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

If you want to move a large block of granite to a place a crane won't go, the technological options haven't changed much since the pyramids were built. That first time, in the dead of night, it took twenty men to get the Rock in position, heaving it up the steps on plywood boards and then forward, inch by inch, on wooden rollers until the rear rollers came free and could be carried around to the front and reinserted. Then the whole thing rolled a little farther. There were so many people pushing that not everyone could get his hands on it, so some of the men bent low and leaned a shoulder into those in front of them, driving forward like a rugby scrum.

The Chief (as he now preferred to be called) had given a lot of thought to where he would place the Rock. The trouble with putting it in the courtroom was that hardly anyone would see it. The supreme court seldom heard oral arguments in its glorious building. Instead the justices traveled to locations all over the state to hold court, as a way of spreading civic involvement. It might take years to draw a lawsuit! So Scoggins and his crew were instructed to place the Rock directly beneath the rotunda in the center of the lobby. That way no one could miss it. It would be the first thing anyone saw when entering the building.

When they finished, it was 4:30 a.m. The Rock was in position, draped with a red veil. In a few hours all hell would break loose.

Later that morning Moore summoned the media. With representatives from across the state at rapt attention, one of his deputies led a prayer, and then, as Moore stood to deliver his remarks, the veil was torn off to reveal the monument.

The media focused on the Rock, naturally. But Moore's purpose that day was much larger than the Ten Commandments. This was a historic moment. Before the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams stood before Congress on August 1, 1776, and delivered his famous speech. Exactly 225 years later to the day, Moore delivered a declaration of his own.

"Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded," he said, "and for those simple truths which our forefathers found to be self-evident; but once again"—here he slipped into Samuel Adams's words—"we find that those cries have fallen upon eyes that see not, ears that hear not our prayers, and hearts much like that nether millstone … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land."

For nearly a century after Reconstruction political power in Alabama was concentrated among a coterie of interests known as the Big Mules. They included the state's largest landowners—typically timber barons—along with industries such as steel, coal, iron, and utilities, all of them united by opposition to anything that might threaten their influence, including allowing blacks to vote.

Despite their collective clout, no individual interest ever dominated the state. In his seminal book Southern Politics the political scientist V. O. Key Jr., noting Alabamians' "wholesome contempt for authority," posited that the "picturesque quality of many southern political leaders lies in the fact that attention-attracting antics function as a substitute for party machinery." Races tend to be roiling free-for-alls that often reward the most charismatic candidate, and have produced the legends of Alabama politics—such mythic populists as "Big Jim" Folsom and George Wallace. Successful politicians, Key observed, were "self-appointed and self-anointed" and "attract to themselves [followers] by favor, chance, or demagogic skill." Key was writing in 1949, so give him points for foresight. A better explanation of Moore's rise to power is hard to come by.

Over time, while Alabama's contempt for authority has remained proudly intact, much else has changed. The steel and iron industries have declined, and other interests have arisen to replace them. Blacks, trial lawyers, religious conservatives, and the teachers' union now rank as powerful factions to be dealt with. But winning high office still requires harnessing the Big Mules or overcoming them.

By capitalizing on these power shifts and emulating his populist forebears, Moore has managed to do both. Of the current forces none looms larger than religious conservatives. Over the past decade polls have consistently shown that as many as 70 percent of Alabamians favor the creation of a state lottery. Yet each time a proposal has appeared on the ballot, it has failed—a running testament to religious conservatives' political muscle. Moore has painstakingly cultivated this group since his circuit-court days, and it is the source of his most fervent supporters.

Despite his frequent recourse to history, Moore is not given to quoting George Wallace. But his political ascent is uncannily similar. Before he became governor, Wallace used his circuit-court bench as a platform for railing against federally imposed racial integration, much as Moore used his to agitate against federal forces that would remove the Ten Commandments. What catapulted each man to power was an ability to tap into voters' prolonged sense of being besieged by vividly evoking a common enemy. In each case the enemy was the federal courts.

Shortly after he installed the Ten Commandments monument, Moore was sued by three public-interest groups, and in due course a federal judge declared the installation unconstitutional. When his appeal was denied, Moore faced a federal court order to remove the monument. He surprised no one when, on August 14, 2003, he declared, "I have no intention of removing the monument of the Ten Commandments and the moral foundation of our law." With that a showdown was imminent.

