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Theocons and Theocrats | The Nation

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Theocons and Theocrats

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The next throbbing cluster of issues involves church-state relations. The nonradical theocon wing of the GOP demands a more conservative judiciary and an expanded role for religion in education, social services and the constraining of what they consider to be immoral behavior--abortion, homosexuality, pornography and contraception--but avoids spelling out any grand revolutionary mandate. The Christian Reconstructionist movement, by contrast, proclaims ambitions that range from replacing public schools with religious education to imposing biblical law and limiting the franchise to male Christians.

This
article was adapted from Kevin Phillips's latest book, American Theocracy, just
published by Viking.

About the Author

Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips has been an author and commentator for four decades.

Also by the Author

When it comes to mixing God and government, conservatives differ greatly from the rest of the electorate.

John Kerry can win, given George W. Bush's incompetence, and White House strategists realize that.

The federal judiciary is the arena in which the battles most critical to incipient theocrats will be fought out judge by judge, court by court. Signs of their anxiety to control the federal judiciary burst into view in an early 2005 meeting at which conservative evangelical leaders were addressed by Tom DeLay and Senate majority leader Bill Frist. The focus of the strategy session was how to strip funding or jurisdiction from federal courts, or even eliminate them. James Dobson of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family named one target: the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. "Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court," Dobson commented. "All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn't exist anymore, and it's gone." A spokesman for Frist said he did not agree with the idea of defunding courts or shutting them down, but DeLay, who had once said, "We set up the courts. We can unset the courts," declined to comment.

Beyond the judiciary, pressure for theological correctness became overt in federal government relationships with the varieties of science--from climatology to geology, and even entomology--that can conflict with the Book of Genesis. For the growing number of elected officials who uphold Genesis, the Almighty, not carbon dioxide, brings about climate change. The consequences here go far beyond the evolution-doubting books being sold by the National Park Service or inconvenient information about climate change or caribou habitats in oil lands being deleted from government websites. In Texas, where the cotton industry is plagued by a moth in which an immunity to pesticides has evolved, a frustrated entomologist commented, "It's amazing that cotton growers are having to deal with these pests in the very states whose legislatures are so hostile to the theory of evolution. Because it is evolution they are struggling against in their fields every season." Meanwhile, the bigger message--depressingly reminiscent of our imperial predecessors--is that science in the United States is already in trouble. Irving Weissman, a stem-cell researcher, told the Boston Globe, "You are going to start picking up Nature and Science and all the great [research] journals, and you are going to read about how South Koreans and Chinese and Singaporeans are making advances that the rest of us can't even study."

Part of the explanation involves the religious right's larger view of economic matters and dismantling of government. In the radical Texas Republican platform adopted in 2004, the Lone Star GOP was not content to call for abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department; it also demanded abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and elimination of the income tax, the inheritance tax, the gift tax, the capital-gains levy, the corporate income tax, the payroll tax and state and local property taxes.

Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention adherents and others oppose government social and economic programs because they interfere with a person's individual responsibility for his or her salvation. Others were diverted by rapture and end-times possibilities. "Overall, this kind of teaching has certainly stifled social consciousness among evangelicals," said Tim Weber, professor of church history at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. "If Jesus may come at any minute, then long-term social reform or renewal are beside the point. It has a bad effect there."

These are divisive issues, and they divide both parties, but survey data suggest that they divide the Republicans somewhat more than the Democrats. True, liberals were front and center in trying to shrink the role of religion in the public square, and they have paid the price. However, the more important confrontation is now within the GOP, as the essential tensions shift from the unpopular derogation of religion so prevalent decades ago to the theologization and theocratic excesses of the conservative countertide.

Three prominent Republicans have staked out the boundaries. Former Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri complained in 2005 that "the only explanation for legislators comparing cells in a petri dish to babies in a womb is the extension of religious doctrine into statutory law." Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee suggested that George W. Bush's "I carry the word of God" posture ought to be a 2004 election issue. And Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut regretted that "the Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."

Unhappily, that's the direction in which it's been trending.

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