Savior, Fool or Demagogue: Burkean Frames Surrounding the Ten Commandments Judge

Brian T. Kaylor


Judge Roy Moore brought both condemnation and praise for his attempts to keep his Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama state courthouse building. This study examines the responses to Moore in light of Kenneth Burke’s poetic frames to suggest the existence and impact of simultaneous and contradictory frames. The frames of epic, comic, and burlesque are traced, and implications thereof for Moore’s situation and for Burkean frames.

JUDGE ROY MOORE, known as the “Ten Commandments Judge,” became a circuit court judge in 1992 and first created a stir after civil libertarians unsuccessfully sued in1994 to have a plaque of the Ten Commandments removed from the wall of the courtroom where he presided. As a result of that conflict, Moore gained popularity and was elected to the Supreme Court of Alabama in 2000 (Campo-Flores & Burger, 2003). He then paid for and secretly installed a five-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building rotunda on the night of July 31, 2001, which civil-rights groups quickly sued to remove. This time the court ruled against Moore but he decided to defy the federal court ruling that ordered he remove the monument. Ultimately, despite Moore’s attempts to appeal the ruling, the monument was removed on August 27, 2003 and Moore was unseated from the bench on November 13, 2003 (Wingfield, 2003). But these actions came only after hundreds gathered in rallies to support him, and commentators across the nation had weighed in with their opinions.

To some Moore was the hero standing up for their Christian beliefs, to others he was a sincere but misguided judge, and to still others he was a dangerous demagogue who was unfit for office. Each perspective represents a unique framing of Moore and his actions. Due to the deeply polarized opinions and the national attention of this case, it provides an ideal opportunity to study simultaneous contradictory frames. This study will discuss Burke’s (1959) theory of poetic frames and ensuing research, analyze the rhetoric and frames surrounding Moore, and then discuss the impact of these frames on Moore and implications for the use of Burkean frames. As a result of this analysis, insights will be offered concerning how the competing frames affected the outcome of Moore’s fight, and how Burkean frames can aid scholars in other examinations.

Burkean Frames

Burke (1959) proposes that history is constructed in such a manner as to lead to the acceptance or rejection of the social order. This is accomplished by the framing of the individuals involved. He offers that there are acceptance frames of epic, tragedy, and comedy to attempt to show favor for and help confirm the status quo, and rejection frames of elegy/plaint, satire, and burlesque to point out the problems of the social order and the reasons to denounce it.

Several studies have employed Burke’s framework to analyze one frame being used in a particular rhetorical situation. Carlson (1986) used the comic frame to analyze Gandhi’s rhetorical framing of his opponents as he fights for Indian civil rights. Bostdorff (1987) utilized the burlesque frame to analyze the political cartoons about Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt, namely what they viewed to be his policies that would lead to the destruction of the environment. Rybacki and Rybacki (1995) examined vintage car racing in the comic frame, demonstrating use for the theory outside of the political arena where most of the studies lie. Appel (1996) studied conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. and his attacks on his opponents in light of the burlesque frame. Christiansen and Hanson (1996) explore the rhetoric and tactics of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) against the Catholic Church, particularly Cardinal O’Connor in New York City, and their use of the comic frame. And Hubbard (1998) analyzed the present debate over Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. He makes a significant addition by using the burlesque frame not to analyze a specific rhetor or strategies used by them, but to study it more comprehensively as an entire rhetorical frame that affected how Americans viewed Japan during the war.

Three studies have traced a shift from one frame to another. Carlson (1988) analyzed the change in tactics by the feminist humorists of the 19th century from the comic frame to satire, and then to the burlesque. Moore (1992) followed how during the 1988 election vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle arrived at the point that he was viewed in the burlesque frame, after starting out in the comic one as most candidates in his position are viewed. And Appel (1997) followed a shift in frames in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetoric from the comic frame, in which he paints his opponents as merely mistaken fools, to the tragic frame where he argues that drastic and immediate action is required.

Finally, three studies have demonstrated the existence of multiple frames at the same time. Brummett (1984) first proposed this important new direction by demonstrating that in the case of John DeLorean, a successful automotive dealer who was arrested on drug charges, two acceptance frames coexisted—the tragic and the comic. O’Leary (1993) also found simultaneous tragic and comic frames by studying interpretations of the end times by Christian writers by tracing those from the biblical book of Revelation up to the present day. Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson (2003) used the poetic frames to analyze the short but colorful governorship of Evan Mecham in Arizona. Their study offered a significant extension to the theory as they follow two simultaneous contradictory frames—the epic and the burlesque. Though they persuasively justify the possibility of the existence of two concurrent and conflicting frames, their presentation of Governor Mecham hurts the study as the tone of the article leans toward the burlesque and even the title (“Our hero the buffoon”) implies that he is definitely a buffoon, and only to some a hero.

