Roy Moore Runs for President

Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments Judge," is going to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. Apparently, the news broke last week. It's a measure of how far Moore has fallen since days as a controversial national figure that people (i.e., me) are only hearing about this now. Moore was, of course, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court--until, in the middle of the night, he installed a five-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments. Moore refused to remove it, and was ultimately removed from his job. He became a hero among a certain segment of the Christian right wing, ran for Alabama governor, and his national ambitions were enough of a threat to the Republican power structure that Karl Rove reportedly got involved.

I know all this because I wrote about Moore for the Atlantic in 2005, in what remains, to this day, my single favorite political profile. It's actually a dual profile of Roy Moore and "Roy's Rock," as the Ten Commandments monument came to be known. To me, the Rock is actually the more interesting character. After it was removed from the Supreme Court building, it toured the country traveling between various Christian conventions. It was so heavy, that it had its own crane truck, that pretty much drove all over the South. After spending some time with Moore, I showed up at one of the festivals and hitched a ride with the Rock's crane-truck drivers (great guys). It was fun.

Moore never panned out as a political candidate. Two things happened. Hurricane Katrina hit just before the governor's race, and people were reminded that experience and competence were not unimportant, so they stuck with Gov. Bob Riley. The other thing that happened was that Moore never stopped talking about the Ten Commandments controversy, and so he never bothered to talk about issues that voters might have cared about. If there were a Moore's Law of politics, it would be that solipsism has its limits. Consequently, I don't think Moore is going to make it very far in the presidential race. But he's a strange and fascinating character, so I really hope you'll take a moment to read my piece, "Roy and His Rock." Here' s the lede:

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.