The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

I Say “Theocracy,” You Say…?

I understand, or at least I think I do, where Ed and Chris that the potential overuse of the word “theocracy” to describe religious conservatives’ efforts to move church and state closer together. Goodness knows I’ve been a frequent user of the term on this blog. But I can’t think of a single instance in which I’d take back any application or implication of the term on my part. I’ve listed story after story here that I think qualifies at least for consideration as part of a creep toward some degree or form of theocracy, or some amalgamation of the U.S. government and a particular flavor of Christianity.

But, for the sake of argument, when is it appropriate to describe the efforts and aims of religious conservatives as “theocracy”?

Chris starts out expressing concern.

This past weekend there was a blog event to blog against theocracy in the United States. I share Bob Cornwall’s concern that people on the left not overuse the word — not every attempt to ground laws in the religious values of (some) Americans represents a move toward theocracy.

And right away I have a problem with the idea that laws have to be, or should be grounded in religious values, because it seems to come with the unspoken assumption that there is no morality (and thus no law) without faith. And if laws are to be grounded in the religious beliefs of some Americans, that would probably be the overwhelming majority of Americans who are Christian. While I know that in his post Chris is calling for the exact opposite of a “Christian state.” But even a “quasi-Christian State” would seem to relegate religious minorities, and Americans who practice no religious faith to the margins of public life and discourse.

That’s largely because of people like the ones Stan Moody described at Faithful Democrats, the Ugly Born-Again American.

Enter the “Ugly Born-Again American” (UBA2), swashbuckling, Bible-spouting “ditto head,” whose fears and failures can be traced directly to liberals and whose God has been reduced to a few select Scripture verses, absent the Sermon on the Mount. These folks are known for tracing every ill of society to a conspiracy to take God out of public life.

In fact, God is very much a factor in public life, brought forth through the quiet, determined ethic of faithful people who consider their vocation a calling. What has been removed from public life is not God but sectarianism, and that is a good thing.

The answer that the “Ugly Born-Again American” has for any lifestyle or belief system that fails to fall into its own tight, parochial vision is to outlaw it. The way out of the ghetto of sectarianism, it seems, is not to find the God-given strength to live righteously and build righteous, God-fearing families in a non-believing culture. It is to drag the rest of society back into your ghetto

It’s reflected in statements like this one from conservative Christian blogger LaShawn Barber, via

“…I know Christians have their faults. We’re still sinners, after all. But I think about how much better life would be if everyone I met, everyone I heard, everyone I worked with, every writer I read… was a Christian.”

That desire for sameness, an unwillingness to see even the possibility that there might be more than one road to “the truth” is also echoed in this letter, written in response to an article about the Buddhist value of loving kindness.

I believe the problem with Buddhism and its approach lies squarely with its lack of objectivity. Having a positive state of mind will not solve our sin problem.

God will judge the world in righteousness. Our good works apart from him are as filthy rags. We are not good on our own. Only God is good. I am not talking about God in general. I am emphasizing creator God revealed in the flesh, Jesus Christ.

Buddhism fails to acknowledge humanity’s sin. Sin separates one from God. Only the pure, perfect and holy sacrifice of Jesus Christ can redeem us. His infinite love was reflected when Jesus died on the cross and then resurrected.

Neither of the speakers above would object to laws grounded in their religious beliefs, and I know Chris wouldn’t support the kind of laws Lashawn and her coreligionist might support. But when people like the writers above are successful or nearing success in their efforts, with direct legislative consequences for the rest of us, whatdo we call it.

Ed also recommends caution, but also offers a definition to go by.

Let me start by being blunt: I think we overuse terms like “theocracy” and “dominionism” (and by “we” I mean those of us who are engaged in various culture war issues and in political battles against, for lack of a better term, the religious right). I’m not going to be specific on who I think does that, but I think it’s something that needs to be confronted. I’ve written a great deal over the last few years against those who advocate theocracy; it’s something I feel very strongly about and will fight to the bitter end to avoid.

But I think we must be careful not to allow that passion to override our intellectual rigor and cause us to paint with too broad a brush, or to over-apply a term to those who don’t fit it. Too many on our side of the battle lines, I think, use those terms too broadly. In particular, I think we tend to throw it around too casually and stick it on someone for little reason other than guilt by association. …

… And when it comes to separation of church and state, we really need to distinguish between accomodationists and theocrats. Some people who oppose separation of church and state are theocrats who really do believe that the nation should be ruled based on Biblical law (Roy Moore, for example); most, however, are merely accomodationists, people who support non-coercive public propping up of religious belief in general. If that alone makes one a theocrat then George Washington and John Adams were both theocrats, and that’s a pretty silly claim to make.

In the comments on Ed’s post, I offered that the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative is an example of a coercive propping up of religious belief, because it’s essentially a taxpayer-funded cottage industry for proselytizing by evangelical organizations that make up the Republicans’ base. And, as a non-Christian I’m essentially forced to give financial support to evangelical Christian organizations,and as a gay man I have to support with my tax dollars organizations that discriminate against gays as a matter of policy. (The Bush administration has finally made a “tither” out of me.) If my tax dollars are being used to fund a religious organization’s efforts to convert others to their faith, and i face legal penalties if I refuse to pay my taxes, then at the very least I am compelled to fund religious activities against my will, or face legal consequences.

