2016-07-27
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.”

Under Bush, this new political theology also began to reshape America’s dialogue with the rest of the world. Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president, added that “the clash between those who believe and those who don’t believe will be a dominant aspect of relations [between the United States and Europe] in the coming years.” Dominique Moisi, another well-known commentator, shed light on the U.S.-European divergence: “The combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening. We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare.”

Within the United States, the religious mobilization of 2004 was extraordinary. In the South voting by regular church attenders soared, partly because Republicans sought high November turnout among the faithful to ensure against another failure to carry the national popular vote as in 2000. Supposedly tight states, such as Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas, turned out not to be. However, in the spring, as tight races became likely between Bush and Kerry in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, the Bush campaign and its religious allies had stepped up their efforts. In June GOP e-mails leaked to the press describing how Bush forces planned to enlist churches around the nation in distributing political information and registering voters. In Pennsylvania the Bush-Cheney campaign sought “to identify 1,600 friendly congregations where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis.” Even Richard Land thought that went too far, and the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State, observed, “I never thought that anyone could so attempt to meld a political party with a network of religious organizations.”

However, this was only the tip of a large iceberg, and the administration’s religious allies were often out in front rather than waiting for instructions. According to a postelection analysis by The Washington Post, “national religious leaders, and their lawyers, also made a concerted effort to persuade pastors to disregard the warnings of secular groups about what churches can and cannot do in the political arena.” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which was launched in the 1990s by Pat Robertson, advised in a mailing to forty-five thousand churches that “short of endorsing a candidate by name from the pulpit, they were free to do almost anything,” and he later told the Post that “thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election, and that many went further than they ever had before.”

Catholics were a particular target across several states in the industrial belt. Overall, the GOP campaign appointed fifty thousand Catholic “team leaders” at the local level, and while meeting with the Pope in June “Bush asked the Vatican to push the American Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues, especially a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.” During the summer, the National Catholic Reporter posted a story on its Web site that the Republican National Committee had asked pro-Bush Catholics to provide its Catholic outreach unit with copies of their parish directories to help identify potential supporters.

In Ohio Bush’s share of the Catholic vote rose from 50 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004. The jump was greater still in rural and small-town German Catholic centers, a century ago Ohio’s top Democratic strongholds. Mercer and Putnam, the state’s two most heavily Catholic counties, went three to one for Bush in 2004, his top percentages.

Warren County, in southwest Ohio, touted for its outer-suburban GOP gains, also had a religious factor at work. According to a 2000 religious census, Southern Baptists were the most numerous Protestant denomination there, one of only six such Ohio counties. (The six were Butler, Greene, Montgomery, Pike, Preble, and Warren.) Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestant evangelicals, and fundamentalists were vital in Ohio to offset the Democratic gains from high black turnout in the Cleveland area and from uneasy mainline Protestants and Yankee suburbanites in the Cleveland metropolitan area. The GOP weakness in Greater Cleveland—the onetime “Western Reserve” of Connecticut—and reliance on the German and southern-settled areas reversed the geography of Ohio’s post–Civil War party coalitions.

John Green, the Ohio-based religious-voting expert, explained the centrality of the Midwest as a religious crossroads and melting pot: “One reason why Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are so competitive is that they . . . have a lot of ‘centrist’ groups.” Groups that he puts into this category include Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists. Green also explained Iowa’s shift from Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004 by indicating that “close to a third of the voters this time were white born-again Protestants,” reflecting their large turnout. Bush’s big gains over 2000 came in western Iowa, mostly in counties with unusual concentrations of holiness or German-Dutch Reformed denominations. Not coincidentally, Iowa is where Pat Robertson surprised and beat the elder George Bush in the 1988 GOP presidential caucuses. In 2004, the Bush family profited from the high churchgoer participation so discomfiting sixteen years earlier.

Nor did the politico-religious mobilization end there. New plans were quickly afoot in pivotal Ohio. By early 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention, already a force in southwestern Ohio, announced that metropolitan Cleveland had been selected as its one national “Strategic Focus City” for 2006–2007. Backed by a budget of $2.5 million, thousands of volunteers from all over the country would converge to help win converts and start new churches. Before long, local Christian conservatives announced the Ohio Restoration Project, a plan to marshal evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic leaders as so-called Patriot Pastors to take control of the Republican party and elect a born-again governor in 2006.

