I stand corrected. Ross Douthat, an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, read more widely in the literature and wrote a gently damning indictment of the overall thesis and the integrity of analysis throughout the recent publishing/intellectual phenomenon. Obviously, I've had an academic interest in "religion in public discourse" for some years, even doing one of my doctoral exam questions on it, under Professor Thomas Hughson, which was a real honour and opportunity for me. While I'm used to a certain level of hysteria about the subject from the dogmatically secular, I wasn't ready to see the lumping in of American religiosity (at least that segment of it that might have voted for Bush and could be called "religious conservatives") with the Taliban mullahs of Afghanistan. Yes, one could certainly say that they both had political beliefs that were influenced by religious beliefs, but I could say the same for such diverse figures as Michelangelo, Martin Luther King Jr., and even a Deist like Thomas Jefferson. Such lumping-together, though, has little to do with the reality expressed in such beliefs: instead of looking at the diverse content of various religious beliefs, we are given instead the dogmatic line that religious belief as political motivation is illegitmate in itself. Forbidden thoughts. (I include Jefferson because he was, after all, a real Deist, and not an anti-religious zealot, even though he's often been adopted by such people today as their secular patron saint. He thought his Deist beliefs were more true and better than the opposing beliefs around him, and he drew some political inspiration and guidance from them: just like any other religious believer thinking their own thoughts correct and drawing on their faith as informing their political philosophy. Believing your own opinions to be true: such an unusual crime!)
What Douthat's thorough survey of this latest run of public argument really offers is taking these authors more seriously than I had, and working through their collective argument with an eye toward similar themes, technique, and use of evidence and theory. I can hope that such a serious treatment might check the spread of such thinking from affecting the rhetoric of American politics much further. The curious parallel is with 20th century Anti-Communism. For all the milage that the American Left has gotten over the last fifty years in dealing with that paranoic outburst in American intellectual and political life, it would be the most bizarre of ironies if they cultivated such a similar all-explaining, paranoic theory against a home-grown reality like American religion. I understand that we'll always have a cultural taste for conspiracy theory: I do hope, however, to keep it away from government and the core of our culture. Religion is, of course, a trans-national force, one not limited to anything as minute as the destiny of a mere country like America, and its passing politics. To turn it into the target of such suppressive politics is blowing against the wind. So much better to learn to sail, whatever the conclusions of one's best (I hope!) religious reasoning.
Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy
American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
by Kevin Phillips: Viking, 480 pages, $26.95
The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us
by James Rudin: Thunder’s Mouth, 300 pages, $26
Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
by Michelle Goldberg: W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $23.95
Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament
by Randall Balmer: Basic, 242 pages, $24.95
This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.
Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist “Republic of Gilead,” with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that “moral values” had pushed the president over the top—and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.
Later, more cool-headed polling analysis suggested that the values explanation was something of a stretch: The movement of religious voters into the GOP played a role in Bush’s victory, but the uptick in his support between 2000 and 2004 seems mainly to have reflected national-security concerns. Still, these pesky facts didn’t stop Garry Wills from announcing the end of the Enlightenment and the arrival of jihad in America, or Jane Smiley from bemoaning the “ignorance and bloodlust” of Bush voters in thrall to a fire-and-brimstone God, or left-wing bloggers from chattering about “Jesusland” and “fundies” and plotting their escape to Canada.
The paranoia hasn’t yet burned down to embers. The term theocrat has become a commonplace, employed by bomb-throwing columnists, otherwise-sensible reporters, and “centrist” Republicans such as Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, who recently complained that the GOP was becoming the “party of theocracy.” And now the specter of a looming Khomeini’ism has migrated into the realm of pop sociology, producing a spate of books with titles like The Baptizing of America, Kingdom Coming, Thy Kingdom Come—and, inevitably, American Theocracy, the Kevin Phillips jeremiad that shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list this spring.
Most of these books aspire to be anthropologies, guides for the perplexed that lead the innocent reader through what the subtitle of American Theocracy calls “the perils and politics of radical religion.” There isn’t perfect agreement on what to call the religious radicals in question: Everyone employs theocrat, but Kingdom Coming also proposes Christian nationalist, while The Baptizing of America favors the clunky Christocrat. Others have suggested Christianist, the better to link religious conservatives to Osama bin Laden—and of course there’s the ubiquitous theocon, suggesting a deadly mixture of Oliver Cromwell and Paul Wolfowitz.
But the various authors are in agreement about the main point, which is that something has gone terribly wrong with the separation of church and state in this country, and that America is poised to fall into the hands of people only one step from the ayatollahs. Today’s battles aren’t just a matter of ordinary political factionalism, they insist. The hour is much later than that, and nothing less than the republic itself hangs in the balance.
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