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FIRST-PERSON: When the foundations are gone

ATLANTA (BP)–When Alabama’s judicial ethics panel voted to oust State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, it provided the most vivid illustration yet of the great irony playing itself out in our day. Many in the United States legal system are engaged in an effort to destroy the very foundation on which our nation’s laws are based. The Judeo-Christian system of morality has served as western civilization’s legal foundation for centuries, yet today many judges believe they can destroy that foundation and still maintain a lawful society.

For decades, members of the U.S. Supreme Court not only tolerated our biblical foundations, they openly embraced them. In an 1892 decision the court stated, “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian. This is a religious people. This is historically true … this is a Christian nation” (Church of the Holy trinity v. United States 1892).

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge acknowledged, “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.”

Coolidge understood that if the foundations are destroyed, our nation won’t just cease to be moral, it could very well cease being a nation at all.

There is nothing in our nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a judge could not display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. So where did the courts get the idea?

Perhaps U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black can best be blamed. In order to arrive at some of the damaging church and state decisions the court made in the 1950s and 1960s, Black took us on a journey through Thomas Jefferson’s personal writings. In them, he found a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association extolling the “wall of separation between church and state.” Was Jefferson arguing that religious people should not influence government? That would be difficult to believe, considering the fact that two days after writing his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson could be found sitting in the halls of Congress, listening to a sermon from Baptist pastor John Leland, one of many religious services held in government buildings during Jefferson’s administration.

Despite efforts by the legal left to paint Judge Moore as an extremist, he fails to fit the mold. I had the privilege of spending time with Judge Moore recently and found him to be both reasonable and well-spoken. When he ran for state supreme court chief justice in 2000, he did so on a platform built on returning the legal system to its moral underpinnings. In fact, he was known as the “Ten Commandments Judge” during that campaign. The people of Alabama overwhelmingly chose to place Moore in office and they still support him today. That sentiment seems widespread. A recent Gallup poll found 77 percent of Americans disagree with the court ordering Moore to remove his monument.

Judge Moore is demonstrating the difference between holding a belief and holding convictions. Beliefs run rampant today. But a conviction is the willingness to act on a belief regardless of the consequences. Most Americans say they believe in God, but Judge Moore was willing to risk his career sticking to his belief that God’s laws supercede man’s. Those kinds of convictions are hard to find today.

Ultimately the Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear Moore’s case will serve as one more warning shot aimed at Americans of all faith backgrounds. The message: “Go ahead and believe in God, but carry that belief into the public square and it will cost you dearly.”

Make no mistake, the case against Judge Roy Moore is not an effort to protect Americans from state-sponsored religion; it is about moving people of religious conviction farther to the margins of public life. It moves us closer to a day when only those willing to bow down before the altar of religious neutrality will be deemed fit for public service.
Robert E. Reccord is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

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  • Robert E. Reccord