Oklahoma Bill Would Violate Basic Freedoms, Rewrite the Ten Commandments

"Ten Commandments" star Yul Brynner (left) participates in a dedication of a Ten Commandments monument, publicity for the Cecil B. DeMille film. Image: Fraternal Order of Eagles

In the waning days of 2023, a banner year for Christian nationalism, Oklahoma State Representative Jim Olsen introduced a bill that would force every public school to display his version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom. 

Olsen, a Sunday school teacher and graduate of the Free Gospel Bible Institute, apparently believes himself expert enough to rewrite his Holy Bible; his bill doesn’t simply tell schools to put up the Ten Commandments, but actually stipulates which version of the Ten Commandments is to be displayed.

Of course, while a standardized version of the Ten Commandments lives in the American psyche thanks to Cecil B. DeMille, there is no single agreed-upon version. Indeed, in any single Bible one can find four different sets of  commandments. Then there are dozens of different English translations of bibles and thousands of translations into other languages that render the commandments differently. 

And these inter-biblical differences are often more consequential than they first seem. For instance, the New Revised Standard Version of Exodus 20:4 prohibits “idols while the King James Version prohibits “graven images.” This discrepancy may seem incomprehensible to us, but it was differing interpretations like these that produced martyrs and split Christendom in the eighth and ninth centuries during the Iconoclastic Controversy. And then there are the many differences between various Jewish and Christian sects in how to number and interpret these different sets of commandments. All of this I explain in my book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American

Seemingly small differences are magnified because Christianity has historically claimed to possess ultimate truth, so any deviation from an absolute truth is significant. Minor variations are further magnified by, as James Madison put it, the “torrents of blood” that have been spilled, trying to eliminate religious differences and impose a state-sanctioned version of religious truth. 

In Oklahoma, a Sunday school teacher moonlighting as a state representative believes himself to be the highest arbiter of that religious truth. Among all of the different interpretations and versions and bibles and sects, Olsen’s bill selects a King James Version of the Exodus 20 commandments—and edits them

Olsen’s commandments (left) are an edited version of those found in the King James Version of Exodus 20 (right).

Gone are the bits about a “jealous God” punishing “children unto the third and fourth generation” for exercising their religious freedom. And Olsen’s version includes several other judicious edits. 

Of course, it’s highly unlikely Olsen (despite his Sunday school chops) rewrote holy law himself. Instead, he borrowed. Monuments with this very same heavily-edited holy writ dot the American countryside and are often the subject of litigation. Christian nationalists claim the monuments show that America was founded as a Christian nation, but the truth is both more prosaic and American (which is to say, commercial): Cecil DeMille and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles placed the stones to gin up publicity for his movie. The Pharaoh himself, Yul Brynner, dedicated the first such monument in Milwaukee in 1955, but it was later moved to private property so as not to violate church-state separation.

A similar bill failed to pass in Texas last year, and it too prescribed the Commandments lite.

While it’s tempting to let Olsen off the hook as an unoriginal copyist, he is the author of this bill and ultimately responsible for the content and the scriptural edits. So let’s be absolutely clear: if Olsen’s proposal becomes law, Oklahoma would be rewriting the Bible. We’re talking about state-sanctioned holy writ. This ought to enrage everyone. Because if the state can rewrite one religion’s holy book, it can rewrite yours. Oklahoma does not have this power. Nor does it have the power to impose that religious edict on a captive audience of your children. 

This is the worst kind of big government conservatives claim to oppose. More to the point, this is one reason we have the separation of church and state, and it’s precisely how that separation protects everyone and helps ensure the foundational value of religious freedom. It not only prevents the state from weighing in on religious disagreements, scriptural discrepancies, and theological debates, but also refuses to empower the state to force its preferred scripture or religious doctrine onto we the people. This is also why the Supreme Court declared in 1980 that displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools was unconstitutional. 

But that hasn’t stopped other state officials, like State Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters, from praising the bill. Walters, a virulent Christian nationalist driven by twin conceits—chasing the faintest gleam of the spotlight and imposing his particular brand of conservative Christianity on the schoolchildren of Oklahoma—said of the bill:

…the Ten Commandments must and should be on display as a founding document of our country.  Our country is founded on Judeo-Christian values, and we should place a priority on learning about this important historical precedent. The breakdown in classroom discipline over the past 40 years is, in no small measure, due to the elimination of the Ten Commandments as guideposts for student behavior. I will continue to fight against state-sponsored atheism that has caused society to go downhill.

One can practically feel the flying spittle. And more importantly, none of this is accurate. The claim that our laws and Constitution are based on “Judeo-Christian” values—a problematic phrase, particularly in this context—are debunked in The Founding Myth, in which I also argued that the Ten Commandments are downright un-American. 

Sure, some of the Ten Commandments overlap with criminal laws that prohibit murder, theft and perjury—including laws in Oklahoma—but these rules are not exclusive or original to the Bible, and they’re universal human principles every successful society has adopted. But the rest of Olsen’s commandments are deeply problematic. The first, “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me,” directly conflicts with the principles on which the United States was founded. No law—and this would be a law—can tell an American to worship a god, let alone which god. Americans are free to be godless (as a growing number are), or, if they wish, to worship every god from every holy book. 

Olsen’s commandments would prohibit free expression and art by outlawing the creation of graven images; prohibit free speech by making it illegal to take the Lord’s name in vain; and, per the tenth commandment, it would criminalize thought (potentially condoning slavery and the treatment of women as chattel as it does so).

Instead of spending time paring down what they claim is the holy word of their god to conform with modern morality, Walters and Olsen would do far better to read Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which we celebrate in just a few days. In it, Jefferson slams “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers … who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others…” 

Olsen and Walters are nothing more and their proposal is fundamentally un-American.