While this stops short of a merger of church and state, the potential for important constituencies to nudge the Republican party in a theocratic direction has a little-heralded historic dimension. Several of its vital denominational allies exemplify a political closeness to government. The Southern Baptist Convention, as we have seen, is regarded by some as more or less the unofficial state church in Dixie. Indeed, studies suggest that northerners moving to the South frequently join it, not least Newt Gingrich, the former Pennsylvanian. Moreover, since the 1990s the SBC’s moderate-liberal opposition faction has criticized the dominant conservatives for getting too close to Washington and soft-pedaling the church’s historic commitment to separation of church and state. One SBC moderate-liberal, Will D. Campbell, wrote a novel—The Convention (1988)—“in which the SBC is renamed the Federal Baptist Church and is by the end of the book indistinguishable from a political party.”

The major Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, has worked closely with the Republicans ever since the Robertson presidential campaign, perhaps reflecting Robertson’s own disdain for churchstate separation. His Pentecostal allies, as noted earlier, pushed blatantly theocratic resolutions at state Republican conventions. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a dedicated Assemblies of God layman, became a particular target for proponents of strict church-state separation because of the new Justice Department units and policies he developed as George W. Bush’s first attorney general.

The church history of the Mormons, in turn, could fill a book—and often has—with what one chronicler summed up as “its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, ‘secret oaths,’ open canon, economic communalism and theocratic politics.” The Church of the Latter Day Saints was the last U.S. regional theocracy, continuing that way into the early twentieth century, and the title of its president—officially “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator”—still reflects that heritage. Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, emphasizes that over the last hundred years the Mormons did much more than survive: “The Latter-Day Saints created a de facto establishment of religion in the inner mountain West that continues to this day.” The Mormon analogy that Baptist-watching historian Paul Harvey sees, not surprisingly, is to the parallel accomplishments of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Finally, the two major Lutheran denominations also tap a tradition of accommodating state power. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, archconservative and “corporatist,” regarded theirs as the one true church, followed the word of the Bible, upheld male authority, kept the German language as long as they could, and separated themselves from other faiths through parochial schools and church-related organizations. The evangelical Lutherans, as we have seen, came together in several stages from the multiplicity of German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish Lutheran churches of the upper Midwest, many of which were offshoots of state churches in the old country. Door County, Wisconsin, has enough of an Icelandic fishing community to support an Icelandic Lutheran church.

The SBC, Mormon, and Lutheran churches are the three Protestant denominations in the United States with the sort of strong regional preeminence that in itself breeds a powerful clerical closeness to everyday community governance and political authority. It is in their core strongholds—places like the west Texas Bible Belt, Greater Utah, and the northern plains—that U.S. churches have their highest ratios of adherence. Community pressure and conformity would be substantial. It is no coincidence that the geography of the three denominations is also a religious map of the Republican party’s churchgoing ascendancy, as displayed in map 4.

The rise of the religious right has been yet another force for potential theocracy. Its intense political motivation pivots, in part, on genuine belief that religion must regain the place in the public life that it enjoyed in the early days of the Republic, when Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire lawfully maintained established (Congregational) churches. But the challenge of such a restoration, many feel, is so huge that gaining sway over government is necessary to rebuild that religious component. This, in one of its harsher forms, is the premise of Christian Reconstructionism, a radical theology that will be examined in chapter 7.

While most religious-right leaders have given lip service to churchstate separation, many have periodically let the mask slip—and sometimes slip badly. Jerry Falwell has said, “I hope I live to see the day, when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again, and Christians will be running them.” Bob Jones III, president of the politically attuned university bearing that name, opined that “the so-called ‘wall of separation’ between church and state is a liberal fabrication to try to put churches out of a place of influence in political life.” In 2004 he congratulated George W. Bush on his reelection, urging him to press profamily legislation in keeping with Scripture.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the owner of the Washington Times and the head of the well-funded Unification Church, said that “we must have an autocratic theocracy to rule the world. So we cannot separate the political field from the religious. My dream is to organize a Christian political party including the Protestant denominations, Catholic and all religious sects. We can embrace the religious world in one arm and the political world in the other.” Moon, somewhat surprisingly, has been close to the Bush family, having been praised by the senior Bush in a 1996 speech. Then in 2001, Moon cohosted George W. Bush’s inaugural prayer lunch.

