Deadline day in Montgomery, Ala., was polarizing: Federal judges on Thursday, Aug. 21, were persisting in their order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Police were handcuffing and leading away demonstrators defending the monument. Eight of the nine Alabama Supreme Court justices agreed to comply with the federal order. They directed the building manager to "take all steps necessary to comply ... as soon as practicable."
But on one sentiment many from all sides could agree: Say what you will about the ninth justice, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, he does know how to restart a vital national debate that had been stalled. Facing head-on the problems inherent in removing reverence from public spaces, two years ago he dropped into that rotunda the 2.5-ton block of granite topped by an etched copy of the Ten Commandments.
Although some have criticized Justice Moore for having the monument installed the evening of July 31, 2001, without informing other justices, state officials, or reporters (but with a film crew from D. James Kennedy's ministry on hand), his gambit was hardly a stealth effort. When Mr. Moore began his run for statewide office in 2000-Alabama elects its chief justices-he kicked off his campaign in the local courtroom where he had hung a plaque of the Ten Commandments.
Alabamians who voted him in knew what they were getting. Mr. Moore in his younger days was a cowboy in Australia and a champion martial-arts fighter in Texas. His campaign three years ago was fueled by publicity he had gained by successfully defying a judicial order to remove the plaque (which he had carved himself) from his courtroom. In an age of bland politicians, Mr. Moore is unafraid to stand firm and speak out. If other officials were also willing to be bold, voters who value courage would not be so excited by movie actors who display special-effects heroism.
Against that backdrop last week, many national talk-show guests were hyperventilating and many editorial pages were ablaze. Some liberals portrayed Justice Moore as a Christian equivalent of the Taliban. Other liberals argued that he should give in to the federal court judges, and some conservatives agreed with that. Alabama Gov. Robert R. Riley and Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr., both conservative Republicans, defended the monument's constitutionality but supported abiding by the federal court order.
Some Christians tended to side with Justice Moore out of appreciation for his guts. Others tended to flee from any association with Justice Moore, lest they be seen by secular neighbors as fundamentalists trying to drop heavy-handed religious beliefs on others as cartoon characters drop anvils on their pursuers. Frequently lost amid the fight-or-flight reactions were the specific arguments.
Here are matters to keep in mind: The American Founders and their successors clearly felt free to depart from the particular civic statutes of ancient Israel, but they largely based our legal system on biblical moral law, so there's nothing wrong with showcasing the most famous statement of that moral law. Almost all Alabamians recognize the Ten Commandments as something special, and displaying them (as opposed to a cross or a passage from the book of Romans) is largely inclusive, since Jews and Muslims as well as Christians revere the words from chapter 20 of Exodus.
Furthermore, the First Amendment was designed not to keep state rotundas Bible-free but to keep the federal government from establishing a denomination (like the Episcopalians) as the preferred group to which state-required taxes and tithes had to flow. Even with that amendment now applied to states through the 14th Amendment, no one was alleging that Justice Moore in his court decisions had replaced Alabama state law with Leviticus, or that those who did not honor the Ten Commandments were silenced in his courtroom.
And yet, many Christians who oppose deleting citations of God or God's law from public forums-that, after all, effectively establishes the religion of atheism-questioned the wisdom of setting up an in-your-face monument and then acting in a way that leads to predictable headlines: "Alabama's Chief Justice Defies Federal Authority." Those headlines were reflected in letters such as this one from the Biloxi Sun-Herald: "How can Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who is in violation of a higher court order to remove the Ten Commandments monument he erected in his courthouse, ever be able to judge another? He should be held in contempt of court. Can you imagine what would happen if you refused to obey his court order?"
That comment suggests the important legal questions are settled, when they may not be. If Justice Moore is criticized for waving a red cloak at federal judges, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson should also be faulted for acting like a bull and threatening the $5,000-per-day fines. Must a federal court automatically boss around a state Supreme Court? Shouldn't there be mutual respect and patience, until issues that cannot be resolved are eventually settled by the U.S. Supreme Court? A rotunda monument is unlikely to traumatize someone so severely that it must be yanked out before the nine Washington justices render their opinion.
Patience is particularly in order because Congress also may soon be trying to untangle this matter. The House of Representatives last month passed 260-101 an amendment to an appropriations bill that would block federal funds from being used to remove the Ten Commandments monument; Senate consideration is pending. A dozen congressmen last month formed a "House Working Group on Judicial Accountability" to examine issues of federal judicial abuse. In a time when cool heads are needed, what's not helpful are mocking statements such as one by Ayesha Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "It's time for Roy's rock to roll."
On Thursday, Aug. 21, the feds still had time to back off-but if they didn't, many Americans were debating what Justice Moore should do. Here's a suggestion: Christianity is sometimes mistakenly seen as a religion of legalism rather than one centered on warm-hearted but tough-minded compassion-so Christians often must think through how best to communicate, in the words of Psalm 19, that the rules of the Lord are sweeter than honey. 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?
Christian activists, for their part, should not rush either to support or scorn, but should think through whether this is the issue on which they want to concentrate their attention. Robert E. Lee, a master strategist, chose the high ground near Fredericksburg, Va., as the place to make a stand late in 1862, and his choice led to a major Southern victory. Half a year later Lee fought another major battle at Gettysburg, on ground he had not chosen that worked to his disadvantage. "Pickett's charge" on July 3, 1863, was a noble effort. It was also Lee's biggest military mistake.
Christians cannot control what biased journalists report, but those who aspire to be like Robert E. Lee need to consider the ground of battle. Here's an example of good ground: Eight years ago Texas state officials tried to remove the license of a Christian drug-counseling organization because it fought addiction through evangelism. The drug-counseling group gained a lot of support from Texans, including then-Gov. George W. Bush, because it was obviously doing good in getting people off drugs (WORLD, July 29, 1995). Recent history shows that Christians using government power to assert biblical truth tend to be seen as bullies, while those standing up against such power-if they can show that they are helping people in the process-tend to win at least grudging assent from those who would otherwise be critical.
Still, it often takes something big and dramatic, maybe even 2 5 tons worth, to wake us up from summer naps. Justice Moore, elected to uphold a state constitution that explicitly notes the importance of belief in God, deserves credit for putting himself in the line of fire. Some Christians have rallied to Justice Moore's support, and others will choose other issues. His forthrightness might even help moderate Christian lawyers uneasy about the stand he had taken: They can play "good cop" alongside his "bad cop."
When a Supreme Court opinion eventually comes, it is likely to be nuanced, with the Court (given its recent history of legislating from the bench) deciding that a 2 5-pound plaque is OK and a 2 5-ton monument is not, or that a granite Bible monument is OK if it is accompanied by several monuments to other sources, thus creating a modern Stonehenge look. At that point, Justice Moore will deserve credit for having pushed the back of the envelope so far that those who would prefer to allow only atheism in public places compliment the compromise.