Theocons and Theocrats
The Bible, Theology and American Politics
This is a bit of a chicken-versus-egg situation. Have the issues that matter most to Americans become more theological because religion has become more of a political force--or has the growth of issues with a religious dimension spurred the increasing religious divisions? Probably some of each, but the list is frighteningly long.
First and foremost are the issues involving birth, life, death, sex, health, medicine, marriage and the role of the family--high-octane subject matter since the 1970s. These are areas where perceived immorality most excites stick-to-Scripture advocates and the religious right. Closely related is the commitment by the Bush White House and the religious right to reduce the current separation between church and state.
Topics such as natural resources, climate, global warming, resource depletion, environmental regulation and petroleum geology mark out a third important arena. Organizations such as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty have enlisted a fair amount of conservative religious and corporate support for preparing what amounts to a pro-business, pro-development explanation of Christian stewardship. The institute's director, Roman Catholic Father Robert Sirico, contends that left-tilting environmentalism is idolatrous in its substitution of nature for God, giving the Christian environmental movement a "perhaps-unconscious pagan nature."
Then there is the subject matter of business, economics and wealth, in which the tendency of the Christian right is to oppose regulation and justify wealth and relative laissez-faire, tipping its hat to the upper-income and corporate portions of the Republican coalition. Christian Reconstructionists go even further, abandoning most economic regulation in order to prepare the moral framework for God's return.
The last arena of theological influence, almost as important as sex, birth and mortality, involves American foreign policy, bringing us to the connections among the "war on terror," the rapture, the end times, Armageddon and the thinly disguised US crusade against radical Islam. Since Islam and Christianity began fighting in the seventh century, the Holy Land has often brought disillusionment: after the Crusades (all nine of them); after the fall of Constantinople in 1453; and five centuries later for the British, in particular, after World War I. Unmindful Western nations may still be playing out the Crusader hand. In the months before George W. Bush sent US troops into Iraq, his inspirational reading each morning was a book of sermons by a Scottish preacher accompanying troops about to march on Jerusalem in 1917.
Controversies over life and death--often pivoting on precise definitions of each--can only continue to burgeon. The arguable rights of women (or parents) are being displaced by the rights of embryos or by the prerogative of sperm and egg to join, decisions rooted largely in theology, not science. Perhaps the preoccupation involves maximizing the potential soul count for the hereafter, in the manner of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century inquisitors who ordered that heretics must die even if they repented, yet pursued repentance to save their souls first.
The theology of death is cloudier and also riskier politically. Although Bush took a bold and ultimately unpopular stand in the Terri Schiavo case, bending over backward to insist on continuing her life support, blocking death is not the theological equivalent of enabling birth. The Bible abounds with the killing of those already born, both by God and by lawful authorities. Bush himself, as governor of Texas, sent hundreds of prisoners to the electric chair.