Recent books, including Kevin Phillips’ best-seller “American Theocracy,” have given serious cover to liberals’ argument that religiosity in political life is pushing us ever closer to theocratic rule. Lately, for example, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) HAS warned against the threat posed by religious believers. “There is a group of people of deep faith. I respect that faith,” he allowed. “I’ve been in enough inner-city black churches, working-class Catholic parishes, rural Methodist houses of worship, and small Jewish synagogues to understand that faith is a gift. The trouble with this group, which I call the theocrats, is they want their faith to dictate what the government does. That, in a word, is un-American.”
But from the beginning, American politics was influenced by the Bible, revering certain general principles of scriptural morality. I don’t mean that Americans ever contemplated literally applying Old Testament legislation that had been written for the ancient Jewish Commonwealth—executing Sabbath-breakers or homosexuals, for example. Rather, they respected the spirit of many of the Bible’s laws. Thus, state laws restricted commerce on Sunday, and never considered granting official approval to any marital relationship other than between a man an a woman. Anyway, this is the understanding among many contemporary conservatives, who would not regard a government official consulting his Bible for inspiration as at all sinister.
The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled around the country in 1831, reported: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.” Without religion-based morality, he argued, only government can restrain people from expending the country’s resources on vice.
Tocqueville warned, however, that if religion took too direct a role in politics, it would become a combatant in political struggles. This prophetic statement reads like a challenge to today’s religious conservatives. A glance at our contemporary political scene reveals distrust of traditional faith, verging on open hostility, coming from a certain social and educational elite particularly journalists, professors, liberal clergymen, and lay people who absorb their way of thinking.
If Tocqueville’s prophecy is taken seriously, it would suggest that the wall separating church from state has fallen into dangerous disrepair. Apparently, conservative religionists are to blame. Right?
I don’t think so. It’s true that today we are in a culture war, pitting religion against secularism. However, the real question isn’t whether America will follow Saudi Arabia and Iran down the road to outright theocratic rule--but instead, whether the very general biblical beliefs of the majority will have a say in forming our laws--a far cry from true theocracy. In this struggle, labeling your opponents “theocrats” is merely a cudgel wielded by secularists.
Christian conservatives were not, in any event, the initial aggressors in this struggle. An article in the journal “The Public Interest” by two political scientists, Louis Bolce and Gerald de Maio, reminds us of the prehistory of the culture war. The authors trace American political culture from the 1960s, asserting that the 1972 Democratic National Convention marked a decisive turning point. That year, secularists took over the Democratic Party: “Prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic Party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values.”
Does this mean that before 1972, the Democratic Party and everyone else in the country were all God-fearing religious believers? No. But the general tone of public life was deeply respectful of traditional faith. Historian and JFK biographer Thomas C. Reeves (“A Question Of Character: A Life Of John F. Kennedy”) writes of the overall “Christian” character of the culture:
“In 1955, according to Will Herberg’s classic book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” 91% of Americans were Christian (68% Protestant and 23% Catholic), 4 % were Jewish, and 5 % expressed no religious preference….during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years, government at all levels respected the faith of the vast majority of Americans…