Demagogue's delight


CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Webster's New World Dictionary defines "demagogue" as "a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc., in order to win them over quickly and so gain power."

Alabama's many, many fundamentalists are being stirred by a demagogue who is fanning their passions, winning their vote loyalty and garnering ever-greater power for himself.

Roy Moore was just a minor local judge until he found his ticket to the big time. He illegally posted the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall, deliberately violating America's separation of church and state -- then defied removal orders, making himself a hero to simplistic folk who don't understand freedom of religion.

His newfound popularity won him election as Alabama chief justice in 2000. Then he pulled a demagogic master-stroke: In the middle of the night, when other justices and state employees were gone, he moved a 2 1/2 -ton granite carving of the Ten Commandments into the Supreme Court rotunda -- while a born-again TV network filmed him.

Naturally, federal courts ordered removal of the religious symbol. Naturally, Justice Moore refused -- drawing thousands more fundamentalists to his side. Now, throngs of evangelical pickets surround the Supreme Court. Justice Moore went on national television, claiming to champion "the acknowledgment of God."

Last week, Alabama's other eight Supreme Court justices ordered the monument removed, saving the state a $5,000-a-day federal fine. But Justice Moore vowed to file more U.S. Supreme Court appeals. Regardless of the final outcome, he's the big winner. He has become a nationwide hero to some. He probably could be elected Alabama governor or U.S. senator. His demagoguery paid off in political power.

Unfortunately, neither he nor his followers understand America's freedom of religion, which forbids any group of believers to use government to impose their faith on others.

This nation's brilliant founders saw many horrors that occurred in Europe because of state-enforced religion. Combining the emotional force of faith with government arms created the torture chambers of the Inquisition, mass burnings at the stake, dozens of religious wars, many massacres of minority believers and other evils. To protect the personal liberties of Americans, the founders crafted the Bill of Rights, whose First Amendment separates government and faith.

Under the First Amendment, churches are free to flourish on their own -- but they cannot use government money or facilities to push their beliefs onto others. This system has worked superbly. Religion is booming in America, while it has partly died in other advanced nations.

The state consists of everyone: Muslims, Catholics, Scientololgists, Jews, Buddhists, Santerians, Hindus, Pentecostals, Moonies, Mormons, atheists, secular "nothings" and all the rest. No group of believers can use taxpayer-funded public buildings (or school public address systems) to declare their faith superior to others.

Buddhists and Hindus in Alabama aren't quite equal if the state government erects a monument declaring that everyone shall have no gods before Yahweh.

The government can't tell you what gods to worship, or whether to worship any. That's freedom of religion. Sadly, millions of U.S. fundamentalists don't comprehend it. Sadly, they rush to vote for demagogues like Roy Moore.

James A. Haught is editor of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and the author of two books on religious atrocities and persecutions. He can be reached via e-mail at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Columnist Jules Witcover is on vacation.

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