Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, June 29, 2024

The Ten Commandments and Christian Nationalism

My first essay about iconic texts was prompted by Judge Roy Moore's installation of a monumental Ten Commandments in the Alabama State Court House in 2001 (original in 2004 here; revised and expanded in 2019 here). I argued that the controversies over Decalogue monuments in courthouses involved competition between religious and national iconic texts--the Ten Commandments versus the U.S. Constitution--for iconic supremacy in the USA.

Twenty years later, more Republican politicians are championing display of the Ten Commandments, this time in schools. The Louisiana legislature passed a bill requiring their display in every public classroom in the state. A similar bill is pending in Texas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's Superintendent of Schools has directed every public school to teach the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Bible.

In many ways, the goal remains the same, namely to show that "the nation was founded specifically to be a Christian nation" (NY Times 6/27/24). Placing the Ten Commandments and bibles in classrooms legitimizes Christian nationalist claims by ritualizing the scripture's material form, its iconic dimension, through its display. Ritualizing a text's iconic dimension produces a sense of legitimation (for this argument, see here or here; updated here). 

Schools are also the focus of another right-wing crusade: the effort to ban certain books from public and school libraries. The targeted books advocate diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities. Conflicts over book banning reveal conservative's fear of the power of such books to inspire their readers to imagine themselves and their community's differently (see here). Fear of this kind of textual inspiration probably grows from experiencing scripture's inspiring effects by ritualizing its expressive dimension. Battles over book bans are therefore conflicts over the canons of American literature and history. The Christian nationalist canon is also advanced by mandates requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in schools. 

Both efforts face strong political and legal opposition, at least at the national level. Another threat lies in the religious divisions obscured by the Ten Commandments displays. The monuments and plaques do not reproduce any biblical text exactly. Their contents abbreviate and standardize the biblical ten commandments to accommodate the different counts and interpretations of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (see the clear analysis by Marc Zvi Brettler and Jed Wyrick). This fact shows, again, that the goal is not semantic interpretation but rather the legitimizing function of iconic display: America will be branded as Christian by the Ten Commandment's visible presence. The irony is that this exact text does not appear in anybody's Bible.

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