This study seeks to determine the frames surrounding the situation of Judge Roy Moore, how they interacted, and how this impacted the events that transpired. This study also attempts to build on Burke’s (1959) theory of poetic frames and continue the expansion of it by analyzing concurrent and contradictory frames. The controversy and rhetoric surrounding Moore offers a unique opportunity for such an analysis. Through exploring the responses to Moore, this study demonstrates the presence of simultaneous and competing frames of epic, comic, and burlesque. This textual study of the framing of Moore during and after his struggle to keep the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama state courthouse and maintain his seat on the court required a couple of steps of analysis. First, statements about Moore by both supporters and opponents were collected from editorials, letters to the editor, and quotations from articles about the controversy published during the period of June through November of 2003. This six-month period marked the height of the public controversy and included both the removal of the monument and the unseating of Moore. These statements came from a variety of publications, including those from the national and Alabama levels as well as the secular and the religious, with at least six representative sources for each genre. Second, these statements were sorted into the categories of epic, comic, and burlesque. Finally, these statements were analyzed within each category to flesh out the themes and nuances of each frame, and then analyzed together in light of each other and the controversy.

Moore the Hero

The epic frame places the primary character as the hero, and perhaps even as the savior. It is not only an acceptance of who they are and what they have done, but it lifts them up as a role model for others. Those who see Moore in this frame generally agree with his religious beliefs, support his placing of and standing up for the monument, and praise him as a hero and example for all Christians. The Reverend Philip Ellen said, “There’s not a greater American than Roy Moore. There’s not a man with more integrity” (Bixler, 2003, ¶5). Billy Bruce expressed his support by writing, “I would like to salute ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for standing on his convictions and refusing to allow our ever-evolving system of ‘tolerance’ to supercede his beliefs” (Bruce, 2003, ¶1). And Kim Isbell, a preacher’s daughter, said she went to the courthouse “to support Roy Moore so all the liberals will see there are people in America that believe in God” (Marus & Warner, 2003, p. 2).

Often the support of Moore is based on a high view of the Ten Commandments, and thus anyone who fights for them is also viewed highly. One supporter wrote, “Whatever is our country coming to! …What a shame. The Ten Commandments are simply a good set of rules to live by. At least, our founding fathers thought they were” (Merritt, 2003, ¶1-2). And the Reverend Rick Reed explained, “To deny that the Ten Commandments are part of God’s law is a personal decision and to deny that they are part of our heritage is historical revision” (Reed, 2003, ¶3). And while most of those viewing Moore under this frame usually do not believe he has done anything wrong, some do not think that even matters. Kim Zimek wrote, “Yes, I know Judge Roy Moore is breaking the law he is sworn to uphold. But it is refreshing to see someone stand up for a true ideological belief, defending our faith instead of some less important cause (Zimek, 2003, ¶1-2).

Those arguing from the epic frame also often worry that this is only the beginning and fear a “slippery slope” if they do not stand up now. This usually includes a call to arms for Christians to get involved. Bill Clausen wrote:

Now that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has been removed from office for posting the Ten Commandments’ in the Alabama state courthouse, I am wondering how many more of our rights will disappear under the guise of ‘separation of church and state.’ How long will it be before the same people/organizations who were successful in removing Moore will use the same separation-of-church-and-state argument to outlaw Christmas as a federal holiday? (Clausen, 2003, ¶1)
Emile Leger wrote, “To say I am outraged is not strong enough. A kangaroo court ousts an Alabama chief justice for personally acknowledging God. …We should shake our fist at the ACLU!” (Leger, 2003, ¶1-2). Mike Hassett argued, “Unless believers stand up in defense of Justice Moore, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union will make sure the Supreme Court remains committed to turning America into a godless nation” (Hassett, 2003, ¶3). And Bill Rouchell commented:
We need more men of principle like Judge Roy Moore, who will resist the liberal race to perdition! I find it our duty to rally behind this man as he fights against this onslaught on the Christian values our country was founded upon. God bless America! (Rouchell, 2003, ¶4)
Moore’s case quickly became a representative case of a larger cultural war in American society.

