HOMEWOOD, Alabama — Judge Roy Moore, perhaps the leading candidate in today’s Alabama Senate race, pulled a laminated copy of Joseph Story’s 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution out of his dusty maroon briefcase.
He then flipped about halfway through it and, after running a ruddy finger up and down, pointed to a highlighted line about halfway down the page.
His eyes lit up.
“The answer is right here,” Moore told me, quoting Story’s explanation for the role of religion in American public life, as much from memory as the words in front of him. “‘It was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to be favored by the State,’” Moore said.
Voters in the GOP primary in this deep red state will choose their candidate today for a general election to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions, who left the seat to become Donald Trump’s attorney general. If none of the 10 candidates in the race receive more than 50 percent of the votes on Tuesday, then the top two contenders will head to a run-off in September.
Incumbent Sen. Luther Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks, a Tea Party darling, were expected to be the favorites at the race’s outset. But against all initial expectations, Judge Moore has shot up to the top of the field — and now has a narrow lead in polling, though likely not enough to clear the run-off.
“There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country,” Moore told me at a meeting of BamaCarry Inc., Alabama’s “only no compromise gun group,” at Mr. Fang’s Chinese restaurant here on Monday night. “Oklahoma tried passing a law restricting Sharia law, and it failed. Do you know about that?”
Former Chief Justice Roy Moore arrives on horseback to vote in Gallant this morning. pic.twitter.com/eGA8AfgwTy— WilliamThornton (@billineastala) August 15, 2017
Moore’s “rebel” run has astounded observers both in Washington and in Alabama. The judge first gained prominence in national conservative circles in 2003 for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse, and then again in 2015 for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses after same-sex marriage was legalized.
There’s a school of thought that says the judge can still be beat. The argument goes that once Strange or Brooks gets knocked out, the non-Moore voters will consolidate behind the less extreme choice in the narrower run-off race. (If you think that’s a safe bet, may I suggest you recall the 2016 Republican presidential primary.)
Shortly after his speech Monday night, I asked Moore to explain his controversial views on religion’s role in public life. A transcript of our conversation follows.
You’ve talked about how we’ve done too much to remove religion from public life and public service.
Where would you cut off the other end of the equation? Where should the limits be between religion and public life if you could?
You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.
And then it starts there first. You have to understand it was the duty of the government under the First Amendment, according to Joseph Story who was there for 37 years and wrote the stories on the Constitution.
It was the duty to foster religion and foster Christianity. He said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution that “it was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to be favored by the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience.”
So where does that end? Where do you see that ending — what’s the limit to religion’s role in public life?
By forcing the conscience of men. That’s far different from observing the rights of men to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. That’s a completely different thing. You can’t force people to worship God in any matter.
But where the public worship of God and support for religion constitutes no part of the duty of the state, your state will have problems.
Let me show you, if I could, since you asked a good question. [Pulls out Story from briefcase]
This is Joseph Story. He is an expert. This is on the First Amendment of the United States Constitution right here. He said, “At the time of the adoption of the US Constitution and the amendment to it now it was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as it was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”
The question you asked, “What are the limits?” The answer is right here. But the duty of encouraging religion, especially the Christian religion, is very different from the right to force the conscience of other men or to punish them from worshipping God in the manner which they believe they are accountable to him requires. That’s the difference; that’s where it stops — you can’t force the conscience of other men.
But to deny God — to deny Christianity or Christian principles — is to deny what the First Amendment was established for. You see, 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.” He recognized the jurisdiction the government does not have — and that was the freedom of conscience.
If you were a complete atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or whatever, you have freedom in this country to worship God and you can’t be forced otherwise. That’s a Christian concept. It’s not a Muslim concept.
Go to Saudi Arabia. Go to Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, and be a Muslim, and see if you can exit that faith without consequences. You can’t do it. You understand? Understand that it’s a Christian concept — that’s one element of finding the way this country was established on Christian principles, because the concept of freedom of conscience that doesn’t exist in many other countries.
You’re saying that inherent in the separation of church and state is a Christian ideal?
Separation of church and state is a very religious process. It’s about how God ordained in Romans 13 the different jurisdictions of government.
It’s been improperly reported that I said that Muslims don’t have rights under the First Amendment. And I have just written an article in the Washington Post to clarify that that’s absolutely false. That’s not what I believe.
Some right-wing conservatives think Sharia law is a danger to America — do you?
There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois. Christian communities; I don’t know if they may be Muslim communities.
But Sharia law is a little different from American law. It is founded on religious concepts.
Which American communities are under Sharia law? When did they fall under Sharia law?
Well, there’s Sharia law, as I understand it, in Illinois, Indiana — up there. I don't know.
That seems like an amazing claim for a Senate candidate to make.
Well, let me just put it this way — if they are, they are; if they’re not, they’re not.
That doesn’t matter. Oklahoma tried passing a law restricting Sharia law, and it failed. Do you know about that?
No, I don’t.
Well, it did. The thing about it is it shouldn’t have failed because it can be restricted because it’s based on religious principles ...
Be careful on the religion because it’s very confusing. People don’t explain the definition of religion. Put it right at the top, “Religion is the duties you owe to the creator and the manner of discharging it,” per the United States Supreme Court, per Joseph Story.
When you define religion we get it all straight. You’re free to worship Buddha and Muhammed. The reason that is free is because of Christian principles. Because of the two tables of the law — the first table can’t be directed by government. He never gave Caesar the authority over the rights of conscience. In fact, it says it right here if you look right there, that the rights of conscience are beyond the reach of any human power; they are given by God and cannot be encroached on by any human authority without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural or revealed religion. ...
I’d like to learn more about the communities in America you think are under Sharia law.
I was informed that there were. But if they’re not, it doesn’t matter. Sharia law incorporates Muslim law into the law. That’s not what we do. We do not punish people according to the Christian precepts of our faith — so there’s a difference.
I’ll just say: I don’t know if there are. I understand that there are some.
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly stated the year gay marriage was legalized.