Ground zero in the nationwide battle to put the Ten Commandments on government property is the state Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala. Last August, Chief Justice Roy Moore personally helped drag a 5,200 pound granite monument engraved with the Decalogue into the rotunda (in the middle of the night no less).
This month — after a contentious trial — a federal judge must decide whether or not Moore’s actions violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Whatever the outcome, the case will likely be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What’s really at stake in this lawsuit and in similar legal battles now being waged all over the United States? For Moore and other leaders of the “Ten Commandments movement,” the fight is about far more than putting up a monument in a courthouse or on a classroom wall. The underlying struggle is over what kind of nation we are — and what kind of nation we’ll become in the 21st century.
To hear Moore tell it (in one of his famous poems), the United States has become a “moral slum” with “Godless Judges who throw reason out the door.” Moore’s solution? Restore what he calls the “moral foundation of law” by using the engine of government to return the nation to God — before it’s too late.
The movement’s immediate strategy is to begin with popular symbolic gestures (how many legislatures will dare vote against the Ten Commandments?) to “restore morality” by first recognizing “the source from which morality springs” (as Moore put it when he unveiled the monument).
But the long-term aim of the movement — which includes a number of leading television evangelists — is to restore the Christian America they believe has been lost. In the America they envision, the final legal authority isn’t the Constitution — but rather the Law of God (as they interpret it).
What would this mean in practice? Moore is already well-known for using his courtroom to promote his faith by doing everything from posting the commandments to involving jurors in prayer. But for a deeper insight into Moore’s “Christian America,” read his speeches and legal opinions where he makes clear that a biblically correct view of morality must dictate the legal outcome in our judicial system and in our legislatures.
Moore and his supporters face one great obstacle: the establishment clause of the First Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if the Court were to allow the monument to remain in the Alabama courthouse (which is unlikely), it would surely put a stop to any effort that would establish a biblical interpretation of the Constitution and our laws.
We are not now — and we were never intended to be — a biblical commonwealth or a Christian nation. Yes, a majority of Americans call themselves Christian. But the framers of our nation decided to break with the precedents of history — a bloody story of religious repression and coercion because of state entanglement with religion — and create a nation with “no religious test” for public office (Article VI of the Constitution) and full religious liberty for people of all faiths or none (the First Amendment).
But even if Americans ignored the First Amendment and decided to privilege a Christian view of the law, whose Christianity would it be? America has hundreds of Christian sects with deeply different views about what the Bible requires. We have no religious consensus in this country — even among Christians. And to impose one would be both unconstitutional and unjust.
The truth of the matter is this: The founders of our nation drew on a great variety of sources — the Enlightenment, Greek and Roman law and philosophy, Deist ideas and, yes, biblical principles — as they formed the new nation. But whatever the sources, the Republic established by the Constitution bars the government from imposing a biblical (or any religious) interpretation of the law.
What’s surprising about the Ten Commandments movement is how many Christians applaud Moore’s tactics — but fail to see the full implications of his Christian America for their own religious community. Have they forgotten what happens to freedom of conscience when government presumes to speak for God?
Today it may only be a monument in the courthouse, but tomorrow it could be your religious liberty. As James Madison warned when arguing for complete disestablishment in Virginia more than 200 years ago:
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”
Fortunately, most judges across the land — in courageous, unpopular decisions — are ruling against attempts to promote religion through the state. These judges see through the argument that these monuments and postings are mere “historical reminders” of our roots (as proponents would have us believe). The real purpose is to promote one religious vision of our nation and one religious interpretation of our laws above all others.
Private citizen Roy Moore has a First Amendment right to promote his religious views in the public square — and to work for laws that reflect his moral convictions. But Chief Justice Roy Moore may not use his judicial authority to impose his religion through the power of the state. His decisions — and the decisions of every judge in the United States — must be based on what the Constitution requires.
“Defending the Ten Commandments” is not really the issue in Alabama or anywhere else. For millions of Jews and Christians, the Decalogue has stood the test of time and needs no defense.
What is at issue — and what must be defended — is religious freedom.