Finally, this frame sometimes leads to the viewing of Moore as a Christ-like figure who is being innocently targeted for his faith. Burke (1959) argued that such Christ analogies are sometimes used in the epic frame. Emile Leger wrote “This reminds me of another trial 2,000 years ago held during the night for fear of the populace, resulting in the crucifixion of a just man” (Leger, 2003, ¶3). Becky Terry argued, “Judge Moore is definitely a hero! If you think Judge Moore is a joke, that’s OK. People thought Jesus was, too” (Terry, 2003, ¶5). And Vision America President Rick Scarborough stated, “God often does his best work right after a crucifixion. What we saw with Justice Roy Moore was a crucifixion. God will vindicate this man” (“Groups seeks protection for Commandments,” 2003, ¶4). The epic frame remained strong throughout the controversy, particularly among many evangelical Christians, and has given Moore continued popularity and support as he considers a potential gubernatorial run in 2006. When viewed in this frame, Moore is the hero standing up for the historic Christian beliefs that America was founded on, even if it means he must risk sacrificing himself and his career.

Moore the Fool

The comic frame, while still an acceptance frame, offers a less glowing picture of those viewed in it. Although the action they commit is rejected as ill advised or inappropriate, they are still held up as a sincere and good-hearted person. The epic accepts both the individual and the deed, but the comic accepts only the individual. Those viewing Moore in this frame are likely to hold some similar religious beliefs, or at least be sympathetic to those who are religious, but disagree with how Moore handled the specific situation. Generally they oppose the placing of a religious monument or Moore’s defiance of a federal judge order. Charles Busby wrote:

I can appreciate Moore’s zeal in standing up for what the Constitution really says about the federal government’s role in regard to religion, but his zeal for the holy scriptures should guide him to obey what they say about submitting to authority. (Busby, 2003, ¶3)
Chriss Doss, director of the Center for Study of Law and Church at Samford University in Alabama, stated:
I think he’s very sincere in saying ‘I determine how we acknowledge God—how the state acknowledges God. And I suspect that, when he does that, he is saying the state should [acknowledge God], and he is the one to determine [how to do] that. And that is a little bit overly ambitious of him. (Marus & Warner, 2003, p. 2)
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argued:
If Judge Moore feels that in conscience, pending his appeal to the Supreme Court, he cannot comply with the federal court order, then he should resign his office and continue to make his case. I will help him do it. (Land, 2003, ¶13)
And Paul Whiteley wrote:
Public display of the Ten Commandments to show America’s religiosity does not honor God. To be effective, the Commandments must be engraved on a person's heart, soul and conscience. …Many people are misguided by politicians’ attempts to make religion a political issue, but God is not fooled. (Whiteley, 2003, ¶2)
For these individuals, the concern was that he was not following the law, even if they agreed with him that he should have the right to post the monument.

The comic frame view sometimes is expressed with the concern that Moore has hurt the image of Christians and their cause. Jim Hauschultz wrote that he hoped people would believe the Ten Commandments but noted, “It would be nice that the world came to believe that because of the way we Americans live. Not because we are good stonemasons” (Hauschultz, 2003, ¶2). Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned:

…we must learn to choose our battles wisely. The court-ordered removal of Alabama's Ten Commandments monument is a national tragedy and a travesty of law. But thoughtful and responsible Christian leaders must ponder whether this is the place to take our stand in a court-defying, go-for-broke effort. The recovery of a culture requires the stewardship of strategy as well as firmness of conviction. (Mohler, 2003, ¶18)
And Charles McFatter argued that the case is hurting the Christian witness and cause:
More than likely this issue will not open the doors of heaven to a single individual soul. In that light it is not really very important. This fight becomes more important when we realize that in fact it may even have the exact opposite effect and serve to drive some souls away rather than attract individuals to the Christian faith. (McFatter, 2003, ¶1)

Thus, these individuals recognized Moore’s good intentions but criticized his foolish strategy used. Under this frame Moore is seen as a dedicated individual who truly believes what he is saying and fighting for; but, he also seen as being unfortunately mistaken and foolish in his attempts to implement them, perhaps to the determent of the very cause he is fighting for.

