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

After the Army, Moore returned to Alabama to attend law school, and then accepted a job as deputy district attorney in Gadsden, the seat of Etowah County. He recalls this period as a happy time in his life, but some evidence suggests that it was less than idyllic. Court records and local newspapers show that Moore sued the county in 1981 demanding a pay raise (he got it); this was just one of a series of high-profile clashes with the local legal community. Moore believed that the sheriff's department was underfunded, so he took it upon himself to bring the issue before a grand jury—an audacious move for one in so modest a position. The infuriated presiding judge had Moore investigated by the state bar association for "suspect conduct." The case was dismissed.

Moore was not dissuaded. Several weeks later he launched his first political campaign, running as a Democrat for circuit-court judge of Etowah County. He lost badly. After the election he was hit with a second complaint. This, too, was eventually dismissed. But Moore, now jobless and widely reviled, was essentially run out of town.

To cope, he returned to the ring, this time seeking a more demanding discipline. With $300 in his pocket Moore moved to Galveston, Texas, and apprenticed himself to a man named Ishmael Robles, who was a world champion kick-boxer. He took a maintenance job and for nine months spent every spare moment learning full-contact karate. His vindication, as he views it, came the following year, when he returned to Alabama to compete in the Greater Gadsden Tournament of Champions. Moore fought a second-degree black belt and won. "It was a symbolic victory," he writes in So Help Me God. "Truth prevailed."

Still restless and unwelcome in Gadsden, Moore was driven all the way to the Australian outback in his search for rugged challenge. One day, in the small town of Emerald, Queensland, he struck up a conversation with a local rancher, Colin Rolfe, who improbably shared Moore's passions for both Christianity and poetry. Short on money and with nowhere to go, he accepted an invitation to visit Rolfe's 42,000-acre ranch, and wound up living with the family and working as a cowboy for the better part of a year.

The unforgiving climate and the sense of timeless isolation seem to have satisfied something primal in Moore. "It was like going back in America 100 years," he recalled in a magazine interview in 2002. "It was wonderful. Everything was built by hand; we drank rainwater that was gathered in a barrel on the roof. We killed cattle when we wanted meat. We stripped it right there on the field."

Moore drifted back to Gadsden, believing himself ready at last to face down his old foes. In 1986 he ran for district attorney in Etowah County, to head the office in which he'd served as a deputy for five years. Once again the establishment lined up against him, and he was handily beaten. With his fortieth birthday just months away, Moore was aimless, washed up politically, with no money and few prospects: he was a failure. There was no one left to fight.

In 1986 Guy Hunt became Alabama's first Republican governor in more than a century. Moore switched his party affiliation. Now married, he found enough legal work to get by. When Etowah County's presiding judge died, in 1992, a couple of Moore's associates lobbied Hunt to appoint him. The call came while he was attending a Veterans Day ceremony at his old high school. "The impossible had happened!" he wrote afterward. "God had given me something that I had not been able to obtain through my own efforts."

Moore has provided various accounts of what came next. Sometimes he portrays his decision to hang a wood-burned plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench as an innocent gesture whose ramifications he never fathomed. When we spoke in May, however, Moore said he understood full well that his actions would generate controversy. But his rationale has always been fixed. "I wanted to establish the moral foundation of our law," he told me.

Then everything changed.

Roy Moore's political rise can be traced to two male strippers ("Silk" and "Satin" were their professional names) brought before him on charges of murdering a drug addict. At the beginning of the trial the strippers' attorney objected to the display of the Ten Commandments. He later argued that the men had acted in self-defense and made a point of stating that his clients' choice of profession should not be held against them. The jury agreed, and acquitted them.

Soon others noticed the commandments, as well as Moore's habit of opening court sessions with a prayer—a practice begun many years earlier by George Wallace when he was a circuit-court judge and not uncommon in the years since. In June of 1993 the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court threatening to sue anyone who opened court with a prayer. Moore smelled a fight.

