When King Henry VIII of England decided to divorce Catherine of Aragorn to marry Anne Boleyn, he sought an annulment from the Pope. It was denied, so he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and began the Church of England, today known in the United States as the Episcopal Church. In doing so, King Henry ran up against opposition from his good friend and chancellor Sir Thomas More, who refused to acknowledge the separation, believing that God’s law took precedence over the laws of man – and kings. King Henry took a dim view of this and charged More with treason. During his trial, More refused to speak out in support of the king. He was convicted and executed. The Roman Catholic Church delcared More a martyr and made him a saint.
This week, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was called before the State Court of the Judiciary for refusing to obey the orders of both state and federal courts to remove a two-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Supreme Court building that he had placed there. The courts had ruled that such a monument in a public building was a violation of state and federal law. Moore contended that it was his right and indeed his lawful duty to put the monument on public display. Today the board disagreed, and Chief Justice Moore was removed from office.
On the surface, the cases appear to be similar: both men were put on trial for defying the law of the land and defended themselves by claiming that they are responsible to a higher law – that of God – and that the state was wrong to convict them for their religious beliefs. I daresay that there are many people who consider Chief Justice Moore to be a martyr.
There are important differences, however, between Moore and More. Sir Thomas More did not speak out publicly against King Henry – in fact, he went to great lengths to appeal to the king behind closed doors not to put him on the spot where he would have to publicly proclaim his support – or lack thereof – of the king. At his trial, dramatized in the play A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt,* the prosecutor’s chief evidence against him is that he remained silent, which was construed as dissension. More went to his death without fanfare; “I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Chief Justice Moore, taking advantage of America’s proud tradition of free speech, went in the opposite direction. As a judge in Alabama, he prominently hung the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom and defied requests and later orders to remove them. When he was elected as Chief Justice, largely on his campaign to bring God back to the public square, he commissioned the granite monument and had it placed in the rotunda, begging for a fight, which he was all to happy to wage in court and in the media. When the Federal court issued the removal order last August, the standoff between the enforcers of the order and Moore’s followers became the stuff of Breaking News on CNN. Justice Moore, upon his removal today, gave a press conference, speaking long about how he has suffered for his God and how America has suffered as well. His self-depiciton as a martyr was on all the news programs tonight, and he will presumably retire for the time being with a comfortable pension and earn a lot of money speaking out for his beliefs to like-minded audiences across the country.
But Moore is no More. He is not a martyr. Martyrdom is never sought out; it is only a last resort to those who hold so strongly to their inner beliefs that they would rather suffer in silence and sacrifice everything they have – including their life – rather than yield. Martyrs do not promote themselves. They shrink from the spotlight. They turn themselves over to God, not Larry King. They do not become the issue. Chief Justice Moore’s battle was not about the monument or his beliefs – it was about one man who sought the limelight because he wanted to promote his religion, not his faith. Turning the Ten Commandments into a soapbox to shout his hosannahs into the headlines was a violation of one of the commandments themselves – worshipping idols – and one of the basic teachings of Christ; prayer and worship is best done in silence.
*A Man for All Seasons, based on Bolt’s play, was made into a film in 1966 starring Paul Scofield as More, and Robert Shaw as King Henry. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Scofield), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Screenplay (Bolt).