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Heritage, heresy and Hollywood

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Ellen Goodman Boston Globe

BOSTON – This is one of those moments when you really can blame Hollywood for the culture wars. Not the Hollywood of Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, but the Hollywood of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston.

DeMille was the mogul who famously bragged: “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” Almost a half-century ago, he took a few more pages and made “The Ten Commandments.”

When the epic was done, DeMille went into publicity overdrive. He funded the Fraternal Order of Eagles’ promotion of Ten Commandments displays. One of the monuments landed on the grounds of the Texas Capitol where – fast forward – a homeless lawyer happened upon it and took his protest all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tale of the Texas monument was one of two Ten Commandments cases heard Wednesday. The other was about the framed copies of the biblical Decalogue placed in some Kentucky courthouses. The Supremes will have to decide whether putting the commandments in public spaces amounts to a state endorsement of religion, or whether it is merely an acknowledgment of their historic influence on the law.

In the words of Justice Antonin Scalia, “I bet that 90 percent of the American people believe in the Ten Commandments and 85 percent couldn’t tell you what they all are.”

The whole Ten Commandments furor is fueled by religious conservatives and then handed to lawyers who offer a secular defense. In this case, for example, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott defended the 6-foot stone bearing the words “I am the Lord thy God” by saying it was just one presence in a “museum-like” setting filled with homages to other “historical influences.” Kentucky’s Matthew Staver defended the displays that were meant to illustrate “America’s Christian heritage” by saying they were merely a part of an historic tableau.

The historic cover story for a religious message tells you just what sort of a mess we are in. As Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas Law School says, “The court has said that the government cannot endorse religion and the government keeps doing it anyway. Then religious groups are forced to defend it in court by saying it isn’t religion at all – it’s about the foundations of American law or it’s an historical landmark.”

This reminds me of the convoluted arguments over evolution. Old-fashioned biblical creationism is presented to courts and school committees in the secular and pseudo-scientific garb of “intelligent design.”

The Kentucky lawyer actually told the justices that references to “God” in the commandments were minimal. This prompted Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he’d actually read the first four.

Justice Scalia at least had the integrity to protest “watering it down to a secular message.” Then again, Scalia is as close to a theocrat as we get on the bench. He approves of the “symbol that the government authority comes from God.”

Let’s be serious. “I am the Lord thy God” is not a secular phrase. It’s one of many religious – and nonreligious – traditions in America. As for history? The tablets may be a basis of our law, but they may also be one of many religious expressions of the fundamental human need for rules we can live by.

The most legalistic of the commandments provide little actual courtroom guidance. “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t tell us what to do about capital punishment. “Honor thy parents” doesn’t work for child abusers. How long has it been since we prosecuted adultery? Let’s not even talk about coveting.

At the moment, state legislatures can start the day with prayers but schools can’t. It’s OK to have a creche in front of city hall as long as it has enough reindeers to look like a store window.

I don’t wince at the patriarch in the Supreme Court mural holding the tablets. Nor do I want to bulldoze the monuments across the country. Imagine that little dust-up.

But either you admit that the Ten Commandments on public turf make an important religious statement or you pretend they are a piece of our secular history. You can be either unconstitutional or hypocritical.

Cecil B. DeMille, bless his heart, also said, “The public is always right.” Nine justices ruling on the Ten Commandments are likely to give us another tortured decision to try and step out of the culture wars.

In this “monumental” epic, however, allow me to side with Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee: “How strange it is to create a graven image out of a document that says we are not supposed to have any graven images!”

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