I recently read Jenna Weissman Joselitt’s book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments and discussed it with my class. The book tells a story about how and why Americans made the Ten Commandments a focal point for larger issues – such as American identity, “Judaeo-Christian” values, and even our superiority to the U.S.S.R.- and how those issues changed over time.
One of the book’s motifs that stood out for me was the intersection of the Ten Commandments with capitalism. Throughout the nineteenth century Americans had a robust interest in the Ten Commandments, although that interest never resulted in the kinds of attempts that we witness today to erect them as public monuments. Joselitt sees Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments as a turning point. The release of this movie was significant not because it increased awareness of the Ten Commandments – everybody already knew what they were and in any case the movie was more about Moses than the Ten Commandments – but because it also unleashed the power of capitalism on them. The movie was accompanied by waves of Ten Commandment kitsch, including a Moses action-figure. This explosion of commercial interest in the Ten Commandments led to DeMille’s second, and better known 1956 version which in turn created yet a new wave of commercial activity. The first public displays of the Ten Commandments by the Eagles Fraternal Organization were, in fact, connected to the release of the film. The Ten Commandments lined the pockets of many.
This intersection of religion and capitalism raises an interesting question: Had capitalism and the motive for profit not driven the production of goods and information related to the Ten Commandments, would they have ever achieved the prominence in our national discourse that they did? Whatever one thinks of profiting off the sacred, it may well have been the search for profit that enabled its spread. The Ten Commandments are far from the only example of this kind of intersection (my colleague, Daniel Vaca, researches the role of for-profit publishers of religious texts in America) but they are one fascinating example of its dynamics.
One way to approach this question, which Joselitt does not address, is to compare the roles that the Ten Commandments play in America to that of other countries. My impression is that interest in and public displays of the Ten Commandments are far less common outside of the United States, perhaps at least in part precisely because they were never ceased upon for profit in the same way. Whether this is a good or bad thing is in the eyes of the beholder.