Theocracy 101

Dr. Brian Lee Pastor, Christ Reformed Church

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.

Theocracy is not any and every invocation of faith in the formation of policy. The Bible tells us that Israel was founded as a true theocracy, ruled by God and his laws alone — it was a nation focused on its religion, to serve as a light of salvation to the rest of the world. Divine revelation provided not only a moral code, but a civil one as well. Yet the people weren’t content with God’s rule, and asked for a human king to boot. Apparently, they wanted to blend politics with their religion, as so many still desire today — even atheists who desire for their atheism to be expressed in the political order.

Shaping policy on the basis of moral truth claims — whether they be drawn from reason or revelation — is an absolute necessity. No one on the left or right can avoid it, and all sides invoke rhetoric to emphasize this when it suits their causes. Thus the federal budget becomes a moral document and the tax code anti-family values.

Problems arise in the particular articulation of those claims. If you believe, as I do, that God’s truth informs policy debates through the truth he reveals in nature — what the old political philosophers called the “light of nature” — then reason and natural revelation are not entirely at odds. This view would hold that governments should be guided by God’s law, insofar as it is accessible to all men through their eyes and ears and consciences.

This is as far from theocracy as you can get.

But note that even those who want to use the moral precepts of the Bible to shape public policy are not necessarily theocrats. They are simply making moral truth claims to back up their policies, like everybody else. Unfortunately, in an increasingly pluralistic (and biblically illiterate) nation like ours, these truth claims are less compelling, and easily ridiculed by the opposition (for being “theocratic,” among other things).

To be fair to Milbank, the vast majority of his animus is towards Perry’s view of homosexuality, and ultimately, the Boy Scouts. Therein lies the incontrovertible evidence that Perry is a culture warrior of old, and therefore no libertarian.

Which raises the question: Can you be a culture warrior and an anti-government libertarian at the same time?

It’s useful to note that, properly speaking, libertarianism usually has more to do with economics than with social issues. But even if we grant a broader definition of libertarianism, it seems reasonable to hold that such a culture-warring libertarian could easily oppose government action in the social sphere while fighting on numerous other fronts.

Such a libertarian may believe Congress shall pass no law infringing access to abortions, while at the same time working hard to engender greater cultural respect for unborn life and encouraging adoption and other alternatives. They might work to promote education efforts that have brought opposition to widespread abortion to such high levels among our youth. Such a culture-warring libertarian might even invoke all sorts of religious rhetoric about the evils of abortion, the destiny of a culture that devalues the life of its weakest members and even the eternal judgment that will befall those who dedicate their lives to these evils. They might, but not if they want to be generally persuasive to a pluralistic society and ultimately win their culture war.

Milbank identifies the culture war with politics alone, because all is politics to him.

But, “it all comes back to the Boy Scouts,” that old culture-war chestnut. However, the question in that case is not a matter of whether one is for or against liberty, but rather whose liberty. The liberty of a private individual — a homosexual man — to be a Scout master, or the liberty of a private organization to insist its Scout masters seek to live according to a private moral code. Perry’s position is classically libertarian, in the sense that he opposes using government force via the courts to impose public morality on a private organization. Setting aside government force leaves open, mind you, other means to wage the cultural war for inclusiveness, including public opinion and moral reasoning.

It seems to me a reasonable homosexual might support Perry’s policy view while disagreeing with him on the morality of homosexuality. This on the basis of the light of nature, and in recognition of the fact that he may wish to form a private organization at some time which isn’t compelled by government to accept religious bigots.

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This all seems fairly obvious to even an amateur student of politics, which makes Milbank’s reporting all the more curious. It suggests that what really offends Milbank is Perry’s religious exclusivism. He has the temerity to believe that Christianity is true, and true in an objective sense for all people at all times. Thus, the following quotes are cited without comment, as prima facie evidence of theocracy:

“The truth of Christ’s death, resurrection, and power over sin is absolute … What we believe about it does not determine its truthfulness.” Perry has no use for those who “want to recognize Jesus as a good teacher, but nothing more.” Of those non-Christians, Perry asks, “why call him good if he has lied about his claims of deity and misled two millennia of followers?”

What about these private, religious claims even hints at theocracy? For Milbank, these religious claims are ultimately offensive because they would bolster the moral truth claim:

“The radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity. … They must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior.”

In other words, if Christian claims about Christ are objectively true, their moral claim about homosexuality is more likely true as well. And, importantly, true not just in a private sense of “true for me,” but true in the sense of “true for everyone. “

I can’t speak for Perry, and I don’t know enough about his view of homosexuality to advocate for or against it. But this quote expresses the great fear that motivates the believing right in America, the fear that their faith will be outlawed from above by a rising secular elite, that it will be outlawed non-democratically, by the courts.

This is not, as it is often portrayed, a xenophobic fear of foreigners or atheists or “the other.” It is a fear of unbelieving elites. The immigrant hordes in fact tend to be in favor of religious expression, and on the same side of this cultural divide.

It is a fear, rather, that the mere belief that homosexuality is a sin may be criminalized, and that the freedom to organize churches and schools and other organizations along the lines of that belief would be outlawed. It is a fear that the gay marriage debate is an attempt to use the state’s power to define marriage, over and against the church’s power to do so, and that it will result in the loss of more liberty than it gains.

Of course, the left fears for its religious freedom as well, its freedom to not practice religion, which we should all acknowledge and trumpet as one of the great successes of our republic. But this should not be confused with a freedom from ever hearing about God, or opposing truth claims, and asking with great patience what exactly it would mean to have them applied in the civil sphere.

Is there a way forward between these two fears? If there is, it requires a recognition that our civil government should be something less than a forum for affirming our own moral beliefs. That it is governed and affirmed by a natural light of reason accessible to all. And that it is fulfilling its purpose when it allows for the full flowering of even those religious views that most sharply oppose our own.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a Communications Director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.