In the 1998 Cohen brothers cult-classic film The Big Lebowski, the mustachioed narrator (played by Sam Elliot) ruminates on how some people truly are authentic products of the age in which they live. “Sometimes there’s a man…I won’t say hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? Sometimes, there’s a man well, he’s the man for his time and place,” the narrator notes. In the film, this narration refers to The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a doobie-smokin,’ former hippy turned middle-aged slacker who is thrust into a series of events of that give the impression that he’s more important than he actually is.
In 2015, there’s another man who is indeed “the man for his time and place.” His name is Roy Moore. He’s the current (and former) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. And while Judge Moore couldn’t be more different from the Cohen Brothers’ fictional “Dude” character, he’s nonetheless a man thrust into a series of events that have overly magnified his own importance and rendered him a symbol of a particular American subculture that is taking its last gasps in a very public manner.
Yep, Judge Roy Moore is standing George Wallace-like at the symbolic schoolhouse doors that separate church from state, vowing to resist federal orders to let the dreaded gayz get married in Alabama. Moore embarked on his crusade following a ruling by federal judge Judge Callie V. S. Granade, who recently declared Alabama’s 2006 ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and ordered state judges to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. In a last-ditch effort to protect “traditional marriage,” an institution so sacred that you can get it for as low as $500 in a Las Vegas chapel/indoor shooting range, Moore invoked his clout as Alabama’s Chief Justice and ordered the state’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to teh gayz.
Roy Moore first made national headlines as the so-called “Ten Commandments” judge. Following his election as Alabama’s Chief Justice in 2001, he installed a two-and-a-half ton granite Ten Commandments monument in the central rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. This was tantamount to flashing a gigantic, Flintstonian middle finger in front of the First Amendment, and, as a result, the Alabama ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued to have the monument removed. Moore, never one to be fazed by stuff like the law and reality, refused to remove the monument, and for his troubles, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary booted him from his post in 2003. The whole debacle made Moore a Bible Belt hero to conservative Christian wingnuts everywhere: a symbol of Godly (self) righteousness who opposed the nefarious wave of liberal, atheist, Marxist, homosexual, metrosexual ne’er-do-wells hell-bent on expunging Yahweh from the American public sphere. But all was not lost for this Deep-South prodigal son. Alabama would elect a tree stump if it professed to have seen the Holy Light (Hallelujah!), and in 2012 they did the next best thing by giving Moore back his old seat on the Chief Justice’s bench.
Moore is a truly fascinating character. In addition to being a Vietnam veteran and former competitive kickboxer and cattle ranch-hand-turned lawyer, he’s also a devout conservative Baptist who doesn’t mince words when it comes to his belief that (a VERY SPECIFIC) God’s laws should trump any laws concocted by humans. Moore was among a the wave of right-wing southern Democrats who flocked to the Republican Party in the early 1990s, and since then he’s spent his judicial career leading a moral crusade to transform the entire United States into Jesusland — sort of like Alabama.
As Sarah Posner writes in her profile of the judge the New Yorker labeled “a walking, talking argument against judicial elections,” Moore believes that natural rights come directly from (his version) of God, and that the Constitution — and all American law, for that matter — exists to validate those celestially bestowed rights. In short, Roy Moore believes that America is a “Christian nation,” where, as he recently told CNN, “Our rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.” This is a very peculiar approach to natural rights embraced by that swollen boil on Uncle Sam’s posterior known as the Christian Right.
These bible-thumping goobers want to turn the United States into a theocracy — if not in name, then certainly in practice — and Moore is proud to act as their unofficial judicial blowhard. As Posner writes, Moore insists that “the government is separated from the church in that the government is barred from running the church, and it can’t tell the church what to do.” Indeed, Moore is heavily affiliated with the Montgomery, Alabama based Foundation for Moral Law, a 501 (c)(3) corporation whose stated goal is “to restore the knowledge of God in law and government and to acknowledge and defend the truth that man is endowed with rights, not by our fellow man, but by God!” Yes, the exclamation point means that they mean business, you commies.
But intelligent people of faith as well as secularists should recognize why Moore’s conception of natural rights is problematic and fundamentally at odds with America’s secular legal and philosophical foundations. For one thing, claiming that natural rights stem from a specific Protestant interpretation of the Christian deity dismisses the Enlightenment origins of the United States’ separation of church and state. Anyone who invokes the power of their particular God to define the rights of others is acting in the service of tyranny, the very same tyranny that used to bolster the so-called divine right of monarchial rule that Enlightenment philosophers from Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson rejected.
After all, the God of the Christian bible has always been difficult to pin down (just ask the world’s 41,000 Christian denominations).* At various passages He appears to sanction slavery, polygamy, prostitution, sexism, patriarchy, murder, and genocide — all things that give one group of people absolute power over other groups. Of course, it goes without saying that most American Christians don’t support these things, but such things were supported in the past by governments that claimed to be acting in the name of the God of the bible.
