Topless culture wars in Idaho

Strange things happen when it gets hot in Moscow, Idaho.

In the summer of 1998, three women stayed cool by going topless on a major street. They were arrested, but a judge ruled that the local indecent exposure ordinance was too vague. The issue stayed on a low boil.

"That was a mini-tempest in a tea cup that just set the stage," said the Rev. Douglas Wilson of Christ Church, a conservative Presbyterian congregation in a town dominated by the University of Idaho. "What we're having right now is a lot bigger and more interesting than another debate about topless women."

The topless issue is back, but that's not the real story. While the Moscow City Council has attempted to map the topography of the female breast -- imagine lawyers defining "cleavage" -- many citizens are plunging into the philosophical issues at the heart of the topless culture wars.

Facing off in an Internet forum called Moscow Vision 2020, activists on both sides are letting it all hang out. This isn't just a debate about topless women, it's about burkas, bikinis, breastfeeding, marriage, rape, feminism, Nazis, the Vatican, slavery, hate crimes, Darwinism, property rights, postmodernism, birth control, media bias, free speech, sexual harassment, home schooling, gay rights, abortion, spirituality, heaven, hell, fundamentalism, Hollywood, parenting and, of course, the pledge of allegiance.

That's all.

The latest battle of the breasts began when 22-year-old Daisy Mace and her two roommates lost their jobs and fell behind on their June rent.

To the joy of newspaper headline writers everywhere, the young women decided to start a topless car wash, operating at different sites each day in neighborhoods and public parking lots. Soon, Moscovites were "steamed up" and their council was "in a lather" -- resulting in an ordinance banning females from going topless in the city.

Liberals and libertarians started talking about the Taliban.

Obviously, if religious conservatives were strongly opposed to topless car washing, then the right to wash cars while topless must be a vital civil liberty. And what would the Religious Right do next? Take over the town?

As the leader of a growing evangelical flock, Wilson threw down a gauntlet in the Vision 2020 forum. The left can be as fundamentalist and judgmental as the right, he said. The ultimate question was whether it was possible to say that some behaviors are socially acceptable and some are not.

Both sides want to shape the laws. Were there no moral absolutes to guide them?

"By what standard do you judge anything? We have a standard and everyone knows what it is -- Genesis through Revelation," argued Wilson. "You make quite as many value judgments as we do, even if it is only about us, but when pressed for details on when and how your Moses came down off your Sinai, everything goes blurry."

Everyone believes something is true, he said. Everyone has a worldview that guides his or her actions.

The implication was clear, responded Joan "Auntie Establishment" Opyr, in a chorus of outraged voices on the left. Wilson was claiming to speak for God, while the "rest of us have to make do with secular humanism, MTV and old bits of string and paperclips." But she noted that Christian denominations and sects often disagree over how to interpret their own scriptures.

So, wrote Opyr, "By what standard do we judge? By our own lights. ... No doubt you believe that you take your orders directly from on high. Oddly enough, that's where I get my orders, too, but I get them via The Tanakh, not the Christian bible. Others get theirs from the Koran, from the Tao Ti Ching, from the Upanishads, from the Rig Veda, or from time spent meditating in Joshua Tree State Park."

For Wilson and many others, it was simply impossible to say that all standards are equally valid. There would be no easy peace.

"When two contradictory claims of absolute truth collide, both can be wrong, but both cannot be right," he replied. "My complaint is that however much they complain about the threat of conservative Christianity, relativists are far more afraid of their own position than they are of ours. This is because if relativism is the case, then anything goes, including the worst forms of absolutism."