Resisting ‘Theocracy’

In his new book, The Baptizing of America, Rabbi James Rudin speaks of a developing American “Christocracy.” Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy, writes about a developing “theocracy.” Rudin is a moderate and Phillips has carefully detailed his own odyssey. Reviews of Phillips are coming in furiously fast, so we will concentrate on the “Radical Religion” theme of his subtitle, which is linked with two others, “Oil” and “Borrowed Money.” Not swimming in oil or debt money, but recognizing that Phillips interweaves “theocracy” inextricably with these other two themes, I have to specialize on Sightings ground.

Phillips, once a Republican strategist and speech-writer, has read widely and well in the historical records and the political and social scientific works of our decades, and documents his work thoroughly. Would that there were space to quote or even outline his case, which I hope our readers will “sight,” sometimes if only to argue with the author. My advance copy of the book is all highlighted and scribbled up with quotations and judgments, graphs and charts, that I will not be alone in using. But here we have to hurry to a set of questions about “theocracy.”

For whatever light it sheds on the subject, let me say that I tend, or try, to dampen hyperbole on subjects of this sort. In the sixties and seventies, when it was the fashion among radicals to call America “Amerika,” implying that European-style fascism was developing, my kind and I stepped back, contending that one can make a case about repression and its styles without invoking the extreme, even an often demonic aura of “the other.” The same goes for “theocracy.” Why give people a name they might savor and favor, or apply the term to near-miss phenomena? Phillips quotes many leaders of far-right and near-far-right Christian groups who want Christianity to have privilege, status, and even a monopoly on the spiritual front of a lame pluralist society, and sees — yes — theocracy in their goals.

Advice to myself, after reading Phillips’s counsel: 1) Don’t assign to people a label and a position they don’t exactly hold; 2) Don’t lump all people called “conservative” or “born again” into the mix of the theocracy-minded; 3) Don’t label anyone “theocrat” who does not bear most of the marks of the theocrat; 4) Thus remember that, for people of faith on left or right, to try to influence foreign or domestic policy is not by itself a mark of theocracy — not by any means; 5) Do urge fellow citizens to be Madisonian (Federalist Papers X and LI), to work for the republic, against favor or privilege or establishment for particular religions (e.g., “Christianity” or “thebiblical worldview”); 6) If you must blame, blame fairly, including the Republicans-not-on-the-right or Democrats-wherever-they-are for leaving a moral vacuum that exploiters can invade and exploit; 7) Make the point that theocracies have always corrupted communities of faith that favor them, noting that such polities are bad for religion; 8) Read and profit from Rudin and especially Phillips as they make their cases; 9) Be ready to link up with others, to see if at this late date the republic can be invigorated and survive; 10) Arrange with people you can trust to help you live with new strategies and old hopes, as you try to find a means of sleeping peacefully after you’ve read this unsettling script — and then awaken, for thought and action.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.