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American Theocracy

By RickO ~

Dixie County Courthouse Ten Commandments Monument (Cross City, Florida)I recently read a post on Facebook that began with the comment, “Will Washington ever declare: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord?’" The Post linked to an online article entitled: “If There Can’t Be a Christian Nation, Can There Be Anything Christian at All?(1) I was curious and read the linked article. The article tried to address the question why the United States could not be a Christian Nation; not just a country inhabited by a large population of self-identifying Christians, but a nation governed as such. What the article and the poster are clearly advocating is an American Theocracy, plain and simple.

There is an endless litany of reasons why it is a really bad idea, no matter what you believe, but nevertheless, there is a measurable fraction of the population who truly believe theocracy is the only form of government that would ever be acceptable to them.

When you seek to bridge the divide between religion as a personal pursuit, a family practice or the group activity of a church, and attempt to install religion as the structural foundation of a government and its legal system, you enter a very different world; a world where either your religion becomes someone else’s reality, or someone else’s religion becomes yours. The concept of legislative fealty to a deity may seem favorable to the nascent theocrat, but the implementation is a different matter altogether.

Let’s engage in a simple thought experiment. Let’s compress that nearly imperceptible slow creep toward theocracy into a sudden mandate. A new Congress is seated and their top priority is to make the sweeping changes needed to recast the United States as the “Christian Republic of America”; a full-throated theocracy where the words “Jesus Is Lord” is to be the official national motto. Exuberant platitudes are bleated from the floors of the House and Senate. Now for some minor technical details:

Which of the 38,000 Christian denominations (or organizations), many at irreconcilable odds with each other, would rule a "Christian Nation"? Even if you boiled that number down to the top 5 major groups, by membership (voters), they differ greatly.

The top 5 religious organizations in the United States are (2):
  1. Catholic (67.2 million)
  2. Baptist (24.9 million)
  3. Methodist (8.2 million)
  4. Mormon (5.5 million)
  5. Pentecostal (5.4 million)

These top 5 organizations represent roughly 75% of registered voters in the U.S. (143 million).

So what flavor of Christianity should we be based on? Should we be a Catholic nation, a Mormon nation, a Southern Baptist nation, a milquetoast Methodist nation, a faith-healing-tongues-speaking Pentecostal nation, or maybe a strict Evangelical fundamentalist nation? All these groups claim the mantle of true Christianity and have millions of members. So who gets to decide? Because of the inflexibility of the various theologies, would it even be possible to use the center of the Venn diagram of where these groups’ theologies overlap as the basis?

Or, to make it somewhat generic to all of them, perhaps we would amend the U.S. constitution to strike the separation clause in the 1st amendment and replace it with a new amendment that reads something like this:

"The Laws set forth in the Christian bible, commonly understood as the Laws of God, including but not limited to the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, shall be the laws of the United States in their entirety, enforceable and subject to the penalties described therein without deviation."

"The Laws set forth in the Christian bible, commonly understood as the Laws of God, including but not limited to the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, shall be the laws of the United States in their entirety, enforceable and subject to the penalties described therein without deviation." This is somewhat comparable to what we find in Islamic nations (not just nations with lots of Muslims in the way America has lots of Christians today, but nations referring to themselves as an "Islamic Republic"). They have their own scripture-based legal system—Sharia—and, under the legal codes of these countries, one can be jailed or executed for things like blasphemy or apostasy. In the more extreme cases, the honor-killing of a woman who has been raped (and because she was raped) is condoned. Much of Sharia is consistent with the Old Testament, particularly the treatment of women compared to men.

All but one of the Exodus 20 Decalogue (Ten Commandments) come with a mandatory death penalty. The Exodus 34 version of the Decalogue (the replacement set for the ones Moses smashed) is just wacky but carved in stone nonetheless. But then there are many versions of the bible too (Septuagint, Vulgate, Luther's German Bible, KJV, RSV, NIV, Young’s Literal Translation, etc.). Who decides the official American version? Who gets to decide which parts of the bible we strictly adhere to and which parts we ignore or simply tone down a bit? Who settles the many contradictions? Is it even possible to decide these things through a democratic process or would we simply have to have an "Ecclesiastical Council", run by the equivalent of an Ayatollah, to decide these highly subjective things and implement them by edict?

Just to thicken the stew a bit, the Roman Catholic Church is the single largest religious organization in the U.S., arguably the most cohesive, certainly the wealthiest, and includes nearly one quarter of the country’s population and a much larger global population. If a democratic theocracy was even possible, the Catholics would likely hold a substantial plurality. Would this give the Vatican certain jurisdiction within in the United States government?

