WASHINGTON -- Jesse Ventura finally found an opponent he could not pin: The Almighty.
The governor of Minnesota experienced this epiphany the instant Playboy magazine published an interview in which he described religion as a crutch for weak-minded people. His popularity ratings immediately hurtled toward the abyss. Overnight, he went from the most popular politician in his state's history to another chump with a limousine and an entourage.
To understand of the governor's predicament, look beyond the obvious. Sure, Jesse the Theologian echoed weak-minded Marxist pap about religion as an opiate.
Sure, he overlooked the fact that more people will attend religious services this week than will attend Reform Party conventions in a millennium. But the most worrisome thing is that he declared open season on human freedom.
Moral truth exists
Let me explain. Organized religion -- pick your faith -- begins with the belief that objective moral truth exists; that right and wrong are not merely social conventions, but moral facts.
When scientists calculate the speed of light, we assume they're measuring something that has been ever thus. Light moves at 286,284 miles per second not because some 19th Century physicists put a speed gun on solar rays, but because that's how things are. Mankind did not create the fact. Humans discovered it.
Global religions approach morality the same way. There is astonishing congruence in world faiths -- and especially since the time of Moses -- of what is right and what is wrong.
Murder isn't wrong merely because it is an inconvenient way of resolving disputes. It is wrong, period, even when people aren't killing each other. Ethical facts thus are as true as the speed of light, and as integral to the scheme of things.
If religious verities are true, it follows that men didn't concoct them. Religions pinpoint the source as the Creator of the Universe -- the Y-hw-h of Judaism; the Lord of Christianity; the Allah of Islam.
This is a crucial development because it undermines any government that exalts man as the measure of all things.
World leaders have understood for centuries the subversive nature of faith. Nomadic Jews were an endless annoyance to pharaohs and kings who wanted to be venerated as gods. Pontius Pilate realized that Jesus -- whom one might have dismissed as an eccentric hick from Nazareth -- was a profound threat to the empire. Allah supplanted man-gods throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
Early religionists didn't conquer through force of arms. Most were notoriously meek. St. Paul went to Rome and wound up with his head on a platter. Stalin once scoffed, "And how many divisions has the Pope?"
Great religions undermine authority subtly. They confirm what most of us suspect -- that political power is transitory; that men of wealth and power are more often vain than virtuous; that the worst oppressions of the age will pass; that history will recall martyrs more fondly than madmen.
Simple faith thus engenders the thing despots fear most -- an individual conscience. There is nothing more dangerous than people who do not fear the worst you can do to them.
This century has demonstrated conclusively that a witness to faith possesses not a weak mind, but one of almost unimaginable strength. Jews who endured Hitler's charnel-houses and Stalin's gulags were not simpletons. Many displayed heavenly strength.
Indeed, there is nothing easier than to abandon faith in the face of inhumanity. The coward is the first to renounce God and declare, "Hail, Caesar!" Only the saint has the courage to die for his or her beliefs.
Yet martyrs do much more than defend their faiths. They also protect the ideals necessary for the preservation of any social order. Imagine what would happen if we erased any one of the Ten Commandments. The certain result would be anarchy and violence.
If you dispense with religion, you abandon the central tenet of our democracy -- that all people possess inalienable rights. Justice becomes a matter for leaders to decide. Dignity becomes a luxury; not a birthright.
Jesse Ventura's glib slap at religion was neither original nor profound. Many people agree with him, especially among intellectual elites.
Of course religion is a crutch. Without it, civilization collapses.
The entire controversy brings to mind an old joke, adapted to the circumstances:
Q: What's the difference between Jesse Ventura and God?
A: God doesn't think he's Jesse Ventura.
Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.