Published May 16, 2005
Recently, Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and former Pennsylvania Democratic congressman, warned a conference of People for the American Way and 500 other secular liberals the religious right was hell-bent on imposing a “theocracy” on America.
Another speaker, Joan Bokaer, founder of Theocracy Watch, said the U.S. was “not yet a theocracy.” Earlier, Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman, lamented: “Are we going to live in a theocracy where the highest powers tell us what to do?” He did not define “highest powers.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and other secular left voices keep warning us that if Protestant evangelicals got their way, America would become a theocratic state. Nonsense. This dire prediction, frequently voiced by these groups to aid their fundraising drives, is simply not plausible.
The democratic West has long rejected theocracy, once known as Caesaropapism, a state in which Caesar and the pope are one. Two thousand years ago in a Roman outpost when the issue of conflicting loyalties was raised, Jesus of Nazareth said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” — an eloquent forecast of the American separation of church and state.
The current film Kingdom of Heaven portrays — albeit with tremendous historic license — the bloodshed caused by zealous Christian medieval crusaders who attempted to impose their rule over Jerusalem, then held by Muslims.
Today, no serious Christian or Jewish leader in America advocates a theocratic state. They recognize welding political and ecclesiastical power would corrupt both religion and politics and lead to tyranny, chaos, or both.
America’s Founders were committed to a democratic and pluralistic state where every citizen is free to believe as he wishes. Whether Calvinists or Unitarians, they held liberty was a gift from the Creator, or Nature’s God. “The God who gave us life,” said Thomas Jefferson, “gave us liberty at the same time.” As long as we are faithful to the Founders’ dream, America will not become a theocracy.
Further, the first amendment to the Constitution rejects the “establishment of religion” and any act of Congress “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. All citizens are free to worship in churches, synagogues or mosques and to educate their children as they see fit as long as they don’t violate the law.
Early on, the Congress authorized the words “In God We Trust” on our coins and currency. We have government chaplains in the Congress and the armed forces. The Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building, and countless other government offices and monuments display religious images and quotations. And the Pledge of Allegiance, recited daily in public schools, carry the words, “one nation under God,” that reflect the spirit of the Mayflower Compact of 1620 that began with: “In the name of God, amen.”
These time-honored manifestations of religion in American life have not curtailed freedom of belief or conscience, nor pointed to a theocracy. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic and atheist citizens have equal rights and opportunities.
Some Americans erect symbols of their “faith” in the public square, but others seek to banish the Ten Commandments, Christian creches and the menorah from public spaces. If secular humanism became the established “religion” perhaps the only thing liberals would have to fear is liberalism itself.
Modest government grants to “faith based” social service agencies, such as the Salvation Army, are hardly breaches of the separation of church and state. After all, since the republic’s beginning, church property has been tax-exempt.
In addition to the Founders’ safeguards against a theocracy, that dire outcome is made virtually impossible by America’s religious and cultural diversity and the fact that no religious leader wants his “church” or any other religion to run the government. When citizens of any faith support the phrase “under God” in the Pledge or insist the Bible be taught as literature in public schools they do not call for theocratic government.
On the other hand, when some Evangelicals insist “evolution” should not be taught in public schools and “creationism” should, they attempt to stifle diversity and debate. Some literalists believe Earth was created 6,000 years ago, but they should not insist public schools teach only their views. They can freely teach their beliefs in their churches and religious schools.
On reflection, religious citizens and secular humanists may not be that far apart. They all are beneficiaries of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Many secularists drink from wells they did not dig and are refreshed by waters they are reluctant to acknowledge.
—Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power.