God & Guns (The Institute on the American Dream)

God & Guns - The Two American Dreams of Charlton Heston


Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Presentation by:  Charles Brock

Smith Chapel, Penn State Behrend


Charlton and CharlesThere are many definitions of the American Dream, and there are around 1000 books on it in print and many documentaries on TV. The BBC put out a 6-hour program recently. You hear about it every day. Why pick Charlton Heston for this inquiry? He is not an academic heavyweight, and certainly not a pin-up boy of liberal American universities. But he certainly is an icon of Middle America. He also has ideas. In his autobiography, Heston wrote that ‘freedom, not success is the American Dream.’ Before opportunity and prosperity could occur, we had to have freedom to move, believe, behave, and worship. In this he goes against the usual leading definition and it changes the whole dynamic.

He has picked up on an ancient tradition. One of the ways ‘freedom’ has been symbolized in America is the story of Moses. John Winthrop, the founder of Boston, was called ‘Moses.’ Washington was called ‘our Joshua.’ George III of England was known over here as ‘Pharaoh.’ Britain was known, again over here, as ‘Egypt.’ Jefferson wanted the seal of the US to be the children of Israel going through the Red Sea and Franklin wanted it to be the pillar of fire that led the Jews through the wilderness. Harriet Tubman, the remarkable African American who freed hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad was called ‘the Moses of her people.’ John Brown, the abolitionist, was called Moses by his sons. Heston admired Martin Luther King, Jr. King on the eve of his assignation had a strong Moses identification that reflects the end of Moses’ life:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seem the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Heston was with King on the 1963 Washington Lincoln Memorial American Dream march and speech. Heston claims that the Kennedy Administration walked a ‘scrupulously neutral line on the issue of integration perceiving it as a fight they didn’t want to get into. He said ‘I’d already gotten into it two years earlier…’[1] when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and did work to foster better racial opportunities. Heston wrote: ‘[King] was a special man, put on earth, I do believe, to be a twentieth-century Moses for his people.’[2]

In May 1988 Communism was starting to look shaky but Russians and others were still under its yoke. In Russia at a briefing on religious freedom in the Soviet Union Ronald Reagan said to them:

The faith of the peoples of the Soviet Union is pure and unbreakable. As Moses led his people from the bondage in Egypt, the early Christians not only withstood pagan Rome but converted an empire, we pray that the millennium of Christianity in Kiev Rus will mean freedom for the faithful in Russia, the Ukraine, the Baltic States, and all the regions of the Soviet Union. And if we pray, we might use the words of the 23d Psalm:

In Thee our fathers trusted; they trusted;
and Thou didst deliver them
To Thee they cried out and were delivered;
in Thee they trusted and were not disappointed.

Now let’s turn to the movies. The Ten Commandments was an important film for Heston and helped him develop spiritually. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster production Heston plays Moses who liberates the Jews from the clutches of the slave driving and freedom hating Egyptians. The forging of the Commandments at the end of the film is not the main thrust of the story compared to the account of the liberation from slavery and oppression. As he said about filming on Mt. Sinai, he didn’t necessarily get to know more about God, but he did about Moses. Regarding Michaelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome, he said ‘it is one of the greatest statues in the world, certainly the finest representation of the prophet. It also looks a lot like me, particularly the nose. The overall likeness is startling.’[3]  He claims that Cecil B. DeMille believed deeply in the message of the film and the power of Moses to reach across the centuries and more people of every faith, kind, and condition:

Over the centuries, Moses and the Exodus he led have inspired those who search for liberty. It’s no coincidence that the first tide of our Protestant forefathers in America bore the names from the Exodus: Moses and Aaron, Abraham and Joshua, Joseph and Isaac. Those same names can be read on the gravestones of the American Revolution. They’ve been carried by generations of black men seeking freedom, and then celebrating it. The words Moses spoke as he watched his people cross over Jordan, free at last, are cut in the rim of our Liberty Bell. They define this country: “Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof.”[4]

Yul Brynner plays Pharaoh, and with his baldhead and rather Russian accent it is not hard to visualize the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev who ran the Soviet Union at the time. The words ‘Go proclaim liberty …’ from Leviticus and the Liberty Bell aren’t part of the Moses story in the Bible, and they have been spliced in, but you can see what DeMille is trying to do. In the 50’s and beyond Communism was considered the evil Egyptian monster, not unlike the view the Founders of America had of Britain in the 18th century.

