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Ten Commandments Debate Should Be About More than Moore
by W. James Antle III
25 August 2003Ten Commandments Monument

Was this crusade about founding principles or promoting Roy Moore as the “Ten Commandments judge?”

If Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore were a self-styled artist who soaked his Ten Commandments monument in urine, he might have been allowed to keep it on display in the courthouse and gotten an NEA grant to boot.  Instead, it appears to be on the way out and he has been suspended with pay. 

The melee in Montgomery is pretty much a standard issue church-state controversy.  Moore raised the ire of civil libertarians by posting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom as a circuit judge.  Instead of backing down, he ran for state chief justice and was elected in response to his pro-Ten Commandments platform.  In July 2001, he erected a privately funded monument in the state judiciary building containing the commandments and quotations from Founding Fathers on the relevance of God and moral law to our form of government.  The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit on behalf of offended plaintiffs.  A federal court ordered the display removed on the grounds that it constituted a government endorsement of religion prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

But the response to this unpopular ruling wasn’t quite what was expected.  Moore has steadfastly refused to take the Ten Commandments monument down.  Protestors have camped out around the judiciary building to obstruct its removal from the rotunda.  A Mobile Register-University of South Alabama poll found that 77 percent of Alabamians want the commandments to stay.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s ruling is simply the latest example of the federal judiciary transforming the First Amendment from a protection of religion from government intervention into a mandate for uncompromising secularism in the public square.  With half a century of precedents now behind this view, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that First Amendment jurisprudence has accomplished something almost the opposite of what the Founding Fathers had intended.  But this is the whole point of the “living Constitution” sophistry, to twist the existing text into something unrecognizable to the Framers yet more in line with contemporary elite prejudices.

Although vilified as a mouth-breathing Bible bumpkin, Moore possesses a clearer understanding of our republic’s constitutional order than his critics.  This nation was founded on the idea that the rights of the people come from God and the powers of government come from the people.  Just governments are limited to the powers delegated by the people and instituted to secure the people’s God-given rights.   This is what the Declaration of Independence clearly states and the premise behind the Constitution’s system of enumerated federal powers, with the remaining powers reserved by the states and people.

Religious freedom and toleration was never considered to be incompatible with the acknowledgment of the source of our rights.  The Decalogue is in many respects a summation of the natural law that our Founders recognized the civil law was subordinate to.  At the time of our founding, political theorists of various religious faiths relied not on legal positivism but what scholar J. Budziszewski calls “the things we can’t not know” as the basis of liberty.

Yet as much as I agree with Moore about the foundations of our republic and the importance of faith in the public square, I’m afraid I can’t wholeheartedly support his crusade.  My biggest concern is that the substance has been lost in the symbolism.  The message of God-given rights has been obscured by concerns, which Moore has not done enough to allay, that the commandments display is nothing more than a statement that non-Christians will not receive a fair hearing in Alabama courtrooms. 

Persuasion has taken a backseat to confrontation. Would more hearts and minds be won over by disobeying court orders (even one as wrong-headed as Thompson’s), inviting comparisons to George Wallace and causing fines to be paid by the Alabama taxpayers?  Are most people even aware of the larger point that Moore was making?  Moreover, the judge had to know that there was no endgame and no realistic chance of success in the legal strategy he was pursuing.  This is why Alabama Governor Bob Riley, Attorney General Bill Pryor and Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice all distanced themselves from his tactics even as they agreed with displaying the Ten Commandments.  Was this crusade about founding principles or promoting Roy Moore as the “Ten Commandments judge?”

Christians who dismiss such concerns as a preoccupation with political considerations may wish to reconsider.  In thinking about what to do next, Moore and his supporters should heed the counsel of Marvin Olasky, writing in the evangelical magazine World, and ask themselves certain questions: “Questions to ask include: How does a particular action further the gospel? What does it teach nonbelievers about God? Is it likely to draw them in or alienate them?” 

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas asked similar questions, pointing out that the Bible doesn’t seem to expect or command the secular state to be “an instrument in spreading God’s message to humankind.”  Does the debate over the Ten Commandments display serve that purpose?  Or does it merely politicize the Ten Commandments?

Freedom of religion for believers and unbelievers alike doesn’t require us to behave is as if our state religion is atheism or agnosticism.  The role of faith in our founding principles is indeed crucial to our identity as a nation that predicates liberty on the concept that individuals are endowed by their Creator with certain rights.  These issues are too important to be shunted aside in an effort to make a symbolic point, or to pursue strategies more likely to yield a headline-generating defiant last stands than victory. 

Thomas pointed to a better approach in a recent column: “Loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison and caring for widows and orphans make up the ‘strategy’ laid down by the Founding Father of the Christian faith.”  Christians and those of all faiths who understand the moral foundations of the republic should remember this as they pick their political battles.

W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.

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