Theocracy Democracy

CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS have a new martyr. He is Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who first came to public attention eight years ago as a state circuit judge in Etowah County, Ala., when the ACLU filed a lawsuit against his posting of a Ten Commandments plaque on his courtroom wall. (The Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the suit on a technicality; there was no ruling on the suit.) Moore rode the resulting notoriety to election in 2000 to the state's highest judicial position. Now, he is suspended from that position for defying a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments he had installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building.

Everett has a similar monument on its civic grounds, and it, like the one in Alabama, is surely in violation of the Constitution. But it's the Alabama monument that has become a Christian cause c鬨bre, thanks to Moore. He's defiant; conservative Christian admirers are being arrested for "defending" Moore's monument against its ordered removal; and there's talk that Moore will be Alabama's next governor.

He sure seems ambitious. What was that about "Thou shalt not covet"?

Of course, that's only one of the Ten Commandments, and the problem isn't just that an Old Testament moral code has no place in a secular government or in the courtroom, offices, or building lobby of a man swornon a Bible, no lessto uphold our secular laws. No, the problem is that most of us, including Christians, continue to cheat, steal, and make out with neighbors' spouses. The whole thing reeks of self-righteous hypocrisy.

MOORE AND HIS brethren invariably claim that they violate their sworn duty in order to answer to a higher law. But which higher law? What happens when they don't?

Take Moore himself, a graduate of West Point (where he conducted Bible classes for fellow cadets), who spent five years in Vietnam. What about "Thou shalt not kill"? It's a pretty unequivocal commandment. No asterisks for butchering heathens, fighting communism, just wars, or even self-defense. Or squirrel huntingit doesn't even specify humans. "Thou shalt not kill," period.

Perhaps when Moore sins in such a fashion, he feels that he is forgiven. Pity he almost certainly doesn't extend such concepts of forgiveness to defendants caught in Alabama's secular legal system. At that point, betcha he doesn't defer to a "higher law."

That's why we have secular laws, to interpret the incomplete, often wildly self-contradictory codas left over from bygone centuries by most of the world's major religions. The most comprehensive attempt in a major religion to determine the minutiae of humanity's daily life is the Koranwhich is why some Islamic fundamentalists seem so insistent upon living as though it were still the eighth century. That's what their rules of daily living were written for.

Not that the Ten Commandments are bad advice. Take out the two that demand religious belief, and the rest contain quite reasonable guidelines for the behavior of people in any society, secular or not. Don't kill, don't steal, don't swear, take a day off each week, be nice to your parents, don't be greedy, don't lie, don't cheat on your spouse.

But that doesn't mean we should embrace Moore's theocratic yearnings.

America's founders separated church and state, and wisely so. They didn't do this just to prevent our government from being taken over by the church. They also acted to protect religion from governmentthat is, from the people running it, who'd invariably want to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of us. Roy Moore is Exhibit A.

IN CASE MOORE and his Christian fanatics haven't noticed, there are an awful lot of religions out there. Many call themselves Christian; many don't. Generally, one only believes in one religion. Without separation of church and state, when that person and a few colleagues get together to make laws, chances are pretty good one of their laws will require that we subscribe to their beliefsfor our own good, of course, and for the glory of God (or whomever), of course.

Flawed though our country might be, one of its virtues is that we generally don't care what religion a neighbor embraces. The days are long gone here when a child's future was marked by the religious beliefs of her or his parents or when people were shunned, harassed, or killed because of the god or gods they worshipped.

In all too many parts of the world, from Northern Ireland to sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan, the religious freedom we take for granted seems almost incomprehensible. Too bad the likes of Roy Moore, or Everett's civic leaders, don't comprehend it, either.

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