TRESPASSER: The Ten Commandments monument on state property. Brian Chilson

On June 19, Jeff Landry, the Republican governor of Louisiana, signed into law House Bill No. 71, requiring the display of the ten commandments in all public classrooms in Louisiana. Texas Republicans are already vowing to do the same for their state and, if our own Republican legislators’ penchant for copying/pasting neighboring states’ culture war bills is any indication, Arkansas classrooms could be next. All the usual suspects on the left are complaining about how this is a violation of the boundary between church and state, while all the usual suspects on the right are crowing victoriously and insisting that this brings America back into alignment with the ostensible faith of our founding fathers.

For my own part, I tend to think that these classroom displays, a lot like our own graven image of the commandments on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, mark Republicans to be more faithless than even a diehard atheist like myself could ever hope to be. 

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There are a few tells here. First, Gov. Landry said, as justification for signing the law, “If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original law giver, which was Moses.” That is, he acknowledges Moses, not any eternal God, as the author of the ten commandments.

Second, Louisiana’s bill specifically argues that the display of the ten commandments is important due to their putative influence upon the thinkers who crafted our own American laws. In fact, the bill also made provision for the display of other historical documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Northwest Ordinance. In other words, the ten commandments constitute a functional equivalent to these other man-made laws. The state recognizes the ten commandments as simply another part of human legal culture. 

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(And as a brief aside, let me here make an argument for the superiority of the Northwest Ordinance over those commandments, for it at least outlawed slavery in the territories it organized. Moses the lawgiver operated at a much lower plane of morality, telling people in that last commandment not only to refrain from coveting their neighbor’s house and wife, but also to refrain from coveting his slaves. Slavery was the rule of the day both in the Old Testament and throughout most of the history of Christianity.)

Far be it from me to accuse them of bearing false witness about their motivations, but I’ve no doubt that the proponents of such commandment display bills see their work as somehow stemming the tide of secularization in this nation. Recenter the commandments in public life, the thinking goes, and people will have more respect for religion. But such a hypothesis ignores how conservatives themselves have eroded the need for religion. The rise of the Moral Majority and other movements that sought to combine religion and politics have themselves tolled the death knell for the churches they claimed to represent. By presenting a Christian’s greatest duty as voting Republican, they told Christians they required attendance more at the ballot box than at church. Voting, rather than sharing the body and blood of Christ, became the greatest sacrament, and Election Day rather than Easter became the holiest day on the calendar, celebrating, not the resurrection of Jesus to life, but the resurrection of Christians to power.

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I heard a new, new story
How Republicans came from glory
How they ran to save our liberty
And serve the righteous man
I heard about their groaning
About their moral moaning
Then I repented of my sins
And voted Republican

O victory in Donald
My Candidate, forever
He sought me and bought me
With His red MAGA hats
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my votes are due Him
I’ll plunge Him to victory
And defeat the Democrats

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Here is some irony for you: among those commandments Republicans want displayed across public classrooms is “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and yet the candidate they espouse as the very source and summit of American Christianity is man whose history of adultery Republicans cannot even bring themselves to deny. He has not only coveted his neighbor’s wife, but he later bragged about bagging her to the entire world. But there is no hypocrisy in Christians’ embrace of Trump because now more than ever their greatest sacrament is voting and the greatest victory they can achieve is at the ballot box, and Trump promises them victory. 

So with each poster of the ten commandments taped to some classroom wall, and with each stone image of the ten commandments placed on some state capitol or county courthouse grounds, conservative Christians proclaim this singular truth: “My kingdom is ONLY of this world.” 

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Indeed, those commandments must now be written on dead stone because they have ceased to be written in the living hearts of believers. Not too far from the commandments monument is a twenty-ton bauxite boulder, installed in 1943 to symbolize the state’s contributions to the war effort, back when Arkansas was the source of most of the bauxite (used for aluminum production) mined in the United States. But the industry had largely dried up by the early 1980s. 

Bauxite still remains the official state rock of Arkansas, but it has no real economic contribution. Likewise, efforts to make Christianity an official state religion have stripped it of having any spiritual contribution. Fitting, then, to have those commandments mimeographed onto lifeless paper or carved into dead stone. Louisiana’s new ordinance specifies that the full majesty of the putative law of Moses must be represented by a poster no smaller than 11 by 14 inches, with the commandments presented “in a large, easily readable font.” How majestic! 

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Last year, senior Iranian cleric Mohammad Abolghassem Doulabi sounded the alarm about the collapse of religion in his country, saying that of Iran’s 75,000 mosques, about two-thirds, or 50,000, had closed due to poor attendance. He later claimed as the source of this growing agnosticism “the humiliation of people in the name of religion” and “depriving people of a decent life and creating poverty in the name of religion.” A 2020 report by the Atlantic Council had already concluded, “The excessive politicization of religion in Iran, the regime’s failure to resolve the growing economic and social hardships, and widespread corruption have all diminished the appeal of religion.”

Conservative Christians like to imagine that they can escape this trap because they have access to the True Faith, unlike those evil Muslims. But it is no accident that a nation like Ireland, once so conservatively Christian that unwed mothers were sent to peculiar institutions called Magdalene Laundries to repent for their sins and shame by means of heavy labor in service of nuns, that nation of Ireland not only legalized gay marriage and abortion, in opposition to centuries of deep Christian tradition, but did so at the ballot box, by popular referendum. The unity of church and state for so long had diminished the influence of the church. 

And the same will happen here as conservative Christians keep pressing to have their own faith made political. Tired of waiting for Jesus to return, and secretly fearing that he may never, that it was all a sham, they will aim to secure not their own election into the community of the saved but the election of the candidate they imagine will “save” America. Why bother saving souls when, with the right guy in office, you can save a lot more on his proposed tax break? And with each policy of the new regime, they will drive home that “My kingdom is only of this world” truth. And then they will wonder why their churches, which are to proclaim a message beyond this world, lie so empty come Sunday. 

Nearer my Trump, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
For it will be my vote that raiseth Thee;
So all my song shall be nearer, my Trump, to Thee….

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