Moore the Demagogue

The burlesque frame stands in opposition to the previous two since it is a frame of rejection. The primary character in this frame is rejected for what they have done, and ultimately for who they are. Jim Evans, pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Alabama, demonstrated the difference between the comic and burlesque frames as he tried to determine the motivation of Moore. A comic response would be when Evans wrote, “If he’s motivated by a genuine concern about the Scriptures, then he’s terribly misguided” (Marus & Warner, 2003, p. 2). However, Evans also left open the possibility of viewing Moore in the burlesque frame when he added, “And if he’s motivated by political ambition and he’s using this to advance himself, then shame on him, because that’s the kind of worst example of the callous use of things sacred” (Marus & Warner, 2003, p. 2). Thus, he highlighted the key difference between the comic and the burlesque—while both reject the action, only the burlesque actually rejects the individual. Their negatives are highlighted, and even exaggerated in order to lead to a complete rejection of them.

Those viewing Moore in this frame reject his arguments that it is his right to display the Ten Commandments and that this is a solely Christian nation, and suggest he is not fit for the office. Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “Judges have no right to impose their personal religious beliefs on others through official action” (Marus, 2003, 21). Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, stated, “Judge Moore is a classic demagogue. He’s a total embarrassment to the legal profession” (Bixler, 2003, ¶7). Larry Hammer rejoiced at Moore’s removal: “Praise God! Our republic is saved from another demagogue. …at least ‘The Roy Moore Show’ will be playing in its proper venue: ‘Coming soon to a pulpit near you!’” (Hammer, 2003, ¶1-3). And Robert Carver wrote:

The problem is that Judge Moore is not a rational man and his followers practice an irrational and intolerant form of religion that is beyond the purview of reason. …Demagogues like Judge Moore are not above the law when we have the protection of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Yet I am sure Judge Moore will keep up this charade for as long as he can milk it for political gain and to inflate his ego. (Carver, 2003, ¶1-2)
Not only is Moore’s action rejected, but he is mocked for even trying to install the monument.

Those viewing Moore in the burlesque frame are also likely to see him as a threat if left alone. Often the focus of the argument in this frame was why Moore should be removed from office and how not removing him would endanger the foundation of law and democracy. Norman Peterson wrote:

I am glad that former Alabama Justice Roy S. Moore is off the bench. …Any judge who places the Christian Bible above the foundation of civil laws on which this country was founded is suspect. How can such a person be relied on to treat people of other religions, or no religion, fairly and justly? (Peterson, 2003, ¶1-2)
Lance Lamberton wrote, “Now we can all breathe a little easier knowing that this crass attempt to force religion on us has been thwarted. Thank God!” (Lamberton, 2003, ¶2). And the Reverend Harry Parrott argued that Moore is almost in the comic frame, but really should be viewed under the burlesque:
Moore is almost the caricature of the religious fanatic who skillfully manipulates the power of religion to deliberately create religious division, foster tumult and turn neighbor against neighbor. But for all its comic aspects, this demagogue is dangerous indeed, and a deadly challenge to the historic principle of separation of church and state which has saved our nation from religious strife and conflict. (Parrott, 2003, ¶4)
For these individuals, Moore cannot be merely viewed as a fool because he is seen as more sinister than that. Under this frame Moore is seen as a dangerous demagogue who not only has done something wrong, but also holds beliefs that make him unacceptable for the office he holds. Thus, this frame depicts him as someone who must be stopped in order to prevent him from causing future harm.

Interplay of the Frames

While Burke (1959) focused on how a specific rhetor(s) framed someone, something, or a situation, this and other studies (Brummett, 1984; Buerkle, Mayer, & Olson, 2003; O’Leary, 1993) have begun exploring the different frames in which a particular rhetor or situation is viewed. Such an analysis allows the critic to go beyond simply uncovering the nuances of one type of rhetoric, and begin to view the differences between rhetors and the interaction of the various viewpoints. The three frames surrounding the situation of Moore suggest two important conclusions about the outcome of the controversy.

First, Alabama state officials charged with deciding whether the monument would stay and whether Moore should keep his job viewed Moore under the comic and burlesque frames, but not the epic. Alabama’s Republican and openly evangelical Christian governor, Bob Riley, refused to come to Moore’s defense. And Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Catholic whose nomination for a federal judgeship was filibustered at the time by Democrats over concerns about his religious conservatism, argued the case for Moore’s dismissal from the bench because of Moore’s “utterly unrepentant behavior” (Johnson, 2003, p. 3A). Pryor acknowledged that he felt the Ten Commandments could be constitutionally displayed in the courthouse, but said, “As Attorney General, I have a duty to obey all orders of courts even when I disagree with those orders” (Land, 2003, ¶7). But regardless of the acceptance of the individual, the comic frame still calls for a rejection of the deed, which would include removing the monument and the individual from office if they refuse to obey. The burlesque frame also leads one to these two conclusions. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Gorman Houston responded that he and the other justices would “take whatever steps necessary …to assure that the state of Alabama is a government of laws and not men” (Marus, 2003, p. 8). Ultimately because the state officials viewed Moore under the comic and burlesque frames, he was doomed to lose both the monument and his job. Examining these frames assists in determining why Moore’s crusade failed.

