On June 27, 2017, the Arkansas legislature inaugurated a new addition to its capitol gardens: a monument, featuring the so-called “Ten Commandments,” selections from the Hebrew Scriptures that, the legislature had argued two years previously, “represent a philosophy of government . . . that God has ordained civil government and has delegated civil government, and that God has endowed people with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The occasion made headlines in various newspapers, and I clipped the pictures that accompanied them, expecting to use them in one of my future courses: a new and tantalizing example of the intersection of ancient and modern, law and religion, authoritative text and authoritative space.
A closer look at the images nevertheless left me disappointed. The monument itself was certainly new, but aside from the dedicatory lines attributing its existence to the generosity of the Arkansas legislature, it was also a near-perfect copy of others of its kind—the Ten Commandments unveiled in Oklahoma in 2012 and removed in 2015, and, most tellingly, a monument on the Texas capitol and in nearly a dozen other locations across America, erected in the 1960s.
(Is this all there is—the reiteration of symbol across decades and eras, each instance narrating a remoter and increasingly poorly recollected history?)
The earliest of these monuments had captured the interest of the US Supreme Court (and the imagination of biblically-minded lawmakers) in 2005 in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677. Jenna Weissman Joselit in her recent monograph has called Van Orden a “referendum on history”: a case that put on trial not only the constitutionality of monuments like the one unveiled in Arkansas, but the question of how history—the monument’s own, and that of the United States more broadly—was to be weighed in the balance. The weight of history proved to be one of the decisive factors in the Supreme Court’s consideration, and (part of) the reason a plurality of the Court found the version of the Ten Commandments at stake in Van Orden constitutionally permissible, while banning as unconstitutional another, more recent display.
In the years since Van Orden, the weight of history bearing down on displays like those that have followed and emulated the Texas Ten Commandments has become, if anything, greater. The Arkansas monument, its stately marble pictured against the luscious green backdrop of the capitol grounds, evokes a flurry of historical moments, serving as a fulcrum for drawing into the present not only the fourth, seventeenth, and twentieth centuries, but also pointing ahead—even nolens volens—to future developments surrounding religion, law, and the fabled “public sphere.” As such, the monument merits closer examination. The monument itself, of course, even at a distance, conveys considerable authority; as Joselit notes about its counterpart in Texas, “everything about the monument—its content and size, shapeliness and stoniness—registers immediately, legibly, and forcefully. As one of its champions proudly put it, these Ten Commandments ‘can be read at a considerable distance even in the rain.’”
The impression of authority lingers as one approaches. There is, first, its centerpiece: the text of the Ten Commandments. And yet, the biblical selections are not presented in the relative starkness of most modern bible translation—the Revised Standard Version, originally published in 1952, for example, or the New International Version, dating to the 1970s—but drip with the “thee”s and “thou”s and “shalt”s of older versions. A casual observer might mistake its rendering for the seventeenth-century King James—the version on which, indeed, the Ten Commandments display in Van Orden‘s companion case drew. And yet, the perceived weight of history here is an optical illusion: The translation, at the time of the Texas monument’s dedication, was just over a decade old. It had been constructed by a three-person committee expressly for the purpose of making the Ten Commandments palatable to Americans of all Christian and Jewish stripes—by ironing out differences in numbering and rendering of the commandments in their translation. It was the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision that breathed second life into this strangely a-biblical version of the Decalogue. In the years since Van Orden, state governments in Oklahoma and, most recently, Arkansas, have sought to emulate the monument as closely as possible—down to the last smoothed over discrepancy.
Perhaps still more immediately “legible” is the monument’s iconography: The Eagle hovering over an American flag—a reminder of the Order of the Eagles, the group responsible for the initial spate of Ten Commandments displays across America in the 1960s. Two stylized tablets, reminding audiences that the Commandments had, in a fashion, gone from stone to stone, from Moses’s divinely authored slabs of rock to marble markers in the civic centers of the United States. Two iterations of the star of David, the lingering acknowledgement of the Decalogue’s Jewish origins, flank the Chi-Rho, two Greek letters combined to semiotically mark Christian identity.
