Roy and His Rock

Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments Judge," has embarked on an odyssey that is taking him and his controversial monument far beyond his home state of Alabama. He wants the Republican Party to bow down

Like a lot of celebrities, the Rock is smaller than you expect it to be. It's only about waist high. But it's sturdy and elegant nonetheless, rough in some places, smooth as glass in others. Though it's famous for stoking controversy, most people are moved to awestruck silence when they see it up close. It conveys grandeur and permanence. Even in its present surroundings, strapped to a flatbed that's littered with strips of dying turf and a stray tombstone, the Rock is magnificent.

It was meant to be so. You can see this in the detail, from the lofty inscriptions (Washington, Jefferson) to the quality of stone from which it was cut. When you build a monument in the Deep South, you normally get your granite from a quarry in Georgia. But the Rock is carved in Barre granite, from Vermont—the finest in the world, practically flawless in its consistency and almost as hard as sapphire. When you are paying obeisance to God, how could anything less suffice?

It doesn't look that heavy. That's what you think when the Rock is finally at rest. Then, if you're on tour with it, you see the twenty-three-foot crane on the back of the International flatbed jerk slowly to life and the entire contraption, which resembles a folded crab's claw, groan under the strain of 5,280 pounds of Barre granite. Even the pious tend to take a step backward. Or, if it is at home in Alabama, as it is now, a fifty-seven-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one—a five-ton crane!—buckles visibly under the weight. The Rock is so heavy that it has begun to slip the bond of the Italian industrial epoxy that fastens it to its granite base; the lead spacers beneath it that prevent the stone from cracking have been pounded as thin as a sheet of paper.

After thousands of miles the Rock has arrived for maintenance and cleansing. As it sways precariously beneath the five-tonner, a small priesthood of caretakers will guide it to a washbasin and gently remove the ravages of worship and travel. In churches and convention centers across the country thousands have reached over the blood-red velvet cordon and subtly corroded its surface with oily hands. Out on the road, bugs are the problem. The steamy southern climate pelts anything that barrels down the highway with mosquitoes, locusts, grasshoppers, flies, big fat bumblebees, and, worst of all, what truckers call "fuck bugs" (Plecia nearctica to entomologists), which swarm in copula for hours at a time, especially near the Gulf, and as a consequence—truckers and entomologists agree—make twice the splat of anything else you're likely to encounter. So the Rock is wiped down with an organic degreaser and often given a high-pressure chemical wash, too. Then it is dried, wrapped in plastic, placed atop a pallet, and driven northeast on Interstate 59 to the CrossPoints Community Church, in Gadsden, Alabama, to await the next visitation.

For two years now the Rock has been in exile, but this could soon change. Shortly after he took office as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in 2001, Roy Moore caused a national furor by commissioning and installing a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the state supreme-court building and refusing to remove it. For a time in the summer of 2003 the Rock—or "Roy's Rock," as the monument also came to be known—put the issue of the government's relationship to religion on front pages and made Moore infamous. When Moore defied a federal court order to remove the monument, supporters from across the country descended on Montgomery, taking up residence on the steps of the supreme-court building and praying, singing, threatening, blowing ram's horns—all to protect God from the latest assault by the federal government.

The constitutional crisis that unfolded reached the U.S. Supreme Court before Moore and the Rock were ultimately tossed out. The national media moved on, but Moore and his legion of followers did not. The believers will tell you that God's will is not so easily thwarted. That Moore has set something in motion that will not be stopped. That whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.

Moore has since toured the country tirelessly, speaking about the Ten Commandments at churches and dinners, conferences and conventions, hitting thirty-one states last year alone to share the news that the federal government is threatening the American way of life. Over the course of several months I joined him for a series of interviews and speeches. Sometimes, in rural Alabama hamlets, the crowd numbered only a few dozen; other times, such as at the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, it numbered in the tens of thousands.

And then there is the Rock. It, too, has toured the country since Moore was deposed, and it, too, has drawn crowds of thousands. Sometimes it arrives at a church or a convention to coincide with a Moore appearance; other times it is the main attraction.

You don't have to believe that Moore's Ten Commandments drama was prophetic, as some of his supporters do, or see the hand of God in the country's recent politics, to believe that the national culture is moving in Roy Moore's direction. Moore will tell you that before the filibuster showdown, before the Terri Schiavo controversy, before Tom DeLay insinuated violent retaliation against the federal judges who ended it, before the Supreme Court ruled that the Ten Commandments have no place in a courtroom, even before a swell of evangelical Christians carried George W. Bush to a second term, he was fighting the battle to acknowledge God. He has never stopped talking about it, never stopped arguing his case, and over the past three years he has built a national following, becoming a political phenomenon of the sort Alabamians haven't seen since the days of George Wallace.

