
This is why John Adams said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”2 In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams emphasized the universality of the principle: “Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and all free government, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society.”3
George Washington expressed this self-evident Truth magnificently in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. The mere Politican, equally with the pious man ought to respect & to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private & public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the Oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure – reason & experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 4
Those words revealed that his experience in public service had only strengthened what he knew to be true from the beginning. In his First Inaugural Address, he had said:
There exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.5
America simply cannot (and will not) survive as a free nation if it continues down a path that ignores this reality – the reality of the human heart and God’s redemptive power. Since its birth, our nation has benefitted from a strong commitment to this principle. But if we continue to draw farther away from it, we will continue to bare the painful wounds of our own enslavement until the light of freedom finally extinguishes.
It was the point made by Thomas Jefferson, who famously said, “[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”6
In light of that justice, we should feel the weight of this commandment, “Thou shall not covet.” We are better citizens when we obey it.
The secularists’ response to our unbridled human passions, on the other hand, is an ever-growing police state that has been proven throughout history to have one inevitable end: the oppression of its citizenry. The self-evident Truths we have discussed in this series are that important. They are the fundamental principles of liberty.
For how are we to deal with, for example, a future crisis like the recent financial/housing crisis we had? How can you deal with dishonesty? More government regulation from a dishonest government? Dishonesty is a matter of the heart. And we have already established that there is only One who can deal with such matters.
Daniel Webster said it this way, “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.”7
Value and respect for our neighbors and their possessions is essential to our liberty. Here is what John Adams said:
The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.2
Christian morals are good policy for everyone, not just Christians. They are self-evident Truths that we only ignore at our own peril. May we rediscover their true value before it is too late.
- Exodus 20:17.
- John Adams, Message to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798.
- John Adams, Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, August 28, 1811.
- George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.
- George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789.
- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18, 1781.
- Daniel Webster, Speech at Plymouth, Mass., Dec. 22, 1820.
- John Adams, A Defense of the American Constitutions, 1787.