I cannot remember how old I was when I learned to bless myself with the Sign of the Cross. My mother might have taught me or perhaps it was my first grade teacher, Sister Ellen Marie. It is startling to me over 65 years later that the Sign of the Cross and its physical representations seem to have lost their place in American society. In truth, the Cross as a religious sign is under siege.
Many people say that they are offended when people demonstrate their religious faith. They say that the faithful Christian must relegate such devotional moments to the privacy of their homes. Perhaps the closet is the only place suitable because we might offend visitors, deliverymen and the like. Since homosexuals aren’t in there any more, there should be ample room for Christians.
To me, this is a more than a subtle form of discrimination. Its deep roots have all the earmarks of persecution. The average Christian may have a hard time understanding just what threat their faith has for the secular left.
While Jesus Christ was a simple carpenter, His was a revolutionary Gospel of love and brotherhood. Most people like this idea. He also left the outline of an organized Church, replete with a clergy and a moral order in line with His sermons on charity, chastity and forgiveness. Many people don’t like this idea.
Then of course there is the Divinity claim. To remain faithful to Christ and His church, Christians must acknowledge a power much greater than themselves or any government they might create. Jesus’ Gospel of love and heavenly promise threatens worldly people driven by greed, lust and power. Too many see their wills as more important than His.
Or perhaps it is Jesus’ axiom that the truth shall set you free! Whose truth modern Pilates ask? What does a Church of celibate men know about life? It would be more efficient to live by a malleable truth that they could make up as they went along without concern for absolute truth or justice.
It was Karl Marx and his 20th century acolytes who posted Christianity on its tripartite list of social enemies, along with private property and the family. Its ideological lineage probably traces back much further than Communism. Perhaps Marxism is the new paradigm of the Augustinian dichotomy of the City of God versus the City of Man, making Marx the new Nero, minus his lyre or was it a harp?
By 1930, movie producers were pushing the envelope perilously close to the cliffs of modesty and chastity because of declining box office receipts during the Great Depression. This led to a public clamor for federal censorship. In response, the Catholic Church in Chicago was instrumental in establishing the self-enforcing Will Hays Code in 1930. From 1930 to 1934, Hay’s Production Code was only slightly effective in warding off the public clamor for censorship.
Cecil DeMille’s 1932 movie The Sign of the Cross quickly moved to the center of this national controversy. In this religious epic there was a stark contrast between the Roman world and Jesus’ promised world. The film starred Frederic March and a relative unknown, Italian actress. Elissa Landi. Supporting actress Claudette Colbert’s notorious milk bath captured the headlines. She playfully splashed enough milky bath water so the audience could get a fleeting look at her breasts. To me, that salacious scene is quite tame by our post-modern standards but as the nose of the camel it was a significant departure in 1932.
While there is no way to calculate way how many lustful thoughts emanated from those few brief seconds of visible flesh, her seductive playfulness probably exceeded the parameters for intent for John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She definitely wanted the audience to sneak a peek at her soapy breasts. In retrospect, I believe her brief exposure did have at least one redeemable feature. It helped to provide the sharp contrast between the modestly clad Christian women and the courtesans of Emperor Nero’s pagan court.
While the film was over-dramatized and the filmography primitive compared to modern technology, the story of the Prefect of Rome and his obsession with a young Christian woman was compelling. It was not only a love story but also one of how the purity of a Christian woman could tame the wild passions of a Roman pagan so much that he gladly followed her into the lions’ den. Through the director’s eyes, God used the purity of a beautiful Christian woman to convince the protagonist to renounce his Roman life of lust and debauchery.
Parallels like this would probably be lost on the audiences of today. The Roman persecutions highlighted this contrast in a Hollywood fashion. The scenes of graphic savagery were gut wrenching. This should have come as no surprise since Jesus had warned that the world would persecute and kill many of followers.
The Romans had come to the Forum to see the lions devour the Christians. Several nubile Christian women, who were obviously naked, were tied to posts as lions and even gorillas got ready to rip them part. To avoid the censors, their shame was covered with anachronistic yet strategically placed flower leis, which provided a thin veneer of modesty. While this had a salacious value for many moviegoers, I saw it, as a warning of the extreme the Romans would go to silence Christians.
Fortunately for us, the only lions we let in the arena today are from Detroit yet the heirs to pagan Rome still provide a formidable opposition to the Christian faith. One need only read a newspaper to see that the blood of Christ still flows freely in the world. Sometimes only old movies can provide a persistent clarity of view.
Things finally came to a head in 1934 with widespread threats of Catholic boycotts of Hollywood’s immoral movies. The uproar over Sign eventually led to the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which endured as a formidable benchmark of morality until 1978.
WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.