How judge's stand resonates in Bible Belt

Come sundown, an endless forest of pine trees casts long, spindly shadows on the highways in this town that, locals like to say, has more churches per capita than any other on the face of the earth.

The scent of pine pervades every block here in DeRidder, where 76 churches minister to a population of 9,000. Mixed with the smell of smoke from trash burnings, there is a brooding, mystical air to the town, as if hermits and knights might pop out of the woods any moment and walk casually into J.C. Penney's.

On this stage where the Christian faith pervades daily life as thoroughly as sunshine and human speech, and pride in old Southern heroes is undimmed, the attention of pastors, churchgoers, children, and even the unbaptized was fixed last week on one man, Roy Moore.

The Alabama judge's highly visible crusade to keep a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state judicial building appears to have won the admiration of almost everyone in town. "I think the judge is doing a good thing," says Gregory Jones, pastor of the Church of God In Christ, a Pentecostal denomination. "The Ten Commandments are the basis of our good judgment and belong in the courts."

Although the monument's removal as ordered by a federal judge now appears likely, and Judge Moore has been suspended, his determination has energized many Christians far and near, especially in the so-called Bible Belt of the South.

The variety of responses here to Moore's crusade, say experts, indicates a growing complexity in passion and point of view among conservative Christians across the country, even at a moment when many believe their values are being challenged more than ever before. What remains to be seen is whether the "last stand" of Judge Moore's monument will galvanize renewed efforts by conservative Christians to affirm the Ten Commandments' role in national life.

"You cannot dismiss Moore and his followers as whackos, but you also have many Baptists and Evangelicals who will not follow Moore as far as ignoring the laws of the land," says Curtis Freeman, a professor at Duke University's Divinity school.

Controversial or cornerstone?

Here in DeRidder, most people interviewed for this story support Moore because they believe the Ten Commandments are a cornerstone of American intellectual thought, and that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging them in a public space.

Many also believe Moore was justified in flouting a court order to remove the monument. "He put his hand on the Bible and swore an oath to follow God and his religious convictions," says Jimmy Watson, while chatting with friends in Smitty's Barbershop in the center of town.

Like so many issues in the South, others here view Moore's defiance through a lens of Southern independence. "When it comes to this and other matters, I side with this and this," says William Smith, the owner and namesake of Smitty's, pointing to two tiny confederate flags sitting atop of his antique cash register.

But most of Moore's ardent supporters in DeRidder say they are motivated by the fear that, bit by bit, their values are being marginalized by cultural elites and, in particular, the federal government. "If we don't stop and take a stand now, we'll be a fallen generation," says Tammy Courvelle, owner of Treasure City Mall, a local flea market.

National leaders of the Christian right point to the recent Supreme Court decision reversing Texas's ban on sodomy as a the clearest sign that the tide of legislative and judicial rulings is moving gainst them.

"This long hot summer is coming to a boil, and Judge Moore may be the catalyst," says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, president of Liberty University. He joined hundreds of other supporters of Moore in Montgomery recently.

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear Moore's appeal of a district court judge's order that the two-ton granite monument be removed. Moore had refused to do so, and his eight colleagues on Alabama's Supreme Court overruled him, suggesting the monument be moved to Moore's private quarters. The judge says he will not interfere with its removal.

But hundreds of sympathetic Christians have rallied to defend it, and further appeals are likely.

Experts trace support for display of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments to growing numbers of conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists who are now said to represent more than a third of the US population. "There's a religious revival going on," explains Edward Larson of the University of Georgia. "These people dominated American culture 120 years ago. They lost all of that, but they've regained control in politics since Jimmy Carter was president."

Nuanced views

But there are also more moderate segments of the Christian right. In DeRidder, they often distinguish themselves as "nonfundamentalists. Many of them applaud Moore's advocacy of Christian values, but they are troubled by the appearance of state-supported religion.

"I'm a Christian. Of course I want them to stay," says Marla Kelly, who was raised in DeRidder and now attends medical school at Louisiana State University. "But I'm scared to think what would happen if church and state were allowed to mix like this."

People here point out that, while there may be a lot of churches, that doesn't mean they are all full. But for those who do attend, they have heard a lot of support for Moore from the pulpit the past few weeks. And there are churches aplenty. Motorists passing through this town see them pop out from behind trees and buildings, one after another, like monuments in Washington.

The complexity of opinion here may be no surprise, given that the same people who value religious principles generally respect legal ones as well. "Whatever sympathy Moore had because people respect the Ten Commandments, he lost when he would not obey the rule of the law at the same time," says Kathleen Flack, a religious expert at Vanderbilt University.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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