Judge Roy Moore of Etowah County, Alabama, was sued by the ACLU and something called the Alabama Freethought Association (Unitarian-Universalists, I believe they are) back in 1995 for displaying the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall and for beginning each session with a prayer by a Christian clergyman. Over the past year, the affair has taken several legal twists and turns and has now become something of a cause célèbre among the common folk of Alabama. Earlier this year, a Montgomery County judge ruled that Moore must take down the offending Mosaic code and put an end to the prayers; however, the Alabama Supreme Court has since issued Judge Moore a stay. This means that the next time the case reaches a courtroom it will probably be argued before a federal instead of a state judge, and whereas the state courts have thus far been favorably inclined toward Judge Moore, the federal courts are likely to rule against him. This could lead to a showdown between Governor Fob James, who has promised to call out the National Guard and state troopers to protect Moore, and the federal courts.

When Governor James in 1995 first mentioned using the Alabama Guard on Judge Moore’s behalf, the media paid little attention. However, since then public support for the governor and the judge has been growing. Both men have criss-crossed the state, speaking at large and enthusiastic public rallies, and in the spring public officials at the governor’s mansion in Montgomery said they were receiving some 17,000 pieces of mail a day in support of James and Moore. Suddenly, the media—both statewide and national—began to take seriously the governor’s flirtation with nullification and interposition.

But just how serious is Forrest Mood (Fob) James about all this? In a recent interview, he reiterated his stand on calling out the Guard and the troopers, but when asked what he would do in case the President federalized the Guard, James answered; “Then that would be it.” What “it” is he did not say, but most folks are betting that he will simply go back to Montgomery and tell his supporters that he did his best. Not that the Governor would be lacking support if he were really determined to oppose an intrusive federal government; his office reports that more than a few well-armed, patriotic Alabamians (and other Southerners) have offered to back him all the way. And then there is the tantalizing question of the first loyalty of the Alabama National Guard.

While all this is the stuff of political drama, I doubt a meaningful constitutional showdown will ever come to pass. For his part. Judge Roy Moore, whom I’ve interviewed at length, is determined to see this stand through as a matter of deeply-held principle. But Governor James has some room to wiggle out of the coals if they get too hot. What is worse, the affair began to take on a comic note with the arrival of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition and the usual neoconservative camp followers, ever eager to jump on the religion bandwagon.

On April 12, Reed joined Governor James, Judge Moore, and several other neoconservative speakers at a “Save the Ten Commandments Rally” on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Organizers confidently predicted a turnout of 50,000 to 75,000; in fact, estimates of the crowd size ranged between 6,000 and 25,000. The rally’s lower than expected attendance may reflect dissatisfaction with the organizers’ decision to ban certain co-sponsors of the event out of fear of bad publicity. For example, the Southern League, after having been accepted as a cosponsor, received word at the last minute that it could not participate because of its “secessionist” leanings (which would, according to rally officials, “embarrass the Governor and the Judge”).

While nearly every speaker blasted away at federal judges for making rather than interpreting law, there was more heat than light. What seemed lost on both speakers and rally-goers was that the issue surrounding Judge Moore and Governor James is states’ rights. Instead of complaining about judicial tyranny while hoping that a “conservative” Supreme Court will some day right the jurisprudential wrongs of the last several decades, the participants at the rally would have been better off looking for local solutions to the problems inflicted by a central government that now defines the limits of its own authority. Governor James’s threat to call out the Guard sounds the theme of states’ rights, but James is alone, and his words may prove to be more bluster than principle.

The Confederate battle flag stood out as one of the few heartening signs at the rally; at least a few of the attendees realized the centrality of states’ rights to the whole affair. However, it was strange and disconcerting to see that banner waving amid paeans to Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom did their best to destroy limited government and state autonomy. This neoconservative love-fest, which occurred in the first capital of the Confederacy, was an insult to the memory of Jeff Davis, whose statue looked sadly down on hundreds of people who neither knew nor cared about the cause for which he and his contemporaries suffered.

If Christian Southern conservatives follow the lead of Ralph Reed, then the courage displayed by Judge Moore and Governor James will have been in vain. Any serious consideration of states’ rights still scares the pants off the leaders of the Christian Coalition. A good backbone transplant would seem to be in order for those who organized the rally. By their cowardice they are reducing Christ’s admonition to be faithful unto death to something more like faithfulness that stops short of inconvenience. Anyone who expected this affair to spark a constitutional crisis would be better off looking elsewhere for excitement. This dog won’t hunt.