Theocracy 101

It looks like the lack of sound religion reporting is going to be a real liability this campaign season. Recent weeks have shown that writers on the left are almost wholly ignorant of religion, and writers on the right are unwilling to dismantle the toxic confusion of God and politics lest they suppress the all-important faith vote.

I’m not sure, but I may be more troubled than Dana Milbank by Rick Perry’s particular blend of religion and politics. Milbank has to worry about him ruining his republic. I have to worry about him ruining that, and my faith.

But I also disagree with Milbank, and I think he doth protest too much — along with Ryan Lizza, Bill Keller and other secularistas in the media who have gone on the warpath of late against the religious rhetoric in this campaign. The attack isn’t surprising — it is early, after all, and the easiest way to discredit your opposition is to twist their rhetoric and impugn their associations. But their protestations on this score reveal how out of touch they are with religion, and that they are therefore unprepared to adequately analyze the likes of Perry and untangle his confusions.

Milbank’s latest effort at Perry-goring suffers from major lapses. First, he lowers the bar for the charge of “theocracy” to a laughably low level, providing not a syllable of evidence for it in his piece. Second, he conflates political libertarianism with behavioral libertarianism (if there is such a thing), or perhaps moral license or libertinism. Finally, he shows great discomfort with Perry’s willingness to talk about his private faith, insofar as it is an exclusivist religion. This says a lot more about Milbank’s political and religious categories than Perry’s, as is the case in most of the recent attacks.

Again, to be perfectly clear, I’m no advocate for Perry’s candidacy, or his religious rhetoric. To take but one example, I don’t think the name of my Lord Jesus Christ would be any less glorious if the bland name of civil religion’s “god” were scrubbed from the Pledge of Allegiance. Or, for that matter, if it had never been in the pledge, or if the pledge had never existed.

But since when is keeping “god” in the pledge theocratic?

Milbank doesn’t quite say that, of course. Let’s go to the tape, for the mechanics of the attack are key: “The governor forecasts divine punishment for those who hold different political views. ‘Shall they stand before God and brag that they fought to scrub His glorious name from the nation’s pledge?’ he asks.”

It’s not clear whether Milbank is more upset with the idea of future divine punishment on the day of judgment — a private religious belief (even when uttered publicly) if ever there was one — or the implicit condemnation of those who work to remove “god” from the pledge. Doesn’t everyone who believes in moral absolutes — the equality of homosexuals, the evil of abortion — believe that there is some sort of judgment in store for the violators? Future or present, divine or karmic?

But, of course, Perry isn’t actually saying that.

Perry is calling into question the secularist agenda in a fundamental — and wittily ironic — way. Is it really such a noble cause to dedicate one’s life to the removal of any references to god from all public speech? Is your lack of faith so empty as to motivate you to deny everyone else the profession of theirs? Are you going to stand before God and boast of your works — this work — oh wait, you don’t believe in God! That’s kind of funny.

Yes, Perry’s language is inflammatory, and probably intentionally so. He’s playing off his base’s fears, and needling his opponents for theirs. But it’s as far from theocratic as it gets. He’s making fun of those who have set changing the pledge as a policy priority, and advocating leaving well enough alone. Culturally conservative, yes. Theocratic, no.