Roy Moore's victory in Alabama's Republican Senate primary is cause for widespread consternation, both within the GOP, which sees him as further evidence of widening divides within the party, and within the chattering classes more broadly, which don't know quite what to make of him. They can cite a litany of outrageous things Moore has said or done, but aside from unhelpfully calling him a “Christian conservative” or an “extremist,” they're at a loss as to what he's up to and why.
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, who has written about Moore for more than a decade, put it bluntly: “Roy Moore is the most openly theocratic politician in national life,” he said in a press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy. “Moore favors criminalizing abortion and homosexuality. Like the nullificationists of the last century, Moore does not view the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal courts as binding on the states. Particularly if they conflict with his idiosyncratic view of what God requires.”
Moore isn't just theorizing about the relationship between religion and the state. He was twice elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and twice removed from for his lawless defiance of federal court rulings. In 2004, Clarkson wrote about Moore for Salon, when it appeared that he might run for president on the Constitution Party ticket, and was right in the middle of the first of those two fights.
“Nationally known as the 'Ten Commandments Judge,' Moore had installed a 5,280-pound granite sculpture of an open book inscribed with the commandments shortly after he was elected in 2001, and then defied a federal court order to remove it,” Clarkson wrote. “Observers couldn't help being reminded of Gov. George Wallace's infamous stand in the schoolhouse door, rallying Alabama segregationists in defiance of a federal court order to integrate the University of Alabama.” That's precisely the comparison that fits, and in fact the sort of figure Moore wishes to be. Unlike Wallace, however, Moore has five decades of conservative counter-organizing behind him, bolstering his hope to succeed where Wallace's efforts to fight the tide of desegregation swiftly failed.
Moore didn't run for president in 2004, though one expert told Salon that the Alabama judge had the potential to "do to [George W.] Bush what [Ralph] Nader did to [Al] Gore." Instead, Moore eventually stepped aside in favor of his long-time financial backer Michael Peroutka, whose connections and ultra-conservative vision I've written about previously.
“The Constitution Party, founded by Howard Phillips in 1992, overtly advocates 'biblical law' as the basis of government,” Clarkson wrote. “Leaders of the Christian Reconstructionism movement, which advocates theocratic government under 'biblical law,' have also been party leaders from its genesis. These include the founder and seminal thinker of Reconstructionism, the late R.J. Rushdoony, whom Howard Phillips once called 'my wise counselor.'”
Rushdoony's seminal book was called "Institutes of Biblical Law," and if you think Old Testament laws about stoning folks to death over perceived sexual misconduct are just the thing we need to “make America great again,” then he's your guy — and so is Roy Moore.
Clarkson described the theology more explicitly in a 1994 essay series, “Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence”:
Generally, Reconstructionism seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by imposing their interpretation of “Biblical Law.” Reconstructionism would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations, such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools. Women would be generally relegated to hearth and home. Insufficiently Christian men would be denied citizenship, perhaps executed. So severe is this theocracy that it would extend capital punishment beyond such crimes as kidnapping, rape, and murder to include, among other things, blasphemy, heresy, adultery, and homosexuality.
Moore's connection with Christian Reconstructionism is key to understanding what he's all about, and the kinds of questions that journalists and other political actors ought to ask about him. He represents the most detailed, rigorously articulated version of "dominionism," the belief that God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.
For a long time, any discussion of dominionism has been beaten back out of mainstream political discourse. It makes right-wing Christians look bad, of course (see "The Handmaid's Tale"), and they vociferously object to any mention of it. But discussions about it — and even vehement resistance — arose within the evangelical community even before outside researchers began using the term. Rodney Clapp's article, “Democracy as Heresy,” in Christianity Today in 1987 brought the situation to a head two years before Sara Diamond's book "Spiritual Warfare" made a wider audience aware of how much Christian Reconstructionism had significantly influenced the broader Christian Right.
