Ten Commandments campaign was first a movie publicity stunt

Ten Commandments campaign was first a movie publicity stunt March 26, 2019

Who knew that a failed national campaign to place monuments inscribed with the “Ten Commandments” on government property began as a publicity stunt for the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille Christian-themed epic “The Ten Commandments”?

ten commandments god trust politics laws
Actor Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” 1956. (Prayitno, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

The campaign was launched by DeMille in cahoots with the religious Fraternal Order of Eagles, according to a news release by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Judge E.J. Ruegemer, an Eagles member, had envisioned displaying the Ten Commandments in granite monuments in courthouses throughout the United States, coincidentally “to patriotically promote the granite industry of his home state of Minnesota.”

A publicity ‘coup’

FFRF notes that the campaign ended up being a “public relations coup” for DeMille’s then-new but ultimately Academy Award-winning movie.

This reveals just one of the many ways the evangelical Christian Right has purposefully tried to insinuate religion into the American body politic over many decades and, as we have seen, too often succeeded.

Fortunately, although the Ten Commandments campaign was good for the movie of the same name, it didn’t achieve what Christian evangelicals had hoped. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 ruled that placing Ten Commandments monuments on public property was unconstitutional, but only after such displays were already scattered in many cities and towns nationwide.

Note in this context that Neil Gorsuch, the first high court justice nominated by President Donald Trump, recused himself from that vote because he had previously dissented when a federal appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling that ratified such a monument in Oklahoma. Gorsuch joined the lower court’s rationale that such display were not unconstitutionally religious and, in fact, that the founding document’s “establishment clause” should never have been invoked to disallow the displays.

Everyone should read this FFRF release to understand the yawning breadth of this continuing stealth campaign to more deeply embed religion in American public life, a democracy-corroding feature the Founding Fathers so fervently labored to avoid. That mention of Christianity’s personal God is nowhere to be seen in the Declaration of Independent and the Constitution is no accident.

‘In God Some of Us Trust’

Continuing evangelical efforts to inundate American schools with the religious phrase “In God We Trust” is also stressed in the FFRF release. Currently, five states — Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Utah and Connecticut — are considering legislation to prominently place placards with the phrase in all their schools. Each state wants to require the placements, except for Louisiana, which plans to only recommend it. Seven states passed such legislation in 2018, one in 2017, and my own state of South Dakota did just this month.

So why are evangelicals so hellbent on doing this?

The week after the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida, when grief-enraged students clamored for action at the state Capitol, the lawmakers didn’t do anything about guns. But state Rep. Kimberly Daniels did promote a measure that she claimed God, in a dream, told her to introduce.

God “is the light,” she told fellow lawmakers, according to the Jacksonville Democrat, “and our schools need light in them like never before. It is not a secret that we have some gun issues that need to be addressed. But the real thing that needs top be addressed are issues of the heart.”

Issues of the “soul,” actually, which means religion. Her legislative proposal bears this out. She wanted to ensure, according to FFRF, that “every public school student is educated in a building where ‘In God We Trust’ — the national and Florida state motto — is prominently posted.”

That bill is now law.

Arkansas state Republican Rep. Jim Dotson has said he believes national motto inherently reflects what it “means to be an American,” the Washington Post reported last December. He sponsored the 2017 bill requiring the posting of motto and has consulted with other states for the same.

“Our history and our heritage is incredibly important, making sure that we as a nation remember our roots, remember where we came from,” Dotson said. “America is an exceptional nation. It’s the greatest nation in the history of this planet. Obviously, that success is attributed not just to individuals but probably some higher power than ourselves.”

‘National motto’?

Nonetheless, the national motto “argument” is fundamentally disingenuous, as was the Ten Commandments one before it. The latter was a publicity gimmick gone viral, and the former is a Christian Right exploitation of the arguably unconstitutional 1956 congressionally authorized replacement of the original motto — E. pluribus unum (from many [peoples], one [nation]) — with “In God We Trust.”

And since the Ten Commandments campaign hit a Supreme Court roadblock because it was (accurately) deemed religious, the new-motto crowd switched horses and began arguing that the slogan is actually only “patriotic” and, as some courts have held (and the high court declined to review) that “God” in the motto’s American context is somehow religiously neutral. Except that every nonreligious and atheist person — now totaling a quarter of the population — beg to differ.

As I’ve posted about a number of times before (including “‘In God We Trust’ on U.S. Money is Purely Political”), the motto change occurred in 1950s in America, which was in the grip of terror of “godless Communism.” Federal lawmakers felt they needed to counter that with godly democracy. Their cover was that the phrase “In God We Trust” had a long history in the U.S., appearing for the first time on an American coin in 1864 (another time, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when Americans strongly imagined God’s presence was sorely needed). The phrase appeared on coins as a direct result of an initiative by Baptist minister Mark RF. Watkinson, who believed the motto would “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism” during that bloody national struggle, according to the FFRF release.

God is secular?

Over time, the phrase became commonly used in America and by 1938 was inscribed on every U.S. coin. In 1955 Congress voted to require it on all coins and paper currency. This practical history is the basis of the Christian Right’s claim that the phrase is actually secular despite being inherently religious. And Congress routinely, including in 2018, has reconfirmed the phrase’s status as the “national motto.”

But FFRF President Anne Gaylor contends, reasonably, that the motto isn’t even accurate.

“To be accurate it would have to read ‘In God Some of us Trust,’” she said, “and wouldn’t that be silly?”

She added this important warning:

“Friends of the First Amendment should take alarm at this campaign. We would hate to see any precedent created to force government-endorsed belief in a deity upon a captive audience of schoolchildren.”

Greg Pittman, who teaches honors U.S. History at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has another practical viewpoint. Even though he is religious, Pittman resents the movement to bring religion into schools after 14 students and three teachers were murdered at his school in 2018 by a recently expelled student.

“I do not see how placing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ is going to protect us from someone coming down the hallway and shooting students and teachers,” he said.

Or prevent the suicide on March 17 of a female Parkland student still wracked by guilt and PTSD a year after the massacre, or a second Parkland student’s suicide several days later. And a few days after that the father of a 6-year-old girl who had been slain in a 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

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