Ten Commandments gone wild! The Christian right's latest toxic distraction

A tale of the evangelical right, the least religious president ever and Cecil B. DeMille's phony list from God

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 7, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Sculpture of Moses holding the Ten Commandments (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Sculpture of Moses holding the Ten Commandments (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

“I LOVE THE TEN COMMANDMENTS,” trumpeted Donald Trump on his Twitter knockoff site, in the wake of the passage of a widely-reported new law in Louisiana. Trump wasn’t exactly lying, for once, as he went on to explain: It was all about the branding. The commandments should be displayed, he wrote, “IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, PRIVATE SCHOOLS, AND MANY OTHER PLACES, FOR THAT MATTER. READ IT — HOW CAN WE, AS A NATION, GO WRONG???”  

The hysterical disconnect between professed and practiced religiosity is with us always, but this hyperbolic extreme, which barely caused a ripple in the media, is worth serious reflection, both on its own and to fully appreciate the significance and multiple contradictions embedded in and surrounding the Louisiana law that elicited Trump's enthusiastic endorsement. The law itself follows from the Project Blitz playbook (described here in 2018), which laid out a three-tiered framework intended to advance a Christian supremacist, if not dominionist, agenda. Though Project Blitz later went into stealth mode, associated figures such as Texas-based pseudo-historian David Barton and Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum, openly claimed credit for the bill. It would clearly be considered unconstitutional under established judicial precedent, but the current Supreme Court supermajority — with three justices appointed by Trump — no longer cares about that. The Constitution means whatever they say it means, apparently, and precedent be damned. 

Actual history tells a very different story, perhaps most comprehensively articulated by Andrew L. Seidel in his 2019 book “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American” (Salon interview here.) He provides a detailed examination of how and why biblical principles are fundamentally at odds with our constitutional order. It may sound simplistic to contrast a country built on rebellion with a book built on obedience, but in fact, Seidel argues, that's exactly right. “America's justice system demands proof of guilt to avoid punishing innocence," he writes, but "the Judaeo-Christian god intentionally harms innocents to punish the guilty.” 

Why is this relevant here? Because Seidel is literally discussing the Ten Commandments, and referring to text excised from Louisiana's version. I reached out for comment, and Seidel replied:

Louisiana's Ten Commandments lawsuit actually disproves the Christian nationalist claim that the Ten Commandments are the basis of America's moral foundation. One need only compare the text that will go on classroom walls with the text of the Bible. Louisiana lawmakers edited and abridged the biblical commandments to “improve” the Word of God, to make them more moral. Gone is the reference to a jealous God punishing innocent children for the crimes of their parents (Exodus 20:5); the crime of exercising their right to freely worship. Lawmakers used our modern morality to edit the word of their God. Louisiana's heavily edited commandments undercut the very claim they are supposedly making.

As we’ll see below, Louisiana's legislators didn’t write their own text, but they clearly made a deliberate choice about what to copy and paste. 

If this were an intellectual debate, we could stop here. But it’s politics, which is full of challenging absurdities. Trump was only a distant spectator to the Louisiana bill, but he’s both a symptom and a super-spreader of the underlying moral abyss. Eight years ago, many evangelical Christians had their doubts about Trump. His running mate, Mike Pence, clearly helped calm, as did "apostle" Lance Wallnau, whose book “God’s Chaos Candidate” compared Trump to the Persian King Cyrus, a "heathen" instrument of God’s will. But now Trump openly compares himself to Jesus and his followers eat it up, while his flagrant violations of the Ten Commandments are shrugged off, at best. Pastors who preach on the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus told his followers to "turn the other cheek," are accused of pushing “liberal talking points.”  

Eight years ago, many evangelical Christians had their doubts about Trump. His running mate clearly helped, as did Lance Wallnau's “God’s Chaos Candidate,” which compared Trump to the biblical King Cyrus.

In short, Trump has helped catalyze a profound disorientation of Christianity, deep into gaslight territory. By comparison, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry is just a garden-variety Republican liar. “If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver,” he said on signing the bill. It's an obviously illogical claim — you could also start by not nominating a convicted criminal for president — that’s also ludicrous and false in several different ways.

If we turn to the actual Bible, Moses is better described as a law-taker, not a lawgiver. There was nothing original about his list of commandments (Egypt, Babylon and others were far ahead) and in any case American law is not derived from the Bible. It comes to us from various places, including ancient traditions of Germanic and Roman law. While the latter tradition certainly absorbed some Christian influences, those come under significant criticism in Montesquieu's “Spirit of the Laws,” which actually was a major influence on the U.S. Constitution, and thus our rule of law. Landry’s claim is so wrong, in so many ways, it makes your head spin. As for Louisiana’s version of the Ten Commandments themselves? As we’ll see below, they literally come from Hollywood, perhaps the crowning P.T. Barnum-style absurdity atop this whole sorry episode.

