Does Theocracy Threaten America?
by Ari Armstrong, November 10, 2004
I've argued the "moral values" vote, as far as that's taken to mean the religious right, wasn't as big a deal in the election as some have hoped or feared. At the same time, I've expressed concern about "a trend toward theocracy in America." So is there a trend toward theocracy, and, if so, what is its nature and how dangerous is it? Recently published articles contribute to the discussion.
In Slate, Paul Freedman devastates the notion that the eleven anti-gay-marriage initiatives played a role in re-electing Bush. He looks at the states where those initiatives ran and compares the votes this year with the votes in 2000. He finds the initiatives played a negligible role in increasing turnout for Bush.
Freedman writes, "If the morality gap doesn't explain Bush's re-election, what does? A good part of the answer lies in the terrorism gap. Nationally, 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush but not Kerry to handle terrorism; only 31 percent trusted Kerry but not Bush. This 18-point gap is particularly significant in that terrorism is strongly tied to vote choice: 99 percent of those who trusted only Kerry on the issue voted for him, and 97 percent of those who trusted only Bush voted for him. Terrorism was cited by 19 percent of voters as the most important issue, and these citizens gave their votes to the president by an even larger margin than morality voters: 86 percent for Bush, 14 percent for Kerry."
Yet, as I've argued, the religious right is trying to spin the election in its favor, and many journalists are only too happy to dowse its fiery rhetoric with gasoline.
That doesn't change the fact that somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of the voting population is right-wing, evangelical, Christian, and Republican. Many of this segment of the population want to outlaw abortion and legally discriminate against gays. Some part of this population would, if it could, implement God's will (as it interprets it) more fully in law.
The Rocky Mountain News, in a November 9 editorial, mocks "[s]upposedly serious people [who] have actually begun to worry -- or at least to say they worry -- about the rise of theocracy in America." I suppose that's directed at me, too, even though I've offered a restrained and appropriately qualified case.
The Rocky's writers make some good points, but they also spin some weak arguments. While the editorial prudently dampens some of the hysteria coming from the left, it fails to take seriously the real risks of theistically-driven politics.
The Rocky argues, "There is no constituency worth mentioning in America that favors theocracy." However, the concern about a "trend toward theocracy" does not assume a large number of people want an out-and-out theocratic dictatorship right now.
Two points may be made. First, we don't have to reach total theocracy in order to incur damage. Partial theocracy is bad enough. Similarly, today in America only a tiny fraction of the population favors outright socialism, the complete nationalization of the means of production. Yet many people favor the nationalizion of certain parts of the economy, such as health care, energy production, retirement planning, and so forth. These partial measures, while not nearly as damaging as full-blown socialism, are still harmful. Outlawing abortion would be harmful. Further entrenching legal discrimination against homosexuals would be harmful. Limiting medical research would be harmful. Those are the main battles of today's religious right.
The second point is that most people adopt "mainstream" thinking to a large degree, which means that as conditions change, mainstream thought also changes. Here are a couple examples. In the mid-1800s in the southern United States, abolition was an extreme position. Slavery was commonly accepted, and even those who wanted to outlaw slavery often thought of blacks as an inferior race. (For example, Abraham Lincoln was by his own words a white separatist and a white supremacist.) Thankfully, though, today nearly everyone accepts blacks as completely equal to whites, and I hope that within another generation or two race will be a non-issue. This is an example of how people's ideas moved slowly in a positive direction in a process that has taken over a century and continues today.
Now here is a negative example. Few would have seriously thought, at the time, that the Weimar Republic was headed toward brutal dictatorship and genocide. Papers of the day would have rightly noted, "There is no constituency worth mentioning in Germany that favors dictatorship and genocide." Yet, as social conditions changed and new leaders came on the scene, such a constituency grew rapidly. In The Ominous Parallels, Leonard Peikoff argues the seeds planted in the Weimar Republic grew into the horrors of Adolph Hitler.
So the fact that few today advocate a full-blown theocratic dictatorship hardly means current trends cannot lead to theocratic dictatorship.
