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.
So are the political careers of Pat Robertson and John Ashcroft, two presidential aspirants whose careers were milestones in the theocratization of the Republican Party. Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid brought huge numbers of Pentecostals into the Republican Party. Missouri Senator Ashcroft, who explored a presidential race in 1997-98, got much of his funding from Robertson and other evangelicals. Picked as Attorney General by Bush after the 2000 election, Ashcroft was the choice of the religious right. Earlier in his career Ashcroft had decried the wall between church and state as “a wall of religious oppression,” and his memoir describes each of his many electoral defeats as a crucifixion and every important political victory as a resurrection, and recounts scenes in which he had friends and family anoint him with oil in the manner “of the ancient kings of Israel.”
But the national political emergence of Bush was equally relevant. “Born again” during the mid-1980s, he came up during the same period and in the same intense mode. As Newsweek noted in 2003, “As a subaltern in his father’s 1988 campaign, George Bush the Younger assembled his career through contacts with ministers of the then emerging evangelical movement in political life. Now they form the core of the Republican Party, which controls all of the capital for the first time in a half century. Bible-believing Christians are Bush’s strongest backers.”
More telling still, in the years since 1988 dozens of reports have quoted Bush the Younger telling ministers, supporters and foreign officials that God wanted him to run for President and that God speaks through him. In mid-2004 one Pennsylvania newspaper reported his telling a local Amish audience, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” Reports that he told Middle Eastern leaders that God told him to invade Iraq have been denied by the White House, but this is clearly the sort of language he uses from time to time.
Since Robertson’s run for the White House in 1988 and the victory that same year by Bush the Elder, the Republican Party has clearly moved closer to this constituency–and the process was speeded by Bill Clinton, whose politics and personal conduct offended the churchgoing South, in particular, enabling George W. Bush to pose as the standard-bearer of moral restoration in 2000. This metamorphosis gained further momentum after September 11, 2001, when the younger Bush responded to the terrorist attacks by declaring the start of a war between good and evil, speaking in a relentlessly religious idiom that several biblical scholars have described as double-coding–only mildly religious on the surface, but beneath that full of allusions to biblical passages and Christian hymns. They, too, suggested that Bush cast himself as a prophet of sorts–one who spoke for God.
The upshot of this escalating religiosity on the part of the Republican national leadership has been an escalating and parallel religiosity on the part of the Republican rank and file. Those voting Republican for President since 1988 have become increasingly religious in motivation. After 9/11 pro-Bush preachers described Bush as God’s chosen man while hinting that Saddam Hussein, whose Iraq was the biblical “New Babylon” of fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye’s eerie Left Behind series, was the Antichrist or at least the forerunner of the Evil One. In 2004 a further wave of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal turnout helped to cement the Republican transformation, even as moderate mainline Protestants shuddered and turned in a small Democratic trend between 2000 and 2004.
As early as 1988, Ohio academician John Green, a specialist in religious political behavior, had commented on how the growing correlation between frequent church attendance and Republican presidential voting was starting to raise a US parallel to the religious parties of Europe, most notably the Christian Democrats in Germany and Italy. By 2000-04, this correlation was much stronger, and political journalists began to speak of the “religious gap” that was replacing the “gender gap.” The less discussed but even more significant aspect of this upheaval lay in a second set of polls that showed the increasingly theocratic inclinations of the Republican electorate (see chart).
These sentiments did not spring from nowhere. A majority of Americans take the Bible literally in many dimensions, including subjects ranging from the creation and Noah’s Ark to the Book of Revelation. Within the ranks of Republican voters, the ratios are lopsided. For example, in 1999 a national poll by Newsweek revealed that 40 percent of American Christians believed in Armageddon and virtually as many thought the Antichrist was already alive. Because such believers were most numerous in the Republican electorate, I would calculate that roughly 55 percent of Bush 2004 voters believed in Armageddon–and it could be higher.
Such voters are especially prone to theocratic views, and foreign policy is by no means immune. In 2004 a survey by the Pew Center found that 55 percent of white evangelical Protestants consider “following religious principles” to be a top priority for foreign policy. Only a quarter of Catholics and mainline Protestants agreed, but given the makeup of the Bush coalition, I would guess that about half its voters would favor that position. This explains both why so many of Bush’s core supporters cheered the first-stage US involvement in Iraq–and why Bush bungled things in the Holy Land so badly.
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.
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.
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.