Thousands of supporters descended on the supreme-court building to "protect" the Rock, shutting down historic Dexter Avenue with campers and RVs and sleeping on the courthouse steps. After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal, twenty-two people were arrested while kneeling in the rotunda, where the Rock still stood. Gorman Houston Jr., a justice on the court, wrote a brief memoir of the controversy that captures its flavor. One morning Houston went to open his office window, on the third floor of the judicial building, and was startled to encounter a protester, who had shinnied up and perched on the ledge. Another, more polite protester approached the building manager to request permission to blow a ram's horn from the top of the judicial building's dome. (It was denied.) He settled for blowing it among the throngs below.

When Moore deeded the monument to the State of Alabama he included a clause returning ownership to him in the event it was removed. On August 27 the remaining eight justices moved it from the rotunda to a storage room. (Moore didn't retrieve the Rock until the following summer.) The protesters didn't budge. Not until September 3, when the police barricaded the courthouse, did the protesters finally disperse. When they were gone, the limestone steps had to be pressure-washed to remove the smell of urine.

A Newsweek reporter once described federal judges as George Wallace's "cherished dragons." During the Ten Commandments controversy a total of thirty-four judges ruled against Moore; not a single one ruled for him. Yet he emerged as one of the most popular figures in the state.

In style if not in substance, Moore's religious populism is a lineal descendant of the race-baiting that propelled Wallace to the statehouse a generation ago. Moore has begun to wield a similar sort of influence. Last year he began targeting the eight justices who removed the monument, saying they had abandoned God. Of the three facing re-election, two opted to retire, and the third was defeated by one of Moore's lawyers. Next year three more are up for re-election, and can expect Moore-supported challengers if they run.

Moore is not just eyeing the governor's office but putting together an entire slate of candidates to run under his auspices in the Republican primary. Another of his lawyers is running for lieutenant governor, and the search is under way for an attorney-general candidate. Moore has in effect established a splinter sect of religious conservatives bent on taking over the Republican Party, and his reach extends to every corner of the state.

Like Wallace and Folsom in their populist heyday, Moore has his strongest support in rural areas. In June he spoke at a Baptist church in the small town of Andalusia, where I was to meet him. Pulling off Interstate 65 at Owassa and heading southeast, I watched the landscape thin to Georgia scrub pines and little else. A roadside billboard announced that this was Moore country. It read, Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You!

In every Moore crowd an undercurrent of messianic zeal is detectable, and here a few zealots buttonholed passersby, animated by communist infiltrations and dark tidings of the Bavarian Illuminati. But like the activists who thronged to the Rock, these were merely Moore's most visible partisans, and misleading as to his broader base of support. Most of the 300 or so people gathered in Andalusia were practically Rockwellian in appearance—tanned, scrubbed, and glowing with health, a sea of golf shirts and pastel tops, nearly every adult surrounded by clambering children. Most were conflicted about Moore. I heard countless variations on the statement that while they did not necessarily agree with some of his methods, he had, after all, stood up for God—and in the end, who else could you support?

To people like these Moore offers an authenticity that no other conservative, not even George W. Bush or Tom DeLay, can claim. He is viewed as a martyr to the secular establishment and an exotic specimen in the fallen world of politics—someone who sacrificed power for principle.

Whether Moore truly sacrificed power by defying a federal court order is a matter of debate. In any event, it was a formal sacrifice with immense practical gains. What is certain is the continuing strength of his political appeal. One circuit-court judge in Andalusia has gone so far as to embroider the Ten Commandments onto his judicial robe. (Mortifyingly, he has not yet been sued.)

Moore's stature has grown to the point where he defies the rules that normally govern politics. One consultant who has worked against him describes Moore's effect in an election as like that of a black hole whose pull alters the dynamics of races up and down the ticket. Because of the passions generated over the Ten Commandments, Moore attracts people who ordinarily wouldn't vote and others, such as blacks, who ordinarily wouldn't vote Republican (though he also drives away some moderate Republicans). His race for chief justice in 2000 drew more voters than had participated in Alabama's gubernatorial election two years earlier. One recent poll shows him running eight points ahead of the incumbent governor, Riley.

The centerpiece of Moore's campaign remains his cherished dragons. Though he lost the legal battle over the Ten Commandments, the political effect of his doomed showdown with the federal courts mirrored Wallace's after his defiant stand against federal agents at the Birmingham schoolhouse door. What Wallace and Moore seemed to sense in the southern mindset is that as long as one refuses to be intimidated, a heroic loss can elevate one's political standing—even to the level of icon.

As running mates go, the Rock is ideal. It is always on message. It is an indefatigable campaigner. It boasts a national following. And it is a terrific fundraiser. Since Moore left office it has been the force behind his political life.

