Putting "theocracy" fears in their place

theocracyRoss Douthat, an associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote an inspired piece in the August/September edition of First Things taking apart, piece by piece, theories about a "theocracy movement" in America. Here's a snippet:

This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood's feminist dystopia The Handmaid's Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist "Republic of Gilead," with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that "moral values" had pushed the president over the top -- and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.

Later, more cool-headed polling analysis suggested that the values explanation was something of a stretch: The movement of religious voters into the GOP played a role in Bush's victory, but the uptick in his support between 2000 and 2004 seems mainly to have reflected national-security concerns. Still, these pesky facts didn't stop Garry Wills from announcing the end of the Enlightenment and the arrival of jihad in America, or Jane Smiley from bemoaning the "ignorance and bloodlust" of Bush voters in thrall to a fire-and-brimstone God, or left-wing bloggers from chattering about "Jesusland" and "fundies" and plotting their escape to Canada.

Consider Douthat's piece The Guide for blogging about the "theocracy" movement.

Rod Dreher over at Crunchy Con writes that the piece "calmly but utterly eviscerates the wack-job paranoia of the Kevin Phillipses, the Michelle Goldbergs, and other writers who have made a cottage industry of portraying the role of Christian conservatives in contemporary American politics as a dark conspiracy to take over America and turn it into a Christofascist theocracy."

Here's more from Dreher:

... These same writers celebrate the role Christianity has played in American public and political life when it has led the way in achieving goals important to liberals, like civil rights. Which is fine, but you can't have it both ways: you can't praise religious leaders like Martin Luther King for bringing their faith to bear on politics while at the same time condemning Pat Robertson for doing the same. To be sure, it's perfectly fair to criticize Robertson (or whoever) for the particular stands they take, but if it's fair for the Religious Left to get involved in politics, it's fair for the Religious Right to do the same thing. As I've said before, the whole "preachers should stay out of politics" line you get from liberals these days is the mirror image of the same stance I heard as a child down South from whites who resented clergy active on behalf of civil rights.

I think it's important to note that preachers have been equally inconsistent in what type of politics they choose to get involved in. It was Jerry Falwell who shunned the civil rights movement, stating that it would take time away from turning people to Christ, but who plunged headfirst into politics soon after Roe v. Wade.

People scream "Theocracy! Theocracy! Theocracy!" for political reasons, and they are not always going to be consistent. But don't forget that preachers' reasons for involving themselves in politics are not necessary consistent either.

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