May 2, 2005
This Side of Theocracy
Martin E. Marty
In last week's U.S. News & World Report, Michael Barone reassured readers that the United States is not "headed toward a theocracy .... [W]hether the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy is actually a silly question" ("Faith in Our Future?" April 25, 2005). He went on to claim that religion is a more up-front public and political item than it was a few years ago -- something Sightings consistently points out. He then delivers a low blow, charging that secular liberalism in Europe produced non-benign offspring, namely, "fascism and communism [which] destroyed millions of lives before they were extinguished." Meanwhile, "we" are religious and therefore benign. That verbal swing aside, Barone is correct: We are probably not destined to become the predominantly secular society that liberals foresaw.
Among the reflexive minimizers of threats to a long-vibrant republic, I am also cautious about applying the term "theocracy" to where we are directly headed, but not assured by Barone's word that "no religion is going to impose laws on an unwilling Congress or the people of this country." Is that how it would work? For example, the vast majority of Americans want more legislation against assault rifles and other military-level armament now easily available. But one of America's religions, ritualized and represented by the National Rifle Association, effectively lobbies and controls legislatures, "imposing laws." Why? Few running for office want to risk losing 10 percent of their potential supporters over guns.
That's how the system works, and it's quite legal. What the people who whisper or shout "theocracy!" worry about is the power of religious minorities to lobby, form political combinations, gain access to legislators, and the like -- to "impose laws." Again, this is all basically legal. What does one do in the face of this potential, which is short of theocracy but acts "in the name of God" -- a God whose will such factions clearly know, and on whose claims they have a monopoly?
One response comes from deep in our past, in the optimistic Madisonian Federalist Paper X: "... a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source ...."
Federalist Paper LI asserts: "In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects ...."
In recent months, voices have risen from others among "the multiplicity of sects" -- "others" referring to those who are less often heard and seen in headlines and on prime-time than those who really do pitch for a theocracy as their ultimate goal. The revived responders had been passive, caught off guard, perhaps weary from their battles decades ago when they had a voice and used it.
If they now reenter the fray, this mix of many Catholics, Jews, Protestants, evangelicals, and religious experimenters who are so often written off as "secularists" may help pose a more representative array of religious voices -- and, be assured, they will take their knocks. That's politics, still this side of theocracy.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.