Breaking the Ten Commandments: A Short History of the Contentious American Monuments

By Jenna Weissman Joselit | August 1, 2017


“Freedom!” cried the man as he drove his car into a six-foot monument of the Ten Commandments in Little Rock, Arkansas, toppling the sculpture from its base and shattering it to pieces. From where Michael Tate Reed II sat, behind the wheel of a Dodge Dart, the destruction of the Ten Commandments in the summer of 2017 was an act of liberation designed to free the nation from the tyranny of religion. This wasn’t the first time that Reed had dislodged the Decalogue from its pedestal. Several years earlier, in 2014, he had rammed his car into a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma City, but not too many people had taken note. This time around, Reed made sure they did by streaming his violent act live on Facebook.

More than a century earlier, another American had also connected the Ten Commandments to freedom. “Louder and mightier yet resounded that one great and powerful word of the Almighty, which was freedom. Freedom! Freedom!” trumpeted Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1883, lyrically holding forth on the relevance of the Ten Commandments to modern-day Americans. From where he sat, on the pulpit of Cincinnati’s leading Reform synagogue, nothing better illustrated America’s virtuousness than its fidelity to these ancient dos and don’ts.

Two radically different readings of the Ten Commandments—one of rejection, the other of embrace—speak not only to the passage of time, or, for that matter, to the difference between prosaic and vehicular forms of expression. They also underscore the changing role of religion and its relationship to the public square in modern America. Where once the Decalogue had been an anchor of the nation’s identity as well as a source of comity, it has now become the stuff of controversy and even rupture.

In the years following Rabbi Wise’s address, the imprint of the Ten Commandments on American society grew more and more pronounced. Before long, representations of the biblical rules were just about everywhere: in houses of worship, private homes and courthouses; on the street, in the school, in the subway and on the interstate. Drawing on every conceivable medium—paper, stained glass, metal and film stock—Americans fashioned the Ten Commandment into bookends and bookmarks; hung lavishly illustrated chromolithographs in their parlors and schoolhouses; made several movies about them and dangled lightweight, metallic versions from their wrists in the form of charm bracelets.

The most richly imagined of all biblical passages, the Ten Commandments loomed large. Literally. Americans kept the commandments close at hand, their presence vital to their national identity. “We have no civilization, no form, no character, no distinctiveness,” without them, affirmed journalist George E. Sokolsky, explaining the nation’s affinity for the ancient text.

Americans of the 1950s and early 1960s outdid their predecessors in their collective affection for the Decalogue by erecting and welcoming large-scale stone versions in an estimated 100 cities across the country, from Redondo Beach in California to Trenton, New Jersey. Like origin stories everywhere, accounts differ on how this came about. Some credit filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, the “Zeus of Hollywood,” suggesting that he alighted on the idea of planting what one wit called “granite movie posters” as a way to extend the popular reach of his 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. Others of a decidedly less cynical cast of mind cite the contribution of Judge E. J. Ruegemer of Minnesota, who, only a few years earlier, had successfully embarked on a campaign to post paper versions of the Ten Commandments in juvenile courts throughout the land where, he hoped, their presence might set youthful offenders on the right path.

Still others pin the project on the Fraternal Order of Eagles, of which Judge Ruegemer was a member. Established in 1898, the organization prided itself on being a “national force for good,” a champion of causes that ranged from unemployment insurance to fighting juvenile delinquency. Promoting the Ten Commandments, or what it characterized as the “ten basic rules for living,” was of a piece with its mission.

Somewhere along the line, these three trajectories—Hollywood savvy, judicial optimism and institutional know-how—converged, giving rise to a national campaign to cast the Ten Commandments into the limelight. “Long ago on Mount Sinai … God gave Moses His Law, the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Today’s God’s words are again being written in stone,” declared the Fraternal Order of Eagles, even going so far as to make sure that the stone from which its tablets were quarried bore a strong resemblance to that of Mount Sinai.

Standing tall and confident, like sentinels, the Fraternal Order of Eagles’ “monoliths” had something for everyone. The words of the biblical prescriptions, set forth clearly in English, covered the entire surface, which was further embellished by an American eagle, the Stars and Stripes, the all-seeing eye most commonly encountered on the dollar bill, a couple of six-pointed stars, a smattering of proto-Canaanite letters on two tablets, a handful of botanical flourishes, and the Christian symbol of the Chi Rho. For all its busyness, everything about the monument registered immediately, legibly, and forcefully. There was no mistaking it for something else. As one eyewitness put it, these Ten Commandments “can be read at a distance even when wet.”

Now and again, a handful of Americans objected to the presence of a Ten Commandments sculpture in their own backyard. Some simply did not like the look of it. In March 1958, for instance, Philadelphia’s Art Commission rejected a proposal to erect a Ten Commandments monument on aesthetic grounds. “The lettering was applied by some manufacturing process rather than cut by a sculptor or stone-cutter,” complained Henri Marceau, the commission’s chair as well as the director of Philadelphia’s Art Museum, deriding the monument as a “slab” rather than a work of art.

In other instances, opposition was grounded in politics rather than visual appeal. The ACLU and the American Jewish Congress took strong exception to depositing the Decalogue in the civic square, arguing in 1957 that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Working quietly, behind the scenes, the two watchdog organizations sought to dissuade the Fraternal Order of Eagles from its chosen path of “spreading the commandments,” claiming that both “constitutionality” and “propriety” militated against it.

