Stamping Out Sin?


Tehran, July 3—As the angry crowd cheered, two men and two women were buried up to their chests, white cotton hoods draped over their heads. At a signal from the mullah, the crowd let loose with a barrage of rocks. Ten minutes later, all four were dead. Only one of the four had harmed anyone—allegedly, he had raped a young girl. The other man was simply a homosexual, while the women were accused of operating a brothel.

Summary executions for sexual offenses are only one manifestation of the Islamic fundamentalism that has been given the force of law in today's Iran. Alcohol, card playing, live music, recorded music, mixed swimming (both sexes in the same pool), and mixed wedding parties—all have been declared illegal.

The penalty for sex between consenting adults who are not married is 80 lashes. Should one of them be married, the ante is upped to 100 lashes for the man and death for the woman. For selling drugs, the penalty is death by firing squad.

Enforcing Iran's new morality are the Center for the Abolition of Sin and the Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali. The former deals with sex and alcohol, the latter with drugs. Khalkhali brags of having meted out the death sentence to over 400 drug sellers.

At these tales of fanaticism, most Americans feel an understandable revulsion, together with a certain smugness. We, after all, long ago realized that a fundamental protector of liberty is the principle of separation of Church and State. Under this doctrine, set down in the First Amendment, matters of religious belief—such as personal morality—were recognized as the province of the individual conscience and of whatever voluntary religious and social organizations people wish to form. The law—the power of compulsion—was to be restricted to matters involving the forcible or fraudulent interference with someone else: murder, rape, burglary, extortion, etcetera.

True, this distinction has never been maintained absolutely. The United States has gone through periods in which one or another aspect of religious or moral belief was temporarily made enforceable by law—Prohibition during the '20s, censorship of books and movies from the 1870s until the 1960s, and drug laws from the '30s that are still with us. But by and large Americans have agreed with the wisdom of keeping Church and State—morality and law—separate.

There are disturbing signs, however, that support for this principle is eroding. Many of the participants in today's "evangelical revival" seem to be so caught up in their faith that they want to cast their moral views into law. Consider born-again presidential contender John Anderson, who not once but three times introduced into Congress a proposed constitutional amendment to wipe out Church/State separation by having the US government subordinate itself to "the authority and laws of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations."

Or consider the formation of the political action group known as Moral Majority. Its founder, the Rev. Mr. Jerry Falwell, declares forthrightly that "the basic moral issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and pornography have become political issues." In other words, he and his followers seek to use the force of law to compel people to follow their ideas of morality—just like the mullahs in Tehran.

Even the Republican National Convention jumped aboard this anti-sin bandwagon, endorsing a constitutional amendment forbidding abortion. And GOP nominee Ronald Reagan has long made clear his support for laws against drugs, gambling, and prostitution, all the while maintaining that government should not protect people from themselves (see "Inside Ronald Reagan—a REASON Interview," June 1975).

This type of muddled thinking is a tragic mistake. Thomas Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers recognized that religious liberty is an essential safeguard against tyranny—whether of the minority or a majority ("moral" or not). The whole idea of a bill of rights is that human beings have certain basic rights that no government and no majority may violate. If this notion means anything, it must include the right to decide such fundamental personal matters as what one ingests, what one reads, and with whom one sleeps.

The fact is that this country and the world are very diverse places. Billions of human beings have billions of personal, individual views on how best to lead their lives. A tolerance for differing personal moral codes is a prerequisite for a civilized society.

On this note, it is ironic to observe that the "primitive" people of the New Hebrides (see this month's cover story) could teach the Moral Majority crowd a few things about civilization. Among the numerous tribes in this archipelago, one can find polygamy, semi-nudity, drug taking (the kava ceremony), and homosexuality, each incorporated into the tribes' traditional custom. Christianity coexists with each of these practices, and people from the different tribes respect one another's custom without hesitation.

The last thing this country needs is a campaign to stamp out sin by force of law. Those who believe certain practices to be morally wrong have every right to state their case in hopes of persuading their fellow citizens to follow their example. But they have no right to impose their views on those who are unpersuaded. It is high time America's conservatives renounced the mullahs within their ranks.