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FIRST-PERSON: Commandments controversy: two issues, not one

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Ten Commandments-Judge Roy Moore controversy has sadly and sharply divided evangelical Christians. Why? The answer is that the controversy involves two issues, not just one.

The first issue involves whether the Ten Commandments in particular, and acknowledgment of God in general, are permissible in public buildings in the United States. On that issue I, like most evangelical Christians and many other Americans, agree with Judge Moore’s position.

I, too, am righteously indignant at the attempt by courts to deny our Judeo-Christian heritage and enforce a rigidly secular bias on our public spaces. I, too, am angered at the attempt by a federal appeals court to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. I, too, am angered when courts rule that competitively won, publicly funded scholarships can be used by students to major in anything but religion or ministry studies. Such rulings display blatant discrimination against religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment.

I, too, am angered when courts uphold public school teachers presenting classes on Islam to encourage tolerance, but deny students the rights to express their Christian faith at public school sporting events because the government paid for the microphone! I, too, am angered when, as Justice Antonin Scalia said in his blistering dissent in the Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision striking down anti-sodomy laws, the Supreme Court majority has taken sides in the culture war. Anyone with an eye to see and an ear to hear knows which side they have taken — the morally relativist, anti-Ten Commandments side.

I have and will continue to protest vigorously such hostile and unconstitutional court rulings. I have and will continue to do everything I can to encourage evangelical Christians to rise up and reform this government and its courts.

However, we are a government committed to the rule of law. That is the second issue in the Ten Commandments-Judge Moore controversy. Alabama’s Attorney General Bill Pryor (nominated by President George W. Bush for a seat on the very Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that has ruled so wrongly in this matter) has stated the second issue with simple eloquence:

“Although I believe the Ten Commandments are the cornerstone of our legal heritage and that they can be displayed constitutionally as they are in the U.S. Supreme Court building, I will not violate nor assist any person in the violation of this injunction. As Attorney General, I have a duty to obey all orders of courts even when I disagree with those orders. In this controversy, I will strive to uphold the rule of law. We have a government of laws, not of men. I will exercise any authority provided to me under Alabama law to bring the state into compliance with the injunction of the federal court unless or until the Supreme Court of the United States rules in favor of Chief Justice Moore.”

America is a government of laws, not of men. If Attorney General Pryor in good conscience could not uphold his sworn duty, then he should resign rather than break his oath of office. If we disagree with a judicial interpretation of the law (which makes it the law until it is changed) as Judge Moore, Attorney General Pryor and millions of other Americans clearly do in this case, then we must change the judges and, if necessary, change the laws.

Does anyone doubt how Attorney General Pryor would vote on this case if he were confirmed as a federal judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals? The liberal obstructionist Democrats in the U.S. Senate have no doubt that he would vote to affirm Judge Moore’s right to have the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building. That is why they are leading an unprecedented and unconstitutional filibuster against him and his fellow conservative nominees in the Senate.

What we must not do, unless we want to abandon the rule of law or support rebellion against this government, is support defiance of the law by officials sworn to uphold the law. Judge Moore should, like Attorney General Pryor, his eight fellow justices and Alabama’s governor, obey the federal court order, continue his appeals process and make his compelling case in the courts and in the courtroom of public opinion. I will continue to help him make that case.

The principle at stake here is the same as the Truman-MacArthur controversy during the Korean War. I am a profound admirer of Gen. MacArthur. I had his portrait along with a copy of his “Duty, Honor, Country” speech on the wall of my bedroom as a boy. I believe fervently that MacArthur was right and President Truman was wrong on America’s Korea policy when MacArthur said that in war there can be no substitute for victory.

However, we have civilian control of the military in America. Gen. Eisenhower is reported to have said that if he had been given the orders MacArthur was given in Korea, he would have resigned, come back to America and made his case against Truman’s policies as a private citizen. Gen. MacArthur chose instead to ignore his orders and Truman had no choice but to relieve him of his duties to maintain the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.

If Judge Moore feels that in conscience, pending his appeal to the Supreme Court, he cannot comply with the federal court order, then he should resign his office and continue to make his case. I will help him do it. If, as a private citizen, Judge Moore feels compelled by conscience to protest the removal of the Ten Commandments statue by engaging in a sit-in at the Alabama Supreme Court building, I will respect his freedom of conscience. If he is arrested for non-violently protesting the court’s action, I will contribute to his legal defense fund.

Nevertheless, we should not condone elected officials deciding which laws they will obey and which laws they will not. That subverts the rule of law and will lead to anarchy. In December 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore and brought the seemingly endless 2000 presidential election to an end. Would we have supported the Florida Supreme Court in defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling and continuing with yet another recount effort while the Electoral College was thrown into crisis by having perhaps two sets of electors from Florida and no agreed upon president?

If the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, would we support the California State Supreme Court defying the U.S. Supreme Court and saying that since their state constitution explicitly guarantees the right to privacy, they planned to defy the federal government and continue to permit abortion on demand in California?

Judge Moore, in his public comments after his eight fellow Alabama Supreme Court justices voted to comply with the federal court order, said:

“I hear others talk of a rule of law. If the rule of law means to do everything a judge tells you to do, we would still have slavery in this country. If the rule of law means to do everything a judge tells you to do, the Declaration of Independence would be a meaningless document.”

Judge Moore’s historical illustrations are most instructive. On the slavery issue, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that slaves were property, not human beings, and thus had no rights. The response of the American people three years later was to elect a new president, Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned on a platform of no extension, and the eventual abolition, of slavery. So, America did obey the rule of law, used the ballot box and eliminated slavery.

It is true that our forefathers, my direct ancestors among them, did defy British law by forming a new government and declaring their independence, starting the Revolutionary War. In the Declaration of Independence they laid out in considerable detail their reasons for concluding that the British Crown was no longer a legitimate government. I think they were right, and I applaud my ancestors for supporting that effort. I do not believe that rebellion is always wrong, but it should not take place until all legal redress of grievances has been exhausted.

Do evangelical Christians really want to say that this United States government is no longer a legitimate government and that we are no longer obligated to obey its courts when we disagree with their rulings? If so, let us understand it for what it is. It is insurrection. I want to reform this government, not rebel against it as an illegitimate government beyond repair.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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