Holy Moses! US agonises over display of Ten Commandments

Click to follow
The Independent US

If you want to know why America is agonising over whether and where to display the Ten Commandments in public, blame it all on Cecil B DeMille.

If you want to know why America is agonising over whether and where to display the Ten Commandments in public, blame it all on Cecil B DeMille.

It was DeMille, of course, who directed the Hollywood version of the Biblical story - twice: the first time as a silent movie, and the second time with a full-bearded Charlton Heston bringing the tablets down from Mt Sinai in full 1950s Technicolor. But it was also DeMille who encouraged a Cold War-era military group called the Fraternal Order of the Eagles to sponsor a Ten Commandments monument in the grounds of the Texas state capitol building in Austin.

That monument, along with a second in Kentucky, is the subject of a fractious legal case, heard by the Supreme Court last week, on the ever-contentious topic of the separation of church and state. The court, unsurprisingly, found itself deeply divided on the subject, and is not expected to issue a ruling until June.

It seems almost funny, given the daggers-drawn attitude of many religious conservatives towards Hollywood these days, that the originator of the commandments controversy should be none other than the quintessential pioneer of the celluloid sword-and-sandals epic. And it's even funnier when one realises that part of DeMille's motive was to give a promotional push to his own movie.

The Fraternal Order started handing out written copies of the Ten Commandments across America in 1951, saying they hoped the initiative would help to stamp out juvenile delinquency. But it was DeMille who encouraged them to have the commandments etched on stone, just as they had been in his film. They took up his suggestion and distributed examples around the country at city halls, courthouses, state capitols and public parks.

American conservatives have always been much more fond of the commandments, with their tinge of fire and brimstone, than, say, the Sermon on the Mount. In the context of the Cold War, "blessed are the peacemakers" never played particularly well. The issue roared back to attention last year when the Chief Justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, was stripped of his post because he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the entrance to his courthouse.

The conservatives' attempts to introduce Biblical imagery to public places has caused them to collide repeatedly with more secular defendants of the First Amendment, which establishes the separation of church and state, albeit in less than entirely clear-cut language. It says that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Where that leaves public displays of religious imagery is anybody's guess. Some of the Supreme Court justices were clearly infused with the spirit of the Fraternal Order as they argued that the US government derives its authority directly from God. Justice David Souter, a moderate on the bench, pointed out that Moses is depicted in a frieze on the wall of the courtroom. One lawyer also noted a doorway decorated with both the Ten Commandments and an American eagle.

Clearly, church and state are not as separate as some secular idealists would like to think. Would they feel any better if the old MGM insignia, "Ars Gratia Artis", were inscribed next to each offending monument?