Mark Silk: “I get why Michael Tate Reed destroyed the Ten Commandments”

Arkansas

This monument was recently destroyed by a driver in a 2016 Dodge Dart

Earlier this week I wrote a piece on Arkansas’s decision to place a monument commemorating the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Little Rock. The day after the monument was erected, a guy named Michael Tate Reed drove his 2016 Dodge Dart into the monument and destroyed it.  Tate, who describes himself as a “pentecostal Christian Jesus Freak,” has a history with these monuments.

Over at his Religion News Service blog Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk writes:

…Be it noted that Reed is no anti-religious bigot bent on destroying the iconic expression of Judeo-Christian faith. He’s an apparently devout evangelical — “a born again Christian whos a pentacostal Jesus Freak,” as he put it on Facebook — albeit one with a history of mental illness.

Before destroying the monument, he wrote:

I’m a firm believer that for our salvation we not only have faith in Jesus Christ, but we also obey the commands of God and that we confess Jesus as Lord But one thing I do not support is the violation of our constitutional right to have the freedom that’s guaranteed to us, that guarantees us the separation of church and state, because no one religion should the government represent.

In other words, Reed harks back to the first era of American evangelicalism, when the likes of Roger Williams and John Leland made themselves obnoxious to the ecclesiastical powers that were in New England by vigorous advocacy of keeping church and state as far apart as possible.

Read the entire piece here.  Silk concludes that somewhere Williams and Leland are smiling.

On the Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas

Arkansas

Here we go again.

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.

ADDENDUM: I just learned, thanks to reader A.J. McDonald Jr. in the comments section, that the monument was destroyed yesterday.

The Author’s Corner With Jenna Weissman Joselit

StoneJenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University.  This interview is based on her new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Set in Stone?

JWJ: The importance that so many contemporary Americans attach to having the Ten Commandments a visible part of their physical environment piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look for the origins of that relationship both within and without the confines of the sanctuary. I wanted to know more about how earlier generations of Americans kept these ancient dos and don’ts close at hand – and why.  Many twists and turns later, which brought me to phenomena as disparate as mid-19th century archaeological sites in central Ohio and 20th century Hollywood movies, I came away with a heightened understanding of the multiple ways in which the Ten Commandments imprinted themselves on the modern American imagination.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Set in Stone?

JWJ: The presence of the Ten Commandments is vital to, even an anchor of, American identity as well as a testament to the porousness of the divide between religion and culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Set in Stone?

JWJ: In a word: context.  By exploring how previous generations variously celebrated, redefined, visualized, domesticated, miniaturized and monumentalized the Ten Commandments, the book offers its readers the opportunity to think about the relationship of the past to the present and with it, the life cycle of a religious and cultural phenomenon that is at once divine and earthly, word and object.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Reformed Church Messenger suggested it was high time for Americans to take another look at the Ten Commandments, or, in its words, to “air” and “ventilate” them.  I’d like to think that, a century and a half later, Set in Stone does much the same thing.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JWJ: I wish I could say that I experienced some kind of eureka moment when everything fell into place and my career path was clearly set forth, but that didn’t happen.  Instead I drifted into becoming an historian. From a very young age, I loved to write and to concoct stories and majoring in American history at college seemed like a good fit as well as a creative outlet.  By the time I entered graduate school, I had come to understand that the discipline of history was also a high-stakes enterprise. I relish its fusion of creativity and responsibility.

JF: What is your next project?

JWJ: At the moment I’m considering a couple of options.  Having very much enjoyed casting Set in Stone as a series of narrative accounts, I would like to try my hand at writing an honest-to-goodness mystery set in the past.  We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Jenna!

America and the Ten Commandments

StoneOxford University Press blog is running an excerpt from Jenna Weissman Joselit‘s new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

Here is a taste:

Although we are told that Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, their presence has always been particularly strong in America. Regardless of who invokes them and for what purpose, the Ten Commandments have proved to be incredibly versatile and enduring in our cultural idiom. Below you’ll find ten moments in American history where the Decalogue has made its presence felt.

1. In June 1860, a man in Ohio named David Wyrick found an oddly shaped stone in one of the many Native American burial sites in the area which had indecipherable markings on it. He claimed to have found one of the stone tablets that God had bestowed upon Moses. Largely ridiculed at first, he then discovered another stone, shaped like the top of a church window which was covered in what was later confirmed as a variant of Hebrew script. When brought to experts the script did indeed feature a form of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated, but still the basic text. Was it authentic or an elaborate hoax? You can go to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coschocton, Ohio to see the stones for yourself.

2. In 1897, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan proposed that all immigrants be given a test to display mastery of the Ten Commandments in order to gain American citizenship. He claimed that it was not a religious test but rather a “test that goes to the constitution of society.”

3. In 1905, the Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco revealed the stain glass window of its newly constructed synagogue. At first glance, the window seemed to depict a traditional scene of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets in his hand. Closer examination, however, revealed that the mountain in the background was not Mount Sinai, nor were the flora and fauna that of Israel. Rather, El Capitan of the Yosemite Valley loomed in the background, complete with the plant and animal life of central California, refiguring the Golden State as the Promised Land.

Read the entire post here.