So Help Me God

So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and The Battle for Religious Freedom

     by Roy Moore (with John Perry)

[This review appeared in the Spring 2005 issue.]

 Readers of The Appellate Advocate will remember Roy Moore.  As a trial judge in Etowah County, Alabama, he displayed a home-made plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench as a way to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Biblical God.  The ACLU’s challenge to this practice became a cause célèbre, and strong popular support for his position soon carried him to election as Chief Justice of Alabama.  Once in office he commissioned a 2½-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments, including texts supporting the view that God is the source of law and government, and semi-secretly installed it in the rotunda of the State Judicial Building.  In one of the most dramatic and colorful episodes in recent constitutional history, the federal district court in Montgomery ordered him to remove the monument.  When he refused, the other justices ordered it removed anyway, and his disobedience of the court’s order became the basis for his own swift removal from office.

This incident epitomizes one of the fundamental legal conflicts of the past century: the struggle between a religious population wishing to see its institutions reflect its views, and the secular government established to preserve religious liberty for all shades of believers (and even non-believers) by preventing government endorsement of any religious doctrine.  This conflict has been one of the major themes in American constitutional history, from school prayer, nativity scenes and Sunday closing to evolution, abortion, tax exemption and the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Alabama Ten Commandments case was a dramatic flash point in this continuing story, and its final effect is still uncertain – two more Commandments cases (Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky) were argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2.

It cannot be said that Moore and Perry have given us a book equal to the high drama of these events.  They begin well, going with an engaging directness from Moore’s early poverty through West Point and Vietnam to his first judicial office.  Once we get to the Ten Commandments, though, narrative is subordinated to polemic.  Each small measure of action is accompanied by a larger measure of argument.  By the time we reach the trial, history is overwhelmed by hortatory and repetitive rhetoric, and the book becomes more a disorganized brief than a memoir. 

No doubt some argument is necessary.  To understand Moore’s story we have to understand his position that God is the foundation of both church and state, that without God there could be no religious freedom, and that government’s acknowledgement of God (and specifically the God of the Bible) is not an establishment of religion but something closer to judicial notice of a self-evident fact, like the date.  But Moore would have served his readers better by arguing these points in a chapter of their own and reserving other chapters for the unfolding of events.  Allowing them to fill up half of every page gives his tale a disturbingly obsessive quality.

Also distracting are the continual quotations from Founding Fathers, and shapers of English common law like Bracton and Blackstone, showing that their belief in God was integral to the structures they were creating.  Many of these are fairly startling, for example Franklin’s statement to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, wondering “how it has happened … that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings.”  By the end of the book Moore has accumulated a substantial number of telling quotations which offer a fascinating view of history; they give a perspective on these men much at variance with the common understanding that they were Deists with a rationalist model of the world.  But as with the legal argument, their impact is blunted by being embedded in the narrative like raisins in a pudding.  These passages too would have been more effective in a chapter of their own, connected by a coherent argument for their significance. 

Finally, Judge Moore’s bland certainty robs his story of much of its dramatic power.  He admits to no doubts, or crises, or shadings of thought, no evolution of viewpoint, and so the only change he lets us see is his passage to victimhood.  This flat and unvarying affect deprives Moore’s tale of its resonance.  He depicts himself as the exasperated defender of self-evident truth, baffled by the incomprehensible efforts of wicked men to suppress it.  What could the ACLU have had in mind?  They must be “seeking to remove the knowledge of God from our land,” their “main agenda” to strip us of our religious liberties.  How could the federal court not see it his way?  It must be that “a power-hungry federal judge who chose to disregard the law,” later “joined in judicial hypocrisy” by the Eleventh Circuit, acted “to strip the people of Alabama of their right to publicly acknowledge the sovereignty of God.”  He identifies the federal courts with the “rulers of the darkness of this world” (Ephesians 6:12), and is amazed (unusually for an appellate judge) at the thought that he should be obliged to obey a federal court order “even if it contradicted [his] own interpretation of the law and … beliefs.”  Moore’s faith is powerful, but it is disappointing that he lets us see no more of him than that.

But unsatisfying as So Help Me God is as a book, it is still a primary source for a vivid passage in American constitutional history, and notable for the directness with which it states the issues.  Its many structural flaws cannot deprive the story of the judge and the monument of all its human interest.  Whatever one may think of his constitutional reasoning, Judge Moore is an honest man.  He did not seek a safe harbor by justifying his displays as secular expositions of history or “ceremonial deism.”  Instead he had the courage to take his position to its logical conclusion in a public and personally costly way.  He compares himself to the Prophet Daniel, who was cast into a fiery furnace rather than bow before an alien god.  Before his next book Moore would do well to re-read the Book of Daniel, for its style this time as well as its moral.  Every verse moves the story forward and embellishes it with color and detail.  If Moore had presented his story with anything like the immediacy and compelling narrative interest of that Old Testament page-turner, what a book we would have had, and what a vehicle for his message of faith and duty.