Rallying 'Round The Rock

Religious Right Leaders Use Alabama Commandments Monument As Touchstone For Organizing

Religious broadcaster James C. Dobdson is no fan of the federal judiciary these days.

Federal judges, the Colodrado Springs, Colo.-based radio counselor said recently, are "an unelected, non-accountable, arrogant, imperialistic judiciary determined to shove their beliefs down our throats."

Speaking to a crowd of about 1,000 in Montgomery, Ala., Aug. 28, Dobson came to the defense of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had been ordered by a federal court to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Judicial Building. Moore defied the court, and the head of the Focus on the Family empire came to town to show his support.

"This struggle that we're involved in is not really about the Ten Commandments," Dobson told the crowd. "It's not about the monument. It's not even about that wonderful man, Judge Moore. It is primarily a battle against judicial tyranny.

"The liberal elite and the judges at the highest level...are determined to remove every evidence of faith in God from the entire culture," Dobson continued. "They are determined to control more and more of our personal lives, and it's time we said, 'Enough is enough!'"

Egged on by Dobson and other national leaders of the Religious Right, the chief justice's supporters on the ground in Montgomery vowed to continue their fight, even as the 5,280-pound monument was being wheeled out of the rotunda.

"We are trusting God," the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition said. "We are not despondent. Let us just keep in prayer. The final chapter has not been written."

In the days leading up to the monument's removal, Mahoney, the Rev. Rob Schenck, the Rev. Philip L. "Flip" Benham and other Moore supporters stepped up their incendiary rhetoric. They leveled most of their verbal assaults against U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson. Thompson, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, bore the brunt of the Religious Right's outrage, but strangely, federal appeals court Judge Ed Cairns, an appointee of the first President Bush who wrote the more crucial opinion upholding Thompson's ruling, was not similarly attacked.

(Mahoney, Schenck, Benham and others were also careful not to discuss other aspects of their radical theocratic agenda, which includes banning all abortions, denying civil rights to gay people and infusing public schools and other public agencies with fundamentalist Chrisdtianity.)

When Thompson issued an order requiring that the monument be removed, outraged Moore supporters burned copies on the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse. Benham presided over a mock trial where Thompson was, to no one's surprise, found guilty.

"We hold you, Judge Thompson, and the United States Supreme Court, in contempt of God's law," intoned Benham, who runs the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. "Myron Thompson, you have broken the law of almighty God."

Moore's supporters also vowed to take political vengeance against Alabama political leaders who failed to back Moore's defiance. Some called on Attorney General Bill Pryor and Gov. Bob Riley to resign, even though both men have stated repeatedly that they support Moore's display.

The controversy put Riley in an especially tight spot. Riley is a Republican and a religious conservative who holds regular Bible studies in his office and favors policies backed by the Religious Right. He frequently relies on biblical arguments when promoting policies. This year, Riley pushed for restructuring Alabama's outdated tax system and often framed his argument in theological terms, insisting that the tax code, which imposes taxes on people making as little as $5,000 per year, is unjust and flies in the face of Jesus' admonitions to care for the poor.

The tax plan faced a vote last month, and Riley was worried that evangelicals would cast a protest vote against it to punish him for failing to back Moore's defiance.

"There has been much discussion about the immoral tax system we have," a Riley aide told the Associated Press. "To vote against making an immoral tax system moral as a protest over the Ten Commandments doesn't add up."

On Sept. 9, voters rejected the plan by a 2-1 margin. Exit polls indicated that most voters were worried that the plan would raise their taxes. The Ten Commandments controversy apparently did not greatly affect the outcome.

The controversy has also put Pryor in a difficult position. The Alabama attorney general, a caustic foe of church-state separation and usually a great favorite of the Religious Right, has been nominated for a spot on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President George W. Bush. Pryor had enjoyed strong backing from the Religious Right, which normally applauds his ultraconservative stands and broadsides against church-state separation. (See "Pryor Offenses," June 2003 Church & State.) Now some groups are threatening to withdraw that backing.

On Aug. 26, about 150 Moore supporters marched to Pryor's office chanting, "Resign now!" Some state religious leaders who back Moore are also threatening Pryor, Riley and the members of the state high court all of whom are elected with retaliation at the ballot box.

"I would never vote for any of these people ever again," said Pastor Robert Reed of Victory Baptist Church in Coden. "I hope they are never able to hold any office."

Complicating matters is that Moore's political ambitions remain unclear. Some political analysts in Alabama believe Moore deliberately forced a confrontation to make himself a martyr in the eyes of the state's conservative, religious base of voters and propel himself into the governor's mansion or perhaps a U.S. Senate seat.

"Quite frankly, it's going to make him governor," Drew Harrington, a professor of history and social sciences at Troy State University in Montgomery told the Montgomery Advertiser. "No ifs, ands or buts about it. The man is making the move to become governor of Alabama."

Some Religious Right leaders agree that Moore is aiming for higher office. In his Aug. 27 "Falwell Confidential," the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who backed Moore's defiance and spoke at one of the pro-Moore rallies, wrote, "I believe Chief Justice Moore a hero in the state will probably become the next governor or senator from Alabama. What's more, you can virtually guarantee that the state will elect another conservative justice to head the Alabama Supreme Court. In effect, it's a political one-two punch in our favor."

(One group has even grander ambitions in mind for Moore. The Conservative Caucus, chaired by far-right operative Howard Phillips, has launched a campaign to pressure Bush to appoint Moore to the U.S. Supreme Court, should a vacancy arise. Phillips is aligned with the radical Christian Reconstructionist movement, which seeks to impose "biblical law" on America.)

Falwell and his allies are also eager to exploit the incident for political gain. Ironically, the election of Bush in 2000 helped send some Religious Right groups into decline. The Christian Coalition, for example, has fallen on hard times, with its budget and influence severely curtailed. Political observers believe some Religious Right activists no longer see the need for outside organizations since the president is so favorable to their views. Some Religious Right leaders are worried that a sense of complacency could depress turnout among religious conservatives next year.

Falwell and other Religious Right leaders see the Montgomery confrontation as a way to re-energize fundamentalists and make sure they vote in November of 2004, as well as give Bush and his political allies a wedge issue to woo swing voters by portraying the judiciary as out of step with American values.

(Bush has issued no public statements on the Montgomery showdown. Asked about the controversy, White House spokespersons would only reply in tepid terms, insisting that the federal courts must be obeyed.)

Blasting Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn as "the reverend-in-name only," Falwell predicted a silver lining in Moore's courtroom defeat.

"Most importantly, the Commandments hullabaloo has enlightened many Americans to the fact that there is a religious war in our nation," asserted the Lynchburg televangelist. "The only way to stem the success of Barry Lynn and his ilk is for people of faith to join with Chief Justice Roy Moore in saying, 'Enough is enough.' We must battle the effort to purge God from our civic arena."

Falwell went on to quote Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, who now runs a political action committee that funnels cash to Religious Right candidates.

"While there is deep division over Moore's strategy,
our rogue courts," observed Bauer. "For decades now, unelected judges have gone unchallenged while they ripped out
every vestige of faith from the public square and tore down every symbol of our most deeply held beliefs. Whether it's prayer in public schools, banning the Ten Commandments and Pledge of Allegiance, or inventing 'rights' to partial-birth abortion and homosexual sodomy, unelected judges have shown incredible disdain for public opinion, majority rule and the laws written by our elected representatives. Our representative democracy is in danger of becoming a robed oligarchy."

Religious Right leaders are also eager to exploit the controversy for financial gain. Using Moore as a poster boy, television preacher D. James Kennedy has already raised tens of thousands of dollars from his supporters. Other Religious Right leaders hope to do the same.

Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America and a close ally of Falwell, began pleading for donations to help Moore's cause in early August. In an appeal for funds, Scarborough, who presided over one of the largest pro-Moore rallies, hailed the Alabama jurist as a "modern day Daniel" and "our National Hero of the Faith."

"I need to hear from many of you now," Scarborough wrote. "Seven thousand people will receive this letter. If everyone reading this letter would send just $10.00 in the return envelope, we would underwrite most of the expenses connected with this important effort. This would be a great testimony."

Continued Scarborough, "Please remember what is at stake: a small, well-funded group of elitists, lead [sic] by the American Civil Liberties Union, American's [sic] United for the Separation of Church and State and their allies in the Judiciary are committed to expunging God from society. One courageous Chief Justice has drawn a line in the sand and said 'NO!' They will not be satisfied until they have destroyed this Judge, serving warning to any other Christian that if they try, they too will be destroyed. WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN. HELP US IN THIS BATTLE."

Religious Right leaders enthusiastically backed Moore's crusade to festoon the courthouse with religious symbols, but some had qualms about his defiance of the courts.

"Do evangelical Christians really want to say that this United States government is no longer a legitimate government and that we are no longer obligated to obey its courts when we disagree with their rulings?" asked Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Condvention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Comdmission in an Aug. 25 column. "If so, let us understand it for what it is. It is insurrection. I want to reform this government, not rebel against it as an illegitimate government beyond repair."

TV preacher Pat Robertson and his top legal advisor, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, agreed with Land.

Robertson criticized how Moore's attorneys handled the case, remarking that their tactics seemed "designed to bring about a confrontation which was not necessary." The result, Robertson told Sekulow, "left those of us like you and me who want the Commandments up in public places in a quandary."

(Sekulow, who often argues cases in the federal courts, may have been responsible for Robertson's reticence to bless Moore's defiance.)

With most of the Religious Right up in arms over the Montgomery affair, Congress is eager to get in on the act. Measures are pending in the House of Representatives and Senate that would strip the federal courts of their ability to hear cases dealing with Commandments displays by state and local governments. Although of dubious constitutionality, the bills, have received strong backing from the Religious Right. The measures are Rep. Robert Aderholdt's "Ten Commandments Defense Act" (H.R. 2045) and Sen. Wayne Allard's "Religious Liberties Restoration Act" (S.1558).

The battle in Montgomery sparked another type of negative fallout: a dramatic increase in hate mail at the Americans United national office. Many of the messages were obscene, while others were simply outpourings of blind rage.

Typical of the latter was this e-mail message from a man named Earle Goodno, who wrote, "Obviously your organization lacks knowledge of the background of our founding fathers and what religious beliefs they had. If you think yourself so damn patriotic why don't you fight to remove the Constitution or Declaration of Independence themselves. Just what do you think the word 'God' means in them? How can you be so mentally constipated. May God damn your souls to hell!" (Editor's note: The Constitution does not contain the word "God.")

Moore himself remains unrepentant. Although suspended from office, he has kept busy on the Religious Right lecture circuit. On Sept. 6 he appeared at a Promise Keepers rally in Atlanta, where he blasted separation of church and state as a "fable."

According to the Associated Press, Moore called the order to remove the monument "tyranny" and said Christians would be "guilty of treason" if they failed to acknowledge God in government.

"There's a war going on in America, between right and wrong, between good and evil, between those that want to deprive us of the acknowledgment of God and those, like you, who will stand up and fight for Him," Moore said.

The next day, Moore spoke at a Buckhead, Ga., church, telling the congregation, "In Alabama, our justice system is established invoking the guidance of Almighty God, and no judge, no human authority, will tell me I can't acknowledge the creator God as stated in the Alabama Constitution."

Continuing his habit of claiming to speak for God, Moore told the crowd, "When they took that monument and put it in the closet and turned the key, God laughed in Heaven, because they thought that they could contain Him in a closet."

Lynn, an ordained Christian minister, said neither Moore's bombast nor the vituperation of those who support him will deter Americans United.

"Moore is no hero," said Lynn. "He's a demagogue who abuses the Ten Commandments for his own personal gain. We've taught him once that separation of church and state is no fable. We stand by to do it again any time he needs reminding."