Original post at Two Cities Blog

By Joel J. Miller

Last week a man in Oklahoma allegedly dropped trou, peed on the Ten Commandments monument outside the state house, got into his car, and rammed the granite statue. Satan, he said, told him to destroy it. For what it’s worth, the man’s mother claims he’s a devout Christian who’s had some “breakdowns.” Apparently so.

Publicity stunt

Monuments like this have been controversial for decades now. As a publicity stunt for his 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille partnered with the Fraternal Order of Eagles to install large granite monuments of the Decalogue across the country. The principal stars from the movie were sometimes present for dedication ceremonies.

The effort took on a life of its own. By the time the last Eagles monument was raised in 1985 some 150 had been erected, often on public land.

These were not the only such public tributes. One widely used estimate pegs the number at roughly 4,000 Decalogue displays on government property.

Lawsuits over these monuments eventually became routine. They started in 1958, according to the First Amendment Center, but dozens churned in district courts throughout the middle 1990s. Finally, in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court decided on two cases, none too clearly, as the outcomes hung upon the supposed secular intent of an inherently religious display.

The only monument we need

The same time the Court considered the two cases, novelist Kurt Vonnegut came at the problem from a much different angle, one perhaps more fruitful for us:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. . . . I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break! (A Man without a Country, 98)

It may come off as cynical, but Vonnegut’s complaint strikes me as not only accurate but also helpful in understanding the controversy. Reasonably enough, he’s griping about hypocrisy and misplaced focus, but there’s something else in there worth noting.

Why don’t we need monuments for the Beatitudes? Because our faithfulness is the only monument the Beatitudes require. Jesus did not say the world would know us by our monoliths and statuary. Rather, our love will identify us (John 13.35).

One imagines that erecting a monument would even give us an out. By creating something observable, it takes the pressure off our observance. See, we’re honoring Christ’s commandments. We’ve got them chiseled right here. Meanwhile, we’re hardly meek, pure, or merciful.

Just another publicity stunt?

Vonnegut is right to critique our hypocrisy. And we’re right to correct it. The issue is how.

Oklahoma’s governor says that the state will rebuild its downed monument. Why not? I personally have no problem with such displays and, within certain parameters, neither does the law. But I do think any such project should be approached only within earshot of Vonnegut’s complaint—or it’ll just amount to one more publicity stunt.

For all of our posturing, Americans are fairly ignorant of the Ten Commandments. One study found us more familiar with the ingredients of MacDonald’s Big Mac and the characters of TV’s Brady Bunch than words long recognized as anchors in the Western moral and legal tradition. No number of monuments will fix that.

Like the Beatitudes, the best way to display the Ten Commandments is keeping them. And it’s paramount as Christians that we keep both lists. We are the only monument to our faith anyone will notice. They won’t give two straws about what we display in our words, only what we demonstrate in our actions.

Photo: Lawrence OP. Thanks to Phil Cooke for pointing me to the Vonnegut passage.