The former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, had good intentions when he placed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building. Now that the monument has been removed to a closet and Moore has been removed from office, we should consider the lessons we can learn.
For me, this issue raises two questions: Why should our country memorialize the nation's religious heritage? and How should we ensure that this happens?
To begin, let's consider the religious memorials of two public buildings. The U.S. Supreme Court building is an inspiring neoclassical structure. Above the columns on its eastern exterior is a pediment with several carved figures. The central and largest figure is a seated Moses, flanked by Confucius and Solon. Upon Moses' legs rest two tablets representing the Ten Commandments. Inside the courtroom, the Ten Commandments are given even greater prominence, featured both above the justices' bench and on a lower panel of the chamber's oak doors. Also within the courtroom are two carved marble friezes displaying a procession of 18 lawgivers, including Solomon, Mohammed, and Augustus Caesar.
The rotunda of the Alabama judicial building during Moore's term held a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments, inscribed with 14 quotations, mostly about God's transcendence in civil society.
Both these public memorials were intended to aid citizens in recalling religion's—and specifically, Judeo-Christian religions'—contributions to our history. We are reminded of this in other ways as well, including national holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, mottos like "under God" and "In God We Trust," and hundreds of place names, from Providence to Philadelphia to Corpus Christi to New Canaan.
Now, why does it matter if public monuments help us recall our religious heritage? It matters because it is so. It would be dishonest for our government to religiously neuter our history. Most of our founders shared a Christian background, and what they believed is part of our national story.
These monuments, appropriately conceived, can also point the way forward. For example, it is worth recalling that an official truce was called among America's competing religious groups with the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791. Until then, the world had no example of different religious groups living together freely without the establishment of a national religion. There are lessons in this for a society that still struggles with how diverse cultures might live together in peace.
This brings us to my second question: How should we honor our religious legacy? We should do so with the determination of Roy Moore but with a much more effective strategy. Moore's efforts have brought him fame and censure. He has inspired thousands of Christians, but he might have inadvertently misdirected their inspiration. So far his efforts have created five adverse legal precedents. Through massive press coverage, they have also communicated the idea that religion in the public square means trouble. This is no help for the cause.
Moore should have known that, as a public official, he should not favor one religion over another. When he installed the monument, he should not have given special treatment to a particular church by permitting it alone to film the installation. Moore compounded this error and abused his office when he permitted the same church to prominently provide funds for his legal defense. Moore should have understood that defying court orders would change the conversation from whether and how religion should be present in public affairs to whether his authority, as administrator of a government building, trumped that of the federal courts.
Moore's errors, though, are not just tactical. Judeo-Christian ideas have not been the only ideas informing our political system. As Christians we believe that God is the ultimate author of laws, but our constitutional system is designed to admit and respect a wider range of views in public life. The U.S. Supreme Court building may prominently feature the Ten Commandments precisely because it also features other intellectual and historical streams.
We, as Christian citizens, have serious work to do in the public square. We should memorialize our religious heritage. We must protect religious liberty and fight for marriage and the sanctity of all human life. But we must be ever so careful that we help and do not harm the causes we espouse.
Ted Haggard is president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's previous coverage of Ten Commandment controversies includes:
The Tourist Attraction That Isn't There | Alabama's Ten Commandments monument still drawing visitors despite its absence from the state Supreme Court building. (Jan. 12, 2004)
How to Really Keep the Commandments in Alabama—and Elsewhere | Since when did the public display of the Ten Commandments become the eleventh commandment? (Sept. 03, 2003)
Ten Commandments Judge Praised and Panned | Roy Moore fulfills a campaign promise with a 5,280-pound granite monument. (Nov. 29, 2001)
Ten Commandments Case Turned Down | Denial means Indiana town's Decalogue display is unconstitutional. (July 9, 2001)
Ten-Commandments Judge Aims for High Post | After taking on the ACLU, Moore is now a nominee for the Alabama Supreme Court. (Aug. 1, 2000)
Hang Ten? | Thou shalt avoid Ten Commandments tokenism. (Mar. 3, 2000)
Ten Commandments Judge Cleared | Roy Moore's integrity confirmed regarding legal fund. (Oct. 25, 1999)
House Upholds Display of Ten Commandments | Spurred by recent fatal shootings in public schools, the House of Representatives voted to permit the display of the Ten Commandments. (April 9, 1999)
Ten Commandments Judge Looking for Federal Fight | Does Judge Roy Moore's courtroom display defy separation of church and state? (Dec. 12, 1997)
More coverage of the Alabama Ten Commandments controversy and similar debates are available from Christianity Today's Weblog.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.