The Ten Commandments: Powerful Symbols and Symbols of Power

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Arts and Humanities | Law | Philosophy


Cases concerning posting the Ten Commandments in public places raise issues about how a culture and its legal organs can confront powerful symbols which convey different meanings to different people. Courts cannot do very well in facing issues of plural meaning. One sign of the inevitable failure of their attempts is the way everyone involved in adjudication, from the legislature to the Supreme Court, makes assertions that are simply conclusory because they tried to talk about meaning in terms of effects and both sides assume that the meaning of posting the Ten Commandments is simply derivative from the meaning of the Ten Commandments themselves. Cases such as these raise three problems: whether such a state action as posting the Ten Commandments is a unifying or divisive act, whether the sacred nature of a symbol such as the Ten Commandments disqualifies it from political uses, and whether the presence of a copy of the Ten Commandments can have practical effects, such as reducing juvenile delinquency or crime, or is the only practical consequence of either posting or not posting the Ten Commandments giving a victory to the wrong side?


DOI: 10.1177/1743872107076378