Louisiana’s Ten Commandments law is dangerously wrong  


Louisiana’s new law to mandate display of the Ten Commandments in public schools manages to mangle both history and the Ten Commandments themselves. 

It justifies its mandate by suggesting the Founding Fathers would have favored it, citing a quotation it attributes to James Madison: “We have staked the whole future of our new nation upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”

The problem with this quote is that Madison never said it. Asked about its authenticity three decades ago, the editors of Madison’s papers replied that they could find it nowhere in his writings. “In addition,” they emphasized, “the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government.”

So Louisiana legislators based their law on a fake quote. 

Claiming that the Ten Commandments are part of our “national history, culture, and tradition,” the statute suggests that they serve as the foundation of American law. This, too, flies in the face of facts. When legal historian Steven K. Green pored through materials from Founding Era-debates over the formation of our legal and governmental systems, he discovered that appeals to the Ten Commandments were conspicuously absent.  

No matter how frequently Christian nationalists claim that our country was founded on the Ten Commandments, it simply is not true. 

That did not stop the state of Louisiana. With the governor’s signing of House Bill 71, educators were essentially told, “Thou shalt promote the Bible over other religious texts,” “Thou shalt promote Christianity above other religions,” and “Thou shalt promote religion over nonreligion.”  

Though similar bills in other states have not yet passed — in fact, Louisiana’s law is based on a failed bill in Texas from last year — this one’s success will serve as a sort of Promised Land for legislators with the same goal. Such bills reflect a broader push by Christian nationalists to promote their own religion over others in the public square. 

The law appeals to the Ten Commandments’ place in early American education, but it leaves unmentioned stories like that of 11-year-old Thomas Wall. Wall was a Catholic student in Boston whose teacher beat his hands in 1859 for refusing to recite a Protestant version of the commandments. When asked to do the same thing the next day, 300 Catholic students left school in protest. 

Wall’s story reminds us there is not just one version of the Ten Commandments. There are different translations and ways of numbering them, and those differences matter to the traditions that accept them. When schools promote one version, they run the risk of offending religious groups that recognize another — not to mention the risk of offending students and families who might agree with individual commandments but who do not recognize their religious authority. 

Yet the new law does just that. It specifies the exact wording of the Ten Commandments to be posted in every classroom. Its text, however, does not match the commandments’ primary source (Exodus 20:1-17) or any religious tradition’s accepted version. 

It comes instead from, of all places, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which crafted a version in the mid-1950s to put on posters, plaques and monuments it placed across the country as part of a public relations push for the movie “The Ten Commandments.”

The Fraternal Order of Eagles’ text is influenced most heavily by the King James Bible. Its sharply truncated version deletes important details from the passage, including references to God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery; the urgency of rejecting idolatry; reasons for the Sabbath’s sanctity; and, of course, the larger context describing a covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish (not the American) people. 

The Fraternal Order of Eagles version is now the one approved for Louisiana’s schools. In adopting it, the state government is de facto determining which parts of the Ten Commandments are most important, which are expendable, and what translation it considers best.  

It is hard to imagine a more blatant intrusion of government into religion than to have public schools literally propagate a government-mandated version of a sacred text. Such audacity is surpassed only by the assumption in the first place that it is the role of government to promote biblical commandments to any student, whatever their religious commitments. It is no surprise that civil liberties groups have announced plans to sue. 

Madison never said that America’s success depended on maintaining “the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.” But he did say, “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties” when he saw fellow citizens trying to use public resources to privilege one religion above others. For those committed to the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom, this new law is alarming. 

Mark Chancey is a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University-Dallas. 

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