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In recent years, conflict over the role and display of the Ten Commandments has increasingly broken out in communities across the United States. Perhaps the most recent high-profile incident occurred in 2001, when then Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore moved a 2 ½ ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments—surrounded by excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, National Anthem, National Motto, Pledge of Allegiance, Alabama constitution, and quotations from various "Founding Fathers"—into the rotunda of the state's judicial building. Moore did so in hopes that displaying the Decalogue would call America back to its moral foundations. Instead, he was sued for overstepping the boundaries between religion and state and ordered to remove the monument; Moore refused and ultimately was removed as chief justice.

While not all disputes over the Commandments receive as much publicity, they nonetheless have occurred with some frequency. For many Americans, including Moore, the Decalogue not only is crucial to restoring morality in the country, but it is also part of American identity; in other words, being American means believing in the Ten Commandments. These Americans typically include the Commandments with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as documents that express basic American values. Certainly, there are those who disagree, but there are large and vocal groups who do not.[1]

The reception history of the Ten Commandments, with its focus on the use and impact of biblical texts throughout history, reveals that associating the Commandments with American identity or ideals is not new. Large numbers of Americans have been doing this for a long time—but they have not always been doing so. Such associations appear to have begun with some frequency after the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction (which ended in 1877 after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President). Prior to this period, Americans placed high value on the Ten Commandments, but they typically used them on an individual basis to critique a certain social issue, such as temperance, or to express a certain value, such as Sabbath observance. They rarely were overtly associated as a whole with "Americanness" or as one of the documents that expressed basic American values, but beginning sometime around the 1880s, this changed.

The period of the 1880s to the 1920s, also known by historians as the Gilded Age and Progressive era, was a time of tremendous social upheaval as well as national transformation. America was industrializing, and large corporations, trusts, and monopolies were arising—and dominating the lives of their employees. The likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, and Vanderbilt built massive empires, often on the backs of their employees who typically worked long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. In their struggles with corporate giants, workers increasingly formed unions and resorted to strikes.

Many Americans viewed such tactics with suspicion, labeling those who embraced them as socialists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, or communists. Clearly, these individuals were thought to be threats to American society, and their "Americanness" was often called into question.[2] In 1887, for instance, the New York State Assembly conducted an investigation into the high coal prices being charged in Brooklyn and New York and the subsequent causes of a strike among coal handlers and longshoremen. While a special investigative committee had concluded that the high prices were being caused by the strike, one assemblyman objected and took up the cause of the striking workers. Defending the right of laborers to organize and strike, he argued: "If employers would incorporate the Ten Commandments into their business code they would find more contentment among the laborers of this country, and with that contentment would come a cessation of the strikes that now are so prevalent." He assured the Assembly that anarchy was not to be feared and that "the American laboring man was loyal to the Government and would ever be."[3]

In a period when the Ten Commandments were increasingly associated with American identity, this assemblyman had actually done something quite clever. Whether it was intentional or not is unclear, but he had used what was becoming an "American text" in order to provide legitimacy and safety for those whose loyalty was questioned. By doing so, he could refute the notion that the striking coal workers were disloyal Americans. He argued that they, in fact, wanted nothing more than to have the Ten Commandments implemented at their workplaces. Implicitly, the assemblyman was asking, "What could be more American than simply wanting your employer to run his business according to the Ten Commandments?" In this particular set of circumstances, the Commandments' high regard in popular American society and their developing association with American identity and values made them useful, something that the assemblyman hoped would bring legitimacy to his cause and reassure those who might be skeptical.

This appeal to popular opinion was not lost on other politicians of the period, especially Teddy Roosevelt. He became well known for his advocacy of the Commandments, even before his days of national prominence. While still serving as a Police Commissioner in New York City, he once said in regard to his efforts to break the dominance of Tammany Hall (the Democratic political machine that controlled much of what happened in the city and was famed for its corruption), "Above all questions is that of honest enforcement of the laws. We stand on a good, sound platform, the Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Steal. This includes blackmail and preventing others from stealing. We have broken up the whole system of corruption."[4] A few years later, when he ran for Governor of New York, he promised:

There will be one test I shall require—rigid honesty—that is, public honesty. I feel there are two great problems to be solved for this Nation. The first is to uphold National honesty abroad. The second, and more important, lies in the standard of highest honesty at home. My course will be laid on those ancient rules of conduct. You will find them in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. I shall carry out to the fullest extent those principles that thou shalt not steal, nor shalt thou allow anyone else to steal.[5]