Anticipating a counter-claim from the monument’s supporters who were prepared to argue that the Ten Commandments were more moral blueprint than divine law, the American Jewish Congress had this to say: “To treat the Ten Commandments as an adjunct of sociology, community relations or some other of the secular sciences would be to denigrate their authentic purpose, to divest them of their transcendental meaning.” And more: “To reduce the Ten Commandments to the level of mere moral instruction would be to sever them from their root and core.” As far as the American Jewish Congress was concerned, planting a Ten Commandments monument on public land not only weakened the nation. It also undermined the integrity of the Ten Commandments themselves.

Despite such fighting words, the Fraternal Order of Eagles did not budge an inch. It kept at it, scouting locations, overseeing the production process and generating the requisite enthusiasm among the rank and file by dedicating the Ten Commandments monuments with great hoopla. Eventually, these public sculptures settled quietly into place, becoming as much a part of the civic square as its lampposts and signage. Over the years, birds perched atop their rounded edges, leaving their mark; cracks appeared in the granite and were not repaired; the surrounding foliage grew denser, the inscription grew fainter and passersby strolled past without giving the Ten Commandments a second look.

Most passersby, that is. Fifty years later, one of their number, an unemployed, homeless lawyer named Thomas Van Orden took note. Day in and day out, on his way to the Texas State Law Library in Austin, Texas, he crossed paths with a Ten Commandments monument, courtesy of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Its presence troubled him so much that in 2002, this most unlikely of plaintiffs sought, and won, an injunction to have the sculpture removed from the precincts of the Texas state capital on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. “Even a guy who sleeps under a bush has a duty and a right to fight for his constitutional rights and make history,” Van Orden told a reporter. “It’s a great country, isn’t it?”

After years of snaking its way through the courts, during which Van Orden’s brief was joined by the American Jewish Congress and People for the American Way, among others, Van Orden v. Perry came before the United States Supreme Court in 2005. “The profile of the Ten Commandments, it seems, has rarely been higher, or their ability to attract lawsuits greater,” observed Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times, noting the justices’ decision to add a second Ten Commandments-related case to their docket: McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. In contrast to the first case, which hinged on the legitimacy of a decades-old phenomenon, this one had to do with a series of contemporary attempts by two Kentucky courthouses to install paper copies of the Decalogue in their respective corridors where they were hard to miss.

Yoking the two together underscored what was at stake when it came to the Ten Commandments. The weight of the past and with it, the preeminence of biblical values and ideals in an increasingly polyglot America, was as much on trial as the law itself. These cases, related one longtime court observer, “are about much more than a Ten Commandments monument in front of a state capitol or hanging on the wall of a courthouse. They are about the kind of America we are going to have.”

With both history and sociology in the dock, coming up with an equitable ruling was no easy matter. Ultimately, the justices ruled in favor of the Texas monument and against its Kentucky counterparts. “Our cases, Janus-like, point in two directions,” acknowledged Chief Justice William Rehnquist. “One face looks toward the strong role played by religion and religious traditions throughout our Nation’s history … The other face looks toward the principle that governmental intervention in religious matters can itself endanger religious freedom.” It was one thing to recognize that the Ten Commandments have “an undeniable historical meaning,” the court reasoned. It was quite another to promote them in contemporary America where they might well prove “divisive.”

Such fine-bore distinctions were lost on those Americans, from the grassroots to the legal community, who preferred a definitive, unequivocal reading—“yea” or “nay”—to one that trafficked in the niceties of history and sociology. As the Wall Street Journal baldly put it in the wake of the court’s decision: “What gives?”

The answer depends on one’s political perspective. Those on the right are quick to embrace the Ten Commandments as an ongoing, and still viable, symbol of the nation’s patrimony. Testing the limits of the law, organizations such as the American History & Heritage Foundation, an Arkansas-based group “dedicated to educating and informing the public about American history and heritage,” picked up where the Fraternal Order of Eagles left off by commissioning and erecting a new Decalogue sculpture modeled after its Texas predecessor. It went further still by claiming that the Supreme Court’s positive ruling about the Austin monolith furnished the State of Arkansas with the legal grounds for installing a latter-day version. “This is part of who we are, it’s history,” explained a foundation supporter. (Not so fast, responded the Arkansas branch of the ACLU, pointing out that the ruling in Van Orden v. Perry established no such precedent.)

Those to the left of center are just as quick to reject the Ten Commandments as a pair of cultural blinders that fails to acknowledge how much the nation has changed over time. Determined to uphold the law, to keep intact the boundaries between church and state, organizations such as the ACLU readily challenge those who persist in publicly championing the commandments.

Meanwhile, those who find themselves smack in the middle of the political spectrum, mindful of both the celebrated historicity and the fraught contemporaneity of the Ten Commandments, are unsure of how best to proceed. One thing, though, is certain: destroying them along with the pedestal on which they rest is not the way to go.

In the wake of the demolition of the Arkansas Ten Commandments monument, contributions, including a $25,000 pledge from Pure Flix, a “Christian entertainment studio,” poured into the American History & Heritage Foundation, providing it with the wherewithal to produce and install a replacement. Taking its cue from Moses who fashioned a new set of tablets after having angrily smashed the first, the organization is determined to give the Ten Commandments a second chance.


Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University, is the author, most recently, of Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

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