November 7, 2002
-- James L. Evans
Judge Myron Thompson of the U.S. Middle District Court of Alabama may have one of the trickiest jobs in America right now. This federal judge has the unenviable task of presiding over a law suit filed by the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, against Alabama's Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and his display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state courthouse.
Testimony wrapped up last month and the decision now rests with Judge Thompson. If he follows the law and rules against the display, he is certain to draw the ire of a segment of the faith community who want the monument left in place. Using words from Judge Moore's testimony during the trial, there are believers who think the state should "acknowledge the Sovereign God" of the commandments.
It is unfortunate that the debate over faith and its role in a free society has come to this. It is unfortunate that some in the faith community believe judicial sanction and the leveraging of secular government is the best way to express their religious commitments. In allowing this to happen, Judge Moore, the defendant, is guilty of a serious breach of trust. It is an indication of how Moore and those who support him have drifted from their authentic identity as members of a worshiping and praying community.
I understand the underlying motivation. These are difficult and troubling times. There is a sense that a moral vacuum is at work in our culture, sucking away all that is good and wholesome and hopeful. People of faith believe God can do something about this situation -- that a relationship with God can bring healing and hope. To use Judge Moore's words again, that God is capable of returning to us "the moral foundation of law."
But like so much of American culture, people of faith can fall prey to the lure of a quick and easy fix. Rather than spending hours in prayer and spiritual formation, rather than spending years rebuilding broken families and impoverished communities, we want something that can be done in a hurry, or better yet, something someone else can do. So here comes Judge Moore, ready to provide the remedy for his fellow Alabamans -- or at least the hope of one. Simple and easy is what he offers. All that is needed to restore the moral foundation of law is a monument to the Ten Commandments.
By embracing this quick fix solution, the faith community loses credibility and abandons its own legitimate contribution to our nation's problems. After all, it is not as courthouse decoration that Scripture has its effect: it is in living out the meaning of the words that their power is demonstrated.
It is also troubling to see how the actions of Judge Moore and the legal proceedings that accompany it diminish the language and symbols of faith. By offering up the Ten Commandments for public debate in the hopes of gaining secular approval, Judge Moore and those who support him allow the symbols and language of their faith to be stripped of their sacredness. They are content to have Scripture added to the public record, losing all distinctiveness and holiness.
That is a high price for low visibility. If people of faith really understood the profound influence that they already possess, influence that flows naturally from authentic worship and service, they would realize the futility of Judge Moore's monument. In fact, they may even find on the monument words that condemn its use.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, AL. James Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.