NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — Was the United States founded as a "Christian nation"? For many conservative Christians there is no question about it. In fact, this is one of the primary ideas animating and informing the Christian right in the US. We are likely to hear a great deal about it this election year - thanks to Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who is at the center of a national campaign to alter the course of history. Depending on whom you talk to, Mr. Moore is alternately a hero, a crackpot, or a demagogue.
Whatever one's view, Moore, known to many as "the Ten Commandments judge," has come to personify a revisionist view of American history - one that, if it gains wide currency, threatens to erode the culture, and constitutional principle, of religious pluralism in the US.
Moore's story is already the stuff of legend. After being elected chief justice, he had a 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments installed in the rotunda of Alabama's state judicial building in 2001. Moore insisted he had a First Amendment right to "acknowledge God" as the "moral foundation of law." The result of the inevitable lawsuit was US District Judge Myron Thompson's decision that Moore had violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by creating "a religious sanctuary within the walls of a courthouse." When Moore refused to remove the rock, he was removed from office.
Judge Thompson got it right. But Moore and his allies see the decision as a defining moment in their campaign to "overthrow judicial tyranny." At stake over the long haul is the authority of the courts to protect individual civil rights against religious and political majoritarianism.
On one front, leaders on the Christian Right are organizing Ten Commandments rallies across the country. The charismatic Moore is often the headliner. A recent rally in Dallas drew 5,000 people. Meanwhile in Congress, US Rep. Robert Aderholt (R) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R), both of Alabama, have introduced a bill (written by Moore and his lawyer) that would remove jurisdiction from the federal courts over all matters involving the "acknowledgement of God" in the public arena, including school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The Constitution Restoration Act would be retroactive, apparently to undo many federal and Supreme Court decisions - such as Moore's case.
While the bill is unlikely to pass this year, it does suggest the emerging contours of the debate.
Although Moore's movement has gained some political traction, its core premise has a fundamental flaw: It aims to "restore" a Christian constitution that never existed. And this presents challenges for Moore and his allies as they attempt to invoke the framers of the Constitution in support of their contemporary notions of a Biblically based society.
Last August, for example, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, rallied with Moore in front of the Alabama state courthouse.
"I checked yesterday with my research team," Dr. Dobson announced. "There are only two references to religion in the Constitution." The first, from the preamble, he said, refers to securing "the blessings of liberty," which, he asserted, "came from God" (although there is nothing in the document to support that view.) The other was the First Amendment's establishment clause that, he said, "has given such occasion for mischief by the Supreme Court."
However, Dobson's researchers missed - or ignored - Article Six of the Constitution. That's the one barring religious tests for public office and set in motion disestablishment of the Christian churches that had served as arbiters of colonial citizenship and government for 150 years.
Mainstream historian Gary Wills writes that the framers' major innovation was "disestablishment."
"No other government in the history of the world," he writes, "had launched itself without the help of officially recognized gods and their state connected ministers."
Christian Right historian Gary North agrees. The ratification of the Constitution was a "judicial break with Christian America." Article Six provided a "legal barrier to Christian theocracy" leading "directly to the rise of religious pluralism," he declares in "Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism." Indeed, history shows that the framers of the Constitution sought to establish religious equality among citizens and in government. But, as Christian nationalists seek to eviscerate the capacity of federal courts to protect the religious freedom and equality of all Americans, we can expect that one of their main tactics and goals will continue to be the revision of history itself.
• Frederick Clarkson is the author of 'Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.'