The latter symbol’s imperial pedigree, however, long precedes the advent of the monuments, or even the United States: It used to grace the military standards of Constantine, the so-called first Christian Emperor of the Roman world in the fourth century, and those of his Christian successors. Eusebius, a bishop and writer in the fourth century, attributes this placement to a dream Constantine experienced on the eve of battle. While preparing to attack Maxentius, one of his co-rulers, Constantine, according to Eusebius, was wavering between imploring the aid of the older, Roman gods, or appealing to the god of the Christians, still a small religious minority in the Roman Empire. The Chi-Rho that appeared in his dream-vision promised the emperor divine support for defeating his enemies, just as long as he carried the symbol ahead of him into battle. Constantine, the story goes, promptly and pragmatically embraced Christianity, and went on to overthrow, one after the other, his various co-regents under the auspices of the Christian symbol.
On the Arkansas monument, by contrast, the sigil proved rather less potent. The next news cycle brought word that a vehicle had crashed into the marble, dislodging it and fracturing it “less than 24 hours after its installation,” as various publications noted with an ill-concealed measure of glee.
The driver, an Arkansas resident, had filmed himself in the process, recording his exclamation at the monument’s destruction: “Oh my goodness, freedom!” Consciously or unconsciously, he had also joined the venerable tradition of iconoclasts: shattering visual reminders of authority by the application of blunt force and sufficient zeal.
(Is this all there is—the conflict between church and state, religion and institution, resolved, however temporarily, with a sledgehammer?)
This particular act of vandalism was not Reed’s first physical encounter with the Ten Commandments. In 2014, he laid similar waste to the Arkansas monument’s twin, erected two years prior on the Oklahoma capitol, driving his car into the monument and abandoning it there. At the time, Reed attributed his actions, interestingly, to spiritual causes: Satan, he told the police, had instructed him to destroy and urinate on the monument. No charges were filed; instead, Reed was transferred to a hospital for treatment of what his family identified as schizoaffective disorder. Reed’s initial justification is nevertheless intriguing; the history of Western religions is, after all, rife with stories of divine or quasi-divine beings more or less directly instructing their adherents to undertake violent tasks in their service. From the Akedah, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, to the enthusiasm of late ancient bishops and monks for destroying the temples and monuments of religious competitors, Reed’s story distinguishes itself primarily by virtue of his context, and its readiness to provide psychiatric diagnoses for those who claim to have received such orders.
The Oklahoma monument was re-built, as will be the case for the Arkansas one. And yet, Satan and his adherents—at least in name—have continued to dog the steps of lawmakers eager to plant the Ten Commandments on public sites. The Satanic Temple‘s efforts to place a statue of the Baphomet, a goat-headed, androgynous figure, raising a hand in blessing under the attentive gaze of two adoring children on the Oklahoma capitol faltered when the state’s supreme court ordered the removal of the Ten Commandments from the capitol, charging the monument with violating the Oklahoma constitution. The Commandments in the meantime have moved to the private grounds of a conservative think-tank; the Baphomet statue, for the time being at least, resides in Detroit—but remains at the ready to move to the Arkansas capitol.
For historians of ancient Christianity, there is perhaps a certain ironic symmetry to this story: a small, publicly reviled religious group, indeed a “cult,” challenging a longstanding majority religion by both legal and extra-legal means—a development that, despite obvious differences in setting, mirrors at least superficially Christianity’s self-assertion vis-à-vis its Greco-Roman religious context. There is, of course, no Satanist Constantine in sight—the ubiquitous hyperbole of election seasons notwithstanding—and yet the American public square is changing, visually as well as discursively.
We do not lack for historical intertexts for narrating these changes; indeed, for those equipped with the blunt tools of historical knowledge it is at times almost too tempting to construct such narratives. The latter provide ready punchlines: momentarily satisfying, with little analytical and still less predictive potential. The notion that those unable to remember the past are doomed to repeat it does not provide a free pass for historians: knowing [how others wrote about] the past, we still look toward the future with uncertainty, anxiety, and, ideally, curiosity.
This is all there is: new stones, old stories, new and perhaps different directions.