OK, so which Ten Commandments, exactly?

There are, in fact, three different versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible: two in Genesis and one in Deuteronomy. While the versions in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are similar (but not identical), the commandments given to Moses on top of Mount Sinai and engraved on two stone tablets, as recounted in Exodus 34, is nothing like the list of crimes most people know. It starts off with “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you,” and concludes with “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” There’s no mention of stealing, bearing false witness or committing adultery, as Donald Trump will no doubt be happy to learn. 

In short, this is a perplexing state of affairs. In Exodus 20, God verbally gives Moses the first version of the Ten Commandments, followed by another 10 chapters of law, separated by a brief pause. It’s only at the end of Exodus 31 that God gives Moses two stone tablets “inscribed by the finger of God.” In Exodus 32, Moses breaks those tablets in anger at those who worship the golden calf and then, in Exodus 34, God tells Moses to make two new stone tablets and promises to inscribe the words from the first tablets on them. Except that the words that follow are clearly not the same.

I turned for guidance to biblical scholar André Gagné, the author of “American Evangelicals for Trump” (Salon story here), who pointed me toward a couple of clarifying overviews. "The Ten (or Eleven) Commandments" by Australian scholar Stephen D. Cook was particularly helpful. After quoting from Exodus 34, Cook observes: "This is definitely not the list of ten commandments which most people are familiar with, but it is the only list in Exodus which is actually called 'the ten commandments.'”

I wrote back to Gagné: "I guess this means there aren't better answers, just better adaptations to the fact there aren't better answers." He replied with a thumbs-up emoji.

The Ten Commandments recounted in Exodus 34 are nothing like the list of crimes most people know. It starts off: “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you.”

This is what it’s like in the world of serious Bible scholarship, a lengthy academic tradition whose rigorous pursuit of knowledge sparked a backlash in America and the English-speaking world that you may have heard about: fundamentalism. What you may not know is that fundamentalism borrowed its name and considerable momentum from a publication called The Fundamentals, bankrolled by the Los Angeles oil-baron brothers Lyman and Milton Stewart, who went on to subsidize considerable fundamentalist infrastructure in the U.S.

We'll get back to that connection between plutocrats and right-wing Christianity, but first there’s the vexing problem of which form of the Ten Commandments should be forced onto schoolchildren. Presumably not the Exodus 34 version quoted above, but that hardly solves everything. Wikipedia even offers a chart showing how eight different faith traditions group and number the commandments. 

Even in Louisiana, passing this kind of law wasn't entirely easy. “Some years ago a Ten Commandments bill never got out of committee," said researcher (and Salon contributor) Frederick Clarkson, because legislators "couldn't decide which version of the Ten Commandments was correct,” apparently because of disagreement between Catholics and evangelicals. This time around, he noted, the bill’s legislative sponsor is a Southern Baptist from evangelical northern Louisiana, but the governor signed it in a Catholic church, evidence of further negotiation.

Stephen A. Cook’s May 2023 post, mentioned above, began with a reference to similar legislation passed by the Texas State Senate, using a version, as he later noted, that “doesn’t appear in any Bible that I know of," describing it as a "highly Christianized version" with "Judaic elements removed.” 

Indeed, the Texas and Louisiana bills call for the exact same language, which happens to be the same used by Cecil B. DeMille to promote his 1956 Hollywood blockbuster "The Ten Commandments," the one with Charlton Heston as Moses. As Fred Clark noted on his Slacktivist blog, the DeMille text of the commandments was apparently first concocted by a “Minnesota juvenile court judge named E.J. Ruegemer [who] started sentencing young people who’d gotten into trouble with the law to study the 10 commandments with a local pastor.” Clark continues:

Since Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and other traditions all number the Ten Commandments differently, Ruegemer’s poster tries to avoid alienating any of those groups by simply not numbering them. And because different traditions favor different translations, he paraphrases slightly from the King James Version he used as a starting point. That’s why the language of the poster is KJV-ish, but not always actually KJV.

Nine families with children in public schools have filed suit over the Louisiana law. One of the plaintiffs, Joshua Herlands, struck a number of key themes in a public statement:

As a parent, an American, and a Jew, I am appalled that state lawmakers are forcing public schools to post a specific version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom. These displays distort the Jewish significance of the Ten Commandments and send the troubling message to students that one set of religious laws is favored over all others. Tolerance is at the heart of our family’s practice of Judaism, and this effort to evangelize students, including my children, is antithetical to our core religious beliefs and our values as Americans.

The Hollywood Commandments

Author Kevin Kruse recently posted an excerpt from his book “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” that lays out much of the story about Cecil B. DeMille's "Ten Commandments" and its links to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, one of the most white-bread examples of such groups. The whole thing is well worth reading, but three points are worth noting here.

