The Ten Commandments and the creep of Christian nationalism

By Elwood Watson
Posted 7/3/24

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry was brimming with pride and arrogance last week when he signed into law a requirement that every classroom in his state — from kindergarten to college chemistry labs …

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The Ten Commandments and the creep of Christian nationalism


Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry was brimming with pride and arrogance last week when he signed into law a requirement that every classroom in his state — from kindergarten to college chemistry labs — will be required to display a copy of the Ten Commandments.

“I can’t wait to be sued,” Landry said before signing the bill.

While other states have proposed similar bills, no one besides Louisiana has been successful enacting such efforts, especially with the threat of legal battles looming overhead.

Legal battles over the display of the Ten Commandments in the nation’s classrooms are not a new phenomenon. In Stone v. Graham in 1980, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments, purchased through private donations, in every public school classroom in the state.

Landry didn’t stop there with his bravado. He also told the guests that, “If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses.” So by “respecting the law,” he meant defying it.

Not surprisingly, lawyers filed a flurry of lawsuits soon after the Republican governor ratified the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said the law violates both long standing Supreme Court precedent and the First Amendment, and would result in “unconstitutional religious coercion of students.” “Our public schools are not Sunday schools,” the organizations said in a statement, “and students of all faiths, or no faith, should feel welcome in them.”

Incidentally, in 2022, a group of right-wing writers and leaders published a document titled “Conservatism: A Statement of Principles.” The section on God and public religion stated, “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.”

That is an alarming and troubling statement, implying non-Christians should have second-class status in our country and that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and others should not be equal under the law. Such rhetoric is the antithesis of freedom to worship enshrined in the constitution.

Christian nationalism is not an ideology where an individual’s belief system defines their political values. Human beings can certainly hold divergent opinions on immigration, reproductive rights, or any other political issue. Like everyone else, Christians routinely spar among one another on such issues. Debate and diverse viewpoints are often beneficial to both the debaters and larger society.

Mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every aspect of education in Louisiana or any state is largely an exercise in cynicism. Does any reasonable person believe that the average 4th grader is going to view such a document and state “Gee, I probably should not commit adultery anymore.” Please. A larger political agenda is at play here.

What distinguishes Christian nationalism is not religious participation in politics but the myopic perception that Christian primacy and theology must saturate virtually every aspect of our society. It embraces the visceral belief that the church’s well-being and survival relate to the outcome of any given political race.

Christian nationalism’s supporters have little, if any, compunction about attempting to impose their personal value system upon others. This view often manifests through linear ideology, a specific identity, and unbridled passion. If such a regressive theocracy were successful in becoming the norm, it would abolish our current Constitution and further fragment our democracy.

Christian nationalists believe that only they are real Americans, and that the Constitution’s advantages and benefits apply only to them and those who share the same racial identity, religion, sexual and political orientation. Thus, racism and nativism deeply infest a segment of the movement.

Proponents of the passage of the recent Louisiana law have referred to the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which reinstated a high school football coach after he was disciplined over a religious incident. The Supreme Court ruled that the coach’s prayers were indicative of private speech protected by the First Amendment, and the school district could not prohibit it.

What we can decipher is that right-wing politicians eager to make political inroads into the GOP’s conservative Christian base is an effective way to augment political support, gain political credibility, and line their coffers.

When Governor Landry stated, “I can’t wait to be sued,” perhaps he was thinking about the Republican Party’s current state of mind and the Supreme Court’s current political appetite. Come to think of it, he might have ample reason to feel deliriously giddy and optimistic. Let’s hope not.


Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.