Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Theocrats among us

J. Nathan Matias recently (well, a couple weeks back now; I've been mulling this response for a while) posted a long and thoughtful meditation on the possibility of reconciling religious faith and a commitment to democratic ideals of equality and tolerance. To his credit, Matias has little trouble finding a balancing point between the two (for him, it can be found in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson). However, in his attempt to build a bridge across the current political fissure between religious/Right and secular/Left by attributing it to a refusal of both sides to communicate strikes me as very naive and potentially dangerous.

In particular, Matias takes issue with (liberal) complaints that America is being transformed into a theocracy by the religious right.

I have never met a Christian who believed that people should suffer 'on account of [their] religious opinions or beliefs.' In fact, even the most intolerant Christians I know are firm supporters of equality of religious freedom....
One might look to the evangelical movement. But people from that movement seem very tolerant. In fact, many evangelicals won't settle for mere tolerance, advocating kindness toward people with different views, backgrounds, and lifestyles....
People who think that American thought is being invaded by theocrats must not get out much.

I believe he is right about the views of people within his acquaintance, and I understand the dismay that a person of sincere faith (which I believe Matias to be) would feel at being called a theocrat. I also concede that among some liberal secularists there is a knee-jerk dismissal of religion that is its own form of intolerance. However, if he really sees no evidence of a surge in intolerance in Christian America, I can only say that it is Matias who is not getting out enough.

The spectre of theocracy is not just a liberal bogeyman. Liberal "fearmongering" did not invent any of the following events (among others):

  • Last summer, then-Cardinal (now Pope) Joseph Ratzinger advised American bishops that a pro-choice politician (read: presidential candidate John Kerry) "would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion." (Salon, 4/21/2005). Numerous bishops made public announcements that they would deny communion to abortion supporters.
  • Last month, Senator Bill Frist and other conservatives joined in "Justice Sunday": a rally against Democratic opposition to Bush's judicial nominees organized through a Louisville mega-church and simulcast to other churches nationwide (CNN, 4/25/05).
  • Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson's latest book claims that Democratic judicial appointments are the most serious threat America has ever faced and "are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together," a view he reaffirmed on national television just last week (Media Matters for America, 5/2/2005). Earlier this year, Robertson claimed that God told him that He "will remove judges from the Supreme Court quickly" so they could be replaced by more conservative justices (Media Matters for America, 1/4/2005).
  • A North Carolina Baptist minister is excommunicating members of his church for not supporting George Bush. "During last Sunday's sermon, he acknowledged that church members were upset because he named people, and he says he'll do it again because he has to according to the word of God" (AP, via Dowbrigade News).

What other name can we give these incidents than theocracy? They all go beyond defending one's personal freedom of conscience (which is the democratic ideal), and even beyond condemning others for not adhering to one's own standard of morals (which is not very tolerant, but often understandable). In each cases, religious leaders and conservative politicians are collaborating to assert that their religious beliefs and the nation's legal policies must be identical. In other words, they insist that all Americans be forced to submit to one sect's moral and religious dogmas.

Obviously, not all religious people feel this way, but this theocratic impulse goes beyond a the grandstanding of a few demagogues and political opportunists. It may not be present in Matias's community ("Maybe it's just a northeast thing..." he speculates, and I suspect it is), but over the past dozen years living in the South, I know that religious hatred is very much alive. The strain of Christianity practiced by many here in rural Kentucky is not the tolerant, diversity-embracing faith of Jefferson. Around here you can hear people seriously say that Jews cannot be trusted because they "don't believe in God," that Catholics "aren't Christians," or that the tsunami in Southern Asia was God's punishment against Muslims "for killing Christians." People here have signs in their yards supporting the posting of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and will happily tell you that "America is a Christian nation." This is not tolerance, and certainly not "kindness towards people with different views"; it is simple, ignorant bigotry. People who believe these things are not interested in democracy; they only want to impose their own, narrow, unquestioned beliefs on everybody else.

I am all for mutual understanding, but in the face of such extremism, I don't think there can be any dialogue or compromise. There is no hypocrisy in taking this position. I am not intolerant of (though I am unsympathetic to) their beliefs. They may continue to believe that God hates homosexuals, that women were created inferior to men, that blacks are the accursed sons of Ham, or that the world was created just over 6000 years ago. They may continue to shout these beliefs from their pulpits and tell me that I am damned to Hell for not agreeing with them. However, when they start making laws and stacking the courts with the purpose of forcing me to believe what they believe, they cross the line between the free exercise of religion and religious oppression. More importantly, in doing so, they are repudiating the freedoms embodied by the Constitution and the ideals for which America is supposed to stand.

Sadly, Christian theocrats are are very real, very active, and a very serious threat to American democracy. If reasonable people of faith like Matias want the sympathy and cooperation of people like myself, they need to acknowledge this threat and reject it without equivocation. Then we can talk.