My Take on Theocracy

My Take on Theocracy April 7, 2007

Many prominent blogs, including many people I consider allies and colleagues, are participating this weekend in the Blogswarm Against Theocracy. It’s a worthwhile project, of course, and I applaud the effort in general. However, at the risk of being accused of indulging in a self-aggrandizing iconoclasm, I’m going to take a slightly different tack. I’d like to take the opportunity to deliver a word of caution to people with whom I am generally allied in the fight against theocracy to avoid the kind of simplistic over-generalizing that we fight against and object to when it’s engaged in by our opponents.

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. I learned this lesson myself a couple years ago when I falsely labeled Herb Titus a reconstructionist.

Herb Titus used to be the dean of Pat Robertson’s law school at Regent University. I had heard stories that he was fired because Robertson was trying to distance himself from Christian reconstructionists (that story came from Sara Diamond, a prominent anti-theocracy writer). I mentioned that story on this blog and was surprised to find out that one of my regular readers, who is an atheist, is good friends with Titus. And through a now-mutual friend, I got to go on a radio show with Titus and we began communicating after that. Turns out that story is false and that Titus is not a reconstructionist at all.

After appearing on the radio show with Herb, we had the opportunity to communicate. He also began communicating with Jon Rowe, who had also written that he was a reconstructionist. Herb was kind enough to send me copies of several articles and a book he’s written on the subject and they show that he rejects reconstructionism, largely on theological grounds, and that his views, while I still disagree with them strongly, are not reasonably labeled that way.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly disagree with most of his positions on most issues (though not all of them). I find some of them quite disturbing. But he’s not a theocrat, nor a reconstructionist. That he sometimes speaks at conferences with Gary DeMar and other actual theocrats does not make him one and we should be careful about glossing over genuine distinctions and differences of opinion even, perhaps especially, among those whose views we oppose.

Sometimes the overly broad generalizations turn into the absolutely absurd. For instance, I have seen several writers just casually combine theocracy with libertarian ideas. I presume they do this because some theocrats, like Gary North, like to call themselves “Christian libertarians.” I’ve seen them claim that libertarians are somehow in league with theocrats to destroy democracy. This despite the fact that libertarians actually tend to be atheists and that theocrats are the furthest thing from libertarians.

I also don’t think we should use the term theocrat to describe all conservative Christians, evangelicals or fundamentalists; that is simply painting with too broad a brush. A theocrat is someone who wants the country to be ruled by the rules of a particular religion, in this country nearly always Christian of course. It’s reasonable, even necessary in my view, to fight against the views held by many conservative Christians; I do so constantly on this blog. But while people like Joe Carter and David Heddle may be conservative evangelicals, and I may disagree with them on most things, they certainly are not theocrats or dominionists, and it’s not reasonable to lump them in with the RJ Rushdoonys of the world.

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.

By over-generalizing we run the risk of ruining the word theocrat when it really does apply and becoming like the boy who cried wolf. Just because someone thinks the phrase “in God we trust” should be on the money doesn’t mean they think we should be stoning homosexuals to death or imprisoning people for blasphemy. The vast majority of people who support such incidental government support for religion, I have no doubt, would be appalled by the idea of replacing the civil and criminal law of the land with the Mosaic law.

So that is my plea to those I know and to those I don’t who are engaged in these culture war battles with me. Please be careful when using such terms and not apply them too broadly. We need not fall into the same trap that so many of our opponents do when they regularly paint anyone who disagrees with them as Satan-worshiping communists out to destroy Christianity. Save those labels for those they really fit so that we can preserve their meaning and engage our opponents with more intellectual seriousness than they often engage us with. There are real theocrats out there, some of whom have access to power, and they must be fought. But we do not help our cause in that fight by draining the relevance and meaning out of our rhetoric through overuse and false application.

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