American Decalogue

Jenna Weissman Joselit reveals how the Ten Commandments have shaped U.S. law and identity.

Recent debates about the re­moval of Confederate statues or about the Nashville Statement issued by evangelical Christian leaders involve the links between historical self-understanding, moral imagination, and modern ethical dilemmas. Should biblical texts shape a country’s legal code? How does the physicality of our monuments guide our understanding of history? To what extent does the way we tell our stories shape our moral judgments? Jenna Weissman Joselit illuminates how these same questions guide our country’s unique engagement with the Ten Commandments.

From the founding of our nation, Joselit argues, the Decalogue “furnished America with a pedigree.” In its comprehensiveness, the document held an intoxicating power:

If you were determined to establish a national identity, especially one burnished by a distinguished pedigree, there happened to be no better text on which to hang it than the Ten Commandments. In one fell swoop, it assembled the rule of law, the word of God, and the promise of singularity, joining them together in the vision of an ancient past and the prospect of a glorious future—and all under the banner of indigenousness. The Ten Com­mandments just happened to be the perfect foundational document.