With the end of summer comes the official election season, the beginning of a thirteen month stretch in which the public must endure Republican candidates droning on about Social Security, political pundits blabbering about tax cuts, and leftist journalists screeching about the impending theocracy.
Although they have been repeating the same warnings since the mid-1980s, the leftist theophobes are certain that this is finally the year when the theonomists storm the National Archives and replace the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments.
When this issue was in the news in 2007, I noted in National Review Online that more than half of American evangelicals are either Baptists or nondenominational—groups that don’t even want a centralized church government much less a central government controlled by the church. Why would we want a theocracy?
Theocracy, which literally means “rule by the deity,” is the name given to political regimes that claim to represent God on earth both directly and immediately. The role of the theocratic leader is to play the role of both priest and king, implementing and enforcing divine laws. But who among the current crop of candidates could we find to fill that role? Conservative Catholics wouldn’t accept a priest who wasn’t answerable to the Vatican and conservative evangelicals wouldn’t accept one who was. And while we may tune it to watch the royal wedding of William and Kate, most folks on the Chrisitian right share the sentiment of England’s Fifth Monarchy men: “No King but King Jesus.”
The more savvy theophobes recognize that no one is proposing to install a traditional theocracy, which is why they now claim that the type of regime the Religious Right is advocating will be brought about by what they call “dominionism.” Supposedly, this is a philosophy in which, “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”
This new variation of alarmism is only slightly less idiotic than the hand-wringing about Reconstructionism. But it does have the benefit of at least being theoretically compatible with a republican form of government.
Instead of pointing out, as others have done, why this new variation of scaremongering is nonsense, let’s give it a moment’s consideration: What if America did become a dominionist-style theocracy? What would happen then?
The first thing that would need to occur is the disenfranchisement of about a quarter of the population. It would be difficult enough to get Christians to agree to only vote for Christians so we’d need to retract the political franchise from all non-Christians to make the system workable.
Having made this necessary concession to the dystopian fantasy of the theophobic left, let’s proceed in our thought experiment on the basis of what is actually (somewhat) plausible. That will require excising all silliness about the threat of theonomy, since that tiny movement is not an actual threat. You could fit all of the genuine hardcore Reconstructionists in America into the conference room of the Holiday Inn in Helena, Montana Fan Club and still have room for a square-dancing competition.
Instead of a system suitable for Reconstructionists, what would happen if normal, ordinary Christians were to implement a republican-style theocracy? What would change? What would the nation look like if we became the Dominionist States of America?
Here is the most plausible scenario I can imagine:
• After agreeing that it's no longer applicable to a country that was founded by Unitarians and Deists, the term “Christian nation” is forbidden from being used in reference to the pre-dominionist era (i.e., from 1776-2012).
• The Marriage Protection Amendment is added to the U.S. Constitution, setting gay rights legislation back to the regressive year of 2003. The Human Life Amendment is stalled in Congress as pro-life factions fight over which of the 330 previously submitted proposals should be implemented.
• A revision is made to the First Amendment in which the words “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise of religion” is underlined and put in bold font. High school valedictorians—whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew—are extended the same right to pray at graduations as Supreme Court justices and members of Congress have had throughout our country’s history.
• A national ban on pornography is implemented. The prohibition has a negligible effect since there is already more porn on the hard drives of computers in Christian homes than was produced from the death of Caligula to the birth of Hugh Hefner.
• Creationism and Intelligent Design theory are included alongside the theory of evolution in school curricula. Students are forced to learn three theories, the details of which they'll have forgotten about by graduation day.
• Congress passes the Christian Television Act which requires (a) every show must have as many Christian characters as homosexual characters, (b) Catholic characters must not be limited to elderly Latino women, Irish priests, and lapsed nuns, and (c) CBS must bring back Touched by an Angel.
And . . . well, that’s about the most that could ever happen.
Perhaps my ability to imagine a more robust form of Christian theocracy is dulled by the fact that I know so many actual Christians. The average Christian in America isn’t all that radical, which is why I think my list is a fair representation of the worst-case scenario. We would not have a zombified R.J. Rushdoony returning from the dead to stone men who lie with men and children who lie to their parents. We’d merely have average Christians acting much like average Christian acts now.
Most Christians merely want a return to the standard of public morality that prevailed during the country’s first two hundred years. As Ramesh Ponnuru has said about the “values voter” hysteria of 2004, “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.”
Indeed it is not. America was not a theocracy in 1950 and it won’t be a theocracy in 2050. Everyone, even the theophobes, knows this is true. The fact is that the journalists behind God Scare 2011 really aren’t concerned about dominionism. They aren’t really afraid that America is hurtling toward theocracy; they merely fear that our nation is drifting away from their goal of a secularacracy.
They need not worry. We’ll get there soon enough. And many Christians will be leading the way.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Joe Carter, Theocracy in America
Jeremy Pierce, Dominionismists
Joe Carter, A Journalism Lesson for the New Yorker