Roosevelt had thus elevated the Commandments from personal or private standards of behavior to public or national standards. He had taken a text that had broad popular appeal, connected it to a political issue—reforming corrupt government and business practices—and even recast the Decalogue, and in particular the eighth commandment, to provide support for his goal. "Not allowing anyone else to steal" provided sanction for using governmental power to restrain corrupt politicians and businessmen, something for which Roosevelt became a hearty advocate. This popular embrace of the Ten Commandments, as well as widespread economic and social dissatisfaction, helped him make the Decalogue an "American text"—not just a text designed for individual use.

After he became Governor, Roosevelt still touted the Commandments, once calling them and the Golden Rule "fundamental, essential principles, which must live in the heart of every American citizen, and by which every man asking place or political power must be tested."[6] Given Roosevelt's embrace of a strong nationalism—he previously had advocated being "broadly American and national, as opposed to being local or sectional"[7]—he appears to have understood the Commandments as reflecting elements of a national character.

As Roosevelt increasingly embraced the Progressive agenda, which among other things advocated varying degrees of government regulation of corporations, he continued to herald the Ten Commandments. After serving two terms as President, he broke with the Republican Party when it chose to follow a policy of less governmental intervention. He then helped form the Bull Moose or Progressive Party and ran for President in 1912 on that ticket. Before the break, however, he struggled with conservative Republicans for Party control. In this context, he gave a speech entitled, "Lincoln and Progressive Republicanism." This speech paid homage to Lincoln and the Constitution and served to prop up his campaign platform known as the New Nationalism. Roosevelt explained, "New Nationalism is the application of old moralities to new conditions. I have been spoken of as being too extreme, too radical. Most of what I preach you can find in the Ten Commandments. When I attempt to apply the Eighth Commandment (i.e., 'Thou shalt not steal') some of my Wall Street friends assert I am making a fresh assault on corporations. We have the power and we have the right with it."[8]

Thus, Roosevelt had grouped together Abraham Lincoln, the Constitution, his New Nationalism or Progressive Republicanism, and the Ten Commandments. Certainly, Lincoln, the Constitution, and the Decalogue gave credence to his New Nationalism and helped him rebut the charge of being too radical. Yet at the same time, the Ten Commandments were increasingly considered as American ideals if by nothing more than virtue of association with quintessential American documents and heroes.

Roosevelt, of course, was not the only politician to use the Ten Commandments (or other biblical texts, for that matter). In 1900, he ran as William McKinley's vice-presidential candidate. Opposing them was the Democrats' William Jennings Bryan, a formidable force on the national scene who had become known as the Great Commoner. While campaigning, Bryan criticized the Republican Party for not only wanting "to revise the Constitution, but also the Ten Commandments, so as to make one of them read, 'Thou shalt not steal on a small scale.' Instead of having this, Lincoln wanted a government of the people, and by the people. The Republicans would have it a government of the syndicates [i.e., large corporations], for the syndicates, and by the syndicates."[9] This statement criticizes the Republican Party for being too supportive of big business, but it also uses the Decalogue to assert an American identity on par with that represented by the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln, at least as interpreted by Bryan.

A few weeks later, Bryan reiterated the so-called Republican revision of the eighth commandment and even suggested another amendment "as being in consonance with the Republican policies, making one of them, 'Thou shalt not kill, unless there are more of you than of the other fellows.'"[10] This no doubt referred to the Republican support for the recent Spanish-American War and especially for America's imperialistic ventures in occupying the Philippines and other countries, something that had become a campaign issue. A week later, Bryan told a crowd that he had decided "to call attention to the tendency of the Republican Party today to amend everything that we have been taught to believe sacred in the past. I think I can show you that the Republican Party of today is attempting to amend the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Ten Commandments." He then went on to point out that Republicans had amended the commandment, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me' to read, 'Thou shalt have no God but money.'"[11]

While accusing one's political opponent of being irreligious was hardly new in 1900, of significance is Bryan's coupling of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Decalogue, as well as his challenging Roosevelt's appropriation of them. The Commandments, now elevated in public discourse to the level of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, proved useful in critiquing Republican policies. In the debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists, both sides characterized the other as being un-American or acting in ways that were not in keeping with America's best interests. Bryan, therefore, invoked not only the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but also the Commandments in order to advance his notions and to demonstrate how truly American his views were. In the public arena, the Commandments helped legitimate certain views of America and discredit others.

