When Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, The Ten Commandments, came out in 1956, lines of people crowded into theaters across America to admire the movie’s spectacular special effects. Thanks to DeMille, the commandments now had fans as well as adherents. But the country’s fascination with the Ten Commandments goes well beyond the colossal scenes of this Hollywood classic.
In this vividly rendered narrative, Jenna Weissman Joselit situates the Ten Commandments within the fabric of American history. Her subjects range from the 1860 tale of the amateur who claimed to have discovered ancient holy stones inside a burial mound in Ohio to the San Francisco congregation of Sherith Israel, which commissioned aluminous piece of stained glass depicting Moses in Yosemite for its sanctuary; from the Kansas politician Charles Walter, who in the late nineteenth century proposed codifying each commandment into state law, to the radio commentator Laura Schlessinger, who popularized the Ten Commandments as a psychotherapeutic tool in the 1990s.
At once text and object, celestial and earthbound, Judaic and Christian, the Ten Commandments were not just a theological imperative in the New World; they also provoked heated discussions around key issues such as national identity, inclusion, and pluralism. In a country as diverse and heterogeneous as the United States, the Ten Commandments offered common ground and held out the promise of order and stability, becoming the lodestar of American identity. While archaeologists, theologians, and devotees across the world still wonder what became of the tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai, Weissman Joselit offers a surprising answer: they landed in the United States.
Recently, I visited the New York State Courthouse here in Jamaica, Queens. For readers who don’t know, Queens is one of New York City’s outer boroughs. It is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, perhaps the most ethnically diverse place in the entire world. About half its population of 2.3 million is foreign born. More than half speak a language other than English at home. About 40% of its residents are white; Asians and African-Americans each make up about a fifth of the population; Latinos a bit more. Statistics on religious affiliation are harder to come by, but apparently about half of the borough’s residents are Christians; of them, Catholics make up the largest percentage, about one-third of the total population. As to the other 50%, Queens has significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and people without formal religious affiliation—the Nones. In terms of religious and cultural variety, Queens has it all.
Given the ethnic and religious diversity of Queens, a work of art I saw in the Queens courthouse surprised me. Decorating the building’s central, ceremonial staircase are a pair of two large WPA-style murals, executed when the courthouse was built during the Great Depression. They make up a unified work. The one on the left, titled “Mosaic Law” (above) shows a crowd of Hebrews surrounding Moses as he descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew script. The one on the right, titled “Constitutional Law” (below) shows a crowd of historical figures—Washington, the Framers, and Chief Justices from John Jay to Charles Evans Hughes—gathered around a stone plaque with the words of the Preamble: “We the People.”
In one sense, of course, the murals should not have surprised me. Displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses is an American tradition. It has become an extremely controversial one, however. Litigants have brought numerous constitutional challenges in the last few decades. Courts have reached different conclusions, based largely on the facts of specific cases. About 10 years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in one Kentucky courthouse violated the Establishment Clause under the so-called “endorsement test.” A reasonable observer, the Court held, would perceive the display as an impermissible, official endorsement of religion. Such an endorsement would send a message of exclusion to non-adherents and make them feel like outsiders in their own community—like disfavored, second-class citizens.
I stood on the staircase for a while and watched people go up and down. Aside from me, no one seemed to notice the murals at all. And I wondered, how could it be, in a place as religiously diverse as Queens, that no one had objected? How could it be that no one had claimed that the murals made him feel like an outsider, a second-class citizen? With thousands of people from different religious backgrounds passing by these murals every day, surely someone would have taken offense and brought a lawsuit. Were people too polite or intimidated to complain? That hardly seems possible, not in Queens. And if someone did bring a constitutional challenge, wouldn’t it have a good chance to succeed? What explains the quietude—the dog that doesn’t bark?
It seems to me there are two explanations. First, it’s quite possible that people in Queens, even the many people from religious traditions other than Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all of which venerate the Ten Commandments—do not find the display at all offensive. They likely accept it as the tradition of the society in which they have chosen to live. Many of them have immigrated here at great personal cost and are not put off by American customs. Peter Berger and others have written about this phenomenon in the European context. Although European elites often argue that religious minorities find public Christian displays insulting, he explains, little evidence exists that the minorities themselves actually feel offended. Berger describes this misguided, or pretextual, solicitude for religious minorities as the “‘battering ram’ approach to policy making: secular elites make use of other faith communities in order to further their own—frequently secular—points of view.”
