In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell governed England with a cadre of major generals, establishing a kind of low-church Protestant theocracy. Catholic priests were chased from the country, and Anglican clergy were suppressed. Censorship and blue laws were tightened.
What does Cromwell's rule have to do with contemporary American political life? If your answer is anything other than "nothing," you are probably in the grip of the "theo-panic" that is sweeping precincts of the American commentariat. They warn that America is beset by raging theocrats seeking to overturn our liberal democracy.
Otherwise respectable historians, Kevin Phillips and Garry Wills, have made this charge. It is a staple of The New York Times op-ed page. It has launched a slew of books with dire warnings: by Michelle Goldberg ("high tide for theocratic fever"), by James Rubin ("an effort to change America into a Christian theocracy") and by Damon Linker ("the end of secular politics").
The theocracy charge relies mainly on blowing Christian conservative positions out of proportion. Do Christian conservatives oppose the public funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research? Well, then, Calvin's Geneva can't be far behind. Never mind that in opposing such funding, they are usually supporting the status quo. It's a little like saying that because Democrats oppose cuts in Medicaid, they favor a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Purveyors of the theo-panic love to exaggerate the influence of the bizarre Christian Reconstructionists who actually want an American theocracy. As New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels notes in a review of the spate of new books, Christian Reconstructionists play "a greater role in the writings of the religious right's critics than they ever have in the wider evangelical world." He notes that the flagship evangelical journal, Christianity Today, almost never shows up in these books, because, inconveniently, it is "moderate, reflective and self-questioning."
National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out that you can take all Christian conservative positions — including far-fetched ones like banning sodomy and contraception — and if they happened overnight they "would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy."