Is theocracy in the United States (1) a legitimate fear, as some liberals argue; (2) a joke, given the nation’s rising secular population and moral laxity; (3) a worrisome bias of major GOP constituencies and pressure groups; or (4) all of the above? The last, I would argue.
The characteristics are not inconsistent. No large nation–no leading world power–could ever resemble theocracies like John Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan Massachusetts or early Mormon Utah. These were all small polities produced by unusual migrations of true believers.
As a great power, a large heterogeneous nation like the United States goes about as far in a theocratic direction as it can when it meets the unfortunate criteria on display in George W. Bush’s Washington: an elected leader who believes himself in some way to be speaking for God; a ruling party that represents religious true believers and seeks to mobilize the nation’s churches; the conviction of many rank-and-file Republicans that government should be guided by religion and religious leaders; and White House implementation of domestic and international political agendas that seem to be driven by religious motivations and biblical worldviews.
As several chapters in American Theocracy make clear, this kind of religious excess has been a problem–indeed, a repeating Achilles’ heel–of leading powers from late-stage Rome (historian Gibbon thus explained Roman decline and fall) to the militant Catholicism of Habsburg Spain and most recently the evangelical and moral imperialist Britain that saw 1914 as something of an Armageddon against the German Kaiser’s Antichrist and wound up in 1917-18 crusading in the Middle East to liberate Jerusalem. But although this facet of historical decline constitutes a major caution regarding the future of the United States, this essay will concentrate on the domestic political aspects–the theocratic tendencies in the GOP and the notable “religification” of American politics across a spectrum from life and death to science and medicine to climate change and biblical creationism.
The Growth of Theocratic Sentiment
The essential US conditions for a theocratic trend fell into place in the late 1980s and ’90s with the growing mass of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christianity, expressed politically by the religious right; and the rise of the Republican Party as a powerful vehicle for religious policy-making and eventual erosion of the accepted degree of separation between church and state. This transformation was most vivid at the state level, where fifteen to twenty state Republican parties came under the control of the religious right, and party conventions in the South and West endorsed so-called “Christian nation” platforms. As yet nationally uncatalogued–a shortfall that cries out for a serious research project–these platforms set out in varying degrees the radical political theology of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, ranging from the Bible as the basis for domestic law to an emphasis on religious schools and women’s subordination to men. The 2004 platform of the Texas Republican Party is a case in point.