The Secular State Without the Decalogue
by James M. Kushiner
Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film The Ten Commandments depicted a founding event of Judeo-Christian civilization, the Exodus and giving of the Law to Hebrew slaves from Egypt. DeMille's Moses says before his death, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land." Not the biblical Moses' final message, these words were lifted from Leviticus 25:10, where they were prescribed to announce the Year of Jubilee and the freeing of slaves.
DeMille was not the first to appropriate this verse about slaves. In 1752, the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned a bell inscribed with Leviticus 25:10, setting LIBERTY in all caps (aka the Liberty Bell). This general liberty was not particularly about slaves, for slavery was legal in Pennsylvania, though contested and eventually outlawed. Nor was it about American independence—the bell was rung in 1760 at King George III's accession to the throne. But it later became an icon of American ideas of liberty.
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James M. Kushiner is the Director of Publications for The Fellowship of St. James and the former Executive Editor of Touchstone.
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