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Evangelicals push linchpin issue

The Birmingham News, USA
Aug. 24, 2003
Greg Garrison • Monday August 25, 2003

To Alabama’s dominant evangelical Christian population, the Ten Commandments stand as a powerful symbol of the sacred, not a quaint myth about the origins of law.

“Evangelical Christians, particularly here in Alabama, have a strong conviction that it’s part of biblically inspired Scripture,” said Don Hawkins, president of Southeastern Bible College and former host of the “Back to the Bible” radio program broadcast on 600 stations worldwide. “They take this literally.”

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore put that belief into a symbol – a hulking, 2.6-ton monument that, graven image or not, still stands for many as an embodiment of biblical principles.

“It’s a foundation for moral law,” Hawkins said. “It is a symbol. That symbolism speaks to a lot of people. The culture has departed from Scripture. There’s been a move away from moral absolutes in our country.”

People in Alabama take the Bible so seriously that standing up for a courtroom display of a small wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments was enough to get an obscure Etowah County judge elected chief justice of the state Supreme Court. That’s after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and years of publicity elevated Moore to the status of evangelical martyr and Southern folk hero.

Moore’s campaign could be summed up simply: He planned to stand up for the Ten Commandments and the moral foundations of law.

“Certainly the intent of founding fathers was to give us a nation under God,” said TV evangelist D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, which has raised money for Moore’s legal defense fund. “They believed the ultimate authority was God and it was He who ruled.”

Kennedy said the idea for the monument was entirely Moore’s. “We had no role in either conceiving it, making it or installing it,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s church, Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale, was one of many around the country that lauded Moore as a hero.

“Christians, at least in our circles, are seeing the actions of Judge Moore as a man who’s acting on his convictions,” Hawkins said.

National debate

Moore, a Southern Baptist, has been near the center of the church-state debate for years now, but the Ten Commandments drama is not limited to Alabama.

Last year, a U.S. district judge ordered removal of a Ten Commandments plaque from the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania, but this year, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him and upheld the display in suburban Philadelphia.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor has been to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing several cases, and while he was there took careful notice of the high court’s Ten Commandments displays.

Ten Roman numerals are carved in the doors, in the stone above the seat of the chief justice, and in an artistic depiction of Moses holding stone tablets beside other historic lawgivers. There were even Ten Commandments tablet medallions decorating the handrails.

There, Pryor notes, it’s treated as a historical artifact without religious significance and therefore acceptable under current legal standards.

“There have been rulings both ways on Ten Commandments displays,” Pryor said.

Pryor, a candidate for federal judge himself, issued an opinion that the federal judge’s order to remove the stone must be followed by state officials.

Culture war

For many evangelical Christians, public display of the Ten Commandments represents a struggle over whether American society will embrace or abandon the Bible’s standards. From abortion to homosexuality, a range of social issues in the nation’s culture war resonates with this theme.

On one side in Alabama are moderate Baptists, mainline Protestants, secularists and atheists who tend to argue that fundamentalists are holding back progress in the state by clinging to a literal view of the Bible. But politically, conservative Baptists, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ and fundamentalists in a wide array of denominations and independent churches still carry enough weight to have easily elected Moore to statewide office.

Their opposition was enough to sink a state education lottery referendum in 1999 and could be a factor in Gov. Bob Riley’s Sept. 9 tax referendum, if it’s perceived as a cause pushed by the same elements that oppose Moore.

Riley, a Southern Baptist, and Pryor, a Catholic, both stated their support for public displays of the Ten Commandments, but said state officials have to abide by a federal judge’s order that the monument be removed. Associate justices of the state Supreme Court also voted to override Moore.

The Ten Commandments issue separates along fairly clear lines: biblical literalists versus social progressives. For defenders of biblical orthodoxy, the laws of Moses still carry a weight as heavy as Moore’s monument.

“It’s very important to a lot of people as a consequence of its symbolic value as the Word of the Lord,” said Ken Mathews, a Samford University Beeson Divinity School professor who teaches Hebrew and Old Testament.

“The Ten Commandments are an expression of the character of God, of God’s will for His people,” Mathews said. “They were written with the finger of God; they are representative of God’s revelation.”

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