Say what you will about Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court, 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 the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in downtown Montgomery a two-and-a-half ton block of granite topped by an etched copy of the Ten Commandments.
Alabama citizens who elected him chief justice in 2000 knew what they were getting. He kicked off his campaign in the local courtroom where he had hung a plaque of the Ten Commandments. He ran on the 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, Moore is willing 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. So it’s no surprise that many national talk show guests are hyperventilating about Moore and many editorial pages are ablaze.
Meanwhile, some evangelicals are siding with Moore out of appreciation for his guts, and others are fleeing from him, less they be seen by secular neighbors as fundamentalists trying to drop heavy-handed religious beliefs on others like cartoon characters drop anvils on their pursuers. Frequently lost amid the fight-or-flight reactions are 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 heinous with showcasing the most famous statement of that moral law.
Almost all Alabama citizens 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 is alleging that Moore in his court decisions has replaced Alabama state law with Leviticus, or that those who do not honor the Ten Commandments are silenced in his courtroom.
And yet, questions abound about the wisdom of setting up an in-your-face monument. 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 should 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?
If 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 ordering 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? But now that the feds have been aggressive, should Christians respond with belligerence?
Daniel in the Bible had no choice but to continue praying to God in his home when Babylon’s king outlawed such prayer. Daniel, however, did not pray in front of the king’s palace. Are the feds telling Moore that he cannot speak of his faith, in which case he has no choice but to stand firm? Or are they offering harassment but not persecution? In that case, a gentle response might better serve the cause of Christ.