Teocracia nos EUA?

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.