If you love something; if you cherish it, and believe it to be of the utmost importance; then you should honor it, protect it, do nothing that would detract from it or diminish it in any way.

Or not:

A Ten Commandments monument is up on the grounds of the [Oklahoma] state Capitol, but it didn’t pass spell check.

“Remember the Sabbeth day, to keep it holy,” reads one.

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidseruent,” reads the last one.

Oh well, eight out of ten ain’t bad. Or so says the man behind this overtly religious display on public property, State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Inquisition):

“It’s a simple fix,” said Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, who hasn’t seen the installed monument.

Yep. This guy sponsored the legislation that authorized the monument’s placement. His family paid for the monument, and has agreed to pay the maintenance costs. But he hasn’t seen the object of his adoration. He didn’t bother to attend its installation. And obviously, he didn’t pay to have someone proofread it, either.

And now, eh, a few whacks, the Ten Commandments’ll be good as new.

The odd amiability of our Devout Public Servant in the face of this desecration got me thinking about a trend I’ve noticed in conservative/religious circles: the transmogrification of important texts (from sacred and secular sources) into totems: objects to be worshipped, not to be read. Or, perish forbid, interpreted through the prism of one’s intelligence and experience.  

After the jump: Cecil B. DeMille spirituality. Plus, our inerrant Constitution’s sacred origin.  

I would love to get the 121 lawmakers who voted for this monument all together in one place, give them each a sheet of paper and a pen, and ask them to write down the Ten Commandments. How many do you think would go ten for ten?

You know the answer. Not many. I’ll be even the most devout lawmakers would have a hard time getting six or seven. That’s because the words aren’t important; just having them around infuses us with the aura of Godliness. Heck, if we had Ten Commandments tablets in every state capital, I bet there wouldn’t be any murder or crime or “legitimate rape” or even any gays or Muslims.

This Oklahoma monument is also a prime example of another unfortunate trend among conservatives: the conflation of Christianity and Americanism. Look just above “The Ten Commandments,” and gaze in wonder at the patriotic pastiche: the eagle on an American flag with the Eye of Providence over its shoulder. Exactly as featured on the original stone tablets brought down the mountain by Moses (one of the Founding Fathers).

And just when you thought the Patriotic Christianist’s worldview couldn’t get any more confused, just take a look at Rep. Ritze’s account of the origin of public Commandments:

Ritze… said Cecil B. DeMille, director of the 1956 film epic “The Ten Commandments,” gave money to the Fraternal Order of Eagles to fund monuments across the country depicting the commandments. Some of the film’s main stars, such as Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, went to unveilings.

That’s right, this “displaying the Commandments” routine started out as a Hollywood publicity stunt.

Which is about right when you think about it, because putting the Ten Commandments in a public place is nothing more than a political publicity stunt. Well, that’s the charitable interpretation. It could also be an unholy mix of Christianity and paganism — treating a physical object as a manifestation of divinity. Which, ironically, was the very sin the Israelites committed while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Commandments. Today, the Commandments themselves have become a golden calf, providing a false sense of security to fearful Oklahomans who believe a stone talisman can forestall the encroachment of secular-humanistic darkness.  

And this commingling of Christianity and Americanism works both ways, as in the elevation of the Constitution to the status of inerrant gift from God. This is most floridly depicted in the work of hack artist John McNaughton, but the same reverence for our founding document can be seen throughout modern conservative circles — from the hard-line originalism of the Constitution’s high priest Antonin Scalia, to the compulsive carrying of pocket Constitutions* by conservative politicians.

*Those pocket Constitutions are, by the way, effective fundraising giveaways for the likes of the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. I’m surprised the entrepreneurial tub thumpers at the Ethan Allen Institute haven’t leaped at that opportunity. Maybe they’ve gotten a bit overly dependent, 47-percenter style, on all those Broughton Bucks.

These would be the same politicians who, at the beginning of the Tea Party Congress, staged a reading of the Constitution from the House floor. Well, most of the Constitution. Part of Article IV was skipped because of a page-turning error, and they omitted parts of the original Constitution (you know, the one handed down by Jesus) that were superseded by amendments, because they didn’t want to read the icky parts about slavery that were in the original Constitution (you know, the one handed down by Jesus).

That would be the same Tea Party Congress that vowed to city the Constitution in every new bill, but couldn’t be bothered to actually do it. Because the words of the Constitution aren’t really all that important; it’s just the fact of the Constitution, its power as a totem of the One True American Religion.

This employment of text as symbol rather than, oh, a way to communicate ideas, can also be seen in conservatives’ steadfast defense of “In God we trust” on our money, and the phrase “under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. When was the last time you had a conversion experience while looking at a quarter? When was the last time a child was zapped by the Holy Spirit while mechanically reciting the Pledge?

That would be never, and never. Same for school prayer: according to conservative dogma, our country started going to Hell in a handbasket when prayer was “banned” from public schools. Which is nonsense in two ways; school prayer had nothing to do with our nation’s salvation or damnation, and prayer is not at all banned from schools — just organized prayer.

The totemization of Christian and American texts does nothing for religiosity or patriotism. It just makes some of us feel better. Mike Ritze’s remarkably phlegmatic attitude toward misspellings in a sacred text is perfectly understandable because deep down inside, he doesn’t care if anybody ever reads the thing; he just wants a totem, a talisman, an icon. An object to mindlessly revere.

Y’know, some people of faith would call this blasphemy.  

6 thoughts on “Totems

  1. give us your take on those seven people at the lower right of McNaughton’s painting.

    And BTW – There don’t appear to be any people of color in the painting.

  2. If this were a fuck-up about Mohammad or the Quran, they’d be beheaded.

    “Thou shalt not let morons take the Word of the Lord and turn it into a joke.”–It’s going to rain heavily in Oklahoma, folks.  They have Pisseth-ME-Off!

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