So the systematic confirmation of toxic GOP stereotypes continues. Nativism? Build that wall. Misogyny? Grab that ... woman. Racial bias? Equivocate about white supremacists. Religious intolerance? Enter Roy Moore, likely to be the next senator from Alabama.
Moore’s victory against a more mainstream candidate in Alabama’s Senate primary has far-reaching political implications. It demonstrates that anti-establishment populism is still on an upswing among GOP primary voters (at least in the most conservative places). Even President Trump could not channel it to his favored candidate, incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. And this is likely to intimidate gutless Republicans everywhere.
But Moore represents a peculiar challenge to the GOP future. He holds to a particularly rigorous vision of a Christian America, ultimately ruled and legitimated by “biblical law.” In his conception, the freedom of “religion” in the First Amendment is limited to the Christian (and presumably Jewish) version of the creator God. So the protections of the Constitution do not extend to, say, Buddhism and Islam. “Buddha didn’t create us,” explains Moore. “Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”
The absurdity of this claim is just stunning. Moore is contending that when the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the document was actually intending to establish a religion. This indicates a type of zealotry willing to call night day and day night.
Moore’s conception of the supreme law of the universe seems particularly focused on the sex lives of American citizens. Rather than motivating a passion for racial justice, or a mission of prison reform, or a fight against global poverty, Moore’s law would punish homosexuality and defy the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage. His enthusiasm for imposing his conception of Christian law is only matched by his fear that Shariah law is being imposed “in Illinois, Indiana — up there. I don’t know.”
Some of the arguments against Moore’s view of a Christian America are prudential. Over time — at least since Calvin’s Geneva and Cromwell’s England — Christians have learned that too close a relationship between church and state is highly damaging to both. Associating the reputation of the Christian gospel with the fortunes of any politician or movement is bound to dishonor sacred things. Associating the Christian gospel with the political priorities of Roy Moore would be foolishness compounded by heresy.
Disestablishment, pluralism and democracy are good for religious believers — and, not incidentally, for everyone else. “I am a democrat,” said C.S. Lewis, “because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant, a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience.”
It is easy to imagine Moore sleeplessly considering American decadence, since his version of biblical law is ceaselessly violated. It is worth asking: What is his limiting principle in enforcing the voice of heaven? The Ten Commandments set aside the Sabbath for rest. Should that be mandated? How about Old Testament recommendations of the death penalty for adulterers, apostates, blasphemers and incorrigible children? Why not enforce the Apostle Paul’s admonition against “foolish talk”? But that would leave Moore speechless.
No, Moore is not really a theonomist. The boundaries of his worldview, it turns out, almost exactly coincide with those of the Breitbart agenda. Moore’s study of divine law has led him, in the end, to the shabby, third-rate gospel of Steve Bannon.
The strongest objection to Moore’s hardness and harshness is theological. On the consistent evidence of Jesus’ ministry, what public attitude did he condemn the most? He stood against people who talked constantly of the law, who thought they were especially virtuous, who enjoyed scolding people, who judged others without tenderness and understanding. He was at constant war with the self-righteous and took the side of the social outcasts they condemned.
Now we see the return of the Pharisee.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist. Charles Krauthammer remains on medical leave.