Typically, an image of the Rock is beamed onto a giant screen before Moore takes the stage. Most of his speeches, and even his idle conversations, obsessively return to it. He has even copyrighted the monument. Today the Rock plays a role weirdly analogous to that of a retired Kentucky Derby winner gone to stud: with Moore's blessing, it is being cloned for a Baptist group in Atlanta.

At the height of the controversy Moore's friends established the Foundation for Moral Law. Just after he was ousted, they installed him as chairman. The nonprofit has grown rich through donations and by selling books, DVDs, tie pins, T-shirts, even a Ten Commandments wall clock ("Hear God's eternal rules of life every hour while soft piano music plays in the background"). The income generated has funded his bodyguard's salary, much of his travel, and a prominent building in downtown Montgomery that is slated to become the foundation's new headquarters.

As the public battle continues over the Ten Commandments, Moore's stature seems likely to grow. If he declares for the governor's race this fall, his national following should instantly position him as a right-wing analogue to Howard Dean—the personification of a movement to which its members are implacably committed. One political consultant I spoke to, who is not affiliated with Moore, predicted that Moore would easily raise more money from out of state than any other gubernatorial candidate in U.S. history.

With access to so much capital and with an ambitious speaking schedule, Moore already seems to be campaigning for something larger than governor. George Wallace parlayed his popularity into a series of presidential runs. With a wide-open Republican field in 2008 and an explosion of political activism among religious conservatives, Moore might attempt something similar. There was, in fact, great trepidation in the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign that Moore would enter the 2004 presidential election and siphon off enough voters to throw the race to John Kerry. Karl Rove, a Moore casualty once already in his career, allowed the campaign to intervene in Alabama to make sure that Moore's replacement as chief justice wasn't announced until after the filing deadline for third-party presidential candidates, for fear of offending Moore and provoking him to enter the race.

Should Moore become governor, he would have a more prominent platform than ever before. If he carries with him a wave of judges and an attorney general, he will have both the capacity and a popular mandate to challenge fundamental issues about the limits of religion in government. This is a prospect that profoundly unsettles not just liberals but conservatives aware of how Moore's influence could change public perceptions of the Republican Party. In light of Moore's crusading nature it seems clear that in the approaching vacuum of the post-Bush era he will attempt to exercise a measure of control over the national Republican Party, much as he has done in the Alabama Republican Party.

When we spoke, Moore seemed to relish the thought, though he was careful to couch his ambition as a godly duty. "Do I like the fight in politics—do I like the controversy?" he asked. "No, not really. But if I think that that's what God put me here for, and that people want me to do this, then I'm going to have to do this."

Later that evening Moore was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative judicial group in California that is active in Christian circles. It was here, among his fellow seekers of a return to a constitutional utopia, that Moore gave the clearest glimpse of how he views himself and his crusade.

Before a room of 500 people Moore launched into the usual description of how he'd been railroaded by the federal courts. But then he stopped and announced that he'd brought something special. He turned to the giant video screen behind him and told the audience that he was going to show them his cross-examination by Bill Pryor, then the state attorney general, in the Ten Commandments case.

Cameras had been barred from the proceedings, Moore explained in a voice of deepest solemnity, but someone had sneaked in and recorded them anyway. Judging from the angle of the shot, the cameraman had hidden high above the courtroom floor. Moore had somehow managed to get hold of a bootleg tape and had extracted the scene of his cross-examination. He had superimposed the grainy video of his testimony on an American flag, fluttering in slow motion, and scored the scene with soaring orchestral music:

PRYOR: And your understanding is that the federal court ordered that you could not acknowledge God; isn't that right?
MOORE: Yes.
PRYOR: And if you resume your duties as chief justice after this proceeding, you will continue to acknowledge God as you have testified that you would today?
MOORE: That's right.
PRYOR: No matter what any other official says?
MOORE: Absolutely. Without—let me clarify that. Without an acknowledgment of God, I cannot do my duties. I must acknowledge God. It says so in the constitution of Alabama. It says so in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It says so in everything I have read.
PRYOR: The only point I am trying to clarify, Mr. Chief Justice, is not why, but only that in fact, if you do resume your duties as chief justice, you will continue to do that without regard to what any other official says. Isn't that right?
MOORE: ... I think you must.

When the lights came up, Moore was standing at attention with his hand over his heart, tears shining in his eyes. The audience roared.

Presented by

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

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 Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In