Saturday, May 13, 2006

American Theocracy? David Broder Responds

I was fortunate enough to hear Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Broder speak on the campus of Central Michigan University today. He is an excellent speaker and I enjoyed his presentation. He gave an overview to the state of American politics. In addition to talking about the war in Iraq, he also discussed health care, energy costs, budget deficits, immigration, and baby boomer politicians.

Afterwards, he opened himself up to the audience for questions and comments. I thought he gave a thoughtful response to one question. An audience member asked, “Do you think America is currently a theocracy?”

Broder used history to guide his response. He answered no. Broder explained that America has seen numerous waves of faith-based activism in the past including the abolitionist movement, prohibition, and the civil rights movement. All of these faith-based groups brought politicians to power. After initial success, those faith-based politicians who became dismayed by the compromises required by politics eventually went back to church organizations. Those faith-based politicians who discovered they liked politics learned to compromise and made good contributions to the country. Broder thinks the current group of faith-based politicians in the Republican Party will follow the same pattern.

Another audience member objected to this. He said, “But isn’t this different than those in the past who were working for social justice? Isn’t the current example different as they are forcing their religious beliefs on everyone else?” (I guess he feels that those on the left motivated by religion are examples of social justice in action but those on the right motivated by religion must be closet theocrats.)

Broder disagreed. He invoked prohibition as an example. He noted that those trying to dry up the country were attempting to impose their values on everyone else. Broder stated, “Absolutism is absolutism.” I will add that the abolitionist movement was very successful at imposing their faith-based view of slavery on the entire nation as well. That noted, was the success of the abolitionists and prohibitionists in gaining and exercising power examples of past American theocracies? I would argue no and I think it is safe to say Border would as well.

I think the whole question of whether the current Republican leaders in power are evidence that America is currently a theocracy is because many people do not understand or are deliberately misusing the word theocracy. Theocracies by definition create a single state faith, discourage or outlaw other religions, refuse to allow believers of other religions to hold political office, and are effective at censoring the media.

Looking around America today, there is no mandated state religion, thousands of faiths flourish including Islam, non-believers including atheists and agnostics run for and win political office, and the media continually finds ways to offend people of all faiths at different times. Two major power blocks within the Republican coalition (the Mormons and the Southern Baptists) have very different religious outlooks. The Baptists even consider the Mormons to be a cult. Despite this, the two get along very well politically which would never happen in a theocracy. Is America a theocracy? Reality says no and it takes a great deal of mental gymnastics and redefinitions of theocracy to even make a case that it is.

Despite the success of American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips and the fear of some who object to religion coupled with conservatives, the theocracy argument is dead on arrival. It just does not make sense. I am grateful to David Broder for framing his rebuttal of this theocracy claim in historical terms.


Wilson said...

Hear, hear! I happen to think the "American theocracy" trope is one of the silliest and least productive in politics today (right up there with the Christian right's idea that "God is banned from school"). It is yet another attempt to poison wells and avoid even-handed debate on particulars.

Thunder Pig said...

Don't forget the Catholics, who are, I would argue, as influential as The Southern Baptists, especially in the party hierarchy and right-leaning radio and television.

Miland said...

"Don't forget the Catholics, who are, I would argue, as influential as The Southern Baptists, especially in the party hierarchy and right-leaning radio and television."

Absolutely. And that is further evidence of a lack of a theocracy. It is astonishing how many faiths have come together to help the Republicans.

I guess by theocracy many mean "a democratically elected government which religious people of many differing and competing faiths and creeds helped to elect which is conservative and annoys many who hold liberal views."

VanillaMan said...

What is even more remarkable about the abolitionists is the fact that these Christians pushed their belief against slavery in spite of Biblical stands. It is the first time we had seen Christian break from the Bible politically. We have forgotten how controversial abolitionists were in their days.

As for today, it is thoroughly ridiculous to hear Democrats carp about Bush, when they gave us the most self-righteous Jesus freak of all presidents, Jimmy Carter. Carter actually taught Bible classes in the White House, authored books about his religious beliefs and campaign in 1976 as a born again Christian. It is silly to hear Democrats hurl charges of narrow minded fundamentalism in light of the facts that they have used these same beliefs to push their agendas.

Charges of theocracy is blantant stupidity and those who believe it need to understand what the world is all about.