Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Theocracies in America: What Needs to be Learned to Preserve Ordered Liberty

A recent measure in the Missouri house introduced by Republican Representative David Sater calls for that State to officially recognize “a Christian God” and though, apparently, the measure has no legal effect it has been supported by many people as recognition of the fact that the Founders of the United States of America were overwhelmingly Christians and, so the reasoning goes, the majority of citizens of the State remain Christians today.

Sater defended the measure, saying Christianity was integral to the nation’s birth. “The majority of our forefathers were Christian,” Sater said. “They used the Ten Commandments to form the foundation of this nation.” Apparently, then, such use historically provides ongoing practical guidance for law and politics. Similar statements are made from time to time in England where that country’s “established religion” of Anglicanism is often viewed as giving rights for the application of laws grounded in the Christian religion to those who do not accept that religious faith. Sater’s measure has already received a committee’s blessing and is headed toward the House floor.

In an article in the Kansas City Star, Tim Hoover (“Even the Pope has a Say on HCR 13”, March 12, 2006) writes that some, including leading Jewish spokespersons, have rejected the kind of argument used by Representative Sater as coming dangerously close to establishing a state religion. Hoover notes that the Pope has rejected a request from certain Missouri religious leaders to support the initiative. Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, sent letters to Catholic lawmakers outlining the church’s stance on the matter and is quoted by Hoover as follows:

Unfortunately, the recognition of ‘a Christian God’ found in HCR 13 is inconsistent with the basic tenet of our Catholic faith that there is but one true God…. Catholics long have recognized their relationship with those who worship the God of Abraham — Jews and Muslims…. The Second Vatican Council in 1965 also officially acknowledged that the three faiths believe in one God.

Weber also wrote that the Pope has offered more recent guidance on the matter. In his Sunday blessing at St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 30, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council’s teachings.

They (the council) recalled with clarity the special link that connects
Christians and Jews, they repeated the esteem toward Muslims and the followers
of other religions, and they confirmed the spirit of universal fraternity that
dispensed with all discrimination or religious persecution.


The Missouri issue shows very different approaches to the role of the state in relation to religion. How many Christians, supportive of the “Word” could deny, if they considered the matter, that the God of Abraham is also the God of Jesus? Why then the exclusive language affirmation? Is this just bad theology or bad politics, or both, or neither? Why do certain kinds of Christians seem to feel they need Caesar to affirm God?

Whatever the answers, the Missouri initiative and much other recent commentary shows that the nature of faiths in relation to politics is a serious issue for America; a country that has never really managed to get its population, and many of its politicians and religious leaders, to understand the nature and limits of theocracy. Some are suggesting that this now poses a serious threat to the United States.

In a review of American political commentator Peter Phillips’ 13th book, “American Theocracy” in the New York Times Book Review, Columbia University Provost and professor of history Allen Brinkley (“Clear and Present Dangers” March 19, 2006) sums up the book this way:

In an era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, "American Theocracy" may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years. It is not without polemic, but unlike many of the more glib and strident political commentaries of recent years, it is extensively researched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.

The book has three main themes that are, according to Professor Brinkley’s review, not new to the Bush years but “…exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world.”

The three are: the role of oil in defining and distorting [so the author argues] American foreign and domestic policy; second is what Brinkley refers to as “… the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government”; and, third, the astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. The failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future according to Brinkley’s review is the link that unites all three.

It is with the second of these that I am concerned here; “the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government.” Much turns, of course, on what we deem “radical Christianity” to be and how we view the appropriate relationship between religious beliefs and government.

Two things are necessary to state up front. First that government now as always must be concerned with beliefs. These beliefs may be religious, non-religious or, as is most likely in the contemporary West, a combination of the two. Second, every set of beliefs, except those established with a proper understanding of the role of freedom in relation to governance, has the likelihood of over-extending itself in relation to power. I have mentioned before French philosopher Jacques Maritain’s useful creation of the term “theocratic atheism” (Evans and Ward eds. The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain (New York: Scribner, 1955, 248). Atheists and agnostics have shown themselves just as capable of erecting totalitarian systems; worse, they tend to have no “internal” critique of such a strategy as communists and certain socialists have shown throughout history by their perpetual justification of the suspension of liberties for some in the goal of ultimate liberation (so they argue) for all – those fortunate ones in the future.

The central question for belief systems of all kinds is: “what is the proper role and extent of the state?” Theocracy is defined as follows:

A form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom,
these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission; also, a state so governed: especially applied to the commonwealth of Israel from the exodus to the election of Saul as king.
Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition, Vol. II, p. 3282).
Theocracies attempt to use the beliefs of some (perhaps a majority of citizens as in the Missouri example) to first affirm principles that others (whether minority or not) do not support. Then, as history shows, they move to suppress the appropriate freedoms of others. Both aspects are a problem.

It would interest those forerunners of contemporary apologetics, G.K. Chesterton and his protestant counterpart C.S. Lewis to note that in Missouri the measure to put a “Christian God” into the State Constitution has been accompanied by attempts to remove alcohol from the State legislature!