To place individuals under the arbitrary rule of an unseen deity in whom they may not even believe is a direct violation of natural rights as conceived by many of the American Founders and other Enlightenment Grand Pubas. Consider Thomas Paine, the English-American political theorist who gave the American revolution its rebellious ideological gusto and authored the 1791 classic The Rights of Man. Paine defined natural rights as “those which appertain to man in right of his existence.” These included “all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness [emphasis mine], which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.” Natural rights exist outside the realms of any church or state; they are inalienable rights that all people are born with and which can’t be taken away or restrained by human laws.
Now, it might be tempting to take Roy Moore’s position that, because natural rights don’t come from any government, then they MUST come from that omnipotent, southern-drawled legal scholar in the sky, right? Nope. Paine emphasized that natural rights come not from God(s), but from the ability of enlightened humans to use reason in the service of “the common rights of man.” Heck, Paine categorized theocratic government as “a government of priestcraft” that, alongside government of power and conquest, was one of the two forms of tyrannical rule in human history. “When a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity,” he wrote, “the world was completely under the government of superstition.” Paine was a Deist; he believed in the existence of an abstract “God” from which human abilities originated, but rejected the Orthodox Christian idea of revelation: that God interfered in human events. Instead, Paine and other Deists believed that human experience via rational observation, not religious dogma, could determine the validity of human beliefs.
Paine’s deep skepticism of the power of organized religion in concert with the state was a crucial Enlightenment-era belief shared by many of the Founding Fathers — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin — all of whom identified with Christian traditions but nevertheless eschewed much of the supernaturalism inherent in traditional Protestant Christian beliefs. “By engendering the church with the state, a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up, is produced, called, The Church established by Law,” Paine wrote. Like many revolutionary-era thinkers, Paine was anti-religious only in the sense that he recognized the dangers that theocratic states posed to basic natural rights. “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion,” he wrote, “but it is always the strongly marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law.” Need evidence to back up this claim? Just look at every religious government in history. You won’t find a better defense of the separation of church and state, and this defense is as relevant now, in the age of Roy Moore, as it was during the Revolutionary era.
Consider just how integral religious belief is to Moore’s foamy-mouthed opposition to all things queer-o-sexual. Politico’s Eric Velasco highlights a 2002 custody case Moore presided over that involved the child’s lesbian mother and biological father. In his concurring opinion, Moore bellowed that homosexuality “is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this nation and our laws are predicated.” This raging, religiously motivated antipathy towards teh gayz is now driving the good Judge’s opposition to same-sex marriage in Alabama.
Whatever your personal religious feelings towards homosexuality, you ought to recognize why Moore’s stance is fundamentally at odds with Paine’s definition of natural law, which cherishes the right of an individual to act “for his [or her] own comfort and happiness” in ways “which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.” It was this idea of natural law, not that of Leviticus 18, that informed the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By invoking his brand of Christianity to deny gay and lesbian couples the basic human right to marry and be happy, Moore is violating natural rights, and he’s trying to force other people to bend to the whims of his own personal celestial finger-wagger.
All that being said, religion has always played an essential role in shaping the debates, laws, behaviors, and traditions of the United States from the nation’s founding right up until the present time. But the existence of a federal Constitution that bars the establishment of a state religion has ensured the steady growth of various faith traditions — of the Christian variety and beyond — in America for over two-hundred years now.
What fundamentalist goons like Roy Moore fail to recognize is that coerced faith is actually the enemy of religious freedom, and that the separation of church and state facilitates the growth of multiple belief systems that can flourish free from the bonds of state preference. These belief systems, in turn, have influenced, and continue to influence, the people who have shaped American society. As Thomas Kidd writes in his book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, the idea of “God,” whether generic or specific, has always influenced the American conception of natural rights, but in a crucial way that differentiated America from the theocracies of the Old World. “In European traditions, kings and their defenders had often used Christian doctrine to uphold the political hierarchy,” Kidd writes, “[b]ut in America, revolutionaries began to appropriate the idea of common creation as the primary basis for the political liberties of all humanity.”*
Roy Moore’s inability to look beyond his own narrow theological visors and recognize that favoring specific religious beliefs via the law is a dangerous approach that flouts American historical precedent is what truly makes him “the man for his time and place.” Thankfully, Moore’s holier-than-thou time and place seems to be finally disintegrating. He represents a political and cultural movement born out of a reaction to the secular, religious, and intellectual pluralism that gained significant ground in American society by the turn of the twentieth century, and while the Christian Right’s pious fire has burned at annoyingly sweltering temperatures for over thirty years, the fires of human natural rights have burned longer — and hotter. Moore and his ilk can continue to hold their religious beliefs: that’s their right. But forgive me if I don’t shed a tear when their ability to thump others over the head with their giant legal bibles disappears with a simple John Hancock on a marriage licence.
* On Christian denominations, see Appendix B, “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, December 19, 2011, pg. 95.
* See Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 6-7.