October 30, 2006
— Martin E. Marty
Let's settle this issue about "theocracy" in America once and for all — or at least for this week. Is the Christian Right, from its Catholic-minority, evangelical, Pentecostal, fundamentalist flanks over to some African American church fronts, aiming to move beyond the practice of exerting influence on particular policies, all the way to reconstituting "Constitutional" America into a God-ruled empire which privileges the Right, demonizes the "other," and seeks monopoly?
The evangelical flagship journal Christianity Today — happy fiftieth birthday, CT! — in its November issue twice takes up this theme: "No Theocracy Here" and "Theocracy, Anyone?" are the headings. Douglas LeBlanc, commenting on Jeffery L. Sheler's fair-minded book Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America, is pointed: "Several hysterical books of recent vintage have turned evangelical Protestantism into a theocracy-loving ... fundamentalist freak show." Also, an unsigned editorial quotes author Robin Meyers, who observes the Christian Right "close to realizing their vision of heaven on earth: an American theocracy," and sees Mel White accusing them of trying to turn our "democracy into a theocracy," quoting an unnamed critic who says the Christian conservatives are "hankering for a 'homogeneous theocracy.'" In sum: "Theocracy is surely one of the most explosive labels in contemporary American rhetoric." The editors do admit that many evangelical Christians have indeed "compromised [a] gospel truth," and that authors of many "anti-theocracy books" are not beside the mark when they cite some who compromise Christian witness when they aim to undercut pluralistic democracy.
Last week, for the tenth anniversary of Virginia Wesleyan College's Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, I decided to bring myself up to date, clear my mind, and "persuade" an audience that we do not yet have a theocracy. While many on the Christian Right aspire to promote one — as revealed in the slogan "take America back," whose aim we all understand — as I read dictionary definitions and referenced historical analogies, it again became clear to me that using the "explosive label" theocracy may be counterproductive for those who caution against a realized theocracy.
Worse, from this viewpoint, such use can benumb and paralyze those who find such tendencies observable among some spokespersons and in many overt political actions. The "anti-theocrats" may fail then aptly to counter-attack. In my first graduate school course fifty-two years ago, Jerald C. Brauer, expert on Puritanism, set us on a scholarly course as he spoke of "the theocratic tendency in American life." That "tendency" is what we on occasion have observed in history, and what we live with today.
What to do in response and reaction? James Madison, in Federalist Papers 10 and 51, provided a clue. "A religious sect [or coalition] may degenerate into a political faction." But Madison noted or hoped that "the variety of sects" or "the multitude of interests" could counter this in a republic. They will do so better if they avoid explosive terms and speak with conceptual propriety about "tendencies."
Madison would counsel against using explosive labels, but would propose responses in the form of counter-organization and argument, lest theocracy be realized in a move fatal to a republic and freedom.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.