To Pentecostal Pat Robertson, ever blunt, “there is no way that government can operate successfully unless led by godly men and women under the laws of the God of Jacob.” For all practical purposes, Robertson is a Christian Reconstructionist. His Virginia educational complex bears the name Regent University, because a regent is one who governs in the absence of a sovereign, and Regent University is a “kingdom institution” for grooming “God’s representatives on the face of the earth” to serve until the return of Jesus.

However, as political operators like Georgia’s Ralph Reed acknowledged years back regarding the tactics of the Christian Coalition, stealth is a major premise, furtiveness a byword. The Christian right usually does not like to acknowledge what it is doing or where. The point is to minimize public attention to its influence and back-stairs power.

A half century ago, before the election of John F. Kennedy as president, many Americans feared—in a carryover of nineteenth-century tensions and suspicions—that Roman Catholicism might someday threaten America with church power and theocracy. Especially since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, that psychology has reversed, with current theocratic inclinations in the United States concentrated among conservative Protestants. Pew Center polls found that while majorities of Protestants, particularly evangelicals, acknowledged that their personal religious views and faith influenced their voting, only 32 percent of Catholics did. Polling by ABC News in May 2004 found the following rank order of support for religious leaders trying to influence politics: white conservative evangelicals 62 percent, white churchgoing evangelicals 53 percent, white evangelical Protestants 46 percent, evangelical Protestants 43 percent, Catholics 34 percent, nonevangelical Protestants 27 percent, persons with no religion 22 percent.

To amplify this point, in 2004 rank-and-file Catholics, by 72 percent to 22 percent, opposed Roman Catholic bishops’ denying communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. Gary Bauer, a leader of the religious right, captured the irony: “When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech that the Vatican would not tell him what to do, evangelicals and Southern Baptists breathed a sigh of relief. But today, evangelicals and Southern Baptists are hoping that the Vatican will tell Catholic politicians what to do.”

As for the leanings of key GOP leaders, much of the attention focused on George W. Bush and Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader, who openly said, “God is using me all the time, everywhere, to stand up for a biblical world view in everything that I do and everywhere I am. He is training me.” However, the larger tale lies in data showing that in 2004 all seven of the top Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate, starting with Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and working down to Senator George Allen of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, boasted 100 percent ratings from the Christian Coalition, founded by Pat Robertson in the wake of his 1988 presidential bid.

As of this writing, none of the half-dozen pieces of quasi-theocratic legislation drafted by the religious right and introduced in Congress by its supporters—bills like the House of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, the First Amendment Restoration Act, and the Constitution Restoration Act—had achieved passage, but the time could come. (These and others are glowingly described on the Web site of the Christian Coalition.) Political correctness on the left has been surpassed by its theological equivalent on the right, and 2005 saw the first Republican member of Congress stand up and say so. Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut in late March 2005 sadly declared that “the Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.”

A cultural adjunct to these ambitions, end-times theory and literature, with its audience of fifty to one hundred million Americans, emerged as a big business in the United States during the 1990s, turning dozens of fundamentalist and charismatic preachers into multimillionaires, thanks to their bestselling books, videos, televised sermons and Bible hours, TV stations, and broadcast networks. Not surprisingly, most are ardent supporters of tax cuts and reduced economic regulation, as their faithful flocks concentrate on morality, salvation, biblical guidance, a possible rapture, and the countdown to Christ’s return. These believing constituencies, in turn, want more of their “government”—over whatever time may be left—to come from religious institutions, with the imprimatur of a president who openly favors at least some transfer of power.

Such mingling of theology, popular culture, and theocracy has already brought about aspects of an American Disenlightenment, to employ a descriptive antonym. Effects can be seen in science, climatology, federal drug approval, biological research, disease control, and not least in the tension between evolution theory and the religious alternatives— creationism and so-called intelligent design. Some commentators have pictured the greatest religious threat to science since the Catholic Church in 1633 put Galileo under house arrest for heresy in stating that the earth revolved around the sun. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The religious hawkishness, substitution of faith for reason, and missionary insistence increasingly visible in the United States have plagued leading world economic powers from Rome to Spain to Britain. It is time to turn to the theologization of American politics and the unfortunate historical precedents it calls to mind.


more from beliefnet and our partners