Linking the Commandments with significant American texts became more commonplace as the century progressed. Examples abound, but one will suffice to illustrate the point. In 1907, the Republican Governor of New York, Charles Evans Hughes (who lost to Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 presidential election and then later served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1930-1941), described the American people as, "a people who are honest, and they will not fail in the future to make the Governments of the states and the United States square with the eternal principles of the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence."[12] Once again, the Decalogue took its place beside the most American of documents, standing as a reflection of the very character of Americans.

What does the handling of the Ten Commandments by these individuals tell us about what makes the Bible useful? In a nutshell, the situations in which these individuals found themselves exercised tremendous influence on how they used the Decalogue; their situations informed their uses and perhaps even created their uses. Capitalizing on the Commandments' popular appeal, these individuals connected them with particular interpretations of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in an effort to express specific notions of American identity. Others found these associations useful in confronting or rebutting variant notions of Americanness, while also allaying any suspicions regarding their own. Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and others did not necessarily use the Commandments to create their ideas of American identity, but they certainly used them to advocate their ideas and to critique those of others. In the process of doing so, they redefined the Commandments, not only in terms of meaning, but also use: the Commandments had become an American text.

Historical-critical scholars have long recognized multiple factors influencing a biblical text's ancient or original meaning, including the author's purpose, audience, and culture. Some may charge that these Gilded Age and Progressive-era Americans misinterpreted or misused the Decalogue. From the perspective of historical-critical studies, they clearly did so. When understood, however, from the vantage point of reception history, the criterion for making this judgment shifts. All those mentioned in this essay agreed that the Decalogue was an American text; that is, a text expressing common American ideals. They disagreed over what exactly that meant in the context of America's developing industrialization and nationalism.

The application of the Decalogue to this context exerted great influence on how it was interpreted and used; democracy, capitalism, nationalism, industrialism, labor-management conflicts, and political campaigns helped shape its meaning and use by Americans of that era. Of course, not all agreed on the various uses to which the Commandments were put, giving rise to conflicting interpretations. Roosevelt's comments during the 1912 presidential campaign regarding the United States Constitution are pertinent in this regard: "Now, the power to interpret is the power to establish."[13] In the struggle to establish the Decalogue's use and meaning as a national text, Americans employed a different criterion to establish its meaning—not its adherence to the ancient or "original" meaning, but rather a meaning derived in light of contemporary issues and understood in relation to national identity. Later generations inherited this propensity to see the Decalogue as an American text.

As biblical scholars it behooves us to view the Bible holistically—that is, as a text whose meaning and use go hand-in-hand and are not static—and to pay close attention to the dynamics involved in the circumstances surrounding particular uses of the Bible. It is these factors that shape and mold understandings of a biblical text—understandings that often become part of the mainstream of interpretive traditions and as such, assumed and unquestioned. To understand a biblical text, therefore, is not merely to understand its ancient meaning; it is to understand the subsequent contexts that create opportunities for its use.

Scott Langston, Texas Christian University


[1] A version of this paper was presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA. A longer version is currently being prepared for publication.

[2] Many helpful overviews of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era exist. Among them are Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), Lewis L. Gould, America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914 (Harlow: Longman, 2001), and Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] New York Times, March 8, 1887.

[4] New York Times, August 16, 1895.

[5] New York Times, October 9, 1898.

[6] New York Times, June 4, 1899.

[7] Theodore Roosevelt, "True Americanism." In American Ideals/Administration—Civil Service in The Works of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1897), 34; first published in The Forum (April 1894).

[8] New York Times, February 12, 1911.

[9] New York Times, October 2, 1900.

[10] New York Times, October 19, 1900.

[11] New York Times, October 24, 1900.

[12] New York Times, September 4, 1907.

[13] Theodore Roosevelt, "A Charter of Democracy." In The 1912 Election and the Power of Progressivism: A Brief History with Documents (ed. Brett Flehinger; Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's: 2003), 81.

Citation: Scott M. Langston, " What Makes the Bible Meaningful/Useful: The Ten Commandments and American Ideals ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2008]. Online:


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