Politics & Policy

Theocracy in America

CNN's latest hype explores the three tiers of the God squad.

For several weeks CNN has been hyping their miniseries God’s Warriors as an “unprecedented six-hour television event.” The series dedicates two hours each to “God’s Jewish Warriors,” “God’s Muslim Warriors,” and “God’s Christian Warriors.” Prior to the first airing, CNN invited several bloggers to preview a few clips from the series and to submit a question for Christiane Amanpour to be answered during a special webcast.

The three clips provided by CNN each highlighted one of the “fundamentalist” branches of the three Abrahamic faiths: the segment on Jews focused on theocratic Israeli settlers, including the man who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin; the segment on Muslims focused on theocratic British students, including the London subway bombers; the segment on Christians focused on Jerry Falwell and Liberty University.

I asked Amanpour if the juxtaposition could be viewed as guilt by association, equating Falwell with religious fanatics who are driven to murder. Her response was that the intention was to “look at the totality of the spectrum [of religious political involvement], from the violent to the legitimate.” She reiterated that the producers had no intention of creating a “moral equivalency” least of all “in the tactics used.

Much of the criticism leveled against the series so far has focused on this perceived equivalence of American Christians with suicide bombers and political assassins. But this misses a broader point. The producers of the series are not merely attempting to establish a moral equivalency, but rather promoting an equivalency of ideology. According to their narrative, Falwell, the “religious Right,” and other conservative Christians may not be violent, but like the fundamentalist Jews and Muslims they are attempting to establish a theocracy.

Theocracy, which literally means “rule by the deity,” is the name given to political regimes that claim to represent God on earth both directly and immediately. The role of the theocratic leader is to play the role of both priest and king, implementing and enforcing divine laws.

The term was first used by the Jewish historian Josephus to describe the way the Jews lived under the direct government of God himself. In ancient Israel everyone was a direct subject of Jehovah, who ruled over all and communicated through the prophets. This arrangement was short-lived, and the Jews eventually rejected theocratic rule in favor of an earthly king. While the sovereign did not always enforce all of the laws of the former theocracy, he retained the authority given to him “by God.” During the medieval era a similar version of this concept was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. The church instituted a form of Caesaropapism — a political system in which the head of the state is also the head of the church and supreme judge in religious matters.

Yet even though the concept of theocracy has its roots in Jewish, Catholic, and even Islamic history, the term has somehow become associated with conservative Protestant Christianity. Part of it can be explained as a result of a misunderstanding of the relationship evangelicals have toward both the church and state.

There is no denying the existence of fringe conservative Christians who subscribe to dominionism and seek to have the nation governed by their peculiar understanding of biblical law. But their actual numbers are negligible and their political influence all but nonexistent. As a group, dominionists slightly outnumber black separatists, though they are dwarfed by the number of “blue state” secessionists. In contrast, more than half of American evangelicals are either Baptists or nondenominational — groups that don’t even want a centralized church government much less a central government controlled by the church.

Despite this obvious fact, the specter of theocracy continues to haunt the secular Left. “Bush gets mandate for theocracy,” cried the Village Voice’s James Ridgeway after the 2004 election. Writing in The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich claimed that Bush’s faith-based welfare strategy “celebrates the downward spiral toward theocracy.” There is even a project called TheocracyWatch at Cornell University that focuses not on existing theocracies throughout the world but on “the pervasive role of the Religious Right in the U.S. government.” The misuse of the word has become so prevalent that I suspect that theocracy has become a code word for what legal scholar Eugene Volokh refers to as “trying to impose their religious dogma on the legal system.”

Indeed, this seems to be what Amanpour believes:

[I]n the Western and in the developed world, perhaps here in the 21st century we would have expected secularism and governance and politics to be what governs our daily lives,…We would not have expected, and perhaps we still don’t expect, religion to play such a real, present role in our daily lives, politics, and culture.

Amanpour’s dismay encapsulates the difference in perspective between people who believe that their faith informs all of life — including politics and culture — and those who believe religion should be kept secularly locked with the church, synagogue, or mosque. Amanpour and CNN have a peculiar, though increasingly common, view of liberal democracy: Everyone has a right to be heard — until they start listening to God.

— Joe Carter is the director of web communications at the Family Research Council and also blogs at the Evangelical Outpost.


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