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

Source: Religion & Politics

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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.

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