Religious groups, self-identified as Christian, are widely diverse and can even be plotted on a gradient. For example, as a child, I lived in St. Albans, Vermont. One block off Main Street is Church Street. It is literally a block of cathedral-sized churches situated in the following order: Congregationalist, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian and Catholic. It’s clear the city planners knew they needed to locate churches according each ones’ most acceptable neighbors.

When someone suggests we should officially be a Christian Nation, they are certainly envisioning something modeled after their own particular theology with little tolerance for anyone else’s. But you can't even get all the members of one little church to agree on things and they end up splitting off into other churches, often with much acrimony. How could you possibly expect to get an entire nation to even agree on the most basic definition of a “Christian Nation” when a large fraction of the population is atheist, agnostic, non-religious, Jewish, or otherwise not interested in Christianity at all? Are those people simply forced into obeying laws which are solely based on Christian traditions? The likely answer is that it would be absolutely impossible to implement a theocracy peacefully or democratically. So how, then, is it implemented? What does our hypothetical Congress do to serve their mandate?

We need look no further than other existing theocracies in the world to see a vision of how it might unfold in the United States. There are really no Christian theocracies anywhere today so the best examples would be Iran and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, under the Taliban, is perhaps the most severe example of a country living under the equivalent of Old Testament culture and law. In fact, were it not for the modern weapons and occasional combustion engine, life in Afghanistan is nearly indistinguishable from life as it was described in Deuteronomy. This is because any modernity is all but strictly forbidden under the most conservative religious ideology in the world. While Afghanistan is a living diorama of the Old Testament, Iran, on the other hand, is a better example of a functioning theocracy in the modern world. A pseudo democracy with a president and a parliament, it is actually governed by a shadow organization that holds sway over the government apparatus. The Supreme Leader is elected by the Council of Experts (a group of Islamic scholars) and is more powerful than the president. The Supreme Leader controls the military, the judiciary, the media and all other Iranian institutions in order to ensure that the country remains true to the brand of Islam that underpins their theocracy. Iranians are generally free to live their lives as long as they play by strict and suffocating rules. If you happen to be a devout Shi’ite, specifically a Twelvist, Iran is probably not a bad place to be. But if you are not, well, it sucks to be you.

Incidentally, I did not mention Saudi Arabia as a comparison because it is a privately-owned kingdom, named after its owners, and is relevant because of its oil reserves and the geographic location of Mecca. But like Iran and Afghanistan, as well as others like them, they lead a tenuous existence. But for their brutal authoritarian governments, they are powder kegs ready to explode into violence between the oppressed and oppressors; states existing on the brink of failure. A failed theocracy is very difficult to recover from. See: Somalia.

Christian apologists may refute the example of Islamic nations by saying that because they practice Islam--a false religion in their view--they bring it upon themselves. God is not with them. They surmise it would be different for us in our Christian utopia, blithely assuming our so-called “American Exceptionalism” would remain intact under the new theocratic republic. While it is usually unproductive to argue that point beyond the idea that the troubles in the Islamic world are self-inflicted, a rare point upon which we could agree, it still does not address the very same questions of governance we would face. To the neutral observer, the similarities between Islam and Christianity are far greater than their differences. Both claim a monopoly on the truth and both are unswervingly dogmatic at the fundamental level. This means, in any case, a theocracy must be a harshly authoritarian regime in order to succeed to any degree. And it has a shelf life. The longer it exists, the more difficult it is to maintain. As we’ve seen, a theocracy typically begins with revolution and ends with tremendous violence and bloodshed after a brief period of euphoria followed by a few decades of increasing turbulence.

And all for what? The true belief in the one true religion and expectation that it will maintain power until the great day of judgment, be it the rapture, the second coming of Christ, the appearance of the 12th Imam, or whatever your particular apocalyptic expectation is. Certainly a fledgling theocracy does not envision its own eventual violent demise even as the full force of its energy is spent on preserving itself until the day its energy is exhausted. But this is the trajectory and outcome of every theocracy that has ever existed.

Insanity is colloquially defined as repeating the same thing, over and over, expecting a different outcome.

The people who founded the United States of America and wrote its constitution lived during the European inquisitions and knew the dangers in the nexus of religion and government. They also understood that people come from many faiths, including no faith, and in order to be a truly free society, there was to be no respect for the establishment of any particular religion. All of us, no matter who we are, are very fortunate we have a constitutionally secular government. We can live as we see fit and believe, or not, in our own way, without anyone trampling or coercing us into something else. We should keep it that way forever.



(2) These are approximate conservative numbers based on the average of easy-to-find statistics. For clarity, Baptist includes several different denominations combined. (To me, a Baptist is a Baptist even if they don’t think so.)