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And the Devil went down to Alabama...

by David J. Raymond, Opinion editor emeritus


By whatever standard one wishes to apply, the summer of 2003 has been a strange one. Actors are running for political office and politicians are pretending to be what they are not.

We have, for example, a President who endorses increased commercial logging as the solution to summer wildfires, who decides to speak not of global warming but of climate change, and who, in the name of saving the environment, changes EPA regulations to allow increased power plant emissions. A president whose answer to Americans being killed in Iraq is to invite foreign countries to send their troops to be shot at.


On other fronts we have one female musical icon kissing another on national television, as the camera focused on the latter’s ex-boyfriend. (Brittany Spears and Madonna, and in case you didn’t catch it on TV, some national newspapers put the photo on page one.)

Perhaps the strangest event of the summer took place in a courtyard in Montgomery, Alabama as a crowd of people engaged in a prayerful protest over the Federal Court-ordered removal of a two-and-a-half ton rendition of the biblical Ten Commandments. This defiance of a Federal Court ruling was ironic since it began at the behest of the Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court, who has since been suspended for defying laws he was sworn to uphold.

The issue is religion, particularly Christianity, and the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment. The judge in question, the conservative Roy Moore, took the viewpoint that the First Amendment, which addresses the relationship between church and state, was in fact a confirmation of Christian ideology. The judge cites the fact that the Founding Fathers were universally Christian in belief, therefore, anything that they produced, such as the Constitution, must be the divine inspiration of God. Thus, a sculptural representation of the Christian Ten Commandments is representative of America, both religious and secular, and its placement in a federal courthouse is appropriate and lawful.

In response to his critics, who accuse him of taking a “liberal” interpretation of the Constitution and placing his personal beliefs above the enforcement of the law, Moore has proclaimed that he was always defended and upheld the letter of the law—except when it is wrong.

In a similar vein, those supporters holding a non-violent prayer vigil outside the courtroom have described themselves as peaceful, law-abiding individuals and maintain that the removal of the Ten Commandments from public view is a violation of their civil liberties.

If one accepts the judge’s reasoning, then the logic is inescapable and the sincerity and conviction of the crowd, and its members acts of trespass in the preservation of their “rights” is both appropriate and part of a long-standing tradition of American civil disobedience. On the surface, the situation appears an ideal expression of reasoning and emotion balancing the judgment of man and God.

But it doesn’t stand up to a little critical thinking. Both judge and demonstrators are being subjective, assuming ideas and facts that cannot be supported by history and that are actually contrary to the intent and purpose of the framers of the Constitution.

True, they were almost universally Christian. However, almost to a man, they were devotees of the Enlightenment, disciples of the Age of Reason. As their papers reveal, in crafting the Constitution, they were determined to avoid the tyranny of a government that is both church and state.

It is, at the very least, inconsistent for a state supreme court judge to claim a strict adherence to the letter of the law yet hold himself above the application of the law. If he is confronted with a conflict between his duties as a judge and his moral conscience, he has the right to resign. As a private citizen, he has as much right as any other citizen to participate in an act of civil disobedience—and to accept the consequences of that act. As a judge, he does not have the right to break the law he has sworn to uphold.

Moore has likened his situation to that of Martin Luther King, yet this is a false analogy. King’s civil disobedience was the act of a private citizen protesting laws being used to oppress a minority. Moore on the other hand, is in a position of power and authority, and he is using that power and authority to impose on the people of Alabama and the citizens of the United States his own personal interpretation of the law. Whatever the strength of his religious convictions, his office does not give him the moral or legal right to impose these convictions on others.

One can admire the religious convictions of those who continue to hold a vigil in front of what is now an empty corridor. (Moore’s own colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court organized the sculpture’s removal.) But one can also point out that the removal of a religious statue from a public courthouse is not an attack on anyone’s civil liberties—no one is telling them they can’t believe in the Ten Commandments. Rather that removal is ensuring the concept of religious impartiality in government.

No reasonable argument can maintain that the concepts of justice, tolerance and liberty are inherently and exclusively Christian. It matters not if most, some, or almost no people in Alabama, or any other state, are Christian or not. To compel any non-Christian to seek justice before the icon of the Ten Commandments is to compel acceptance of the apparent superiority of Christian ideology. This is a violation of civil liberties.

It is not enough for the American court system to be color blind and gender neutral, it must be neutral with regard to religion—atheist, or at least agnostic.

It is a uniquely American contradiction that our armed forces are halfway around the world confronting Islamic fundamentalism, while at home having to deal with Christian fundamentalism. Remarkably, both kinds of fundamentalism employ similar tactics in their defiance of the law of the land, and both appear to share the same goal, to change and influence American policies and practices to suit their respective ideologies. (And anyone who would claim that Christian fundamentalism is different because it does not employ violence has forgotten Oklahoma City.)

If this nation and its people wish to triumph over intolerance and evil in the name of freedom and fairness, then it must be willing to wage at home the same battle it wages in Afghanistan and Iraq.

David Raymond won local and regional awards as Kalamalama Opinion editor in the mid-1990s. He recently completed his master’s degree in military history and diplomacy at Florida State University, where he is working on his doctorate and teaching.


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