If Moore's actions and attitudes appear clear-cut, Clarkson began a recent interview with Salon by cautioning that there are real problems involved in making sense of them. He cited two recent statements about the difficulties involved. First, from a Salon interview with Chauncey DeVega, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of "On Tyranny," observed: "We lack the categories that allow us to think outside of the box we are no longer in." Second, Duke historian Nancy MacLean, author of "Democracy in Chains," in a similar vein: "We do face a problem that our language is not caught up with our world."
“With the question of the kind of conservative Christianity we see around us, and its role that it plays in politics, we have that kind of problem,” Clarkson said. “Those of us who were outside that world don't have the framing, the knowledge and the vocabulary to adequately describe it to each other.”
It's a challenge he's been wrestling with for at least a quarter century, as attested to by researcher Chip Berlet in a lengthy Daily Kos diary in 2011, hearkening back to the early 1990s, just after Sara Diamond's book was published. "It was Fred Clarkson and I who began urging the use of the term 'Dominionism' to describe the broad group inside the Christian Right influenced by Christian Reconstructionism and other forms of 'Dominion Theology.'" Berlet wrote.
All caveats aside, Clarkson continued, “There are these deeply theocratic elements and they are profoundly at play in modern politics,” Clarkson told Salon. “What we've come to call dominionism is one of the most dynamic elements in the Republican Party for a generation. But because it is a controversial idea, there's been a tremendous amount of effort to make sure that terms like dominionism or theocracy are not allowed to become normative.”
One way to stay balanced in discussing dominionism is to pay attention to its critics within evangelical and broader Christian conservative circles. In his 2015 book, "Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism," Michael J. McVicar writes:
In a 1987 cover story, "Democracy as Heresy," Rodney Clapp, an editor and essayist at Christianity Today, developed a narrative that has since become one of the most popular frameworks for assessing Rushdoony and his project of Christian Reconstruction. ...
Clapp portrayed a dystopian society built on Rushdoony's ideas. By focusing on the crimes and punishments enumerated in Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law and the tensions between Rushdoony and [Rushdoony's son-in-law and chief evangelist Gary] North, Clapp's article presented a movement in which violence trumped benevolence, and theology — the exalted Queen of the Sciences — was little more than a generational grudge match. More conveniently, Rushdoony's focus on theonomy over autonomy and God's will over humanity's allowed Clapp to argue that Rushdoony's ideas were inherently antidemocratic. As the editors note at the beginning of the story asked, "Do Reconstructionists really want to trade the freedoms of American democracy for the strictures of Old Testament theocracy?" Clapp's article answered the question with an emphatic Yes!, thus insinuating that at some fundamental level, Rushdoony was not only antidemocratic but also anti-American.
In a single article, Clapp distilled the spirit of a decades-long theological fight into a fundamental accusation: Rushdoony was a heretic.
Clapp's article opened the floodgates, McVicar goes to note, including three books by popular evangelical authors in 1988 and '89: Dave Hunt's "Whatever Happened to Heaven?", H.Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice's "Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?", and Hal Lindsey's "The Road to Holocaust." These books, McVicar notes, “developed the interpretive categories of 'dominion theology' and 'dominionism' to frame a wide-ranging discussion of evangelical political engagement,” which happened independently of Clarkson and Berlet's work.
There is, in short, a long-standing struggle against dominionist thinking within conservative Christianity that is arguably much more developed than anything comparable in the world of secular criticism. That's not to suggest that arguments of almost 30 years ago are still defining the question today. But they continue to evolve in different forms, and divisions persist that simplistic terms of condemnation only serve to obscure or suppress.
Similarly, Moore himself has long faced a fair share of criticism from those he now purports to champion. Alabama's conservative judicial establishment harbors multiple Moore critics, and even the general public has not embraced him wildly. He came in fourth in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010, and only narrowly won his last race for chief justice in 2012. All of which suggests that — as with Donald Trump — his outside critics may be his greatest asset.
