Some years ago, Ross Douthat wrote a wonderful and timely piece for FT, responding to the feverish concerns on the part of some folks on the secular Left that George W. Bush was either a theocrat or a theocratic fellow traveler.
Well, Michelle Goldberg, one of those who feared for our country back then, has decided that she ain’t seen nothing yet. Compared with Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, George W. Bush was a theocratic piker. Perry and Bachmann, she thinks, are much closer to the real thing.
I’ve seen two sorts of responses to this line of argument. Michael Gerson, the erstwhile Bush speechwriter (and one of the most theologically sophisticated denizens of the Bush White House), argues that it is much ado about nothing. Indeed, the argument reveals more about those who hold it than about the politicians who rub elbows with all sorts of people holding all sorts of ideas:
Many have become unhinged by the interpretive power of a simple idea. In the case of Dominionism, paranoia is fed by a certain view of church-state relations — a deep discomfort with any religious influence in politics: Even if most evangelicals are not plotting the reconstruction of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, they nevertheless want to impose their sectarian views on secular institutions. It is a common argument among secular liberals that the application of any religiously informed moral reasoning in politics is a kind of soft theocracy. Dominionism is merely its local extension.
As always, this argument proves too much, making a Dominionist of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, by this standard, would be a theonomist as well, on the evidence of his Call to Renewal speech in 2008 — a refutation of political secularism.
Peter Lawler, my personal nominee for our greatest living American neo-Thomist, deals with a slightly different version of the argument when he discusses the religiosity of the Tea Party. Against those who argue that the “Tea Partiers want big, moralistic, intrusive, religious government,” Lawler contends that the Tea Party is actually kinda sorta libertarian:
Here’s what they think: Wherever the national government–especially bureaucrats and judges–go, religion is chased away. So they want really small government so that they can live as they please.
All libertarians are for living as they please in the absence of government regulation. But it pleases THE TEA PARTIERS, very often, to live self-sufficiently as Christians with big families. What’s so bad about that?
So a big issue for many of the partiers is HOME SCHOOLING. They don’t want the government getting in the way of their decisions on how to educate their very own kids. And I have to admit that even I (who didn’t home school and would probably, on balance, always choose against it) am creeped out by the over-the-top hostility of our bureaucratized educational establishment to parents’ right to make this kind of fundamental choice for themselves….
So our TEA PARTIERS are really about thinking of the economic crisis of our time as an opportunity for a kind of new birth of freedom from government dependency. They are all about libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, for living, to repeat, as THEY please. Their religious intensity points away from big government, and that means all Americans opposed to big government have no reason not to ally with them. They’re part of–not opposed to–the libertarian drift of our time.
This, generally speaking, sounds right to me. (And I’m one of those homeschoolers, though the reading assignments in our house run more to C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and, yes, R.C. Sproul, than to Rushdoony.) I for the life of me can’t figure out how anyone, like Michelle Bachmann, who believes that the federal government is entitled to only 10% of our income, can be regarded as a theocrat. The big intrusive government required to enforce Biblical laws, one intended (in the words of our current President) to establish the kingdom here on earth, surely requires more than twice that much.