God, Guns, and the Confederate Flag

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered the removal of four Confederate flags from the state capital grounds today, part of a remarkably rapid trend of banishing the flag from places where it might embarrass Republicans. But that will hardly make it, or the people who continue to revere it and what it represents, disappear.

In the wake of Charleston, and the exposure of Dylann Roof’s white supremacist views, we are seeing reports of associations between public figures and the flag, or between public figures and neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups. For example, BuzzFeed reports that Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, best known for his defiance of federal court orders on the unconstitutionality of Ten Commandments displays in courthouses and bans on same-sex marriage, once spoke to a gathering of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, the same group Roof cited as a key source of his white supremacist views.

In associating with the Councils, Moore, of course, is not alone. As BuzzFeed notes, and as the New York Times reported over the weekend, numerous prominent Republicans have ties to the Councils. As the Times highlighted, Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chair and former governor of Mississippi, likened the Councils to an innocuous neighborhood association, saying in 2010, “Up north, they think it was like the K.K.K. Where I come from, it was an organization of town leaders.” (Barbour is also not offended by the Confederate flag.)

Moore has elicited comparisons to Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace, following his pledge to defy a federal court ruling invalidating Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage earlier this year. Moore ordered probate court clerks, who issue marriage licenses in Alabama, not to issue them to same-sex couples. The BuzzFeed report includes copies of the Council newsletter, which included a letter from Wallace’s son, George C. Wallace, who had a scheduling conflict but wanted the conference to know he recognized a raging battle “between those who see government as all knowing and supreme and those of us who want less government and the freedom to determine our on destiny as God gives us the light to determine that destiny.”

“The dedication and commitment of the Council of Conservative Citizens to those principles and values which made our nation great will ultimately, with courage and perseverance return our nation to the side of God and righteousness,” Wallace added.

This is the same ideology animating Moore, a Southern, white, radically conservative Christian who touts states’ rights as biblically mandated. He claims he is following God’s commands in defying federal court orders on matters of church-state separation and equal protection. As Julie Ingersoll has emphasized, “Moore’s underlying philosophy of law is that only God and the Bible can be the source of moral authority.” Moral authority certainly cannot come from the federal government, which Moore and others who share his view of the Bible and the law see as largely illegitimate because it has overstepped the scope of its God-ordained jurisdiction.

The federal government, in this “biblical” view, is largely unconstitutional. Thus, Moore and his fellow travelers believe that federal courts cannot tell the states what to do, be it on same-sex marriage, or, in the past, slavery or school desegregation, or, crucially in our current context, gun control.

Under this “biblical” view of the law, the Constitution, and therefore the Second Amendment, codify a divine mandate; those divine rights cannot be infringed by the government. Moreover, citizens are religiously obligated to defend themselves with guns, be it from, say, an intruder, or, more broadly, the “tyrannical” federal government. Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, which considers the National Rifle Association too tame, advocated such a position to me in a 2010 interview. After Charleston, Pratt blamed Emanuel AME Church’s pastor, the murdered Clementa Pinckney, for the massacre there, saying he should have, as state senator, voted for a measure that would have permitted concealed carry in churches. (White evangelicals who argue against this thinking on guns are waging an admittedly lonely battle.)

Similarly, Moore sees himself defending his state from an illegitimate act of a federal court. Moore has cited the state’s motto, “we dare defend our rights,” which was adopted in 1923 and incorporated, in Latin, in the state’s coat of arms in 1939. (The Confederate flags may have been removed from the state capital grounds, but Alabama’s flag is still meant to evoke the state’s Civil War battle flag; the Confederate flag is still incorporated in the coat of arms.) The motto was similarly invoked by the segregationist Wallace, and it was used in a gubernatorial campaign flyer. More recently, following New York’s passage of a law restricting the sale of assault weapons in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, the gun manufacturer Remington cited Alabama’s motto in its decision to relocate a plant there from New York.

On marriage equality, Moore is unabashed about Alabama making its last stand alone. “I can’t explain why more than 20 other states have bowed down to unlawful federal authority but Alabama is not one of them,” Moore told the news site AL.com earlier this year. “A federal judge,” said Moore, “has no authority to overturn a state constitutional amendment in the face of a state court’s opinion on the same matter.”

In February, when Moore’s Wallace-esque stance made news, he was supported by the Alabama Republican Party chair, Terry Lathan, who had just returned from a trip to Israel, which, he wrote in a blog post bearing the state’s motto in the headline, solidified for him the “basic truths” of the Bible. The state of Alabama and the United States, Lathan went on, “will reap God’s wrath if we embrace and condone things that are abhorrent to God, such as redefining marriage as anything other than a union between one man and one woman.”

As I have written previously, Moore’s connection with the Council of Conservative Citizens is hardly his only association with neo-Confederates. Michael Peroutka, the Constitution Party’s 2004 presidential candidate, the founder of the Institute on the Constitution, and now a county council member in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, resigned his position with the League of the South, a self-described “Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic,” when it became an embarrassment to the Maryland Republican Party as Peroutka vied for the council seat last year.

Moore is a hero to Peroutka and his Constitution Party/IOTC followers, and is greeted there like a celebrity. When I saw Moore speak in Maryland at an IOTC gathering in 2011, it happened to be the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Peroutka was downright gleeful about being able to commemorate a Confederate hero’s birthday by giving his good friend Moore an award. That award was deserved, Peroutka said, because Moore “resisted a government that thought it was God.”

1 Comment

  • thurmaneric@gmail.com' Eric says:

    How different is, say, Russell Moore’s view of the legitimacy of the federal government from Roy Moore’s view? Obviously, the Baptist ethicist has spoken strongly about removing the Confederate battle flag from public display and about white Christian complicity in racism, which puts him at some distance from the Alabama justice who likes to pal around with admitted racists. Yet the ethicist has also spoken defiantly about the likely legalization of same-sex marriage by the SCOTUS and about civil disobedience to “unjust” laws. If the ethicists were a government official, would he refuse to acknowledge the SCOTUS decision? Does he agree with the justice’s order to court clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples?

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