clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roy Moore, Christian theocrat

The "Ten Commandments judge" is now Alabama's Senate frontrunner.

Alabama GOP Senate Candidate Roy Moore Holds Election Night Gathering In Special Election For Session's Seat
Roy Moore declared victory in the Republican senate primaries on September 26
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

One of the biggest political upsets of 2017 happened earlier this week, when former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican senate primary, despite Strange having the backing of both President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment and outspending his challenger.

The controversial Moore is best known for his embrace of Christian theocratic principles, or a system of government where Christian laws are the basis of all law. In the past, he’s referred to the Christian God as "the only source of our law, liberty and government,” said that the First Amendment did not apply to Muslims because it was based on Jesus’s words, and hinted that homosexuality should be a capital crime. He’s also claimed that there are portions of the American Midwest living under Sharia law.

In Alabama, where 82 percent of residents are “absolutely certain” God exists, according to a Pew Research Poll, Moore’s Baptist background certainly doesn’t make him unpopular or all that unique among Republican politicians. (Forty-nine percent of Alabamans identify as evangelical Protestants, while only 13 percent are mainline Protestants, including Strange, who is an Episcopalian.)

What makes Moore more extreme than other religiously motivated or even theocratic politicians, however, is his belief that "God's laws are always superior to man's laws,” and he is more than willing to put that belief into practice as a government official. In other words, when Moore’s personal understanding of biblical principles comes into conflict with the laws of the land, he is willing to suspend the latter. It’s a philosophy that seems likely to influence Moore’s approach to his work in Congress. He’s already hinted that Muslim Americans should be prohibited from holding elected office, and as judge, he used a lesbian’s sexual orientation to justify denying her custody of her children during a divorce case.

Moore has a long history of putting the Bible above the law

Moore’s first major public display of that willingness occurred in 1995, when Moore — then a county judge — hung a wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench and began legal sessions with prayer in the courtroom. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to have the plaque removed and to stop the prayer ritual, but Moore refused to back down. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that case was eventually dismissed. In 1997, Moore told NPR that “separation of church and state never meant to separate God from government.”

He soon became known as the “Ten Commandments judge,” a moniker that proved no less accurate in 2001, when Moore — by then an Alabama state Supreme Court judge — erected a 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. Three lawyers sued Moore in three separate cases, arguing that the monument gave the impression that Moore would look less favorably on clients who did not conform to his biblical ethos. Although a federal district judge ruled in 2002 that the monument was unconstitutional, Moore refused to remove it, and was subsequently removed from the bench. He defended himself on the grounds that he saw Scripture as the foundation of American law, saying then, "I cannot forsake my conscience. I will not neglect my duty. And I will never, never deny the God upon whom our laws and our country depend.”

Moore’s status as the “Ten Commandments judge” gave him a degree of political cachet, and he made two unsuccessful gubernatorial runs in 2006 and 2010 before winning his old state Supreme Court seat in 2012. Once again, however, Moore’s self-described Christian principles came into conflict with the American law: In 2015, Moore ordered judges across Alabama to defy Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He was subsequently suspended by a judicial court for that order in 2016.

Moore’s beliefs tie into a wider Christian political movement

Moore’s beliefs may not be that unusual among hard-right Christian evangelical politicians, but his willingness to suspend the law — and take the consequences for so doing — in order to enforce his Christian beliefs are more striking.

But here, too, Moore is not alone. He has long been loosely associated with an umbrella movement: a philosophical, theocratic approach to Christianity known as “dominionism,” to which politicians like Ted Cruz (as well as Cruz’s father, Rev. Rafael Cruz) and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry have also been linked. In its broadest form, dominionism is the belief that America is and has always been a Christian nation and that it is the duty of Christians to restore religion to its former place of influence.

A more extreme and structured form of this belief is known as “Christian Reconstructionism,” a philosophy developed by Calvinist theologian Rousas Rushdoony in the late 1970s. Unlike “soft” dominionists, who tended to see their mission as one to take over the “seven mountains” of influential spheres — which include the arts, government, education, and business — Christian Reconstructionists see their goal as replacing the United States legal system as a whole with one based on a legal system rooted in the Mosaic law codes of the Old Testament.

Moore has never publicly identified as a Reconstructionist or dominionist, but he has associations with thinkers and theologians across the dominionist spectrum, particularly with Reconstructionists. Prominent Christian Reconstructionist thinker John Eidsmoe, an attorney, is the senior counsel and resident scholar at the Moore-founded Foundation for Moral Law, a Montgomery-based legal foundation devoted to religious liberty cases.

Moore’s lawyer in the Ten Commandments battle, Herb Titus, is also a Reconstructionist, as is prominent Moore supporter Gary DeMar, the figure behind American Vision, a Reconstructionist publishing house.

Moore’s theology, too, has much in common with the Reconstructionists, as well as with dominionists more broadly. While plenty of religious conservatives believe the Constitution should safeguard religious freedom as much as possible, Moore goes much further. He believes, like many dominionists, that the Constitution is a fundamentally Christian document (and thus that “Christianizing” America is returning it to its founding principles). But he also believes, even more importantly, that when the Constitution and the Bible seem to be at odds, it’s the Bible that should take precedence.

Like the Reconstructionists, he believes that, ultimately, the best society is one based on Old Testament law. According to the Washington Post, Moore published a pocket pamphlet with a “legal theory of God’s supremacy”; the Moore campaign has not responded to a request from Vox for comment on the pamphlet.

In enforcing what he believes to be the highest good, a degree of civil disobedience may well be necessary.

Indeed, he believes the Constitution is only legitimate insofar as it reflects biblical principles. As Moore told Vox’s Jeff Stein, “the First Amendment was established on Christian principles, because it was Jesus that said this: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and render unto God the things that are God's.’”

But for Moore, it seems, most things turn out to be God’s in the end.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.