INTRODUCTION: IDENTIFYING THE ISSUE
When I was a child riding in the car with my father through East Texas farm country, we would occasionally spot a cow grazing on the side of the road. Seeing an animal that had obviously broken through a fence and strayed from the farm where it belonged always prompted my father to declare that legally we were required to return the cow to its owner. Of course, we never stopped to capture a stray animal, locate its owner, and return it home, for we could not possibly have accomplished such a feat. My father was aware this was an obsolete law that made sense when local farmers knew each other and traveled in wagons equipped to put a cow or horse on a lead, but had now become impossible to honor. Decades later, when I was co-teaching a course on the ethics of the Ten Commandments, my colleague, Patrick Miller, delivered a lecture titled, “The Economics of the Straying Ox,” on Deuteronomy 22:1–4, which reads in part, “You shall not watch your neighbor's ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner.” It seemed to me there was a good chance that the law my father referred to all those decades ago was based on this Old Testament passage.
That there are laws in the United States that have drawn on biblical commandments is certain. The extent to which biblical commandments contributed to the foundation of the system of law in the United States, however, is in dispute. Some people, including certain Supreme Court justices, believe that the Bible's influence on the formation of the US legal system was extensive. William Rehnquist, for instance, argued in favor of government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments based on the “substantial contribution” they had made to secular legal codes. Others, however, argue that while there are individual cases of biblically based civil law, the claim that our legal system was profoundly influenced by the Bible and, more specifically, the Ten Commandments is simply wrong. Steven Green, for instance, provides a convincing account of how English common law and rationalism rather than the Bible formed the basis for American law, arguing that the Bible's overarching influence on the US Constitution is a commonly held misconception.