A Ten Commandments monument now sits outside the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock.
As some monuments are taken down in the United States, others go up. If we have learned one thing through the recent and ongoing Confederate monument debates, monuments actually tell us more about the era in which they were erected than they do the event that they celebrate.
With this in mind, the Arkansas monument will be interpreted by future historians as a symbol of the culture wars. More specifically, it will be interpreted in the context of the Christian Right’s attempt to defend the idea that America is a Christian nation.
Historically, these kinds of monuments–whether they are religious or patriotic in nature–tend to appear in times of great social change. They are one of our best windows into the fear that members of a majority group feel when newcomers arrive or when they must deal with cultural shifts. It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution (and the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy) began erecting monuments all over America around the turn of the 20th-century. This, after all, was a time when the demographic make-up of the United States was changing with the arrival of millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Politicians exploit these fears in order to win elections. They then fulfill their campaign promises by building monuments that reflect their anxieties. I guess it makes people feel better. Apparently a monument now somehow makes Arkansas a Christian state.
Several historians who oppose the removal of certain Confederate monuments have suggested putting the monuments into context so that people can understand the world of white supremacy in which these monuments were erected. With this in mind, perhaps Arkansas might consider erecting another monument at the Capitol engraved with a verse from the New Testament:
There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. –1 John 4:18.
Secondarily, we might ask if this new Arkansas monument represents good history. You can find answers to that question here.
I also recommend Jenna Weissman Joselit’s book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.