The American Prospect has an interesting review of books purporting to expose the imminent arrival of “theocracy” to America. Peter Steinfels takes a look at some of the arguments for this theory and finds them lacking:
But the idea, increasingly voiced by left-of-center activists and intellectuals, that religion is the driving force of the administration’s policies and the leading threat to American democracy is exaggerated and misplaced. Phillips, Rudin, and Goldberg themselves regularly stick qualifying phrases into their declarations of alarm. They know that fanaticism and nuttiness, including downright dangerous nuttiness, can be found all over the place in a religious and political landscape as vast and diverse as America’s. And they know better than to equate hardcore religious-right leaders and organizations, let alone the still smaller kernel of literal theocrats, with evangelical Americans in general, who constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of the population and who have swung massively into the Republican camp in the last three decades.
The task, in other words, is not simply to shine light on faith-based anti-democratic currents but to map context, patterns, proportions, and trends, tracing not only real connections but also deep differences between what’s marginal and what’s central. This task, in the end, they fail to accomplish.
The “theocrat” slur is a particularly dumb one, and it’s being driven by the anti-religious bigotry of the secular left more than anything else. What passes for “theocracy” these days has been commonplace throughout American history, and yet America has never fallen into “theocratic” rule. Steinfels is quite right to point out that 30-40% of the American electorate consists of evangelical Christians — if the Democrats want to alienate all those voters, they’re going to have virtually no chance of ever winning an election in this country.
Steinfels also points out the larger theoretical problem with the anti-“theocrat” bandwagon:
Exaggeration and inaccuracy also matter because they decrease any chance of mobilizing the opposition to the country’s current course, as these writers ardently desire. They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.
He’s exactly right on that. As much as the secular left hates the idea, religious experience has always been a major element in American life. The rhetoric of the left alienates not only Christian fundamentalists, but the evangelicals who make up a significant portion of the mainstream of American society. For all its allusions to the supremacy of logic and rationality, it really is based in the most naked bigotry. It rudely and arrogantly treats all people of faith as being stupid for believing in something beyond the sphere of human perception.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t groups that misuse religion — but the rise of secular fundamentalism alienates all those people of faith from making rational stands against the misuse of religion in the public sphere. It polarizes everyone into either defending or rejecting religion itself rather than having a substantive conversation about the place of religion in society. This causes problems, even for those who might share many of the same convictions as the anti-“theocracy” crowd:
At the end of her book, calling for a movement to oppose the theocrats, Goldberg runs up all the old banners of the war between secularism and religion, pitting “freedom and Enlightenment” against “stale constricting dogmas” and “holy books.” Reading those words, I question not only whether I — and a lot of people like me — belong in her ranks, but also whether she, or Kevin Phillips, or even my friend Jim Rudin, really want us.
It would seem that secular fundamentalism is no less arrogant, no less dogmatic, and no less immune to reason than its Christian counterpart.