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.
To understand what, precisely, the anti-theocrats think has gone so wrong, it’s necessary to understand what they mean by the term theocracy. This is no easy task. The word is often used to connote government by a specific institutional faith—Shia imams in Iran, say, or Wahhabi clerics in Afghanistan—with the clergy writing laws and a temple guard enforcing them. But the clout of institutional religion is at low ebb in American politics. No prelate wields the kind of authority that Catholic bishops once enjoyed over urban voters, no denomination can claim the kind of influence that once belonged to the old WASP mainline, and the evangelical Protestantism that figures so prominently in anti-theocracy tracts is distinguished precisely by its lack of any centralized ecclesiastical government.
Occasionally, the anti-theocrats flirt with the possibility that one institutional church or another might pose a threat to the democratic order. In American Theocracy, for instance, Kevin Phillips waxes paranoid about the Southern Baptist Convention’s role as the “state church” of the South, and he tallies, darkly, the number of Baptists who have insinuated themselves into the highest levels of American government. But for the most part, the sum of all secular fears is slightly—but only slightly—more plausible than a Southern Baptist caesaropapism. The real danger, the anti-theocrats suggest, is an ecumenical theocracy that would install a right-wing Mere Christianity as its established religion, subject unbelievers to discrimination, and enshrine the Mosaic code as the law of the land.
In The Baptizing of America, Rabbi James Rudin—the American Jewish Committee’s “senior interreligious adviser”—offers a sketch of what America will look like if the theocrats get their way. “All government employees—federal, state and local—would be required to participate in weekly Bible classes in the workplace, as well as compulsory daily prayer sessions,” as would employees of any company or institution receiving federal funds. There would be a national ID card, identifying everyone by their religious beliefs, or lack thereof—and “such cards would provide Christocrats with preferential treatment in many areas of life, including home ownership, student loans, employment and education.” Non-Christian faiths would be tolerated, “but younger members . . .would be strongly encouraged to formally convert to the dominant evangelical Christianity.” Gay sex would be prosecuted, and “known homosexuals and lesbians would have to successfully undergo government-sponsored reeducation sessions if they applied for any public-sector jobs.” Political dissent would be squashed, religious censors would keep watch over the popular culture, and “the mainstream press and the electronic media would be beaten into submission.”
Sadly, Rudin’s book is thin on examples of significant political actors who are proposing taking any of these steps, let alone all of them. What he has instead are the Christian Reconstructionists—the acolytes of the late R.J. Rushdoony—who are genuine theocrats, of a sort, and who also rank somewhere between the Free Mumia movement and the Spartacist Youth League on the totem pole of political influence in America. Yet this doesn’t prevent them from figuring prominently in nearly all the anti-theocrat anthropologies, playing the same role that international communism played for right-wing paranoiacs in the 1950s: the puppet master working from the shadows and the hidden hand behind every secular setback.
Like a diehard John Bircher poring over Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speeches in search of the Supreme Soviet’s marching orders, Rudin scans the utterances of evangelicals and their allies for Reconstructionist language. Did Billy Graham once advise evangelicals to run for public office and take “control” of the various branches for government? Then he must believe, with the Reconstructionists, that “all adversaries must be completely eliminated from positions of authority” and that “to achieve a divine end by any means—including cruelty, deception, and brute force—is justified.” Did Antonin Scalia suggest that government “derives its moral authority from God”? Well, he doubtless intended to issue “a legal green light” to theocrats seeking “to destroy all existing political systems . . . and replace them with their own religion-soaked political regimes.”
Perhaps most religious conservatives, Rudin generously allows, “are unaware of the potent ideology that calls for the dismantling of American democracy . . . and its replacement by an authoritarian Christian commonwealth.” But then, of course, most Eisenhower voters were unaware, in the 1950s, that Ike’s administration was infiltrated and controlled by Communist agents—and more fool they.
Similarly, Kevin Phillips announces that “for all practical purposes, Pat Robertson is a Christian Reconstructionist”—not because Robertson has ever identified himself as such but because his start-up university bears the sinister sobriquet Regent, an obvious reference to the Rushdoonian notion of Christians as God’s viceroys on Earth. Phillips doesn’t precisely accuse President Bush of being a Reconstructionist, but he notes that Bush’s GOP gets an awful lot of votes from the Mormons—who have created “a de-facto establishment of religion in the inner mountain West”—and that the Bush family “has been close” to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his cultish Unification Church. And then there’s Bush’s habit of encoding “private scriptural invocations” into his speeches. Not only did the president use the biblically loaded phrases “hills to climb” and “seeing the valley below” in his 2004 convention acceptance speech, but he also mentioned the “resurrection of New York City.” The resurrection. Clearly something sinister is afoot.
Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is marginally less ridiculous than this, perhaps because Goldberg, a reporter for Salon, actually spent some time among the believers and even found herself liking them. “I was treated with remarkable openness and hospitality,” she notes, and speaks with sympathy of the Christian nationalists’ eagerness “to engage in passionate discussion about the meaning of life, and about how we understand morality and reality.” But within a page, she’s quoting Hannah Arendt on the origins of totalitarianism and warning balefully that “individual decency can dissolve when groups are mobilized against diabolized enemies.”
Goldberg’s approach, like that of all the anti-theocrat authors, is to assume that the most extreme manifestation of religious conservatism must, by definition, be its most authentic expression. So she analyzes contemporary evangelicalism without once mentioning Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, or any other prominent pop theologian, and her description of mega-churches—at once “temples of religious nationalism” and “tightly organized right-wing political machines”—suggests a fairly thin acquaintance with the variegated world of entrepreneurial Protestantism. The continuum of conservative Christian belief, in her telling, runs from Rushdoony on the Right to D. James Kennedy on the Left. And the taint of theocracy is everywhere, infecting everyone from Timothy McVeigh (a potential harbinger of “theocratic authoritarianism,” despite his distinct lack of Christian beliefs) to Marvin Olasky (who “seems to be drawn to totalitarian ideologies”).
You can even be a totalitarian-theocrat-authoritarian without realizing it. Describing a speaker at a rally following the death of Terri Schiavo, Goldberg admits that the lawyer David Gibbs “is a Baptist, not a Reconstructionist.” But then comes the kicker: “But whether he knew it or not, Reconstructionism shaped his thinking, just as it shaped the thinking of the Christian nationalist movement as a whole.”
These inanities are almost excusable, since Goldberg is such an obvious prisoner of her biases and preconceptions. Whereas Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament is less forgivable, because Balmer ought to have known better. He is an evangelical Christian, a professor of religious history at Columbia, and the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, a largely sympathetic exploration of evangelical belief in America. Yet Thy Kingdom Come—a glorified pamphlet, despite its endless subtitle—is indistinguishable from the general run of secularist hysterics, save for a smug reference to Balmer’s spotless Sunday school attendance record and a patina of “real Baptist” outrage over how the Religious Right has supposedly hijacked his heritage.
There’s certainly room, after thirty years of culture war, for an informed and evenhanded critique of Christian conservatism, and Balmer’s background would seem to make him an ideal writer for the job. But while he occasionally nods in the direction of intelligent criticism—noting the disparity between the Christian Right’s fixation on gay marriage, say, and its long-running silence on divorce; or zinging religious conservatives for writing the Bush administration a blank check in the war on terror—these arguments are quickly dropped in favor of the usual litany of anti-theocrat complaints, flavored with the usual apocalyptic rhetoric.
“What would America look like if the Religious Right had its way?” Balmer wonders. “The best answer” is that Christian conservatism “hankers for the kind of homogeneous theocracy that the Puritans tried to establish in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.” A few attempts to insert Intelligent Design into public school curricula constitute an “insidious” plot to overturn the Enlightenment, while the campaign to allow voluntary prayer in public schools is an attempt “to dismantle the First Amendment.” In the debate over vouchers and homeschooling, Balmer (who opposes both) assures his readers that “the future of American democracy hangs in the balance.”
Once again, all roads lead to Rushdoony. Reconstructionism, Thy Kingdom Come asserts, has driven evangelicalism’s “radical tack to the right,” influencing everyone from Pat Robertson to Richard Land to Jerry Falwell to Roy Moore. But unlike Rudin or Phillips, Balmer doesn’t bother to do close readings of conservative speeches, teasing out the Reconstructionist code words and theocratic allusions. He has all the evidence he needs: The Rushdoonian Chalcedon Foundation’s website, Balmer announces with the air of a lawyer delivering an airtight summation, once published a defense of Roy Moore, which was penned “by an associate professor at Falwell’s Liberty University.” So Rushdoony is Moore is Falwell: Case closed.
When the evidence for Rushdoonian infiltration of the Religious Right grows thin for even the most diligent decoder, the subject is usually changed to the Rapture, another supposed pillar of the emerging theocratic edifice. Premillenarian dispensationalism’s emphasis on the imminent collapse of all institutions, foreign and domestic, would seem an odd fit with Reconstructionism’s idea of hastening Christ’s coming by building his (political) kingdom on Earth. But every 1950s conspiracist knew that when Communists seemed to differ—Tito and Stalin, Stalin and Mao—it only concealed a deeper concord. Similarly, everyone on the Christian Right is understood to be on the same side, no matter their superficial disagreements.
And the Rapture thesis has too much explanatory power to be ignored. Why did George W. Bush go to war in Iraq? The answers are all in the Book of Revelation—or perhaps on the “Christian fiction” aisle of your local Barnes and Noble. It is “eerie,” writes Phillips, “to see so many Bush administration foreign-policy qualities anticipated” in the Left Behind novels. One step further into absurdity, Balmer informs his readers that “the belief in dispensational premillennialism” explains the lousy church architecture of the last fifty years: “Why invest your resources in building or ornamentation when Jesus will return at any time?”
Or again, why are Christocrats fiddling while the Late Great Planet Earth burns? In a New York Review of Books essay on “The Evangelist Menace,” Bill Moyers explained the theocrats’ reasoning this way: “Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture?”
Never mind that conservative Catholics tend to be relatively supportive of environmental regulation, that evangelicals are divided on the issue (and perhaps trending leftward), and that the Bush administration’s refusal to take dramatic steps to combat global warming—like the Clinton administration’s refusal before it—probably has more to do with economics than eschatology. Never mind, too, that the main evidence for the pernicious influence of apocalypticism seems to be the success of a series of bestselling thrillers, which is rather like trying to divine a widespread gnostic political conspiracy by tabulating sales of The Da Vinci Code.
Never mind, because the Rushdoony-and-Rapture theory’s implausibility is crucial to its appeal. Just as a plausible account of American politics in the 1950s would have left no room for the fantasies of the John Birch Society, a reasonable account of the Religious Right would have to accept the possibility that religious conservatives are fairly normal American political actors, seeking to further their agenda through normal political channels. Or as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru put it, in an essay written amid the “values voter” hysteria of 2004:
It may be instructive to think about the wish list of Christian-conservative organizations involved in politics. They would generally prohibit abortion, and perhaps research that destroys human embryos. They would have the government refuse to accord legal standing to homosexual relationships. They would restrict pornography in various ways. They would have more prayer in the schools, and less evolution. They think that religious groups should be able to participate in federal programs without compromising their beliefs. They would replace sex education with abstinence education. They want the government to promote marital stability. . . . Nearly every one of these policies—and all of the most conservative ones—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.
This reality poses no particular problem if you simply disagree with religious conservatives about abortion or gay marriage or prayer in public schools. But if you’re committed to the notion that religious conservatives represent an existential threat to democratic government, you need a broader definition of theocracy to convey your sense of impending doom. Which is why the anti-theocrats often suggest that it doesn’t take mullahs, an established church, or a Reconstructionist ban on adultery to make a theocracy. All you need are politicians who invoke religion and apply Christian principles to public policy.
If that’s all it takes to make a theocracy, then these writers are correct: Contemporary America is run by theocrats. Of course, by that measure, so was the America of every previous era. The United States has always been at once a secular republic and a religious nation, reflexively libertarian and fiercely pious, and this tension has been working itself out in our politics for more than two hundred years. It’s often been a mixed blessing, giving us Prohibition as well as abolition, Jesse Jackson as well as Reinhold Niebuhr, the obsession with free silver as well as the zeal for civil rights. But there’s no way to give an account of American history without grappling with this tension—and with the role played, for good and ill and sometimes both, by religious reformers from Jonathan Edwards all the way down to Jerry Falwell.
Yet this is a history that the anti-theocrats seem determined to reject. The Christian Right isn’t just bad for America because of its right-wing misapplication of religious faith, they suggest—it’s bad for America because any application of faith to politics is inevitably poisonous, intolerant, and illiberal.
“Religion in America has always functioned best from the margins,” Randall Balmer explains, urging Christians to retreat into a countercultural role that he claims is closer to what both the gospel and the Founders had in mind. (In Balmer’s world, homeschooling your children doesn’t count as being “countercultural,” but voting Democratic does.) “There is no such thing as a Christian politics,” Garry Wills intoned recently in a New York Times op-ed, warning liberals against trying to turn religion to their advantage. “If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian.” In a Time magazine essay defending his use of the Osama-inflected term Christianist to describe religious conservatives, Andrew Sullivan announced his opposition “to any politicization of the gospels by any party, Democratic or Republican, by partisan black churches or partisan white ones. ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?”
In Kingdom Coming, Michelle Goldberg dismisses any talk of a Christian influence on the American founding as right-wing revisionism and then offers a bowdlerized history of her own, in which we were bequeathed a pristinely secular republic that the fundamentalists have been chipping away at ever since. “Several times in our history,” she notes, “apparently innocuous references to God have been injected into public life during national crises, only to be used later to legitimate further erosions of church-state separation.” These erosions include the “In God We Trust” added to the currency in 1863, the elimination of Sunday mail in 1912, and the 1954 insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Obviously, the theocrats play a long game.
Whenever politicians invoke religion, Kevin Phillips suggests in a characteristic passage, the people perish: “The newly Christian fourth-century Rome of the Emperor Constantine and his successors held up the cross as Rome faced military defeat and crumbling frontiers from Hadrian’s Wall to Assyria. So did seventeenth-century Spain, the proud but ill-omened command post of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Vestments of crusaderdom also cloaked imperial Britain’s overreach in World War I and its aftermath.”
In addition to casting religious conservatives as mullahs, proto-fascists, and agents of American decline, this strict-separationist interpretation of world history frees the anti-theocrats from the messy business of actually arguing with their opponents. From sex education and government support for religious charities to stem cells and abortion, it’s enough to call something “faith-based” and dismiss it. Indeed, reading through the anti-theocrat literature, one gets the sense that the surest way to judge if a political idea is wrong, dangerous, or antidemocratic is to tally up the number of religious people who support it.
Except that nobody really believes this line. Just a few weeks before he announced that a “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, Garry Wills was in the New York Review of Books celebrating the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement and wiping a nostalgic tear from his eye as he declared that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” After years of blasting any religious encroachment on the political sphere as a threat to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial page awoke to find Cardinal Roger Mahony advocating civil disobedience by Catholics to protest an immigration bill—and immediately praised the cardinal for adding “a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics.” After spending two hundred pages describing all the evils that would pour through any breach in the wall between church and state, Michelle Goldberg suggests that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America’s moral fervor into a new social gospel.”
And just a chapter before launching into a florid denunciation of the Christian Right’s “lust for political power and cultural influence,” Randall Balmer celebrates Victorian evangelicals for taking on “the task of reforming society according to the standards of godliness,” and seeking “generally to make the world a better place.” He praises William Jennings Bryan for being “a political liberal by today’s standards” and even defends the Great Commoner against a “brutal character assassination at the hands of H.L. Mencken” during the Scopes trial—this from an author who devotes thirty pages to attacking Intelligent Design as a “battering ram” for theocrats bent on the “conquest of American society.” Bryan, Balmer explains, “had fewer qualms about Darwinism itself than he did about the social effects of evolutionary theory.”
A Christian is allowed to entertain such doubts, in other words, and allowed to mix religion and politics in support of sweeping social reforms— but only if those reforms are safely identified with the political Left, and with the interests of the Democratic party.
There are ways to avoid this contradiction, but none of them are particularly persuasive. Sometimes it’s argued that what sets the contemporary Christian Right apart from previous iterations of politically active religion isn’t its Christianity per se but its unwillingness to couch argument in terms that nonbelievers can accept—to use “public reason,” in the Rawlsian phrase, to make a political case that doesn’t rely on Bible-thumping. As a prudential matter, the case for public reason makes a great deal of sense. But one searches American history in vain—from abolitionist polemics down to Martin Luther King’s Scripture-saturated speeches—for any evidence of this supposedly ironclad rule being rigorously applied, or applied at all.
And besides, religious conservatives do, frequently and loudly, make arguments for their positions on non-theological grounds. Perhaps not as often as they should, to judge by the movement’s repeated political and cultural defeats (defeats that the anti-theocrats gloss over, since it would complicate their portrait of an all-powerful Christofascism on the march). But the evils of abortion, the value of heterosexual monogamy, the costs of promiscuity and pornography—all these issues are constantly being raised by social conservatives without appeals to the divine inspiration of the Bible. Tellingly, when a professor at Patrick Henry College explains to Goldberg how he teaches students to “use terms and facts that the other side accepts as reasonable,” she calls it a “rhetorical two-step” and casts it as yet another example of the devious Christianist project of political infiltration: Heads you’re a theocrat, tails you’re a theocrat.
Again, perhaps today’s Christians are too comprehensive in their political aims; religious involvement in politics is acceptable, this argument runs, so long as it takes place on an issue-by-issue basis, but the more sweeping the goals, the stronger the whiff of theocracy. For Jeff Sharlet, for instance, writing a Rolling Stone profile of Sam Brownback, it’s the senator’s willingness to talk about a sweeping Christian renewal that makes him creepy. Brownback, echoing John Paul II, says he hopes for a “cultural springtime” in America, and Sharlet sums up this vision as “a theocratic order that is pleasant and balmy.”
Except that it’s hard to imagine anything more sweeping than Martin Luther King’s dream for a Sermon on the Mount–style revolution in the South. King was a single-issue activist, in a sense, but his issue was the mystic renovation of an entire society. Similarly, the social gospel of Bryan’s era aimed at bringing an entire industrial society into line with biblical principles, making it easily as comprehensive as anything that Sam Brownback has ever dreamed up. So too with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, whose bishops have over the years taken positions—often ill-advisedly but never theocratically—on issues ranging from marriage law to nuclear war to immigration. If anything, the single-issue argument is often used against Catholic conservatives, who are accused of being too narrowly focused on questions of life and death rather than the larger “seamless garment” of Catholic social teaching.
So maybe it’s not the issues, but the actors—the Christian Right’s narrow base of supporters, for instance, and its identification with a single political party, both of which contrast unfavorably with the supposed ecumenism and bipartisanship of the civil rights movement. This is the argument of Sullivan, among others; he admits that “the civil-rights movement was indeed a fundamentally religious phenomenon, but . . . it was also multi-denominational and included Democrats and Republicans. Its core religious principle was non-violence, and it drew enormous inspiration from Gandhi. It included Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, atheists and agnostics. And it never, in King’s time, became a vehicle for one political party to win elections.”
There’s a great deal of confusion here—the Religious Right is nothing if not multidenominational, for one thing—but also a grain of truth. No religion-infused movement can afford to be used by a political party as a way to gain votes and nothing more. That’s how the Democrats have used the Al Sharpton / Jesse Jackson–era civil rights establishment and, sadly, how the GOP has often used the Religious Right. But this is less of a danger to the nation’s self-government than to the integrity of religious witness. When Tom DeLay cloaks himself in the “perfect redeeming love of Jesus Christ” to brush off charges of corruption, it’s not the separation of church and state that’s in danger but DeLay’s own Christian faith. When preachers echo GOP talking points rather than shape them, they risk going down the same path trod by the liberal clerics of the 1960s, whose sermons became indistinguishable from the gospel according to the New York Times—until, as David Frum once put it, their parishioners began to wonder “why they should spend a Sunday morning listening to the same editorial twice?”