Rushdoony himself was a master of this sort of us-vs-them thinking, presuming to have biblical truth on his side, with all the rest of the world in error. The foundation is this outlook was provided by Princeton theologian Cornelius Van Til, from whom Rushdoony adopted the posture of "presuppositionalism" — the rejection of philosophical open-mindedness. As Clarkson described in the aforementioned 1994 essay on Christian Reconstructionism:
According to Gary North, Van Til argued that “There is no philosophical strategy that has ever worked, except this one; to challenge the lost in terms of the revelation of God in His Bible. . .by what standard can man know anything truly? By the Bible, and only by the Bible.” This idea that the correct and only way to view reality is through the lens of a Biblical world view is known as presuppositionalism.
There is simply no way to argue against presuppositionalism. It's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Moore believes just the same thing, Clarkson says: “The idea that God's laws are or must become foundational is what Roy Moore's career has been all about." But what happens when two different power-blocks both think that they've got the one true biblical worldview on their side? The century of bloody wars that decimated Europe after the Protestant Reformation provides a vivid answer to that.
The ideal of religious tolerance gradually emerged as a result of that bloodshed — first, as a purely pragmatic stance, then as a principled one, based on the recognition that converting someone on pain of death or torture did not actually produce a genuine transformation and could not be justified as saving anyone's soul. This is where the Founding Fathers' notions of religious tolerance came from. It is why America has a godless Constitution in the first place. The only mention of religion in the Constitution proper is in Article VI, which says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
More concretely, Clarkson described a sequence of events key to understanding what happened in shaping the distinctive essence of our Constitution. First, came the drafting of two key documents, he said:
After being the principal author of the declaration of independence in Philadelphia, within a year of his returning to Virginia, Jefferson wrote and introduced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The central point was was to promote the idea of religious equality. This would effectively disestablish the Anglican church, and, to my knowledge, for the first time in the history of the world, create the singular idea of religious equality under the law.
While the idea of religious liberty had grown more popular in the American colonies from the early 1600s to the late 1700s, Clarkson noted, it had never been enunciated like this. “This idea that religious identity would be irrelevant to your status as a citizen — that was revolutionary!”
What happened next was typical of “normal government”: adecade of gridlock, followed by a flurry of activity, with James Madison taking center stage:
It took 10 years for that legislation to finally be pushed through the Virginia state legislature, by James Madison. Within the year of doing that, he journeyed to Philadelphia, where he emerged as the principal — but certainly not the only — author of the Constitution, including Article 6. Prior to Philadelphia, he had drafted what was called the Virginia Plan, which became the template for the Constitution. So there's a direct plumb line, or through line, from Jefferson and Madison's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the way that the Constitution approaches religion and politics and government.
This is the real history, not some fanciful invention. Of course there was resistance, Clarkson notes. The strongest objections to the new Constitution came from state legislatures objecting to Article 6. But none would have liked it if another state's official religion was imposed on them — and that's precisely what the recent history of Europe then suggested would likely occur. So common sense prevailed, and over time the other states' religions were disestablished as well.
That's exactly the sort of constitutional arrangement that drove Rushdoony crazy — a condition of complete equality, with no one group favored over all others. In "Institutes of Biblical Law," Rushdoony wrote:
The law cannot favor equality without ceasing to be law: at all times, the law defines, in any and every society, those who constitute the legitimate and the illegitimate members of society.
The fact of law introduces a fundamental and basic inequality in society. ...
The law has often been used as an ostensible weapon to gain equality, but such attempts represent either self-deception or an attempt to deceive by the group in power.
The "civil rights" revolutionary groups are a case in point. Their goal is not equality but power. The background of Negro culture is African and magic, and the purposes of magic are control and power over God, man, nature, and society. Voodoo, or magic, was the religion and life of American Negroes. Voodoo songs underlie jazz, and old, voodoo, with its power goal, has been merely replaced with revolutionary voodoo, a modernized power drive.
This is Rushdoony's vision. It was George Wallace's vision in 1963, and it's Roy Moore's vision today. But in 1963, someone else had a vision, too. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Clarkson pointed out, King specifically called out Moore's strategy of choice in a middle passage that is too often overlooked:
I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will he able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“King understood that nullification and interposition was how the racist established order was seeking to divide society.” Clarkson said. “Roy Moore is standing within that tradition of how you divide society. He just has a different division -- different reasons for how and why you divide it.”