Roy Moore, the twice-disgraced Alabama judge who is now the Republican Party’s candidate for Senate, has been depicted in the media as an anti-gay firebrand. But this characterization misses the point and underestimates the danger Moore represents.
Moore isn’t simply a bigot; he’s a theocratic scofflaw who has repeatedly put his fundamentalist religious views above the rule of law, and who has used the power of his office to flout the authority of judicial opinions. He is more Joe Arpaio than Anita Bryant.
Of course, Moore is no friend to LGBT people. In a 2002 custody battle, for example, he ruled that a parent’s sexuality should be grounds for taking away their child because “homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.”
But from a democratic perspective, his views on the rule of law are far more troubling.
“Roy Moore is the most transparently theocratic politician now on the national stage,” said Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow at Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors right-wing extremism. “His view is that God is sovereign over both church and state, both of which are to carry out his will.”
Moore first gained notoriety in the 1990s, when, as a county judge, he hung a wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench in the courtroom and opened every session with a prayer for divine guidance for jurors. Just imagine how how anyone with a different religious view might expect to be treated in a supposedly secular state court proceeding turned into a religious tribunal.
In 1993, two male strippers accused of murdering a drug dealer objected to the display and the prayer. Quite reasonably, they (or their lawyers) wondered if they’d really get a fair trial in such a context, if the “divine guidance” that Judge Moore wanted jurors to take might bias them against two male strippers. Moore used the controversy to win reelection (sound familiar?), and in a foreshadowing of controversies to come, openly defied a state court order to remove the display.
Once again, look at what this means: a judge simply disregarding a senior judge’s ruling because he believes it to be morally wrong. This is not, as Moore’s backers say, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” arguing for resistance to unjust laws. This is a member of the judicial system itself deciding that he is above the law. This is the undermining of democracy itself, replacing it with a personal tyranny grounded in one man’s religious beliefs.
Moreover, the fact that Moore’s view was overwhelmingly popular—a poll at the time showed more than 80 percent of Alabamians agreeing with him—makes the offense worse, not better. The tyranny of the majority against the minority is the worst kind of tyranny; it is what brought us Jim Crow, and, yes, Nazi fascism. Just like Arpaio (and, at times, Donald Trump), Moore is preaching mob justice to an angry mob.
In 1999, Moore ran for state Supreme Court judge, stating that “We must return God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law” and that the decline of Christianity “corresponded directly with school violence, homosexuality, and crime.” (Actually, of the 15 states with the highest crime rates, 10 are “red states.” Alabama ranks 12th.) Moore won—as this year, in the face of mainstream Republican opposition.
Immediately upon his election, Moore upped the theocratic ante, installing “Roy’s Rock”—a two-ton granite monument of his own design, with the Ten Commandments on the top and selective quotations from the Founders on its four sides—in the rotunda of the state judicial building. When it was installed, Moore said “in order to establish justice, we must invoke the favor and guidance of Almighty God” and that “to restore morality, we must first recognize the source of that morality.”
In other words, Clarkson told The Daily Beast, “when Moore had a monument to the Ten Commandments installed in the state courthouse, it was because he believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that God’s laws are that foundation. He wanted the state to acknowledge that. And he has devoted his career to advancing that vision.”
Not surprisingly, this display was found unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in 2003. As before, Moore flatly refused to obey the court’s order to remove it.
Once again, to focus on Moore’s “social conservatism” is perhaps to miss the point. In terms of democracy, it doesn’t matter whether Moore is a fundamentalist Christian, a secular atheist, or a pagan. A federal court has ruled something unconstitutional, and ordered it removed. Moore, a state court judge himself, has simply refused to obey the law.
Of course, it does matter that rallies in support of Roy’s Rock featured an array of Christian Right power-brokers. That’s what distinguishes Moore’s dangerous theocratic tyranny from the harmless dissent of, say, the Satanic Temple of Indiana’s Church of Pot. Moore has the power of the state, if not the force of law, behind him.
But Moore’s greatest danger to the republic is not that he is a Christian. It is that as an officer of the state, he has placed himself, and his personal interpretation of God’s will, above the law of the United States. Moore is not a conservative in any sense of the word. He is a demagogic radical who, in his own words, has sought to elevate God’s law—again, in Roy Moore’s interpretation of it—above human law.
Roy’s Rock was finally removed when the other eight justices of the Alabama Supreme Court voted against him, and Moore himself was removed in office shortly thereafter, when the Alabama Court of the Judiciary found him to be in violation of the Alabama canons of judicial ethics—a decision affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court in 2004.
But Moore made a comeback, winning back his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court in 2012—once again, over mainstream Republican opposition and running on a populist, fundamentalist Christian platform. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality, Moore took his most audacious actions yet against the secular rule of law.
In January 2016, Moore issued an order that prohibited Alabama probate judges (who serve under his authority as chief justice) from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This put the state’s 66 probate judges in an impossible bind: between disobeying the Constitution and disobeying their boss.
It also, of course, came in the context of three decades of Moore’s extreme anti-gay rhetoric, including blatantly unethical statements on pending court cases, and was rightly seen as a “stand in the courthouse door” just like George Wallace’s 1963 stand in the schoolhouse door to defend segregation against a federal court order. Like Wallace, Moore invoked states’ rights. Like Wallace, he baldly defied a clear order of the Supreme Court. And like Wallace, he did so to defend a conservative view on civil rights that had been cast aside by the American democratic system.
Moore was removed from office a second time on Sept. 30, 2016, in a 50-page order by the Court of the Judiciary finding him guilty of six major violations of judicial ethics rules. During the appeals process, Moore resigned from his seat and began his campaign for the Senate.
If Moore wins this election, it will be because of his anti-democratic populism, not despite it. Perhaps enough Republicans will stand up for actual conservative principles and vote for Moore’s Democratic opponent, but with the Senate itself hanging in the balance, that seems unlikely. Meanwhile, it is precisely because Moore defies American democratic norms that he is so popular among a certain subset of Alabamians—and precisely because he is so popular that he is so dangerous.
Moore isn’t some talk-radio host, or a fringe preacher with a storefront church. He has flaunted the rule of law as a state supreme court justice, with all the power at his disposal, and will soon likely do so as a United States Senator.