Louisiana Ten Commandments Law Is Christian Nationalism

Jeff Landry, the Republican attorney general for Louisiana and now the state’s governor-elect, at a campaign event in Monroe, La. on Oct. 11, 2023. (Emily Kask/The New York Times)

Louisiana governor Jeff Landry at a campaign event in 2023.
Photo: Emily Kask/The New York Times/Redux

Louisiana’s Republican governor, Jeff Landry, has signed a bill into law that will require the state’s public schools to display a version of the Ten Commandments. He wasn’t coy about his rationale. “If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original law-giver, which was Moses,” Landry said at the signing ceremony. The bill’s supporters were equally blunt. “I’m not concerned with an atheist. I’m not concerned with a Muslim,” said state representative Dodie Horton, who wrote the bill. “I’m concerned with our children looking and seeing what God’s law is.” Others claimed the law was not “solely religious” in purpose. Rather, the Ten Commandments have “historical significance, which is simply one of many documents that display the history of our country and foundation of our legal system,” said a Republican state senator.

But Landry signed the bill alongside others that were intended to expand the influence of religion — or perhaps a specific strain of Christianity — in Louisiana public schools. As Reuters reported on Thursday, the measures “authorize the hiring of chaplains in schools, restrict teachers from mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity, and prevent schools from using a transgender student’s preferred name or pronouns unless granted permission by parents.” That news will please the Christian right, which has long sought to break down the wall separating church and state in public schools. Others may object. To risk belaboring the obvious, not all religious traditions embrace the Ten Commandments or believe Moses was, as Landry put it, “the original law-giver.”

Louisiana is the first state with such a requirement on the books. Republicans in other states have proposed similar laws, but they have never come to fruition because legal action is guaranteed. And, as expected, several organizations — including the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, where I worked for several years — have already filed suit over the new law. “Even among those who may believe in some version of the Ten Commandments, the particular text that they adhere to can differ by religious denomination or tradition. The government should not be taking sides in this theological debate, and it certainly should not be coercing students to submit day in and day out to unavoidable promotions of religious doctrine,” the groups said in a joint statement. Will the courts agree? They should. The law’s supporters can say what they like about the Commandments being a historical document, but that’s a thin disguise for the true, and deeply religious, intentions behind the law. Even so, I don’t love the groups’ chances in court. The Supreme Court in particular has taken steps to erode the separation of church and state now that conservatives have the majority.

Whatever the eventual fate of the law, its very existence is telling. Public schools are secular by design, making them a key battleground for Christian nationalism. There is a difference between education and indoctrination, and the real purpose of laws like this one is to encourage the latter. Republicans did not act in a vacuum; the Christian right has successfully injected its specific beliefs into public schools all over the country. NBC News had previously reported that over 300 public schools in a dozen states have set up chapters with LifeWise Academy, a Christian group that holds weekly religious instruction for students. Though students do leave their public schools to attend lessons with LifeWise, the instruction takes place during school hours — during lunch or instead of classes like gym and art. (LifeWise is legal thanks to Supreme Court rulings that predate this iteration of the Court.) The Oklahoma Supreme Court will soon decide whether a Catholic school will become the nation’s first explicitly religious charter school.

Battles over religion in public school are not only common, they date back centuries. In 1844, anti-Catholic riots erupted in Philadelphia after a chain of events that began with a local bishop objecting to readings of the Protestant Bible in city schools. But the Christian right’s bid to embed the Ten Commandments more formally into American public life extends beyond the classroom door. It’s part of a broader argument that America was founded not only on Christian principles but on Christian laws, thus making it a Christian country. Before several women accused former Alabama judge Roy Moore of sexually abusing them as teenagers, ending his hopes of becoming a U.S. senator, he was known for displaying the Ten Commandments. In fact, Moore was suspended from his role as chief justice of the state’s supreme court after he refused to obey a judge’s order to remove a 2.6-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. The state’s voters later reelected Moore as chief justice until he was suspended for judicial misconduct (again) in 2016. On Thursday, Moore praised the Louisiana law. “There is a lot of talk in politics right now that we’re so divided in our country,” he told “But until we go back to some standard of right and wrong, it’s all going to be about power in the country. It shouldn’t be. Power will not solve our problems. God will.”

The popular Christian minister David Barton has also promoted the idea that the Ten Commandments are a founding document of the United States government. Barton, who is not a historian despite how he portrays himself, testified in support of a Texas bill that resembled Louisiana’s new law. “It’s hard to say that anything is more traditional in American education than the Ten Commandments,” he said. Barton’s son, Tim, the successor to his ministry, agreed: “The very foundation of moral law for all of the western world for the morals of civilization have been derived from the Ten Commandments.” To Barton senior, the separation of church and state is just “a liberal myth.” The problem with Barton is that he doesn’t tell the truth. He relies on fake quotes and cherry-picked facts to argue, falsely, that America was based on the fundamentalist principles he holds dear.

Why display the Ten Commandments? Likely for several reasons, but among the most compelling is a thirst for sectarianism. Christian nationalists are looking to score points against their foes — and win an ideological war in the process. If America is a Christian nation, nobody else truly belongs. Not atheists, not Muslims, not Jews, not even other Christians who disagree with their interpretation of the Bible. That’s a lesson Louisiana Republicans hope to impart to Americans as children. Philadelphia’s nativist riots remind us where sectarianism can lead. Louisiana’s new law may not lead to physical violence against religious minorities, but it does perpetuate violence of another sort: It’s a brute power grab. It says everything about where Christian nationalism is right now and where it’s headed next.

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