Of course, there are plenty of secular elites in New York City, and many of them are lawyers. So why has no one brought a lawsuit over the display at the Queens courthouse? Here we come to the second explanation: such a lawsuit would very likely fail. For one thing, notwithstanding its earlier decisions, it’s not clear that the Supreme Court would continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments. A couple of terms ago, in the Town of Greece case, the Court applied a different test to uphold the constitutionality of official, legislative prayer. Such prayer is constitutional, the Court said, because it is an important part of American tradition—and also because it does not coerce listeners to participate. Courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments are part of American tradition as well, and they also coerce no one. If the Town of Greece test applies, Ten Commandments displays would be constitutional as well.
The Court is notoriously unpredictable in Establishment Clause cases, though, and it could well continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays. Even so, it’s unlikely the Queens murals would be unconstitutional. True, an observer could perceive a religious message. Perhaps the implication is that our fundamental law is of a piece with its divine predecessor, and that we, like the ancient Hebrews, are united by our worship of God. But observers could draw a variety of other messages as well. One very plausible interpretation is this: our Constitution is part of the great tradition of Western law, in which the Ten Commandments play a vital role. Another would be, these are two parallel episodes of lawgiving: Just as the ancient Hebrews were a community bound by a received law, so are we Americans today—although our law comes, not from God, but from the people itself. Perhaps there is no special meaning at all. Perhaps the artist was simply trying to dignify the building in a way that people of the time would find familiar and appropriate.
In short, the mural is not clearly an endorsement of religion. Moreover, it has been there for about 70 years now. As Justice Breyer reasoned in one of the Ten Commandments cases, the fact that a display has gone unchallenged for decades suggests that people do not perceive it as an insult or a religious endorsement. To remove the mural now, on the ground that it impermissibly endorses religion, would suggest that government has an affirmative hostility to faith—a suggestion bound to insult believers and cause even greater social tension than allowing the mural to remain. Although the Court might not allow the mural to be installed in a courthouse today, the fact that it is already in the Queens courthouse gives it a kind of grandfathered status.
So, it seems likely the mural will remain. If you’re in the neighborhood, go take a look. You might also visit the nearby Rufus King Museum, the home of one of the Framers of the Constitution—though not, as far as I can tell, one of the Framers depicted in the mural—and the last Federalist candidate for President of the United States. What he would have thought of the murals’ constitutionality, I’m pretty sure I know.
The latest issue of the Harvard Law Review contains an extensive appreciation of a selection of Justice Breyer’s opinions. I thought to note one essay as particularly well done: Professor Richard Fallon’s discussion of Justice Breyer’s decisive concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry–one of two companion Ten Commandments decisions issued by the Court in 2005. In that concurrence, Justice Breyer decided for a variety of reasons that, he said, defied codification by test or iron rule, that the monument that had stood for many years on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. Here is Professor Fallon (footnotes omitted):
Justice Breyer’s third ground for distinguishing prior cases, and especially McCreary County, seems to me to cut to the heart of the dilemma that the Supreme Court confronted. Even if the Texas monument’s long history did not dilute its religious message, that history served as a reminder that the Establishment Clause — read against the background of history — cannot, as Justice Breyer put it, “compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious.” From the beginning, religion has been woven in various ways into American public life. Recognition of this heritage does not, of course, point directly to the correct ruling in Van Orden. It does, however, help to identify the tension that Van Orden required the Court to resolve, or at least manage. Although the Supreme Court has frequently articulated a demand that the government must be neutral in matters of religion, neither that demand, nor what Justice Breyer referred to as the “Court’s other tests,” can “readily explain the Establishment Clause’s tolerance, for example, of the prayers that open legislative meetings; certain references to, and invocations of, the Deity in the public words of public officials; the public references to God on coins, decrees, and buildings; or the attention paid to the religious objectives of certain holidays, including Thanksgiving.”
Without purporting to offer a comprehensive resolution to the tension that the Court’s cases exhibit, Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence suggests a narrow prescription that embodies pragmatic good sense. Although modern governments may not initiate novel forms of support for religious institutions and beliefs, the Establishment Clause should not be read to mandate the chiseling out — which in some cases might be quite literal — of all religious symbols and practices that have long formed part of the architecture of American public life, American public buildings, and American public monuments. To read the Clause so stringently would provoke anger at and resentment of the Supreme Court’s perceived hostility to religion far disproportionate to any good that this approach would achieve….