More recently Heston has been cavorting with the gun lobby and is currently President of the National Rifle Association. There is an American culture war between gun control people and gun supporters who hark back to an American Dream of individual conquest and success, looking after oneself and family by one’s own merits and efforts. I would suggest that the gun for them is a symbol of that quest for individual freedom.

Heston is President of the NRA. He gets his biggest cheer that brings down the dust from the rafters when he says that the government will not take his guns away until they do it ‘from my cold, dead hands’. What is behind this love of guns? I have relatives in central Pennsylvania who love hunting, and they eat their venison and rabbit, usually. Most of us suspect that the devotion to guns is deeper. I would argue that Heston’s role as the NRA chief gunslinger is being used as a platform for the liberty of the individual against big government. As Dave Cross of Saxonburg PA, who drove one hour and 15 minutes to be at a 7:30 a.m. NRA rally hosted by Heston against Gore, said:

I want my constitutional rights protected. I see nothing wrong with law-abiding citizens having guns. I don’t like the government telling me what to do, and it’s getting more pronounced.

Heston said at the rally: ‘Focus on freedom. Freedom has never been in greater peril and needs you more than ever to come to her defense … Instead of fighting the redcoats; we’re fighting the blue-blood elitists.’ Millions see the NRA speaking for the silent hard working guy that only wants to kill animals for food or sport. And it also may have to do with an Iron John West Texas cowboy culture that fears that America will be robbed of its true men who could fight the evildoers who are plotting to attack us again. I know what I am talking about. My wife comes from that part of the world.

There is a sense about this part of his dream that fits into the old venerable frontier spirit. This is the ideal of self-reliance, making it on your own, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and being strong for the sake of your family. That is the old Protestant Work Ethic and it has deep roots in the soil of America. It is also John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so many others. You can get a taste of it in many of the Heston’s films.

That flavor comes in Planet of the Apes as well. In a good film loaded with irony, Heston and others are on a space exploration mission and approach the speed of light. When that happens, according to Einstein, time slows down. They appear back on earth – though they don’t know that it is earth – 2000 years hence and find the place run by apes with a few mute humans in cages experimented on by ape scientists. Heston escapes – the old quest for freedom again – and finally proves to the ape scientists that they are really descendent from humans. But the leader – ‘defender of the faith’ – won’t agree to this because he alone realizes that man is a killer and wants to save the ape colony from its destruction. What is good about the film is its realism about the ‘evil that lurks in the heart of man’ though, like Noah, one righteous man and his woman survived. For Charlton it is better than the biblical ending, as his girl is adoring and above all mute.

Another film is The Agony & the Ecstasy about the artist and sculptor Michelangelo. The main thrust of the film is the struggle between Mike and Pope Julius II, the warrior pope who nevertheless is a great art connoisseur. {Played by Rex Harrison as a very elegant and suave pope and one expects him to break into song from My Fair Lady} Mike has a lot of trouble figuring out what should go on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and he is so discouraged that he destroys his first effort. While on the run from the Pope, he has a mountaintop experience and sees in the clouds God and Adam, and that becomes the most famous of the Renaissance frescos except for DaVinci’s Last Supper. Here is the individual striving against the world, the flesh, the devil, and even the pope but through perseverance and striving comes out on top. Structurally it is close to Mt Sinai & Moses.

In his autobiography[5] Heston muses on the American Dream:
The American experience. So far, it seems the most successful. To history, the two centuries of our small experiment in freedom are an eye-blink, but we are still here. We may not have been able to make democracy spread, but we have  made it prosper. This country is still what we’ve been from the beginning – an example to the world. Man can live free.     In America, democracy works. Not, in these bleak, beleaguered times, as well as we need it to work, but we are still, to the rest of the world, the shining door to freedom. Why? Why is this? Is it our system? Surely, that’s part of it. The America dream? (which is not success, but freedom). It is not that alone, though … I spread out my file cards and  fitted them in minutes into a single paragraph, with an ease that stunned me. I can’t do better here than to leave you with the words of these Americans: Martin Luther King, Jr., F Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Paine, Samuel Eliot Morrison, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps not many can sort out just who said what, but I think most would agree that thee men speak truly, with a common voice about America – one country, one people:

“I have a dream. I refuse to accept the end of man. I believe he will endure. He will prevail. Man is immortal, not because, along among God’s creatures, he has a voice, but because he has a soul …  spirit, capable of compassion … and sacrifice … and endurance. About America, and Americans, this is particularly true. It is a fabulous country. The only fabulous country ... where miracles not only happen, they happen all the time. as a nation we have, perhaps uniquely, a special willingness of he heart … a blithe fearlessness … a simple yearning for righteousness and justice that ignited in our revolution a flame of freedom that cannot be stamped out. That is the living, fruitful spirit of this country. These are the times that try men’s souls. The sunshine patriot and the summer soldier will in this crisis shrink from service. But he that stands and serves his country now will earn the thanks of man and woman. We must bind up the nation’s wounds. With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in.” I believe that says it all.[6]

What can we say about these views? Clearly they are very important for the future of America and the world. His two American dreams are about freedom from oppression and freedom for the individual within American society.

When it comes to the famous Liberty Bell inscription, we have a real biggie of a problem. The carver of the phrase on the Bell added a little ‘s’ at the end of the English translation of ‘land’ and it does substantially change the meaning. GO, PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND[S] UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF! Heston quotes it this way in his autobiography. It is important to note that ‘proclaim’ in Hebrew meant more than just to speak. It also meant to act. To proclaim liberty to the land was to act on behalf of all Jews in Israel. Israel was pretty good at seeking justice within the community, but the only passage in the OT I know that urges Israel to help other countries is from Isaiah 42.7 which was quoted by Jesus in his first sermon at Nazareth:

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
A light to the nations, [in the plural]
To open the eyes that are blind
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon
From the prison those who sit in darkness.

This got Jesus into a lot of trouble particularly when he applied questions of justice to Lebanon and Syria, saying God was interested in them too. The congregation tried to kill him, and it was only his first sermon at that!

Many used a light to the nations as a key text for their own understanding of the American mission. What does that mean for us and the Bush Administration today? Mark Danner in the New York Times Oct 9, 2002 said this:

[The Bush Administration] envisions the remaking of the Middle East. Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq ‘the first Arab democracy,’ as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. In envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq – secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil – that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of US troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush’s ultimate vision of ‘freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.’

Bush stands in the Woodrow Wilson tradition of urging ‘the universal dominion of right.’ It is Presbyterian, Princetonian, triumphalist, millennial, and for some pretty scary. Wilson wanted to impose democracy on most of the world. Harry S. Truman kept a poem Locksley Hall by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his wallet at all times that read:

In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful world in care
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law.

When it comes to our present President, I think that Dubya has added that little ‘s’ to LANDS as DeMille did in the film and Heston did in his autobiography and I would not be at all surprised if Wilson and Truman and that famous Presbyterian and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would think this was right on the mark. It takes the Liberty Bell mistranslation of the Leviticus passage as gospel. But trying to free up the world is a dangerous mission, and has got us into a lot of trouble in the past. Let us not forget Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama, to name a few. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw of two American generals looking at the moon. One said to the other, “Too bad there isn’t anybody up there that we can liberate.”

An important question for today is how this fits into America’s view of Islam and vice-versa. The Koran places Moses second only to Muhammad and sees Moses as well as Muhammad not only as lawgivers but also as liberators from idolatry and oppression. Today radical Muslims see America like the Egypt of old and President Bush as Pharaoh who imposes his will on the world allowing oil to be an idol of his billionaire friends who steal from their shareholders and revel in the fleshpots of Wall Street. The Saudis are allowed to keep their repressive regime as well because it suits SUV owners in the Heartland of America. The Islamic radicals reject the American Dream in most of its forms. There is a long list of grievances that few in America understand. They attack us because they are convinced that we are worshipping idols – of money, sex, drugs, and a kind of McDonaldization of the world. Sophisticates use the term ‘globalization’ but I think that it is important to state that alone is not going to solve the world’s problems.[7]

Are we living up to the exodus and freedom ideals? Or are we incurably hypocritical? Take Palestine for example. The President has called for a Palestinian state, but isn’t doing much about it. Radical Muslims are not those who ‘hate freedom’ as the President so mistakenly said in his State of the Union address. They at least want it for themselves if not for Israel. Can we talk about this with them and can we reach out to our enemies, even love our enemies as a famous Jewish prophet once said, can we try to understand their grievances, or must we conquer and force them into compliance with our way of life? For some that will be about as wishy-washy liver loving liberal as you can get.