Let us imagine ourselves in the near future, assuming the evangelicals get what they want. Abortion is outlawed, at least in all cases excepting rape or when the mother's life is in danger. Homosexuals cannot marry or gain any legal recognition as romantic partners. They cannot adopt children as couples, for instance, or gain legal protections for inheritance that are automatically granted to married couples. Does anyone seriously believe the religious right would call it a day and drop out of politics? Or would the religious right find something else to worry about? Here's a potential list: pornography, indecency, drug use (including alcohol), broadcast speech (remember Janet Jackson's breast?), and sex toys. After that, how about things like adultery, birth control, and religion in tax-funded schools? The logical conclusion of the religious right is theocracy. Does that mean current trends will lead to their logical conclusions? Of course not. People have free will, many factions are in play, and historical trends are chaotic.
Incredibly, the Rocky's editorial argues, "Those who shout 'theocrat' should be able to provide evidence that religious Americans are less devoted, on average, to the democratic process than citizens of a more secular mindset." Yet people could democratically elect theocratic rulers who impose (their notion of) God's will by force of law. Democracy is not an end in itself, nor is it sufficient to establish freedom. Democracy is appropriate only in a context of governance that protects individual rights. Democracy is perfectly able to achieve theocracy and all other forms of authoritarianism.
Then the usually clever Rocky descends into moral relativism: "As it happens, Americans who advocate against abortion or gay marriage in the political arena are no more in favor of subjecting government to religious authority than those advocating in favor of these things. Yes, religious traditionalists promote their moral values, but then so do those who disagree with them. So do anti-war activists, environmentalists and defenders of animal rights. Why is one group so casually smeared as authoritarian and anti-democratic while others who are equally passionate in their political commitments are not?"
The reason the religious right is "smeared" (i.e., rationally criticized) as "authoriarian" is that some of its views are authoritarian. That is, the religious right wants to impose its religious beliefs on the rest of us by force of law. True enough, rational secularists want to prevent religious persecution by force of law. So the Rocky's editorial rightly argues that all political views are ultimately motivated by some moral view, but then the editorial absurdly suggests that all moral views are therefore equally admirable.
I very much want my ethical views imposed by force of law, and my ethical views endorse the protection of individual rights. I fully endorse freedom of religion -- until somebody tries to violate individual rights because of religion. For instance, Theo van Gogh was recently murdered for religious reasons. I condemn that murder as morally abhorrent, and it was properly against the law. A legal code based on the moral doctrine of individual rights allows the widest possible freedom of thought and action, yet it necessarily outlaws the initiation of force and fraud, also for moral reasons.
A political system of individual rights is emphatically not based on moral relativism or moral subjectivism. The position is not that various actions must be legally allowed because it's always wrong to impose morality on people. Such a position is internally contradictory. Rather, the position is that all actions must be legally allowed, so long as they do not entail the initiation of force, fraud, or any other violation of individual rights, whether or not an action is otherwise moral, because it is morally right to grant people freedom of thought and action within that prescribed sphere.
For example, I believe it is immoral to worship a God (because God doesn't exist and in the modern world that fact is widely supported). Yet I also believe it is immoral to legally prohibit the worshipping of any god, so long as the worship does not entail any violation of individual rights. If you want to speak in "tongues," let rattlesnakes bite you, dance around crazily, pray to spirits, dunk yourself in water, sit in uncomfortable positions for many hours, bow to Mecca, drink blood, or whatever, that's fine by me. I'll criticize you for it, but I'll also defend your political right to do it.
But if you try to sacrifice children, poison scientists for proclaiming the Earth revolves around the Sun, burn "witches," torture "heretics," persecute gays and adulterers, convert non-believers by threatening to decapitate them, control a woman's medical choices because of religious dogma, or halt scientific research, I'm going to try to stop you with the full force of the law, backed up by men with guns. Just laws defend individual rights. There are many things the government should never do, but when it comes to protecting individual rights, the government should act decisively. You can do whatever you want to do, moral or not, so long as you don't violate individual rights. It is moral to protect individual rights, and it is moral to forcibly stop the violation of individual rights. I will defend your right to practice religion as passionately as I will seek to stop you from using religion as a pretext to violate others' rights.
The same goes for secular authoritarians. As the Objectivists note, Communism is as anti-rational as religion. It is rooted in collectivism and (materialistic) determinism. You can join a commune, smoke marijuana, worship the Earth, protect animals, nurture a phobia about guns, and so on, and I will defend your right to do these things. Yet if you seek to violate individual rights to choose how to use personal property, I will try to stop you with the full force of the law.
To me, it remains an open question whether left-wing secular-socialism, right-wing theocracy, or left-wing theocratic-socialism poses the greatest threat to the future of America. If I thought it would do any good, I'd pray for a pox on all their houses.