09/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moses vs. the Death Panels: Obama Brings the Ten Commandments Into the Health Care Debate

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Harry and Louise meet Moses.

In a conversation with religious leaders last week, Barack Obama hit back against some of the more outlandish attacks against his health care proposals. Responding to rumors of "death panels" that would "decide whether elderly people would live or die," he referred to the "Great Words of Sinai," the Ten Commandments. "There are some folks out there who are frankly bearing false witness," he said.

The dictate against "bearing false witness" first appears in Exodus 20:16, when Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. The line reads: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

Obama deftly didn't mention which of the Ten Commandments this is, as different traditions count the commandments differently. In the Jewish, Protestant, and Orthodox tradition, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor" is commandment number nine. In the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, it's number eight.

Despite harsh criticism that Obama is injecting religion where it doesn't belong, "bearing false witness" has a long presence in American jurisprudence, as do most of the Ten Commandments. A Connecticut law from 1642 promised death "if any man rise by false witness." Similar laws appeared in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. As recently as 1988, the Supreme Court of Mississippi cited the Ninth Commandment in reproaching prosecutorial misconduct:

When the State or any party states or suggests the existence of certain damaging facts and offers no proof whatever to substantiate the allegations, a golden opportunity is afforded the opposing counsel in closing argument to appeal to the Ninth Commandment. "Thou shalt not bear false witness . . . "

More striking: Obama's use of the Ninth Commandment echoes Kay Hagan's use of the same line to hit back against claims by Liddy Dole in last year's Senate campaign in North Carolina. That Democrats are now using the Ten Commandments as a weapon against Republicans continues a longstanding tradition that has been appalling absent in recent years: The Bible can be used by used by both sides in the culture wars.

Specifically, Moses, wielded by presidents from Washington to Reagan, Lincoln to Obama, may be the one figure in American history who transcends Red and Blue. The question of the moment is whether he's strong enough to take on the forces that include Blue Cross & Blue Shield.