Ed disagreed.

I would not call this coercive, no. By non-coercive I mean that a policy does not force you to participate in any religious exercise. A government thanksgiving proclamation is also printed at government expense, but I don’t think that makes it coercive rather than accomodationist. Washington and Adams, as I’ve mentioned many times, issued innumerable such declarations because they were merely suggestive and no one was actually forced to participate. They both believed that such non-coercive support for religion was not only constitutional but very important for maintaining a virtuous society, but neither would have allowed a policy that actually required a citizen to believe something or act as though they do.

That definition leaves us without a name for some egregious attempts to legislate according to religious beliefs that don’t necessarily compel one to participate in a religious activity. Like the proposed law in South Carolina, discussed at Talk To Action, that would require pregnant women to view ultrasound images before being allowed to have an abortion.

The South Carolina House of Representatives already has passed its bill mandating forced viewing of ultrasound images. Most of the credit for that anti-freedom victory belongs to Focus on the Family, which has spent millions bankrolling ultrasound machines for about 300 crisis pregnancy center ministries that admit to using them as tools for influencing “abortion-minded” women, despite evidence that prolonged exposure to ultrasound radiation can have damaging effects [pdf link] upon a developing fetus.

But none of that matters to groups such as Focus on the Family. What matters to people like them is imposing their politico-religious fantasies upon the rest of us by force of law.

A similar effort is underfoot in Texas.

The same kinds of tactics are being used to similar effect in our state, where Texas Christian right groups — the Texas Catholic Conference, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Texas, Texas Alliance for Life, Texas Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, the Texas Conservative Coalition, Texans for Life, the Texans for Family Values PAC, The Justice Foundation and its Operation Outcry project, and FOF’s Texas outpost, the Free Market Foundation — packed an all-night House State Affairs Committee hearing on abortion-related bills last week.

Their central argument, repeated for hours by witnesses professing to speak for women, was that women are passive victims who cannot be trusted to act as their own moral agents, or to understand their own best interest.

The testimony is transcribed over at Talk To Action. But, despite the tremendous efforts of religious conservatives behind these laws, the women potentially affected by them aren’t being dragged to church or forced to participate in a religious activity. So this can’t be labeled as an attempt at theocracy? Despite the totally faith-based testimony given before (and thunderously applauded by) the Texas legislature in support of such a law?

The anti-choice efforts in Texas as as religiously based as another legislative effort Ed links to, that would require elective bible courses in Texas public schools.

Texas legislators are moving full speed ahead with a bill mandating elective Bible classes in the state’s public high schools that appears crafted to facilitate use of a fundamentalist Protestant curriculum. Jewish groups have opposed that sectarian curriculum, but they were unable to testify at a hearing scheduled during Passover.

The bill is moving at a time of heightened interest in public school Bible classes sparked by a new book advocating such courses and a Time Magazine cover story about it.

Texas House Bill 1287 requires all school districts in the state to establish “elective courses in the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras.” It also requires the use of those two books as texts.

Ed also links to a Texas Freedom Network report which says the classes are more about religious indoctrination than teaching “the bible as literature.”

In most cases the instructional materials, especially those produced or recommended by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS), betray an obvious bias toward a view of the Bible held by fundamentalist Protestants. As a result, those courses teach perspectives and interpretations of the Bible that are simply not shared by many mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews or within the scholarly community.

Examples abound (citations available in the report text and on file at TFNEF ):

1. support for a literal biblical view of a 6,000-year-old Earth, a six-day creation and the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans;

2. belief that recent events confirm that the apocalyptic return of Christ at the “end of days” is imminent;

3. promotion of Christian readings of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament passages as prophetic of Jesus;

4. suggestions that the creation story of Adam and Eve divinely ordains an inferior role for women in society; and

5. assertions that Christianity supersedes or “completes” Judaism.

Since parents are compelled to send their children to school, and kids are compelled to attend school up to a certain age, that might qualify as theocracy. But maybe not, since the courses are elective and not required. Yet, the public school system is supported by the tax dollars of Christian and non-christian citizens alike, and in the case of the latter their tax dollars would go to support and proselytize for a religion they don’t believe in and might not with to support financially.

Georgia is headed down the same road.

Georgia is poised to introduce two literature classes on the Bible in public schools next year, a move some critics say would make the state the first to take an explicit stance endorsing — and funding — biblical teachings.

… Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel for the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the curriculum approved Tuesday — like the legislation itself — is vague.

“They didn’t put in any outlines describing what they can and can’t do constitutionally,” she said. “The same traps are there for teachers who decide to teach the class.”

Some teachers might seek to include their own beliefs or be pushed by students into conversations that include religious proselytizing, Garrett said.

Theocracy? Or not?

And if not, then what?


  1. I don’t mean to argue that laws must be or should (for all Americans) be grounded in religious values. And I reject the idea that atheists or agnostics (or Buddhists or any other religious non-theists) cannot be moral because they do not have faith in God.