For years Moore's has been a story that everybody in Alabama and almost nobody outside it knows. But the likelihood that he will challenge the state's incumbent governor, Bob Riley, a fellow Republican, is bringing him back to national attention. The race between Riley, the darling of the business community, and Moore, the religious conservative in excelsis, is shaping up as a showdown between the two pillars of the Republican Party, with implications that reach far beyond Alabama. In the local parlance Moore appears poised to "ride the Rock" to the governorship and re-establish himself in the spotlight. Only this time, if the Lord delivers him there, he will have an eye toward reshaping not just his courtroom but also his country in the image of God.

Anyone looking to foment a religious reawakening in America today would be wise to enlist the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly if the reawakening were to take the form of a political campaign. Southern Baptists, even more than other denominations, voted overwhelmingly for Bush and have emerged as a force within the Republican Party. Moore was hardly alone in seeking to intensify Christian influence over American public life when he appeared at the Southern Baptist Pastors' annual conference in Nashville, last June. But as the crusade's standard bearer in the political arena, he was given a prime speaker's slot, just before the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

Moore himself looks chiseled from granite. He has powerful, sloping shoulders, a barrel chest, and hands roped with muscle, evidence of his passion for stonemasonry and carpentry (he built his house and most of his furniture by hand). His coarse, thinning hair is swept high on his head, which he holds in a rectitudinous manner. Moore bears a resemblance to the actor Harvey Keitel, in his blunt, deeply etched features and in his air of brooding pugnacity.

After his usual introduction as "the Ten Commandments Judge," Moore, dressed in a dark suit and toting a wooden gavel that he occasionally pounded for emphasis, approached the lectern in the Nashville convention center and spread his hands. When he had dispensed the requisite thanks to his hosts, here is how he began his speech:

"It is indeed an honor to be here, and I sincerely mean that. But I would gladly have declined an honor to which I find myself unequal. I have not the calmness and impartiality which the infinite importance of this occasion demands. I will not deny the charge of mine enemies that resentment for the accumulated injuries of our country, and an ardour for her glory, rising to enthusiasm, may deprive me of that accuracy of judgment and expression which men of cooler passions may possess. Let me beseech you, then, to hear me with caution, to examine without prejudice, and to correct the mistakes into which I may be hurried by my zeal."

These words belong not to Moore but to Samuel Adams, who used them to address the members of Congress on August 1, 1776. But they neatly fit Moore's view that his Ten Commandments battle is a critical part of the larger American epic, and that he himself is an American revolutionary like Adams. In Moore's way of seeing things, the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation. He attributes the fact that many do not share this view to the malign influence of power-hungry federal judges and unprincipled lawmakers. Moore's installation of the Rock was an effort to force the issue, and its intended effect was as much legal as political. Put simply, Moore believes that the law vindicates him, and he has plundered texts from the Bible to Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England to build an elaborate case that God is the basis of American government. Where Moore parts company with others who share this historical view is in his assertion that the government therefore falls under the sovereignty of God. His position goes beyond the notion of a civil religion and beyond even the views of most conservative judicial scholars. It amounts to theocracy. "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers," he declared in Nashville, citing Romans 13:1. "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." Much of his standard speech is devoted to a complex textual analysis in support of this argument, complete with a PowerPoint slide show citing key quotations.

Moore has a remarkable gift: he has memorized dozens of multi-paragraph quotations that he is able to summon at will—most of them, like the Adams passage, from the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries. His speeches contain so many of these, and are delivered in a tone of such weighty solemnity, that if you were to listen to him with your eyes closed, you would half expect when you opened them to see him outfitted in breeches and a powdered wig.

The large crowd at the Southern Baptists' conference seemed to feed Moore's sense of ceremony, upping the historical-utterance quotient. As all his speeches tend to do, this one alternated between declaiming his legal-historical views and lamenting his ouster as chief justice—an event that has become the central focus of his life. In the middle of his speech Moore paused and turned to a JumboTron high overhead. The lights dimmed, and the audience was shown a videotape of Judge William Thompson reading the verdict that kicked Moore off the court in the ethics case stemming from his refusal to remove the Ten Commandments monument. When it ended, Moore told the audience, "I believe that video was given by God."

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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