There is more, and it’s well-worth reading. I, too, admire Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence, but while my reasons are similar to Professor Fallon’s, they are not identical. Perhaps the primary point of divergence in our perspectives is that my defense of historical settlements and practices as a guide to interpreting the meaning of the religion clauses does not depend either on judges’ pragmatic calculations about the comparative social divisiveness of ruling this way or that, or on an overarching or master commitment to religious neutrality, but instead on the intrinsic worth of long-standing historical settlements and customs (doctrinal and social) as a method of conciliating the conflicts that attend these controversies:
The past lies in us and is constitutive of who we are, and though history may be epistemically uncertain, logical certitude is hardly the point of a theory of religious liberty. This point serves as the connection to social history. If the doctrinal negotiations of the past are worthy, though imperfect, counselors for the predicaments of the present–if they are that which we know, and their memory is that which we have–then the objects of those negotiations deserve our attention as well. Political communities are not a-temporal or static associations. They are trans-generational enterprises that depend on the transmission of political and social histories….
The past, in sum, is a beacon. It is a consolation, sometimes effective, other times not, against the ravages of conflict, incommensurability, sacrifice, and tragic loss.
In this lively and provocative book, Michael Coogan guides readers into the ancient past to examine the iconic Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. How, among all the laws reportedly given on Mount Sinai, did the Ten Commandments become the Ten Commandments? When did that happen? There are several versions of the Decalogue in the Old Testament, so how have different groups determined which is the most authoritative? Why were different versions created?
Coogan discusses the meanings the Ten Commandments had for audiences in biblical times and observes that the form of the ten proscriptions and prohibitions was not fixed—as one would expect since they were purported to have come directly from God—nor were the Commandments always strictly observed. In later times as well, Jews and especially Christians ignored and even rejected some of the prohibitions, although the New Testament clearly acknowledges the special status of the Ten Commandments. Today it is plain that some of the values enshrined in the Decalogue are no longer defensible, such as the ownership of slaves and the labeling of women as men’s property. Yet in line with biblical precedents, the author concludes that while a literal observance of the Ten Commandments is misguided, some of their underlying ideals remain valid in a modern context.
In my last post, I discussed the question of attribution of messages. Today, I want to turn to the perception of messages, in particular, the visual perception of religious symbols. We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Does it make sense, then, for courts to distinguish between the textual and the visual, and to consider the latter less troublesome than the former?
Let me start with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber decision in the Italian classroom crucifix case, Lautsi v. Italy. The Italian government argued “[w]hatever the evocative power of an ‘image’ might be . . . it was a ‘passive symbol’, whose impact on individuals was not comparable with the impact of ‘active conduct’.” Referencing an earlier decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the applicants conversely argued “[a]s to the assertion that it was merely a ‘passive symbol’, this ignored the fact that like all symbols—and more than all others—it gave material form to a cognitive, intuitive and emotional reality which went beyond the immediately perceptible.”
The Grand Chamber explicitly addressed the active/passive distinction, stating that “a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality. It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.” Several concurring opinions also addressed the designation of the crucifix as a “passive” symbol. The concurring opinion of Judge Power agrees with the majority’s assessment of the crucifix as a passive symbol “insofar as the symbol’s passivity is not in any way coercive,” but her assessment is more nuanced. She “concede[s] that, in principle, symbols (whether religious, cultural or otherwise) are carriers of meaning. They may be silent but they may, nevertheless, speak volumes without, however, doing so in a coercive or in an indoctrinating manner.” In her framing, the question is not whether symbols can communicate like textual language—she asserts they can—but whether the message communicated is one that violates the negative religious freedom of the observer under the Convention.
The ECtHR is not alone in asserting that visual religious symbols are “passive”: In Lynch v. Donnelly, Chief Justice Burger said the crèche was “passive”; in AlleghenyCounty, Justice Kennedy used the “passive” label to describe the holiday displays; Chief Justice Rehnquist said the Ten Commandments monuments (featuring text) in Van Orden v. Perry were “passive”; in his dissent in McCreary County, Justice Scalia said the Ten Commandments display was “passive”; and the lower courts use the “passive” symbols language as well.
The “passive” label is used in two ways (alternatively or cumulatively). It can be an empirical claim about the way in which visual images communicate. Passivity used in this way suggests less ability to communicate effectively than textual speech. Or “passive” is a label for a bundle of factors—including brief exposure to the symbol, a vague notion of minimal offensiveness, or other characteristics of the symbol that result in its presumed noncoerciveness. But these notions, unlike the empirical claim, go to the context and cultural meaning of the symbol. The empirical claim is false; the neuroscience of visual perception just does not work that way. The context-and-cultural-meaning claim is complex and the “passive” designation is at best an ambiguous and misleading label. Either way, courts here and abroad should stop using the “passive” label to describe religious symbols.