Why Louisiana Was Unwise to Mandate the Ten Commandments in Classrooms

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Monday, July 8, 2024

In reality, this law is almost entirely symbolic, and a highly provocative symbolic act at that, one that will alienate non-Christians and reinforce them in every bad thing the left has said about conservative Christians wanting a theocracy. It reinforces the idea that conservative Christians are basically unwilling to live peaceably as part of the multicultural society that, whatever one might think of it, actually exists today. This is true even for non-religious “normies” who aren’t necessarily inherently hostile to Christianity unless given some reason – such as a move like this made in a country in which only a minority of people are practicing Christians.

The state of Louisiana just passed a law mandating the the Ten Commandments be put on display in public school classrooms in the state.

I believe this law is unwise, reflects a poor understanding of cultural conditions, and shows that a large number of American Christians are still living in a culture war mindset.

In my book about how America has transitioned towards a Negative World for Christians, I wrote about the need to stay prudentially engaged, and that different people are going to come to different good faith conclusions about the right actions to take. I wrote:

Prudential engagement also recognizes that not all evangelicals will come to the same conclusion about where and how to be involved politically and socially. We should be tolerant of evangelicals who make a different decision than we do in this matter. That doesn’t mean we avoid political conversations or refrain from critical evaluations of other people’s approaches. It’s perfectly valid to say, as I just did, that the counsel advo- cating political disengagement should be rejected.

But we should respect those who hold views different from our own and seek to be attuned to them when they’ve honestly made a different decision.

So in this case, I’ll say that I simply come to a different prudential judgment than the folks in Louisiana. I don’t think this is a blatantly illegitimate act. Not only would this have been very constitutional, even normal, for the vast bulk of American history, there are people my age who’ve been noting how they had the Ten Commandments in their classrooms when they were in school.

The courts may very well rule that this law unconstitutional. I choose to view the malleability of our constitution in that way as a feature not a bug. Meaning I too want to change various things that are presently viewed as “the constitution.” There’s no reason for anyone to treat current jurisprudence as settling anything, given that neither the left, nor America’s judges themselves, behave in that manner.

So I don’t think this law is per se illegitimate or outside the American tradition. I just think it’s unwise.

Why do I say that?

First, let’s consider some reasons people might put forth for why this was a good thing.

  • It’s red meat that energizes the base, so makes good political sense in that way.
  • It shows a willingness by red states to defy the national cultural consensus and even the federal government – a sort of assertive federalism.
  • It will actively repel liberals from the state, helping to keep it red politically.
  • It will have some sort of substantive, evangelistic effect on the viewers or culture.

I don’t personally find these compelling in this case.

Start with the fact that this is a classic “culture war” move. In fact, it’s literally a classic. Attempting to force the display of the Ten Commandments on government property is a longstanding culture war tactic. I seem to recall it even back in the 1990s, and have managed to find references to it on the internet from as early as 2002. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled against this very practice when it comes to courthouses.

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