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PERFECT TEN: The Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma City.
Associated Press/Photo by Sean Murphy
PERFECT TEN: The Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma City.

Above the laws

Religion | If we don’t recognize a higher authority, we end up with a government of legalities

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

The group email appeared in my inbox last month: subject line, Alabama Judge. How time flies! You remember Roy Moore and a certain two-ton piece of granite engraved with the Ten Commandments? The monument, commissioned in 2003 by Judge Moore while chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, became the centerpiece of a political drama when a federal judge ordered it removed from the state Capitol rotunda. Moore refused, but after almost a month of supporters staging pro–Ten Commandments demonstrations on the Capitol lawn, the higher court prevailed.

Drama is nothing new for those stone tablets, ever since Moses hurled them down the mountain at the rioting Israelites. Within the ark of the covenant they were hauled around the desert for 40 years, carried into battle, and temporarily lodged in a pagan temple where the idol Dagon somehow lost his footing. In the 21st century they’ve been the target of numerous challenges, from school cafeteria walls to county courtrooms. The latest dustup comes from Oklahoma City, where a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn was seen as establishing preference for a particular religion. A Satanist “church,” with tongue in cheek, offered to place a demon statue nearby to ensure equal treatment.

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). I hate to be a bad-news bearer, but the foundations are destroyed. While reading through online comments about the Oklahoma story, I was a bit disconcerted that almost no one could explain exactly why demonic idols shouldn’t be sharing space with the Ten Commandments. Very few commenters made the real point: that when the tablets appear on government property, they testify not primarily to religion, but to law. Even the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., though it doesn’t explicitly feature the Ten Commandments on its doors and pediments (contrary to rumor), honors Moses as chief among lawgivers. John Adams called the United States “a government of laws not men,” meaning that everyone, from the president to the latest immigrant crossing the border, is subject to rule of law.

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But there’s a catch, then and now: Law must have an authority outside itself. The major stumbling block to the Ten Commandments is the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Without that authority, ours is a government of legality: men making laws, and more laws, and further laws canceling out previous laws, both within and outside their constitutional limits. Judge Moore was censured for disobeying a federal order, thus breaking the law he had sworn to uphold. Seems rather clear-cut, but 160 years ago, runaway slaves found in free territory had to be returned to their masters. It was the law. And it was only changed by repeated appeals to a higher law.

Wrongs could be righted when both people and politicians agreed on the principle of higher law, but that is no longer the case. The foundations are destroyed; what can the righteous do? The email informed me that Judge Moore had been removed from his position and the usual suspects (ACLU, PAW, etc.) were gunning for his law license. But that’s old news. As every Alabaman knows, he won reelection to the state Supreme Court in 2012, where he again serves as chief justice. Just last month he sent a letter to all 50 state governors asking them to call legislative sessions to draft an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. He still has a voice, and obviously intends to use it in appealing to a higher law. That’s his calling—even though his amendment proposal is, realistically speaking, hopeless.

Those of us who are not chief justices are called to other battles, many of which will look hopeless. We must pick them wisely, and remember the next verse in Psalm 11: “The Lord is in his holy temple.” If the Ten Commandments disappear from the public square, God grant that He will revive them in our hearts, and may idols continue to fall before them.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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