    What I’m saying is, when religious people enter the public sphere and ground their own policy proposals in their own religious values, that’s not necessarily theocracy. In fact, religious people can’t do anything but enact laws on the basis of the religious values, because those values inform (or should inform) all the values they hold.

    It’s a good thing for religious people to give the actual, religious basis for the policy proposals, IMO, because the alternative is to be disingenuous. Which causes all kinds of problems, because if I make up secular reasons for the law I want, a) you don’t know my real motives, motives you might strongly disagree with and want to thwart, and b) if my secular reasons prove invalid, I’ll confuse you by continuing to support the law and shifting my (secular, public) rationales over and over again.

    That said, I don’t think theocracy is a word that can never be used. I would certain describe this administration as theocratic. But what characterizes theocracy for me is the attempt to enshrine all of a religious ethic into law. I only want to enact my ethics into law when it’s actually going to help people be more moral AND when it doesn’t unduly infringe the freedom of others to exercise their religion and have independent moral agency. This administration disagrees and wants to enact their narrow religious ethic as the law of the land (hence laws against homosexuality, drugs, pornography, support for six-day creationism, etc.), and I agree with you that that’s a theocratic agenda. I just don’t agree that all the topics on the Blog Against Theocracy agenda are actually theocratic — I think some of them are better characterized as “laws based on Christian precepts that the left disagrees with”. I disagree with many of them, too, but I don’t necessarily agree they’re theocratic.

    BTW, Bush’s theocratic agenda is further proof he does not understand his own faith and frequently advocates heresy. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 5 that Christians are not meant to enforce their morality on everyone else: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” Only those inside the faith are judged by Christian standards, and even then our tradition requires that that happen in bonds of love and close brotherly/sisterly affection, not Bill Donohue-style from afar.

    Sorry for blogging in your comments. 😉

  2. What I’m saying is, when religious people enter the public sphere and ground their own policy proposals in their own religious values, that’s not necessarily theocracy. In fact, religious people can’t do anything but enact laws on the basis of the religious values, because those values inform (or should inform) all the values they hold.

    It’s a good thing for religious people to give the actual, religious basis for the policy proposals, IMO, because the alternative is to be disingenuous. Which causes all kinds of problems, because if I make up secular reasons for the law I want, a) you don’t know my real motives, motives you might strongly disagree with and want to thwart, and b) if my secular reasons prove invalid, I’ll confuse you by continuing to support the law and shifting my (secular, public) rationales over and over again.

    My main problem with that view is that it can induce religion creep, especially the way it’s currently practiced. It’s possible what I’m describing only applies to a specific subset of Evangelicals, led by Jim Wallis, but nonetheless, it’s worrying. The idea is that they seek not only to argue for public policy in their own language – i.e. to convince other Evangelicals to adopt their positions on various social and economic issues – but also to make political parties adopt that same language.

    To be more concrete, consider the Dominionist takeover of the Republican Party. Pat Robertson may have competed directly with more secular leaders, but he rested on an earlier wave that gained power differently. In the 1970s, various Evangelists, led by (I think) Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, created a very highly developed prosperity theology, which justified right-wing economics in Christian terms. Armed with that theology, they convinced Republican leaders to adopt that same language and let Evangelists who believed in it into positions of high power. Thence, they spread conservative ideas about personal morality, on which traditional conservatives such as Barry Goldwater were fairly liberal. That’s how the pro-life movement got to where it is right now.

    And, for sure, the people who are leading the Evangelical left hold the same social ideas. Jim Wallis is pro-life and anti-gay. So are many other Evangelicals who are pushing for more liberal positions on welfare, environmental protection, and criminal justice. Wallis even jabs the Democrats for being broadly pro-choice and more or less pro-gay (well, slightly less anti-gay than the Republicans, at least). He spends most of his efforts on convincing people that it’s okay to be Evangelical and Democratic, but his own views are well-known.

    So Wallis’s activism and the unnerving parallels with the religious right make me conclude that people like him could turn the Democratic Party pro-life and anti-gay and possibly even anti-science within fifteen years, if left unchecked.

  3. Alon —

    I definitely agree with you on most of the substance of your comment. Wallis irritates me to no end — I know tons of liberal religious who love the guy, but in his book he puts “secular liberals” and “liberal theologians” in the same list as child-molesting priests and Republican apologists as people who he thinks he needs to “take back the faith” from.

    As for what you term “religion creep,” I’m afraid that might be an intractable problem, at least until the United States becomes really religiously diverse. I believe it’s in everyone’s interests that people speak truthfully about their motivations, which means there will be some religious speech in the public discourse. But as long as most Americans are Christians — even if they are super-thoughtful and careful to distinguish when it is and isn’t useful to act through government/politics — there will be huge incentives for politicians to lie about their religious affiliation. I’m not sure how you reconcile those two impulses in a majority-Christian democratic country.

    You’re right, though, that solution isn’t just for more Dems to hire faith consultants. That trend makes me despair more and more about the Democratic party.