Moses’ day in court

Dr. Ek is a retired journalism professor and frequent CN&R contributor.

Very soon the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the thorny question of whether the Ten Commandments can be posted in public places without violating the constitutional separation of church and state. Given that our $1 bill displays the words “In God We Trust,” an extension of the First Commandment, I’m surprised how much controversy this concept has created.

The case before the court (Van Orden v. Perry) centers on a challenge out of Texas, where a federal appeals court decided a granite monument engraved with the commandments and placed on the state capitol grounds in Austin in 1961 need not be removed because its display was “nonsectarian.” This generating circumstance, in turn, is a freak because it’s rooted in a movie: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, a film to which I feel close ties.

Idled between career jobs during the summer of 1957, I took a temporary job as assistant manager at the Roxie, a small, former vaudeville theater in downtown Oakland, where the DeMille epic had been booked to insure an extended run. Lines circled the block for the twice-daily showings of the long, spectacular feature. Parting the Red Sea on the big screen was considered a technical marvel, and the show also featured the innovation of multiple stereo speakers.

Although I left before the run ended, I had watched the show so much I could recite whole passages, and I personally felt the power of Charlton Heston, a convincing Moses with his flowing white beard, bringing the commandments down from the mountain. I still know the commandments, a rarity these days. Most folks know maybe one (no adultery, a common transgression) or two (no murder) but then stall. As a nation, we revere holy faith, yet it’s often said U.S. Christianity is 3,000 miles wide but only a foot deep.

DeMille first produced The Ten Commandments, called the Titanic of the silent era, in 1923, yet his second effort again failed to satisfy his mission. He paid to have scores of engraved public monuments of the commandments erected around the nation by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. I hope the all-knowing and all-wise court rules the monument is “secular” or “nonsectarian” because, after all, Moses is depicted in two places in the Supreme Court building itself. One is an unnamed but unmistakable likeness complete with tablets at the center of the east pediment, while the other appears on a frieze featuring 17 world-famous lawgivers whose efforts transcend time.

This big fuss, a legal tempest in a teapot, must have DeMille spinning in his grave.