Less than six months after he ascended to the bench, the ACLU asked if he would allow a court reporter to attend and record the prayer before his session. Moore agreed. The showdown came on June 20, 1994, when the ACLU's representative arrived, trailed by hordes of reporters. At the time, Moore was actively campaigning to be elected for a full term in the seat to which he had been appointed. After threatening to sue Moore over both the prayer and the plaque, the ACLU held off, possibly recognizing that doing so would only help him. It didn't matter. When the Ten Commandments controversy hit the newspapers, Moore took the ACLU's threat as an "act of intimidation" and refused to back down. Invitations to speak before civic groups, churches, and schools began pouring in. On election day he faced off against the same prosecutor who had lost the Silk and Satin case. Moore won in a landslide.

It was a stunning metamorphosis. Here he was, the effortless possessor of the judgeship he could never win, risen to preside over the community that had written him off. "God is the author of such miracles," he declared in his book.

By now Moore was a state celebrity, the central figure in a controversy of sufficient public interest that politicians of both parties felt compelled to voice their grave concerns. Most lined up behind him. In March of 1995 the ACLU made good on its threat to sue, and Alabama's new Republican governor, Fob James, instructed the state to file suit in support of Moore. The case wound up before a state circuit-court judge, who declared it unconstitutional to open court with a prayer but initially allowed the commandments to remain. Moore staged a press conference, vowing, "I will not stop prayer," and declared a religious intent in displaying the commandments. Thus provoked, his opponents asked the judge to reconsider, and this time he ordered the plaque removed within ten days. Moore refused. Ten days later, after the Alabama Supreme Court stayed the order, he was in New York City appearing on Today. A poll showed that 88 percent of Alabamians supported him. In 1998 the court threw the case out on a technicality. Moore hadn't exactly won a legal victory, but there was no question who had triumphed in the court of public opinion.

Soon after that the spotlight shifted to the contest to replace the retiring chief justice of the state supreme court. Three experienced candidates had already declared when, in November of 1999, the Christian Family Association began an effort to draft Moore. It seemed like a long shot. The favorite to win the primary was a sitting supreme-court justice named Harold See, who was backed by the state's Republican establishment and the business community. And See had another advantage: his campaign was being run by Karl Rove.

Undaunted, Moore entered the race in December, making the announcement in his courtroom, with the Ten Commandments plaque prominently displayed behind him. Even after all the attention Moore was still viewed as a gadfly rather than a serious contender for the state's highest judicial office. Underfunded, and the target of a vicious Rove attack campaign, Moore stayed focused on the Ten Commandments and his contention that religious laxity "corresponded directly with school violence, homosexuality, and crime." His message was identical to the one in his previous race: "We must return God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law."

On the day of the primary Moore delivered one of the most surprising defeats of Rove's career, and later sailed to victory in the general election. This time the whole state witnessed it: Moore had defeated a black belt.

Just a month after the election Moore had an epiphany: God required something grander than a wooden plaque for the supreme-court building. So he dreamed up the Ten Commandments monument and chose his favorite historical quotations to adorn it. He found like-minded benefactors willing to underwrite the cost and a sculptor worthy of the task. On July 31, 2001, six months after Moore was sworn in as chief justice, Chris Scoggins and a team of movers rolled up to the supreme-court building, in Montgomery, under cover of darkness to prepare the Rock for its public debut. They stood before a soaring neoclassical structure whose entrance was above dozens of limestone steps. A forklift was out of the question.

That was the first problem. Then there was the Rock's weight. The team had gone over the building's blueprints with engineers to find a spot with enough structural support, and had even traced the path they would follow going in. But you could never be certain. The court building sits above a parking garage. The engineers worried that the floor might collapse, and then who knew what would stop the Rock?

There had already been setbacks. Moore had ordered the monument months before. But on its way down from Vermont the block of granite cracked! (He returned it.) It was critical that the movers install the monument without damaging it or the building. People were beginning to wonder if the chief justice had backed down to the ACLU after all.

Presented by

Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In