This is part 2 of a 5-part series.Part I: The Lure of Christian Nationalism
America's Religious Right - Saints or Subversives?
Part II: Hang Ten and Fight!
Friday 15 April 2005
Judge Roy Moore knows how to rally the troops, especially among right-wing Christian evangelicals. A devout Southern Baptist, he tells them what they want to hear, as he did in early 2002 to a gathering in Tennessee:
Since September 11, we have been at war. I submit to you there is another war raging - a war between good and evil, between right and wrong. For 40 years we have wandered like the children of Israel. In homes and schools across our land, it's time for Christians to take a stand. This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran but the Bible. This is a Christian nation.
Moore began his campaign back in the early 1990s. As a local judge in Alabama's Etowah County, he put a small wooden display of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and opened his judicial sittings with prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union took legal action to stop him, and the state courts eventually dismissed the case over a question of legal standing.
But, even as the wheels of justice turned, politics quickly took hold. Alabama Governor Fob James Jr. loudly threatened to send in the National Guard if federal authorities tried to remove the Ten Commandments from Moore's courtroom.
The US House of Representatives voted 295-125 to support the right of public officials to display copies of the Ten Commandments, which - said Congress - are "fundamental principles that are the cornerstone of a fair and just society."
And in the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush proposed that a "standard version" of the Ten Commandments be posted in schools and other public places. "I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall of every public place," he told reporters.
In the arcane world where religious militants become political organizers, evangelical Christians and others all over the country escalated their long-term fight to bring back school prayer and encourage the official display of the Ten Commandments. Moore had found his signature issue, and gained growing fame throughout Alabama and across the nation as the "Ten Commandments Judge."
May this day mark the beginning of the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and a return to the knowledge of God in our land.
Not everyone agreed.
"This is a monumental violation of the US Constitution," countered the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The Ten Commandments is a religious code, and should not be promoted by the government - Moore is obviously working tirelessly to use the government to promote religion."
Together with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama ACLU, Americans United took Moore to federal court, where they won both at trial and on appeal. The federal judges had no problem seeing the monument as an attempt by a state official to promote his particular religious beliefs in direct violation of the First Amendment and its prohibition against any establishment of religion.
District Court Judge Myron Thompson then ordered Moore to remove the monument, and - true to his cause - Moore refused. Where Alabama Governor George C. Wallace had once stood in the schoolhouse door to keep black children out, the state's chief justice was now standing in the courthouse door fighting to keep God in.
"A federal judge has no right to come in the state of Alabama and say we cannot acknowledge God," said Moore. "It's indeed an intrusion into our state sovereignty."
Moore launched several more legal appeals, including to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case. "God is sovereign," he replied, "and shall remain so despite what the Supreme Court and federal district courts of this land say."
Finally ousted from office for refusing to obey a federal court order, Moore now leads in public opinion polls as the favorite among GOP voters to become Alabama's next governor. And he has turned the Ten Commandments into a potent battle flag, as he and his fellow evangelicals launch a new offensive against the independence of federal judges and the separation of church and state.
They could win, not the least because the Ten Commandments have political appeal. Even non-evangelicals often agree with Moore when he presents the Ten as the basis of American law. Clearly, his history needs help. A longtime lawyer, he should know that English common law provides the foundation of our legal system, and - as Thomas Jefferson pointed out to a friend in 1814 - the common law began in England well before Christianity took hold. In Jefferson's word, "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
According to the polls, most Americans see the Ten Commandments more as a cherished symbol of universal morality than as a statement of religious belief. Yet, in repeated tests, few seem to know very much about them - or about the religious and political conflicts they inevitably invite.
To begin with, they resonate mostly with Jews and Christians, and - to a limited degree - with Muslims. They largely exclude Americans who follow other religious traditions, such as Buddhists and Hindus. They also exclude a growing number of pagans, polytheists, and non-believers, such as myself.
Even more troubling, the Old Testament itself includes three different versions of the Decalogue - two in the book of Exodus at Chapters 20 and 34, another in Deuteronomy. All together, they offer many more commandments than the ten we see in most representations.
Different religious groups use different combinations. Most Protestant denominations include "Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images." Catholics and Lutherans never mention graven images, which has fueled a long history of bitter anti-Catholic attacks from many Christian evangelicals.
Jews have a different set, with an entirely different first commandment, which is more an affirmation of belief: "I am the Lord thy God, Who brought thee out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage."
In his monument, Judge Moore attempted to produce a Judeo-Protestant version, which has given him eleven commandments rather than just ten.
Depending on the version, several of the commandments are undeniably religious:
I Am the Lord Thy God . (an affirmation of a deity)
Even the ban on adultery, which might include homosexual relations, has different meanings to different religious groups. Some, on the fringe, have called for making adultery and other transgressions capital offenses.
In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers foresaw the conflicts that government involvement in such questions would bring. Which is why, despite their personal religious convictions, they set out to keep God and government out of each other's way.
Over succeeding generations, religious believers like Judge Moore have slowly broken through the wall of separation, as during the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, when Congress put the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and made "In God We Trust" the national motto. Each succeeding generation of militants then uses the earlier breakthroughs to justify far more, all in pursuit of what Judge Moore call "a Christian nation."
But not all believers go along. Writing to the Huntsville Times, a reader who described himself as "a Conservative Christian" summed up his feelings in pointed terms:
Moore indicates to me that, while a devout Christian, in essence he would like his religion to be the state religion of Alabama, his religious interpretations accepted as the norm and his monument reflecting his religious beliefs placed in a public building.
Moore was, said the believer, "just another ayatollah wearing Christian garb instead of Muslim."
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.