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."
Writing in First Things, Ross Douthat explains a problem with the theo-panic, which is that the influence of institutional religion is at a low ebb: "No prelate wields the kind of authority that Catholic bishops once enjoyed over urban voters, no denomination can claim the kind of influence that once belonged to the old WASP mainline, and the evangelical Protestantism that figures so prominently in anti-theocracy tracts is distinguished precisely by its lack of any centralized ecclesiastical government."
The truth about Christian conservatives is that they support public-policy goals infused with a certain view of morality. This isn't unusual. The greatest reform movement of the 20th century — the civil-rights movement — was explicitly Christian. Today, the opposition to torture is based on a moral view that trumps all practical considerations (the inviolable dignity of the human person). A moral sense is often behind the liberal opposition to the Iraq War and to the death penalty. No one in American politics says, "I believe this is immoral and therefore should become the policy of the United States."
Some of the anti-theocracy writers claim that what sets Christian conservatives apart is that their advocacy is explicitly religious. But most of the time it isn't. Take the high-profile issue of abortion. It doesn't take any particular religious faith to think that embryos in the womb are humans deserving protection — the key claim of abortion opponents. But their critics don't want to hear it.
For such self-professed advocates of reasoned discourse, they show an appalling tendency to want to shut down the other side with their swear word of "theocracy." They are emotional, self-righteous and close-minded. They are, in short, everything they accuse Christian conservatives of being. When the theo-panic passes, maybe a few of them will regret their hysteria.
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