It is not the fact that governance is rooted in beliefs or what motivates them per se, that causes the problem, however, but in the sphere of action of the beliefs. Theocracies go too far with governance. They claim to have powers over things they should be leaving alone. They attempt to make Caesar into God and God into Caesar. Either way they make an idol of the state.

Christian beliefs are no more dangerous here than any other beliefs and, in fact, because the Christian religion at its most mature recognizes a limited confidence in the role of the “church” in relation to governance (and vice versa), it could be argued that recognizing limits on the role of “Caesar” provides a guideline that other belief systems do not have.

To return to the theses of “American Theocracy” as outlined by the Brinkley review (for I have not yet read the book), it is not the fact that Christians are taking politics seriously (“radical” simply means pertaining to the root or foundations of things) that ought to concern people but the fact, if it is true, and the Missouri issue suggests that it is, that some of them might not understand the proper role and extent of the state in relation to religion.

Let’s take a practical example here: consider the ways in which one might approach the issue of education and school prayer in public schools.

To argue, as some do, that all school days in public school should begin with Christian prayers goes too far. The principle can, after all, be turned around just as easily as school principals (or governments) change. What is “the Lord’s Prayer” today can become a prayer to “Gaia the Earth Goddess” tomorrow once the principle is accepted that “every day shall begin with a mandatory prayer set by government regulation.”

In a world of diverse beliefs and democratic governance what is the Lord’s Prayer one-day can easily, and will in many communities, become a prayer to another divinity some other day. A shift that is likely to be strongly opposed by those who insisted on “the Lord’s Prayer” in the first place. What has happened with “male/female” marriage in various Western countries ought to show how a concept can be taken over, hollowed out and replaced once the state is in the business of re-making definitions that it took on from the earlier religious traditions – traditions to which it no longer looks for guidance. Better in the first place to think more carefully about what matters are really for the State to decide in the first place.

What is necessary is to look a little closer at the diverse belief systems and the nature of democracy and the principle of respect for minorities. Islam often fails in this and that is why Christians are not free to meet for worship in, for example, Saudi Arabia. Muslims might have noticed they have no such fears in the “tolerant” West many of them are so quick to deride and whose institutions they would like to explode.

This is why “one size fits all” as a concept for public education is less and less likely to work and why all sorts of citizens need to rethink the scope and purpose of public education. This is not a new problem. In a subsequent article I want to examine a debate in Canada in the 1950’s that needs to be recalled, as it has not been satisfactory addressed. That, however, is for another day.

Once we realize that public education is providing a moral education to the young (by design or default) citizens may reject that vision. The solution when citizens reject such teaching is either to change the teaching or to provide alternatives. If a large number of citizens cannot change the teaching (for reason of lack of concern by politicians or coordinated resistance from within the systems guiding education) then democracy has been shown to have yet deeper flaws. Many in Canada believe that the so-called “public” systems are a failure but they often have nowhere to go for alternatives but “home education.”

What happens in the private schools, set up by citizens with particular religious beliefs and freely chosen as such by parents (the primary educators of the young after all as the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in its decision of R.v. Audet many years ago) is another matter. Here it may well be appropriate for Jewish schools to begin with Jewish prayer, Christians, Hindus and Muslims to begin with prayers from their own tradition or what have you. Atheist and agnostic schools will begin with their own recognitions - - usually none at all which is fitting given their presuppositions.

Those in education concerned about the moral future of the country in relation to basic conceptions of citizenship (for example, why should we care about “tolerance” “fairness” or “equality” to name but three) need to find a core education in civics that provides a basic understanding of citizenship and its opportunities and obligations.

Perhaps, in fact, we need to ask less of public education in many other areas, not more. The hegemony of current public education (with the implicit assumptions that “one size fits all” and “what we are doing isn’t “moral” anyway”) is overdue for foundational change but when this happens it will be essential to find the basics of a “core curriculum” in civics. Beyond that I believe respectful diversity is the key to a properly democratic educational system.

That some sorts of American religious believers wish to have public schools legally required to open with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer whether or not the school is a Christian school, ought to give us cause for concern just as the blanket exclusion of Christian or other religious groups from the same schools on some supposed “strict separation” argument ought to give us concern. Both are errors and both need to be addressed.

We do have to fear theocracies of all sorts but we must remember that they come in all flavours – religious and non-religious and that is the real problem with American, or any other nation’s “theocracies.” We need radicals who believe in important things and respect the search for truth, we don’t need theocrats that think they have the whole of the truth and wish to use general laws to force them on others. Societies are not “Christian”, individual citizens are, and laws are for everyone whether Christian or not.

The failure to understand this distinction poses a genuine danger to liberty no matter from what quarter it comes. Learning how to apply the principles of humility to governing is a very long road indeed and one that many people need to learn when they seek to uphold concepts such as “one nation under God.”

CENTREBLOG: Volume 114
Iain T. Benson©