Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is no Martin Luther King, Jr. Efforts to portray the religious right’s agenda on the Ten Commandments as a kin to the civil rights movement cheapens King’s legacy and veils a conservative Christian agenda.
Neither the common geography of Montgomery nor the talk about civil disobedience can meaningfully tie the theocratic goals of a Baptist fundamentalist to social justice goals of a Baptist progressive.
Yet Moore’s backers rallied over the weekend with comparisons between their hero and King, supporting the judge’s refusal to obey a federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments displayed in Alabama’s judicial building.
Moore first posted a plaque of the Ten Commandments in the 1990s in his courtroom in Etowah. After Alabama voters elected Moore as the state’s chief justice in 2000, he moved a 5,300-pound monument of the Ten Commandments into the rotunda of the judicial building one night.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that the display violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against state sponsored religion and ordered the monument removed by Aug. 20.
Since the constitutional showdown began, religious right organizations have threatened civil disobedience to stop the removal of the monument.
Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, told the Montgomery rally that civil disobedience was a rightful action if Christians needed to obey God’s law rather than man’s law.
Comparing supporters of Moore with those of King, Falwell said, “One day, we too shall overcome.”
But what is it that Falwell and the religious right seek to overcome?
The Christian right can hardly claim a history of suffering from slavery, lynchings, segregated schools, separate water fountains, fire hoses and police dogs. In fact, the present-day heirs of the Christian right are the sons and daughters of those who collected money for the Ku Klux Klan in their churches, used the Bible to justify segregation and violently opposed the civil rights movement. Falwell himself even opposed King.
What the religious right really seeks to overcome is the loss of cultural power through identification with a popular social movement and an appeal to victim status.
Since our society now honors the 1960s civil rights cause and reveres King, the religious right hopes that affiliation with the equal rights movement will legitimize their agenda.
Moreover, the religious right is playing the victim card, claiming severe hardship for their beliefs. During the past decade, some American Christians have asserted that our society was “overtly hostile” to their views and practiced an “anti-religious, anti-evangelical bigotry.” A Southern Baptist Convention leader warned about a “drizzle of persecution in the U.S.”
One Montgomery speaker claimed, “What we are faced with now is an effort to set the stage for religious persecution.”
Of course, such hyperbole trivializes the genuine persecution around the world where arrest, torture, imprisonment and death occur for people of faith.
When the line is blurred between the constitutional prohibition against state sponsored religion and religious persecution, cheap dishonesty is advanced.
It also misdirects attention away from the religious right’s agenda, which is one nation under their interpretation of God’s will and their enforcers of public policy.
Make no mistake. Moore’s supporters do have the right to engage in civil disobedience. But don’t confuse their theology and tactics with that of King’s civil rights movement.
Robert Parham is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.