The Theology Behind Alabama Official’s Demand to Flout SCOTUS

Roy Moore (L) receiving an award in 2011 from former Constitution Party presidential candidate Michael Peroutka who has recently resigned from the board of the white supremacist League of the South. reports that Win Johnson, the director of the legal staff of the Administrative Office of Courts in Alabama, which operates the state’s judiciary headed by Chief Justice Roy Moore, has written a letter to public officials calling upon them “to stand against the ravages of a superior authority that would go beyond its rightful power and force upon the people something evil.” He is referring, of course, to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Moore himself has flouted federal authority when he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building over a decade ago. Earlier this year, he ordered court clerks in the state to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses after a federal trial court invalidated Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on Friday, Moore has said he will not compel clerks to issue licenses for a 25-day period during which the Obergefell parties could file a motion to rehear the case.

When Moore objected to the federal court order in Alabama in January, he wrote a letter to the state’s governor, Republican Robert Bentley, claiming the federal court “has raised serious, legitimate concerns about the propriety of federal court jurisdiction over the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment.” Moore warned that local clerks who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples will be “in defiance of the laws and Constitution of Alabama.”

Johnson’s letter, though, is much more explicit in laying out a detailed theology underlying his call for state and local government officials to refuse to comply with Obergefell. In Johnson’s letter, which he tells was not directed exclusively at the governor, but “to all public officials,” he writes:

Public officials are ministers of God assigned the duty of punishing the wicked and protecting the righteous. If the public officials decide to officially approve of the acts of the wicked, they must logically not protect the righteous from the wicked. In fact, they must become protectors of the wicked. You cannot serve two masters; you must pick – God or Satan.

This characterization derives from Christian Reconstructionist theology, says Julie Ingersoll, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida and author of the forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, Rebuilding God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian ReconstructionRooted in Calvinist theology, Christian Reconstruction teaches that society’s only legitimate “authority” is granted by God, to different “spheres,” such as church, family, or the government.

In this theocratic view, the government is considered legitimate only if it follows biblical law, and has a limited function–as Johnson argues, “punishing the wicked and protecting the righteous.” Christian Reconstruction teaches that if the government acts “unbiblically,” it is the duty of Christians to not just resist its authority, but rebel against it, said Ingersoll.

In Christian Reconstruction, Ingersoll added, “there is no neutrality.” The government, then, “can only work in two ways: to uphold biblical law or to side with those who reject biblical law. There’s no in between.” If the government “sides with those who reject biblical law,” she said, then “lesser magistrates,” or people of a lower position in the civil government, must exercise what Christian Reconstructionists claim is their “biblically delegated authority” to disobey the law.

Hence, Johnson, the legal director of the state judicial system in Alabama, insists he is biblically-bound to resist complying with an order of the United States Supreme Court.  Again, Ingersoll explains, that’s a Calvinist idea that was rejuvenated with Christian Reconstructionism in the 1960s, and it became incorporated in homeschooling and used by followers “in ways they might not even recognize.”

This ideology is embedded in Johnson’s letter, which scoffs at the prospect of court clerks resigning in protest, as one court clerk in Arkansas did this week. To Johnson, this response is inadequate. “Use your authority and every legal angle to oppose the tyrants!” he writes. “Why would you leave the people of this State, their children, your children and grandchildren to the wolves, those who would rend the society apart with their denial of what’s good and evil?” The government official’s duty, he continues, “is to stand against the ravages of a superior authority that would go beyond its rightful power and force upon the people something evil.”

That passage, said Ingersoll, doesn’t use the term “lesser magistrate,” but is very clearly drawn from the Calvinist and Reconstructionist idea that lower levels of civil government (“lesser magistrates”) are required to exercise their own divinely-granted authority in the face of unbiblical or (as Johnson characterizes it) “tyrannical” government action. The court clerks and other officials, said Ingersoll, “do indeed have civil authority” in this view, “but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is they have biblically delegated authority.”

Johnson, the legal director for the administration of a state court system no less, believes the Bible not only authorizes him, but requires him to flout the United States Supreme Court. Aside from Moore’s own Ten Commandments crusade in the early 2000s, it’s difficult to think of a clearer example of a government official acting with such an explicitly stated theocratic intent.