Theocracy—some degree of rule by religion—has been an anathema in the modern United States. But the confusion over early-twenty-first-century trends can be clarified, although not resolved, by trying a simple multiple-choice question: Is theocracy in the United States (1) a legitimate fear as some liberals argue; (2) a joke, given the rising secular population, the continuing obscenity and violence from Hollywood, the brothels and gambling in Nevada, and the gay-marriage services in San Francisco; (3) a worrisome bias of several major GOP constituencies and pressure groups; or (4) all of the above? The answer, of course, is all of the above. Conservatives fixate on the provocations and ignore the excesses visible in the neo-puritan and rightist countertide, and liberals have reversed the error, keening over the religious threat while ignoring the secular provocation. The balance of danger, however, has been redefined by the momentum of the Bush-era counterattack.

To be sure, any incipient theocracy in the twenty-first-century United States would bear little resemblance to the stereotypical precedents: John Calvin’s sixteenth-century Geneva or John Winthrop’s seventeenthcentury church-run Massachusetts Bay Colony. Those, as suggested earlier, were the products of small but intense religious migrations. In a nation approaching three hundred million in population and stretching between the Atlantic and Pacific, diversity alone ensures major differences. However, we can all too plausibly contemplate a recent watershed in which fundamentalist and evangelical churches play the dominant organizational role in supporting the Republican party that other groups— business, labor, farm, pro- and antislavery—enjoyed in earlier presidential cycles. This could induce red-state Republican conventions to proclaim the United States a Christian nation, endorse antihomosexual and antiabortion amendments to the Constitution, and urge that the United States withdraw from the United Nations, which they see as an auxiliary of the antichrist. Indeed, all of this has happened.

In such a milieu, not only would the major parties group around religious attendance or secularism, but they would emphasize issues with theological importance. Public schools and textbooks would be pressured toward prayer and theological correctness on matters ranging from science and evolution to sex education, family life, and foreign policy. Governments would be urged to restrain public morality at odds with interpretations of the Bible, shifting their regulatory preoccupation away from business, the economy, or the environment to issues of life and death, sex, and family.

Candidates for Republican presidential or U.S. Supreme Court nominations would be vetted by little-known private groups like the Council for National Policy, the Family Research Council, and the Federalist Society. Senior Pentagon generals, in turn, would tour friendly churches in uniform, advancing thinly disguised endorsements of holy war in the Middle East. Books about end times and Armageddon would surge to the top of the bestseller lists and convince the television networks to undertake similar dramatic programming. U.S. delegates to global AIDS and women’s conferences would oppose contraception, offering abstinence as Washington’s solution. Fewer foreign scientists and professionals would come to the United States, while some already resident would leave. Demographers might report signs of gay influxes–cum-ghettoization in blue states like Massachusetts, New York, and California.

While it sounds a bit like political science fiction framed this way, the evidence everywhere was well in hand by 2005. Even while Democrats left in place a three-decade secularist trend in the makeup of their party cadres and conventions, Republican efforts to mobilize churches and churchgoers reached new fervor during the 2004 election campaign. According to Mark Silk, “White conservative evangelical churches have become across the South the organizational engine for the Republican party the way labor unions became the organizational engine for the Democratic party in the industrial heartland during the 1930s.” Others likened the constituency benefits of the Bush administration’s faithbased initiatives in funding public services through church-related groups to the advantages Democratic constituencies enjoyed from the Works Progress Administration outlays of the New Deal years or the war on poverty under Lyndon Johnson.

Activists on both sides see political culture wars turning into theological soul wars. Liberal evangelist Jim Wallis commented in 2004 that “we’re now in a debate for the heart and soul of what it means to be religious and political.” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention observed that “a fault line ran through the denominations . . . with moral absolutists on the one hand versus those who see shades of gray on the other. Religion’s role is increasing and will only continue to increase.” To conservative Dr. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America, the religious gap “really is a divide along faith lines, I think. It’s a divide that says there are human solutions to our problems and there are faithbased solutions.”