Sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Montgomery, Ala., I'm thinking about two dates. It's Dec. 1, the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up a bus seat to a white man, one of the seismic events that launched the Civil Rights Movement.
Another date was mentioned earlier in the day: June 6, 2006. It's a portentous day for more than one reason to my companions: Judge Roy Moore, his daughter Heather, and four tables of aides and supporters of his bid to become Alabama's next governor. June 6 is the date of the primary in which Moore will try to unseat a Republican incumbent, Bob Riley, a dull moderate who's managed to anger the state's conservative base over taxation.
The date has another, um, sulfuric-smelling meaning for those who, like Moore, chart their life's course with the Bible -- or, at least, their interpretation of the Bible. Election day is on the decidedly demonic 6/6/06. (If you don't get it, see Revelation 13:18.)
"That's a good thing," Moore muses at the beginning of an interview that lasted most of the day. Moore's spokesman, former talk-radio host J. Holland, adds: "To me, it's going to bear testament to a great day in Alabama politics when we elect a godly man who is very much Christ-like instead of anti-Christ, like a lot of the world is."
So, there we have it: Armageddon is just six months away, at least in Alabama. A vote for Moore is an endorsement of Jesus; a vote for Riley (or one of the long-shot Democrat contenders) is a ballot cast for Old Scratch.
The eyes of the South, and the nation, should be watching Moore -- the "Ten Commandments judge" -- who two years ago was ousted as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice after he planted a 5,280-pound granite memorial to Moses' tablets in the court's building.
His candidacy isn't just a 'Bama thang. It's part of a call to mix religion and government that's being heard throughout the South. Last week, the Louisiana Legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt the U.S. "Constitution Restoration Act," which was drafted by Moore's attorney, Herb Titus, and which would ban federal judges from prohibiting the endorsement of religion by public officials. And Georgia lawmakers are set in January to consider legislation that would require the commandments to be posted in government buildings.
The righteous wave could make Moore the retroactive winner in his Ten Commandments battle. He's traveling the nation preaching what he asserts is a return to America's historic religious roots -- quoting Scripture, historic documents and Founding Fathers' statements with an ease that is awesome and just a little eerie. His critics say Moore is trumpeting theocracy.
Should Moore win the gubernatorial race, there will be considerable clamor for him to seek the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination. He flirted with a 2004 presidential run on the ticket of the Constitution Party. That outfit was founded by those in the unabashedly theocratic Christian Reconstruction movement, which thunders that the prescription for America's ills is embracing Old Testament laws: mass executions of gays, blasphemers and other sinners; and reserving participation in government for the "faithful."
Asked if he embraces theocracy, Moore says, "That's crazy." But he makes clear that it is the duty of officials to embrace God as the font of law. He calls Myron Thompson, the federal judge who ordered removal of Moore's Ten Commandments memorial, "apostate ... one judge who put himself above the rule of law." As he chastises the three-dozen judges who backed Thompson's ruling -- "they upheld the rule of man, that's all they did" -- he hands me a much marked-up 1931 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which one justice wrote: "The essence of religion is a belief in a relation to God involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation."
Moore sees politics in no-shades-of-gray terms. He portrays himself as God's champion. A martyred saint to the faithful who want to stamp their religion on government, and a devilish threat to the secular, he's indisputably a force. With the Christian right-wingers and anti-tax activists in lockstep behind him, I'd wager that he'll oust Riley and shatter the corporate wing of Alabama's GOP.
Moore actually is emboldened by the shellacking the Republican establishment is taking opinion polls. "The Republican Party has taken on socialist airs," Moore says. "We're not a party of socialism."
He's keenly aware of poll numbers that energize his candidacy. A survey released last month by the Anti-Defamation League shows that 64 percent of Americans feel "religion is under attack." About 80 percent of those who describe themselves as evangelical or fundamentalist agree with the statement. In Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and the rest of the South, those numbers are pumped up by the region's religious fervor.
After a day with Moore, I'm having an uncomfortable feeling. I like the guy. He's got humor and intelligence. He wears a wickedly starched white shirt and his clothes are impeccably creased -- reflecting his West Point education. His intensity is palpable, but he's quick to smile. I warm up to his stories about growing up in rural Alabama, in a house with no toilet, about how he built his own home in Gallant.
I'm also thinking of Rosa Parks and how Moore has compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. -- while at the same time winking at the South's neo-confederates. Last year, Moore opposed a referendum that would have struck unenforceable segregationist language from the Alabama constitution. Voters rejected the measure by a slim 1,850 majority, a victory for Moore and a clear signal to the many unrepentant segregationists in the heart of Dixie.
Moore wouldn't say what actions he'd take against gays and abortion clinics. His platform declares opposition to "pornography and same-sex marriage." He says a 2002 opinion he wrote in a child custody battle between two lesbians is often taken out of context to pin the hate label on him. That opinion states that homosexuality is "a crime against nature" and that the state "carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit [gay] conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution" in order to keep children from the "subversion" of the lifestyle. All very bad stuff, but his candor contrasts sharply with most politicians in this era of spin. Indeed, not even his fiercest foes question his sincerity.
"With George Wallace, people said he just manipulated. Racism was just politics, it wasn't in his heart," says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose ultra-modern Montgomery headquarters is a 180-degree contrast, in architecture and mission, to Moore's nearby Foundation for Moral Law, housed in a historic bank building. "With Moore, what he says does reflect his heart. We've never doubted his sincerity. I don't think his zeal should be questioned. He's a giant rock in an age of turmoil."
Cohen pauses, smiles and adds: "Roy has earned the title of 'Ayatollah of Alabama.'"
Senior Editor John Sugg's blog is at www.johnsugg.com.