Douthat on “American Theocracy”

Ross Douthat has an interesting op-ed in this morning’s New York Times about recent press coverage of Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachman and Rick Perry. Douthat argues that reporters are absolutely correct to ask candidates who “wear their religions on their sleeves” to explain how their beliefs would influence their policy decisions.  He cautions, though, that reporters should not assume that a candidate shares the most extreme views associated with his or her denomination, or apply a double standard.  If Barack Obama is not identical with Jeremiah Wright, Michele Bachman may not be identical with R.J. Rushdoony. She’ll have to explain.

I think Douthat is right on both counts, but what interests me is the use of the term “theocracy” in American public life. Traditionally, “theocracy” means government by clergy, the sort of thing that exists today in Shia Iran, and, I suppose, Vatican City.  But that is an extremely rare arrangement nowadays, and no one in America, including the overwhelming majority of conservative Evangelicals, would favor it.  I suppose “theocracy” could also mean a state in which religious law applies to civil matters. That arrangement is the norm in classical Islam, but classical Islamic states no longer exist (except in a place like Saudi Arabia), and it remains unclear whether contemporary Islamists will succeed in re-establishing them.  There is no large movement to govern America according to “Christian law” (what would that be, anyway?).  Rushdoony’s Recontructionists are absolutely a fringe movement, even among Evangelicals.

When critics use the term “theocracy” in America today, it seems to me that they mean “too much religion.” A “theocrat” is someone who makes religious arguments for political programs, uses religious imagery in political speeches, or allows religious beliefs to influence policy decisions.  By this definition, America is a theocracy, and always has been.  For example, American politicians on the left and the right have always used religious imagery to win support for their programs.  But if FDR was a theocrat, the word has no explanatory power.

It seems to me we need a new name for the phenomenon critics are describing.  “Anti-Rawlsianism” might be a bit esoteric. “Anti-secularism” is too long.  “Anti-Europeanism”? — MLM

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