Commentary
By Guy Nave 12-12-2017

From accusations of sexual abuse to comments that seem to idealize times of slavery, Roy Moore’s behavior has been a point of concern for many. But little discussion has centered on Moore’s willingness to elevate his personal religious beliefs about God above the Constitution.

In his victory speech after winning the Alabama Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate, Moore said, “We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to the United States Congress.”

Moore went on to say, “We’ve got to recognize that we’ve been separated by something that separation of church and state doesn’t stand for.”

It’s unclear to me what Moore believes “separation of church and state” stands for. It’s also unclear to me what exactly he means by returning “knowledge of God … to the United States Congress.”

Why exactly does Moore believe there is no “knowledge of God” in the U.S. Congress?” Is it because Congress refuses to make laws promoting Moore’s exclusivist Christian understanding of God? Moore has made his exclusivist understanding of God — even when that understanding defies the Constitution — the cornerstone of his political career.

Moore was stripped of his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court twice. The first time was in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building and the second time was in 2016, for defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

During his Republican primary runoff victory speech, Moore said that he would support the president as long as his agenda is “constitutional.” What exactly does Moore mean by “constitutional?” His interpretation of “separation of church and state” raises serious questions regarding what he understands as “constitutional.”

Despite arguments regarding the meaning of the so-called “separation of church and state,” the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the expression of religious belief. As many Christian conservatives correctly point out, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not even occur in the Constitution.

The phrase “wall of separation between the church and the state” was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists on Jan 1, 1802. Jefferson coined the idea, “separation of church and state,” to promote religious toleration.

Baptists in Virginia were striving for religious toleration in a state whose “official” state religion was then Anglican (Episcopalian). Baptists thought government limitations against religion were illegitimate and Jefferson agreed.

In the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Justice Hugo Black invoked Jefferson stating, The First Amendment has erected ‘a wall of separation between church and state’ . . . that wall must be kept high and impregnable.”

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By preventing the establishment of religion and protecting the free exercise thereof, the “wall of separation between church and state” ensures religious toleration.

Since the First Amendment explicitly prohibits Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion, how does Moore imagine Congress conducting business differently after he returns “the knowledge of God” to Congress? Will Congress defy the Supreme Court as Moore did in 2016?

The First Amendment to the Constitution and virtually every legal interpretation of it since its ratification has emphasized that the federal government cannot elevate one religion (or denomination) over others.

While Moore emphasizes the importance of the Constitution, his belief that Congress should pass laws explicitly promoting his particular understanding of God and the sovereignty of that God violates the Constitution and every Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution.

Unless Moore is advocating returning to Congress all religious understandings of God — which he clearly is not — he is in fact advocating for a federal elevation of one form of religious belief and practice over all others.

The Supreme Court functions as the final and ultimate interpreter of constitutional law, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly interpreted the First Amendment as containing a clear “separation of church and state” that seeks to promote religious tolerance.

If Moore’s promise to return “knowledge of God” back to the U.S. Congress means Congress passing laws that seek to elevate Moore’s particular religious beliefs above all other religions, Moore will be encouraging Congress to defy the Constitution based on religious intolerance and religious superiority. This undermines American democracy and leads us toward a country that is neither inclusive nor fair for the American people.

Rev. Dr. Guy Nave is professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, focusing on the topics of Christianity, the New Testament, and race. 

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