By the Way: “Ten Commandments Judge” To Be Alabama’s Next Gov?

He’s back! Roy S. Moore, better known as the “Ten Commandments Judge” for his attempt to jettison First Amendment’s establishment clause by installing a granite monument in the lobby of the Judicial Building in Montgomery, has announced that he will try once again to be elected governor of Alabama.

Moore, a former kickboxer, served as a circuit court judge in Gadsden, Alabama, during the 1990s, at which time he waged a legal battle to display a homemade carving of the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom. For some of the folks in Alabama, apparently, this sort of brazen disregard for the Constitution is considered a qualification for higher office. Not only did Moore not run from the controversy, he ran for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 as the “Ten Commandments Judge.” The voters of Alabama elected him, and shortly thereafter he plunked a two-and-a-half-ton granite monument emblazoned with the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the judicial building.

Moore, who claims to be a Baptist, steadfastly refused to place the representations of any other religious group in that space, which is what made the gesture a violation of the establishment clause. He also denied a request from the Alabama Atheist Association (both members, no doubt) to post a statement of their principles.

The case went to the US District Court. As one of the expert witnesses in the case, I testified that the First Amendment is the best friend that religion has ever had. I also argued that religion, as Roger Williams (founder of the Baptist tradition in America) predicted long ago, has flourished in this nation as nowhere else precisely because the government has stayed out of the religion business.

When Judge Myron Thompson ruled (correctly) that Moore’s stunt represented a violation of the First Amendment and the workers were preparing to remove the monument, one of the protesters screamed, “Get your hands off my God!” Unless I miss my guess, one of the commandments etched into that monument says something about a graven image.

Moore’s refusal to remove the monument, as directed by the court, resulted in his own removal as chief justice. And a martyr was born. Moore traveled around the country addressing religious right audiences about how the United States is and always has been a “Christian nation” and recounting his exploits in Alabama.

In 2006, Moore thought that he could once again parlay his disregard for the Constitution into higher office. He ran for the Republican nomination for governor, but lost badly in the primary. (Several weeks later, in neighboring Georgia, another poster boy for the religious right, Ralph Reed, lost his bid to become the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. And people say there is no God!)

On June 1, Moore announced that he was again running for the Republican nomination. His Web site features a quote from James Dobson on its home page. “Judge Moore is a man of courage and strong Christian character,” Dobson says, “and I have long admired him.” Another testimonial comes from Oliver North, identified simply as “American Hero”: “Chief Justice Roy Moore is a proven fighter for his faith and our freedom.”

In announcing his candidacy, Moore was up to his old tricks. “Out of Washington comes a dangerous new message that we are not a Christian nation,” he thundered. “Indeed, I refute that.”

Several years ago (after the “Ten Commandments” trial), I accompanied a group of students from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on a tour of the South. We arranged a meeting with Moore, who is an engaging man with a good sense of humor. I found myself liking him, even though I consider his ideas and his antics dangerous. In the course of the conversation—a peroration, really—Moore did his schtick about our Christian nation and how the First Amendment protects the “free exercise” of only Christians and Jews because, he said, the founders knew nothing about other religions. (That statement in itself is false, of course; Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an.)

I asked Moore if that same logic applied to the second clause of the First Amendment, which covers freedom of the press. By his own reasoning, and that of all those who argue for “original intent” in their approach to the Constitution, freedom of the press would not include radio or television or the internet because the founders had no knowledge of these forms of media, just as they did not (according to Moore) know of any religions besides Christianity and Judaism. Does the same “original intent” logic, I asked, apply to both clauses of the First Amendment? Moore had no answer. Perhaps the voters of Alabama will press him (pun intended) for a response.

randall.balmer@dartmouth.edu'

Randall Balmer, Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College, is the author of a dozen books, including The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. He wrote, produced and hosted a PBS documentary on Billy Graham, Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham.