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Sunday Night Journal — June 11, 2006

One Cheer for Roy Moore

Roy Moore, running for the Republican nomination for the Alabama governership, was easily defeated last week by incumbent Governor Bob Riley. All the polls had predicted this, so if those were correct then the majority of the state’s citizens were pleased by the defeat. Although he continues to refer to himself as a judge, Moore was deposed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a court order to remove from the Supreme Court building a monument quoting and honoring the Ten Commandments and delineating the connection between the laws of man and the laws of God. (See the monument here).Alabama is a conservative and religious state, and so the widespread rejection of Moore’s stand may seem a little surprising. “Conservative” probably trumps “religious” in the citizenry as a whole, though, and if there’s one thing you could probably always count on a large majority of them to disapprove it’s a deliberate defiance of the law. When Moore, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, refused to obey a court order, he was finished. The attorney general at the time, Bill Pryor, himself a firm conservative and a Catholic, was in sympathy with Moore’s views but did not hesitate to set in motion the legal machinery for Moore’s dismissal.I did not want to see Moore become governor of my state. His use of the Commandments smacked of demagoguery, and his insistence on displaying them hardly amounted to a qualification for rule. He strikes me personally as something of an egotist and grandstander, and there’s an off-putting self-righteousness in his face and manner. And like many Alabamians I’ve had more than enough of politicians who give the rest of the country reasons to maintain their prejudice that we’re all morons and/or fanatics. Of course the prejudice is, like most, not without foundation, but I’m not at all sure we’re worse than other states—we’re just more colorfully moronic and fanatical than most of them. But for all his faults Moore was fundamentally in the right, and like many grandstanders he has hurt his cause. No doubt his reading of history tilted inaccurately in an evangelical Protestant direction, but he was clearly right that American Constitutionalism arose in a culture which took for granted the existence of the absolute moral norms of the Ten Commandments. For insisting in an unseemly way on this connection between the laws of man and the laws of God, Moore lost his office and seems to have little prospect of reviving his political career. Moore created a controversy which was at bottom an attempt to force into public consciousness and public debate the question which almost all our politicians and opinion-makers wish to avoid: what, in the end, is the foundation of social order? Either there are absolute rights and wrongs, or there are not. If there are, what are they? If there are not, on what authority does any society declare one thing lawful and another not so? And on what authority does it enforce those declarations?

The conventional answer to these questions is incoherent: there are no absolute moral laws, but there are things one mustn’t do. Up until 1960 or 1970, there was a rough consensus about these, and the lack of a solid foundation for the consensus could be ignored. The abortion question among others shattered that consensus. This was a disagreement which could not be exorcised with the chant of “You’re entitled to your opinion.” There is too much at stake; both sides know it is not a merely private concern. The attempt to sever once and for all the concept of marriage from the concept of family by allowing something called marriage between persons of the same sex is similarly intractable: there is no way to resolve the dispute without one side or the other losing in a definitive way, and finding itself trapped in a society which is hostile to it.

Moore’s essential insight, however badly or contentiously he may have framed and pursued it, was that the refusal to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Constitution is, in the end, an attack on the Constitution itself. In order to avoid acknowledging this dependency, doctrinaire secularism must attack not the specific teachings of the Ten Commandments but their authority, which means in practice, and for now, the denial of the very concept of a transcendent authority.

No society can exist indefinitely without some sort of consensus on fundamental questions, because these determine the way people behave toward each other. In the absence of a moral law to which appeal can be made, the ultimate arbiter is the force of the state. And the state which is at bottom lawless and entirely the tool of a dominant faction will in time prove a much more severe master than any Alabama fundamentalist.

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