Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly reviews four books by hysterical authors who think America is becoming a theocracy. It’s hopeless to argue with people who actually believe theocracy is a risk, and Douthat doesn’t. He mocks them well, though. Excerpt:
Whenever politicians invoke religion, Kevin Phillips suggests in a characteristic passage, the people perish: “The newly Christian fourth-century Rome of the Emperor Constantine and his successors held up the cross as Rome faced military defeat and crumbling frontiers from Hadrian’s Wall to Assyria. So did seventeenth-century Spain, the proud but ill-omened command post of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Vestments of crusaderdom also cloaked imperial Britain’s overreach in World War I and its aftermath.”
In addition to casting religious conservatives as mullahs, proto-fascists, and agents of American decline, this strict-separationist interpretation of world history frees the anti-theocrats from the messy business of actually arguing with their opponents. From sex education and government support for religious charities to stem cells and abortion, it’s enough to call something “faith-based” and dismiss it. Indeed, reading through the anti-theocrat literature, one gets the sense that the surest way to judge if a political idea is wrong, dangerous, or antidemocratic is to tally up the number of religious people who support it.
Except that nobody really believes this line. Just a few weeks before he announced that a “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, Garry Wills was in the New York Review of Books celebrating the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement and wiping a nostalgic tear from his eye as he declared that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” After years of blasting any religious encroachment on the political sphere as a threat to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial page awoke to find Cardinal Roger Mahony advocating civil disobedience by Catholics to protest an immigration bill—and immediately praised the cardinal for adding “a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics.” After spending two hundred pages describing all the evils that would pour through any breach in the wall between church and state, Michelle Goldberg suggests that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America’s moral fervor into a new social gospel.”
And just a chapter before launching into a florid denunciation of the Christian Right’s “lust for political power and cultural influence,” Randall Balmer celebrates Victorian evangelicals for taking on “the task of reforming society according to the standards of godliness,” and seeking “generally to make the world a better place.” He praises William Jennings Bryan for being “a political liberal by today’s standards” and even defends the Great Commoner against a “brutal character assassination at the hands of H.L. Mencken” during the Scopes trial—this from an author who devotes thirty pages to attacking Intelligent Design as a “battering ram” for theocrats bent on the “conquest of American society.” Bryan, Balmer explains, “had fewer qualms about Darwinism itself than he did about the social effects of evolutionary theory.”
A Christian is allowed to entertain such doubts, in other words, and allowed to mix religion and politics in support of sweeping social reforms— but only if those reforms are safely identified with the political Left, and with the interests of the Democratic party.
Bonus coverage: Earlier column at CE about theocracy in America.Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList