It is time to pick new textbooks in Texas and the big
publishing companies are hawking their newest works. Every five years, the
Texas State Board of Education selects textbooks to be used in all schools
across the state. Given the size of Texas’s student population, the winning
books reap enormous profits for their publishers.
Competition for the American government selection for grades
six to twelve is particularly stiff, but several publishers decided to give
themselves an edge by playing to the Board’s well-known conservative religious leanings.
Some even linked the founding of the United States’ government to Moses! Here
are two claims.
McGraw-Hill’s entry states that Moses’s “idea of a
covenant…influenced the formation of colonial governments and contributed to
our constitutional structure.”
Pearson Education submitted a book containing a “Biography
of Moses” that likens the Ten Commandments to the US Constitution. “Moses
helped establish a legal system, including the Ten Commandments, to govern his
people. Similarly, the founders of the United States wrote the Constitution and
established a system of laws to govern Americans.”
A group of ten academics working for the Texas Freedom Network
indicate the problems with giving Moses credit for these ideas. Their main
point, and one that has been known since America’s founding, is that the
writers of America’s Constitution were influenced by Enlightenment principles rather
The misrepresentation in the McGraw-Hill work is that our
country’s “constitutional structure” is actually based upon John Locke’s idea
of social contract, which was an idea set in explicit opposition to the
Pearson’s howler is that the US’s Founders created a
republic, rather than the monarchy put forth in Moses’s laws. In fact, the
Founders were explicitly “reacting against several of the crucial elements of
the moral, legal and political tradition associated with Moses and the Ten
Commandments.” One element was of course the divine right of kings to rule
The notion that Moses provides anything more specific to
American government than a desire for good governance is unfounded. So why is
he showing up in these textbooks?
Well, we can thank Hollywood. The link between Moses and
America was most profoundly portrayed in that 1956 film, “The Ten Commandments,”
directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as
As Bob Torry and I demonstrated in our 2007 book, “Film and
Religion,” DeMille’s blockbuster infuses the Ten Commandments and the Jewish
Law with a decidedly Christian character. Despite the tablets, God says that the
Law is most importantly written on the Israelites’ “hearts and minds.” This
spiritualization of the Law likens it to the work of the Holy Spirit in
Christianity, which enables inner transformation. In turn, the Jews of the
Exodus become the model for the future Christians.
But DeMille takes a further step. His Israelites are not
just future Christians, but Americans as well. In the pressure cooker of the
Cold War, this mid-fifties film explicitly links Moses’ followers with the
United States and the Egyptian enemy with the Soviet Union.
And in case the film’s symbolism was not clear enough,
DeMille himself comes onstage before the start and states that this is a story
of how God’s “Law of Freedom” opposes tyranny and that “this same battle
continues throughout the world today.”
And audiences lapped it up. “The Ten Commandments” became
not only a wildly successful movie, but it placed the Cold War into a cosmic
scenario in which God sided with America against the godless Communists.
Moses’ founding of the Hebrew nation through the giving of
the Law, as portrayed by DeMille, formed the model for the foundation of the
United States of America. The tensions of the Cold War were allayed by the firm
conviction among many Americans that we were in the right and God was on our
side. God guided this nation, just as He guided Moses and the ancient
Israelites. DeMille’s filmic reinterpretation of the Exodus set the rhetorical
basis for linking America’s founding to Moses found in these textbooks.