Roy Moore vs. Roger Williams: Two visions of America

Sunday, September 7, 2003

Justice Roy Moore may have lost his legal battle to keep the Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama state courthouse, but he has just begun to fight for his vision of America.

If you thought the “Ten Commandments judge” is only interested in displaying the Decalogue in government buildings, think again. Moore has repeatedly declared that his larger goal is to restore America as a “Christian nation.” Among other things, this would mean replacing “godless judges” with a judiciary that recognizes the law of God, not the U.S. Constitution, as the supreme law of the land.

Justice Moore sometimes claims that his Ten Commandments movement is not an attempt to impose religion – but merely an effort “to acknowledge God” as the “moral foundation of our laws.” His actions as a judge, however, reveal that he defines “acknowledgement” to include everything from legal rulings that appeal to the Bible (as interpreted by Moore) to inviting clergy to offer prayers in the courtroom (only biblically appropriate prayers).

Case in point: When Moore voted last year to deny custody of three children to their lesbian mother, he issued a concurring opinion supported by passages from the Bible. “Homosexual conduct,” he argued, “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 … . It is an inherent evil against which children must be protected.” Case closed.

As for prayers in his courtroom, when a Muslim-American leader asked Moore if he would permit Muslim prayers, Moore said “No.” Since we are founded on biblical principles, Moore explained, only Judeo-Christian prayers would be allowed. End of discussion.

Moore’s appeal to biblical law – and his vision of a Christian America – is the latest chapter of an old story in U.S. history. It’s an argument about America’s identity that dates all the way back to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Listen closely, and Roy Moore sounds much like John Winthrop, the first governor of the Puritan colony. Even before disembarking on the shores of New England in 1630, Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arabella and reminded his fellow Puritans of their God-given mission in the New World. They were called by God, he declared, to found a New Israel, a holy commonwealth ruled by divine law as they understood it to be set forth in the Bible.

Much as Roy Moore warns today of an America that has become a “moral slum,” so Winthrop warned then of the consequences if the colony failed to acknowledge the law of God. “We are entered into a covenant with Him for this work,” he preached, and failure to obey God’s law will “cause Him to withdraw His present help from us.”

Although the ACLU wasn’t around in 1630, Winthrop’s biblical commonwealth didn’t go unchallenged. The first dissenter was a young Puritan minister named Roger Williams – later founder of Rhode Island and co-founder of the first Baptist church in America. And he based his dissent on an entirely different reading of Scripture.

Winthrop and the other leaders of Massachusetts Bay, Williams declared, ignored the Gospel of Christ. God had not chosen Massachusetts or any other civil state to establish the divine kingdom on earth. Such attempts to join church and state, he argued, are contrary to the will of God and have caused history to be marred by “rivers of blood.”

Not surprisingly, Williams’ challenge to civil authority in matters of faith led to his banishment from Massachusetts in 1635. But even at his trial, he did not back away from his condemnation of the Puritan vision of a biblical commonwealth:

“I do affirm it to be against the testimony of Christ Jesus,” he said, “for the civil state to impose upon the people a religion, a worship, a ministry. The state should give free and absolute permission of conscience to all men in what is spiritual alone. Ye have lost yourselves! Your breath blows out the candle of liberty in this land.”

Massachusetts’ loss was America’s gain. Roger Williams left the Bay Colony to found Rhode Island, where he was determined to build what he described as a “wall of separation” to protect the “Garden of the Church” from the “Wilderness of the World.” Only in such a society, he believed, would each person be free to follow his or her own convictions in matters of faith without interference from the state. Rhode Island, promised Williams, would become “a haven for the cause of conscience.”

Williams’ vision of a society that protects freedom of conscience (what he called “soul liberty”) for people of all faiths or none was in direct opposition to the vision of a holy commonwealth proclaimed by Winthrop on the Arabella. Winthrop’s vision required that all citizens in the society conform to God’s law as interpreted and enforced by the state. Williams, on the other hand, asserted that it was against God’s law for any state to invoke divine authority or otherwise confuse the civil with the spiritual.

“All civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations,” wrote Williams, “are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.”

Two visions of America: A Christian nation as defined by Justice Moore and his supporters – or a “haven for the cause of conscience” as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The choice is ours.

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