Kruse chronicles an even broader plutocratic reshaping of public Christianity than the Stewart brothers example mentioned above. DeMille insisted that his screenwriters were to base the work on fact (as if the Bible should be understood in those terms), but in fact scripture offers no description of Moses' life between when his adoption by Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus 2:10) and his adult life (Exodus 2:11). So DeMille actually relied on a trove of ancient apocryphal accounts, selecting whatever suited him, while pretending it was all authoritatively true. Then there's the right-wing gloss of DeMille's entire project: 

“The great clash between two beliefs is dramatized,” the director explained to the Los Angeles Times. “Rameses II represents the ruler governing only by his own whims and caprices, whereas Moses brought to the people a rule of life which was eternal and right because it came from the Supreme Being.” “It is the story of human freedom,” he told the Washington Post, “whether men are to be ruled by law or by the whims of dictators, whether they are to be free souls under God or whether they belong to the state.”

It's flat-out wrong to describe Egypt in the biblical era as a lawless land. Basic laws had been in place in since the predynastic period, going back to about 6000 B.C. Ramses II ruled from 1279 to 1213 B.C., when such laws had been in place for thousands of years. Could a ruler like him abuse his power? Certainly — and how many Christian rulers have done, and will do, the same — especially with gaslighting propaganda like this giving him cover?

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Sociologist Samuel Perry, co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” highlights the distinction between Christian nationalism as an ideology and as a strategy, and the important role of propagandistic distraction. Christian nationalism, he said, has two goals: “First and most obviously, it's used by politicians to signal to their base that they are culture warriors against leftism, Marxism, woke-ism, state-sponsored atheism or whatever bogeyman serves as the scariest threat to conservative white Americans."

Republican lawmakers "must always face what Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt calls the ‘conservative dilemma,’" Perry continued, meaning that they represent the economic elite's interests, but they need votes from people their own policies hurt, specifically working-class white people. So distraction becomes a crucial tactic: 

They point to immigrants, seculars, Muslims, the woke, etc., and tell working-class white people, "Those people are taking your jobs and ruining our economy and making you feel unsafe." Christian nationalist rhetoric and symbolic legal victories (like Ten Commandments legislation) helps in this regard, because politicians can talk about how they're fighting for our Christian heritage and values and those woke leftists are going nuts because they hate America and God.

As Perry noted on Bluesky, US News recently ranked Louisiana dead last among all 50 states, and no. 47 in education. "That's why you pass laws to post Ten Commandments. Distract from your failures & make it look like you're scoring victories somewhere."

"Passing laws mandating the Ten Commandments in classrooms gives the impression that ... they're taking steps to fix public schools by starting with cultural repair.” 

Perry himself lives in Oklahoma, another deep-red state that ranks “among the worst states on most indicators of well-being, including the economy, infrastructure, crime, health and, importantly, education." States like Louisiana and Oklahoma have been "led by Republican lawmakers for years, many of whom have no interest in actually improving public education, but instead replacing it with private schools and home schooling. So passing laws mandating the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms gives the impression that 1) the politician is scoring political victories for their constituents and 2) they're taking steps to fix public schools by starting with cultural repair.” 

Dr. Barbara Forrest, who played a key role in discrediting intelligent design in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, has long been involved in such battles in Louisiana, her home state. She has previously argued that Gene Mills, who helped write the Louisiana law, "has made our state an incubator for political strategies designed ultimately to transform the United States into a dominionist theocracy, making Louisiana a cautionary tale not only for its own citizens but for the rest of the country."

That was five years ago. Today, she says the Ten Commandments law "is only one aspect of a much larger picture in Louisiana," which concerns the influence of the Louisiana Family Forum, Mills' nonprofit group. "Without the LFF," Forrest said, "I daresay we would not be facing the situation we are in down here with the passage of the Ten Commandments law…. The media keep calling this phenomenon Christian nationalism, but dominionism is more accurate."

Both the logic of distraction and the organizing behind it applies just as well nationwide as it does in the Bible belt. Donald Trump functioned as a distraction from past Republican failures, and now that he’s got his own massive failures — the worst COVID record in the developed world, the worst job record since Herbert Hoover, massive criminality and corruption — he badly needs the distractions Christian nationalism can offer, and the support of committed activists like Mills. 

At its heart, the Christian nationalist agenda is very close to authoritarianism or fascism: America is a Christian nation, and Christians (of the right variety) should control every facet of it. Stephen Wolfe’s “The Case for Christian Nationalism” even calls for a “measured and theocratic Caesarism,” noting in a footnote that “modern democracy is often more oppressive than its alternatives.” So despite Cecil B. DeMille's claim, this kind of Christianity can be a facilitator of tyranny. Trump seems to understand that clearly enough.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

10 Commandments Christianity Commentary Donald Trump Evangelicals Religion Republicans