October 13, 2004

Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my lawsuit.

I see that yesterday I said I was going to read the Court of Appeals cases about the Ten Commandments and have something to say here, but in fact I never got around to reading them carefully. I got sidetracked into reading Dylan's "Chronicles" again last night, and I don't have anything interesting to say about the Ten Commandments Court of Appeals cases yet. Maybe later. This is not to say that I don't find the legal issues interesting, I just sometimes get tired--especially during my casual, off-hours reading--of one-sided perseverations of the legalistic kind. The subheading of my blog up there begins "Politics and the aversion to politics" and it might well continue "law and the aversion to law." Pop culture is one of my other big topics here, and I also have a love/hate relationship with pop culture. And let me come at this Ten Commandments topic from the pop culture angle. Because how did so many of those Ten Commandments monuments find their way onto public grounds, leading to so many of today's lawsuits? Was it a purely spiritual matter? Was it an improper mixing of religion and politics? Slate has a good collection of images of various Ten Commandments displays (linked by the Slate piece yesterday noting the cert grants). Check out image number 11. Here's the caption:
About half the pending Decalogue cases involve ACLU contests over one of 4,000 identical 6-foot granite monuments donated in the 1950s to communities around the country by Cecil DeMille and the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Here's synergy at work: DeMille wanted to promote his movie The Ten Commandments, and the Eagles wanted to fight delinquency and inspire people "with a renewed respect for the law of God."
One feels a certain temptation to say what could be more a part of our shared American culture than the promotion of a big Hollywood movie? Salon had an article last April, arguing against the notion that the commercial, movie-related origin of the monuments should make us see them as any less religious:
A great many articles written about the contested Eagle monoliths implied or stated outright that DeMille's involvement was strictly promotional. As proof, they noted that actor Yul Brynner (Pharoah Ramses in the film) had spoken at the very first monolith's dedication ceremony, in Milwaukee in 1955. Charlton Heston dedicated another in North Dakota.

"They've got it all wrong," Sue Hoffman told me, exasperated. Hoffman has spent the last two years researching a book on the history of the Eagle monoliths. She has tracked 160 of them and is confident the figure 4,000 is exaggerated. She also says she confirmed that the actors who appeared at dedications -- there were only three -- donated their time. The program was decentralized and grass-roots-based. Local Eagle aeries raised the money for each monolith, and their exact locations were agreed upon with local governments. Furthermore, Ten Commandments monoliths continued to be placed through the 1960s, well after the film's release. Though the dedications coincided with local openings of the film in some cases, and the Eagles endorsed the movie in a mailing to their members, she says the DeMille-Eagles partnership was hardly the publicity juggernaut alluded to in the media.
DeMille, though, was smart enough to reach out to the Eagles while his film was still in production. ...

DeMille heard about the Eagles printing keepsakes of the Ten Commandments for juvenile courts and schools around the country. (Hoffman suspects these earlier versions are partly responsible for the figure 4,000.) In a letter written at the foot of Sinai and published in the Eagles' magazine, DeMille, with his typical melodrama -- the fervor that feels like artifice, but might be fervor -- endorsed the program:
"To guide young people in today's complex world," he wrote, "we need all the light that expert knowledge and advanced scientific techniques can give. But most of all we need the Divine Code of Guidance which was given to the world ... the Ten Commandments. They are older than Moses, older than this mountain, because they are not laws: they are the law."
He telephoned the program's conceiver, Minnesota Juvenile Court Judge E.J. Ruegemer. Ruegemer, who is now 102, could not be reached for this article, but has recounted elsewhere that DeMille sought to expand the program. He proposed brass plaques. Ruegemer suggested full-blown sculptures, hewn from Minnesota granite. ...
If the constitutionality of the monuments depends on the original motive for putting them there--and there is some legal argument that the original motive counts--then we could get bogged down debating just how commercial this monument-erecting project really was. But religion was surely mixed with commerce, as it often is. If underlying economic motives could justify the inclusion of religion in government ... well, we could have some even testier arguments about religion, couldn't we? Which would be ironic, considering that one of the main reasons for having the Establishment Clause in the first place is to spare us from nasty divisions based on religion.

What's interesting to me about Cecil B. DeMille's role in putting up the monuments is that it calls attention to a high culture/low culture distinction many of us make when we think about the depiction of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. Look back to photographs 2 and 3 in the Slate slide show: these are depictions of the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court's own building. What is usually pointed out about these depictions is that they are part of a larger context, showing the history of lawgiving. That secularizing context, the argument usually goes, is what saves the display from a constitutional challenge. But quite aside from that, you know very well that the Supreme Court would never have beautiful, valuable sculpture chiseled out of a historical structure. We're dealing not just with the problem of mixing religion and government, but with elite attitudes about high and low culture. The elegant friezes on the Supreme Court building are high culture, and the chunky, small-town, granite monuments are kitsch, and, as such, subject to attack.

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