What do we say about the love of guns? For millions guns symbolize freedom. Trouble is that guns have taken on a mythical significance – individual freedom, patriotism, frontier spirit etc. We need a national discussion on this that isn’t filled with rancor. Pennsylvania has been called Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. That’s OK, and we can have the discussion right here. We ‘elitists’ had better do so as Southerners are now running the Government and they are going gung-ho for guns.

But there are some little things we can do. There can be better safety checks on guns so that only the owner can use them. We can make it tough as hell to get assault weapons. There can be a national register so that ballistic analysis will tell who owns the weapons when used illegally. The NRA will ultimately support this if they are assured that we aren’t totally invading their individual freedoms. I think we realize that the gun owners don’t want their kids killed by foolish behavior either.

But there is something more we can say. ‘Individual Rights’ are crucial, but it was not the only item on the frontier agenda. When the Founders spoke of ‘pursuit of happiness’ that phrase in the 18th century meant ‘blessedness’ and was partially linked to a communal ideal of working together in a covenanted relationship. There are creative tensions between individualism and communalism that we need to keep in the forefront of thought and action to keep the country both free and strong. The question is whether Heston and the NRA have got the individualism and communalism balance right today.

So, in conclusion, how do the two American Dreams of Charlton Heston pan out? Are they contradictory as dreams often are? Or are they of a piece, resonating with his own definition that the American Dream is about freedom, not success? I ask you to decide.



Why do so many groups hate America? The answer is important for those who want to export freedom as part of the American Dream. In a stunning article Occidentalism [8], Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit claim that many have more or less the same reasons for opposing America and Europe. Japan and Germany before World War II opposed, in no particular order, materialism, liberalism, capitalism, individualism, humanism, rationalism, socialism, decadence, and moral laxity. They promoted self-sacrifice, discipline, austerity, individual submission to the collective good, worship of divine leadership, and a deep faith in the superiority of instinct [faith] over reason. That is close to what bin Laden is saying. [Some American fundamentalists would agree with parts].

The City and the Bourgeois have commerce, mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth, and power. The petty clerk, the plump stockbroker, and in short those sorts who worked in the World Trade Center are not those who commit great deeds or live heroic lives. Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, Japanese agrarian fascists, and Islamists all extolled the simple life of the pious peasant, pure at heart, uncorrupted by pleasures of the city, who self-sacrifices in the struggle for justice.

Reason is contrasted with Soul, or faith. The West is castigated as hollow in the core of its being by not living by a transcendent faith or immutable set of principles.

Feminists are false. The proper role for women is to be breeders of heroic men. They should not be in control except the home and should not deprive men of their places in the armed forces, the universities, or the marketplace. [Some force female circumcision because active female sexuality is seen as a dire threat to good order].

Recent attacks on American heathen shrines [World Trade Center as ‘Tower of Babel’] are to show up that idolatrous nation as a ‘paper tiger’ and to purify the Islamic world of some Western ways that have taken hold. Bin Laden wants to unite Islam under shari’a under those who have proved themselves in jihad.

[1] Ibid., p 314

[2] Ibid., p 314

[3] Ibid., p 126

[4] Ibid., p 133-4

[5] Charlton Heston, In the Arena – An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1995

[6] Ibid., p 577. Spaces are Heston’s own. I wonder what has happened to the theme of Planet of the Apes?

[7] Iran’s use of the term ‘Great Satan’ is interesting. ‘In Christianity Satan is a figure of overpowering evil, but in Islam he is a much more manageable figure. The Koran even hints that Satan will be forgiven on the last Day, such is its confidence in the all-conquering goodness of God … In popular Shiism, the Shaitan, the Tempter, is a rather ludicrous creature, chronically incapable of appreciating the spiritual values of the unseen world. In one story he is said to have complained to God about the privileges given to humans, but was easily fobbed off with inferior gifts. … he was most at home in public baths .. wine and women. He was in fact incurably trivial, trapped forever in the realm of the exterior world. {Karen Armstrong, the Battle for God, 301-2}

Bin Laden calls America ‘the Hubal of the age’. Hubal was the idol in the Kaaba that Muhammad cleared out once and for all. [see Addendum at end]

[8] The New York Review of Books, Jan 17, 2002, p 4 ff.