But any idealistic movement has to risk such compromises if it intends to leave the mountaintop and make a difference in the valley below. It’s telling that the obvious alternative, the purer-than-thou Christian quietism suggested, at times, by writers like Balmer and Wills, was often urged on believers by segregationist clerics in the civil rights–era South. The realities of politics don’t necessarily make for the most Christlike displays: “I’ve got all my votes, and I’ve got a suitcase,” Martin Luther King Sr. remarked after John F. Kennedy helped get his son released from jail, “and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.” But every moral crusade in American history has ultimately become intertwined with one or both of the political parties—because political parties are how movements get things done.
As for why the Religious Right has become so tightly bound to the GOP, rather than becoming as Democratic as the Populists once were, or as bipartisan as the civil rights movement was (albeit ever so briefly)—well, that’s a question that the anti-theocrats rarely address in any detail, beyond dark references to the nefarious activities of Karl Rove. Only Phillips has the honesty to analyze the political trends that have brought about this supposedly theocratic moment—and he does so with almost charming obliviousness, quoting experts such as John Green, Geoffrey Layman, and Louis Bolce, as if unaware that their arguments vitiate his thesis.
What all these observers point out, and what the anti-theocrats ignore, is that the religious polarization of American politics runs in both directions. The Republican party has become more religious because the Democrats became self-consciously secular, and the turning point wasn’t the 1992 or the 2000 elections but the putsch of 1972, when secularist delegates—to quote Phillips, quoting Layman—suddenly “constituted the largest ‘religious’ bloc among Democratic delegates.” Yet having noted this rather significant fact, Phillips sets it aside and returns blithely to his preferred narrative, which is the transformation of the GOP into America’s first “religious party.” But that’s not what happened at all—or rather, it’s the second half of the story, the Republican reaction against the Democrats’ decision to become the first major party in American history to pander to a sizable bloc of aggressively secular voters.
This was very much a strategic electoral move on their part. As Mark Stricherz pointed out last year in a Commonweal essay titled “Goodbye Catholics,” Democrats in the McGovern era were faced with the crack-up of the old New Deal coalition and made a conscious decision to jettison blue-collar voters in favor of what a 1969 memo called “a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and . . . greater cultural sophistication.” At the time, pursuing a coalition of younger voters, minorities, and affluent suburbanites seemed a better bet than trying to hang on to socially conservative voters, especially given that all the energy in the party seemed to be coming from the Left. But it required the Democrats to identify with a segment of the population—self-identified secularists and nonbelievers—that has grown rapidly over the past three decades and grown more assertive along the way. Which in turn has alienated the devout plurality of Americans and left the Democratic party stuck just shy of majority status for the better part of a generation.
So the rise of the Religious Right, and the growing “religion gap” that Phillips describes but fails to understand, aren’t new things in American history but a reaction to a new thing: to an old political party newly dependent on a bloc of voters who reject the role that religion has traditionally played in American political life. The hysteria over theocracy, in turn, represents an attempt to rewrite the history of the United States to suit these voters’ prejudices, by setting a year zero somewhere around 1970 and casting everything that’s happened since as a battle between progress and atavism, reason and fundamentalism, the Enlightenment and the medieval dark.
The tragedy is that so many religious people have gone along with this revisionism—out of sympathy for the lifestyle liberalism of the secular Left, or out of disdain for the crudity and anti-intellectualism of some religious conservatives, or out of embarrassment in the face of a culture that sneers at anyone who takes their faith too seriously. In the process, they have become everything they claim to oppose: bigoted and hysterical, apocalyptic and self-righteous. What’s worse, they have corrupted themselves for the sake of a politics that cares nothing for their faith—that would tame it to suit the needs of secular society or do away with it entirely.
Garry Wills is half-right: There is no single Christian politics, and no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen. But this doesn’t free believers from the obligation to strive in political affairs, as they strive in all things, to do what God would have them do. And the moments when God’s will is inscrutable, or glimpsed only through a glass, darkly, are the moments when good-faith arguments between believers ought to bear the greatest fruit.
In today’s America, these arguments are constantly taking place—over issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy; over the potential, and potential limits, of interfaith cooperation; over the past and future of the Religious Right. But they are increasingly drowned out by cries of “theocracy, theocracy, theocracy” and by a zeal, among ostensibly religious intellectuals, to read their fellow believers out of public life and sell their birthright for the blessing of the New York Times.
Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.Copyright (c) 2006 First Things 165 (August/September 2006): 23-30.