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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  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    “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.”

    Whoa. Fairness. Evenhandedness. Reciprocity. What a “strange” concept. I doubt the religious Left will be able to grasp such an odd beast. And yet, the clarity of that statement seems easy enough for some of us to understand.

    The hysterical, feverish rantings of the rabid Left about a “theocracy” and a “takeover” would be funny, if so many people didn’t take them seriously.

    The evidence seems far more weighted in favor of a radically religiously-cleansed SECULARIST State being imposed on the rest of us (perversely, often using the West’s “diversity” as a reason.)

  • Scott

    But if you’re a libertarian who sees both the Christian left and right as wanting theocracy of a sort, the ‘hyprocrite’ charge (although accurate against the left) doesn’t absolve the right. Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell are both evangelicals, in that they’ve both blown off voluntary conversion in favor of forcing people to act in the way they both think Jesus wants them to – even if they disagree on what that is. That doesn’t make them political allies, but they do share a particularly disgusting feature of American Evangelicalism.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did

    What, it can’t be both?

    Is Douthat claiming that Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol weren’t students of Leo Strauss, or that they had nothing to do with getting is into Iraq?

    It’s also a bit odd that Douthat dismisses, in his second paragraph, the “moral values” poll results, but doesn’t point out (perhaps he doesn’t know) that The Economist refuted the whole notion that an unusually large number of Americans were driven by “moral values” at the polls in 2004. That percentage has actually been dropping for the past three presidential elections — there were more “values voters” when Clinton got re-elected than for either of Bush’s two victories.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam

    Avram, I believe that is Douthat’s point, that the moral values voters did not drive the 2004 election. I don’t see why he should have to cite another magazine’s research to prove that. The Economist is hardly the only publication to show that trend.

  • Harris

    Oh for such glorious fun writing as “Christian Reconstructionists—the acolytes of the late R.J. Rushdoony—who are genuine theocrats, of a sort, and who also rank somewhere between the Free Mumia movement and the Spartacist Youth League on the totem pole of political influence in America.”

    A great smack-down. By way of a plug, Douthat’s young-Harvard-graduate blog-zine, American Scene has some rather interesting discussions on themes conservative, cultural and religious.

  • Katie

    I wonder if you can imagine my surprise when I saw the picture displayed for this “Theocracy” article – it’s the album cover of an underground progressive/power metal band from Athens, Georgia! Lest you imagine anything like Slipknot or Korn, check out the website: http://www.theocracymusic.com/index.php and note that Christian Metal Realm polls have placed it in the top ten of Christian Metal albums. Pretty awesome stuff that will blow any stereotypes about metal away. [/music plug]

    On a slightly more relevant note, my high school had Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale on the summer reading list. My teacher emphasized that Atwood sought to extrapolate the Christian Right’s presence in the Republican Party to its “chilling and logical conclusion,” as one reviewer claimed. Yes, organized rape to solve fertility problems is in our future thanks to Bush and Reagan. *shakes head* On the other hand, I loved Atwood’s clever use of word puns.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Daniel, I don’t care who he cites. I mentioned The Economist because that’s the one source I’m familiar with. I just would have liked him to actually refute the claim rather than just dismissing it. If I’d been his editor, I’d have left a little red scribble in the margin next to that paragraph.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam

    Avram, fair enough, but I actually see it the other way around. I’m sure Ross is quite familiar with the evidence against the supposed ground swell of morality voters. The Atlantic has written about it in several articles. If I were his editor and he included a graph or two in an already long article, repeating what is already commonly known, I would have asked him to summarize succinctly. Sure, his dismissal was a bit terse, but there were bigger arguments to be made in the piece.

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