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.

Two people touch the Ten Commandments Monument
Pat Vasquez-Cunningham / AP

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."

The reminder of this public slight seemed to ignite his passion. He went into an attack on his ideological opponents, his voice rising in anger. "Separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and government!" he said, and was stopped by applause. As Moore continued, his face became stern and then angry, and his voice was a roar. "'Be ye horribly afraid,'" he thundered, quoting from the second chapter of Jeremiah, "'for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.' Our schools, our political institutions, are not holding water today, because we've tried to construct them without God! We've been deceived by a government that tells us we cannot worship God—contradictory to history, contradictory to law, and contradictory to logic. And we bow down. Shall we bow down?" Cries of "No!" cascaded from the rafters.

Then Moore downshifted, his voice growing solemn once more, and he demonstrated another rhetorical flourish common to the Founding Fathers: he shared his poetry.

"We're fighting wars all over this globe, it sometimes seems," he said. "We're fighting one in Iraq today." A beatific smile came over his face.

"And we face another war
Fought not upon some distant shore,
Nor against a foe that you can see,
But one as ruthless as can be.
It will take your life and your children too,
And say there's nothing you can do.
It will make you think that wrong is right,
Is but a sign to stand and fight.
And though we face the wrath of Hell,
Against those gates we shall prevail.
In homes in schools across our land,
It's time for Christians to take a stand,
And when our work on this earth is done,
And the battle is over and the victory is won,
When through all the earth His praise will ring,
And all the heavenly angels sing,
It will be enough just to see His son,
And hear him say 'My child, well done.
'You've kept my faith so strong and true,
'I knew that I could count on you.'"

As he finished, the crowd rose to its feet and broke into a chorus of "God Bless America."

W hen the Rock attends a convention, it is the first thing to arrive and the last thing to leave. The process of moving it is orchestrated by Chris Scoggins, the stocky, bespectacled, and deeply sunburned driver of the International flatbed, who, with his assistant Mike Hill, works for Clark Memorials Incorporated, which carved the monument and now sees to its safe passage.

Several days before Moore's speech the pair pulled up to the Nashville convention center in the crane truck. Everyone nearby stopped what he was doing and wandered over to peer at it. The respectful silence lasted until the arrival of a 6,000-pound forklift specially brought to move the monument (standard models can't hoist it). And then someone shouted to Steven McDonald, the lift's operator, "Hey, Moses, put 'er over there!"

Initially the plan had been to place the Rock onstage, alongside Moore. But this was overruled. The monument tends to draw the nervous attention of structural engineers wherever it travels. Those responsible for the convention feared that the stage couldn't withstand the weight. So rather than risk having the Rock crash through the floor mid-speech, "Moses" deposited it in the very center of the convention hall.

For five days the Rock stood cordoned off in velvet, as always, and looking slightly too elegant for the occasion. Booths for graffiti-proof church signs, modular fiberglass steeples, and Bible-navigation software combined to create the glitzy atmosphere of a trade show. But the Rock maintained its singular effect, quieting the thousands who filed past to gaze at it, the hush broken only by the occasional snap of a cell-phone camera.

Then, on the final evening of the conference, after the last blue-light special was announced (Ollie North's latest novel, $2.97), time was called, and out came the power drills, packing crates, wooden pallets, and swarms of lesser forklifts. Just before midnight, when most of the traveling circus had packed up and shipped off, the Rock was all that remained, still cordoned off and lit from above, alone in a storm of debris at the center of the 300,000-square-foot arena.

When Scoggins and Hill arrived to retrieve the monument the next morning, I intercepted them with what must have seemed an unusual proposition: let me join the Rock on tour, and I'll buy your meals and gas. They quickly agreed. The heavy-duty forklift rolled up with the Rock atop a pallet. As we strapped it to the truck with nylon and secured it with a winch, Scoggins gave me a quick course in being a roadie. Then he slid my suitcase behind a tombstone (they'd laid fifteen the day before), and we climbed aboard. The remaining workers stopped and stood at attention as we backed out. Before long we were open-throttle down the highway heading toward Birmingham.

I imagine that traveling through the South with the Rock is a little like riding in the Rolling Stones' tour bus. You're recognized, excitedly, almost everywhere you go—gas stations, restaurants, the 7-Eleven. "I don't know if I've run across anyone who didn't know what it is," Scoggins mused once when we stopped for lunch. "It's a household name around here." As if on cue, a white-haired man in boots and jeans, who'd been scrutinizing the International out front, ambled up to our table. "Y'all with Clark?" he asked appraisingly. We nodded. "Is that the Rock?" We assured him it was.

Scoggins told me that when he arrives back late from the road, he sometimes parks the truck in front of his home in Saginaw, which is across the street from the Amazing Grace Worship Center. Children stream in from the neighborhood to marvel at the Rock. The first time he brought it home was a Saturday night. When he awoke the next morning, church had just let out and the Amazing Grace congregation had surrounded his truck.

To an outsider the Rock's celebrity often feels surreal, until you come to understand how thoroughly it has permeated life in Alabama. My hotel gift shop in Montgomery sold Styrofoam Ten Commandments tablets. As we pulled into the tiny town of Hayden, the road was lined with political placards that read simply, "Judge Rochester. Like a Rock." It is shorthand for an entire culture.

Out on the highway one day something happened that Scoggins says is not uncommon. As we traveled down Interstate 59, a silver minivan carrying a large African-American family started to pass us on the left. Then someone recognized the Rock, strapped to the flatbed in plain sight. The van slowed down, and its occupants crowded the windows the way airplane passengers sometimes do when flying over an important landmark. When they finally sped off, the next car pulled alongside us to see what all the fuss was about, and the next one after that. When I looked back a little while later, the rolling retinue stretched out for a quarter mile behind us.

Earlier this year Moore published an autobiography, So Help Me God, that put a twist on the anodyne books standard in most high-profile campaigns. It isn't just the typical pol's tale of triumphing over adversity. Rather, Moore presents his life as resembling a series of biblical parables, wherein the controversy over the Ten Commandments is merely the culminating episode in a lifetime of arduous—but always morally clear—struggles during which he, through Calvinist perseverance and a belief in God, is always rewarded. A better way to understand Moore is to think of the Ten Commandments controversy as the bright line dividing his life: there is before and there is after, and they are two very different stories.

Roy Stewart Moore was born on February 11, 1947, in Gadsden, Alabama, the first of five children. His father, Roy Baxter Moore, was a construction worker who met and married Evelyn Stewart shortly after leaving the military following World War II. Moore remembers his father as a pious man and a strict disciplinarian, though one more likely to deliver hour-long lectures than punishment with a hickory switch.

Moore attended West Point on scholarship, the only way he could go to college, enrolling in 1965. He found the adjustment difficult. "I soon learned that one of the academy's tools for leadership training was intimidation," he writes in So Help Me God. He struggled socially and academically, graduating 640th in a class of 800. As a southerner he came in for frequent hazing, and he turned to boxing as an outlet for his frustration. Like his father, he became a rigid disciplinarian. "As a cadet he exacted a lot from everybody," says John Bentley, an Alabama judge who attended West Point with Moore. "I was a lowerclassman, and if you came by his room, you better have your shoes shined and your brass on right."

After graduation Moore was sent first to Germany and then to Vietnam, where he commanded a military-police company supervising a stockade in Da Nang. When he arrived, he says, drug use and insubordination were rampant, and he immediately began issuing "Article Fifteens"—disciplinary actions against his men. This earned him the nickname "Captain America." By his own account Moore was so much disliked that he feared being killed by his own troops, and slept on a bed of sandbags so that he couldn't be fragged by a grenade rolled under his bed. Moore did not believe it proper for an officer to consort with his men, but his code of manly conduct couldn't countenance the perceived disrespect. So he constructed a boxing ring in which, he writes, "I met all challenges from soldiers in the battalion." He was never attacked.

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.

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?
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.