The second insight from this study into Moore’s situation involves his future. Even while Moore continued his legal appeals to both decisions, many began to wonder what his next political move would be, such as running again for the Supreme Court or even for governor. After being removed Moore traveled around the country on numerous Christian speaking engagements (often taking the 5-ton monument with him) and released a book, So Help Me God. During the controversy some in the burlesque frame suggested that he was doing it simply for his own political gain and was going to run for governor with the renewed popularity from the fight. Others in the epic frame encouraged the idea that Moore would run for governor or some other post as the next step in his crusade. Moore later ran for governor but was solidly defeated in the Republican primary by incumbent Bob Riley, who had refused to support Moore during the Ten Commandments controversy. Moore had already shown some political power as his spokesman during the controversy defeated the only sitting Alabama Supreme Court justice that was on the ballot in 2004. Moore also helped defeat a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the Alabama Constitution (Roig-Franzia, 2004). Yet, his political influence and public notoriety failed to make him even competitive for the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Voters in Alabama remained divided over Moore and his actions. Spencer (2003) reports that while polls found that more than two-thirds felt that the Ten Commandments monument should be allowed in the courthouse (an epic or comic view), half of the respondents felt he was wrong to defy the court order (a comic or burlesque view). This poll result suggests that although most people in Alabama might support someone with a similar religious message as Moore, he is unlikely to be successful without a significant third-party where one could win with less than fifty percent. The individuals in the epic frame are likely to be highly energized by a campaign, as demonstrated by the rallies and prayer vigils during the controversy. However, if the other two groups were to grow much, it could be a difficult campaign—as it turned out to be. Perhaps when he announced his run for governor, some who were in the epic frame believed that the Ten Commandments stand had really been only for political gain and thus changed their opinion of him, or it is even more likely that some in the comic frame shifted to the burlesque since they were already slightly suspicious of Moore. It seems highly unlikely that anyone in the comic or burlesque frames moved to the epic as a result of his gubernatorial. Due to the polarization surrounding Moore, his support could only drop by seeking higher office. Thus, he was doomed to lose because of the frames already ingrained during the Ten Commandments controversy.

Additionally, it was likely difficult for Moore to use his religious faith in the race since he had to first challenge Governor Bob Riley, who is open about his evangelical Christian beliefs. This difficulty was increased since the religious community was already somewhat split in this situation as notable evangelical leaders, including those of his own fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention, viewed him in the comic frame. The strong emotions aroused in the controversy over the Ten Commandments, especially among those in the epic and burlesque frames, reemerged after Moore announced a run for governor. Thus, even though he attempted to ignore the issue and run on a different platform, he was unable to escape the frames already cast from the Ten Commandments controversy. In particular, it seemed that Moore had difficulty because he could not hold onto the support he once had as three years passed between the monument fight and because many saw him as only standing for that one issue (Gordon, 2006). What had been his strength eventually became his weakness. Controversial figures like Moore may be able to rally large numbers of people around a cause, but may be unable to convert such numbers as the situation shifts to be about the person and not the cause. Moore has, however, been able to remain popular with enough people who still viewed him in the epic frame to earn a living writing and speaking.


This study has explored the concept of Burkean frames and the drama surrounding Judge Roy Moore. Three frames were discovered, with the “Ten Commandments Judge” being viewed as a hero, a fool, and a demagogue simultaneously. Ultimately, this controversial and diversely viewed situation helped create conflict, and may have aided in Moore’s loss in the monument case and substantially impacted his political future. This study continues the development of Burke’s (1959) work on poetic frames as it demonstrates the existence of three frames, including both ones of acceptance and rejection. This extension of Burkean frames can aid critics in gaining a more complete understanding of a particular scenario, and offer a tool for dissecting the various nuances of the different rhetorical perspectives involved. Arenas that naturally involve differing and competing viewpoints, such as religion and politics, are not well suited for the one-dimensional approach that the original concept of Burkean frames created. In order to more fully analyze those situations, the existence of multiple and diverse frames should be recognized and studied. Future studies are needed to continue exploring the impact the presence of multiple frames have on each other and on the events and characters they surround.

* Dr. Brian T. Kaylor is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va. 22804. He can be reached at

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