Theocracy and the Risk of Rhetorical Hyperbole
Ed Brayton printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Apr 07, 2007 at 07:12:31 PM EST
Many prominent blogs, including many people I consider allies and colleagues, are participating this weekend in the Blogswarm Against Theocracy. It's a worthwhile project, of course, and I applaud the effort in general. However, at the risk of being accused of indulging in a self-aggrandizing iconoclasm, I'm going to take a slightly different tack. I'd like to take the opportunity to deliver a word of caution to people with whom I am generally allied in the fight against theocracy to avoid the kind of simplistic over-generalizing that we fight against and object to when it's engaged in by our opponents.

Let me start by being blunt: I think we overuse terms like "theocracy" and "dominionism" (and by "we" I mean those of us who are engaged in various culture war issues and in political battles against, for lack of a better term, the religious right). I'm not going to be specific on who I think does that, but I think it's something that needs to be confronted. I've written a great deal over the last few years against those who advocate theocracy; it's something I feel very strongly about and will fight to the bitter end to avoid.

But I think we must be careful not to allow that passion to override our intellectual rigor and cause us to paint with too broad a brush, or to over-apply a term to those who don't fit it. Too many on our side of the battle lines, I think, use those terms too broadly. In particular, I think we tend to throw it around too casually and stick it on someone for little reason other than guilt by association. I learned this lesson myself a couple years ago when I falsely labeled Herb Titus a reconstructionist.

Herb Titus used to be the dean of Pat Robertson's law school at Regent University. I had heard stories that he was fired because Robertson was trying to distance himself from Christian reconstructionists (that story came from Sara Diamond, a prominent anti-theocracy writer). I mentioned that story on this blog and was surprised to find out that one of my regular readers, who is an atheist, is good friends with Titus. And through a now-mutual friend, I got to go on a radio show with Titus and we began communicating after that. Turns out that story is false and that Titus is not a reconstructionist at all.

After appearing on the radio show with Herb, we had the opportunity to communicate. He also began communicating with Jon Rowe, who had also written that he was a reconstructionist. Herb was kind enough to send me copies of several articles and a book he's written on the subject and they show that he rejects reconstructionism, largely on theological grounds, and that his views, while I still disagree with them strongly, are not reasonably labeled that way.

Don't get me wrong: I strongly disagree with most of his positions on most issues (though not all of them). I find some of them quite disturbing. But he's not a theocrat, nor a reconstructionist. That he sometimes speaks at conferences with Gary DeMar and other actual theocrats does not make him one and we should be careful about glossing over genuine distinctions and differences of opinion even, perhaps especially, among those whose views we oppose.

Sometimes the overly broad generalizations turn into the absolutely absurd. For instance, I have seen several writers just casually combine theocracy with libertarian ideas. I presume they do this because some theocrats, like Gary North, like to call themselves "Christian libertarians." I've seen them claim that libertarians are somehow in league with theocrats to destroy democracy. This despite the fact that libertarians actually tend to be atheists and that theocrats are the furthest thing from libertarians.

I also don't think we should use the term theocrat to describe all conservative Christians, evangelicals or fundamentalists; that is simply painting with too broad a brush. A theocrat is someone who wants the country to be ruled by the rules of a particular religion, in this country nearly always Christian of course. It's reasonable, even necessary in my view, to fight against the views held by many conservative Christians; I do so constantly on this blog. But while people like Joe Carter and David Heddle may be conservative evangelicals, and I may disagree with them on most things, they certainly are not theocrats or dominionists, and it's not reasonable to lump them in with the RJ Rushdoonys of the world.

And when it comes to separation of church and state, we really need to distinguish between accomodationists and theocrats. Some people who oppose separation of church and state are theocrats who really do believe that the nation should be ruled based on Biblical law (Roy Moore, for example); most, however, are merely accomodationists, people who support non-coercive public propping up of religious belief in general. If that alone makes one a theocrat then George Washington and John Adams were both theocrats, and that's a pretty silly claim to make.

By over-generalizing we run the risk of ruining the word theocrat when it really does apply and becoming like the boy who cried wolf. Just because someone thinks the phrase "in God we trust" should be on the money doesn't mean they think we should be stoning homosexuals to death or imprisoning people for blasphemy. The vast majority of people who support such incidental government support for religion, I have no doubt, would be appalled by the idea of replacing the civil and criminal law of the land with the Mosaic law.

So that is my plea to those I know and to those I don't who are engaged in these culture war battles with me. Please be careful when using such terms and not apply them too broadly. We need not fall into the same trap that so many of our opponents do when they regularly paint anyone who disagrees with them as Satan-worshiping communists out to destroy Christianity. Save those labels for those they really fit so that we can preserve their meaning and engage our opponents with more intellectual seriousness than they often engage us with. There are real theocrats out there, some of whom have access to power, and they must be fought. But we do not help our cause in that fight by draining the relevance and meaning out of our rhetoric through overuse and false application.




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I'm glad you posted this piece. It is so important that we get our definitions and terminology correct. After all, if we don't then we're playing the same game of ambiguity played by our opponents.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Apr 08, 2007 at 09:43:48 AM EST

It is quite right to say that we shouldn't overuse the label "theocrat" and thus apply it in cases where it isn't appropriate.

However, we also shouldn't be so afraid of this that we over-restrict the term's use. We should not, for example, imagine that there is just one sort of situation that is theocratic, complete domination of biblical law, and that anything less is something else (like accommodationism).

To better understand why, consider the concept "democratic." Is there just one sort of way that a country can be democratic? No, there are lots of ways to implement democracy.

Is "democratic" so black & white that a country simply either is or is not democratic? No, nations can be more or less democratic -- some argue that America is less democratic that many European nations, for example. Democracy involves several principles that can be implemented to a greater or lesser extent in a variety of ways.

Must a person advocate a full spectrum of democratic measures before we say that they support anything "democratic"? No -- Iran is at least a little bit democratic, given that there are elections, so obviously there are people there who support some democratic principles, but not necessarily democracy to the extent that it exists elsewhere.

By the same token, there are different ways to go about implementing theocracy and it is possible to be more a less theocratic. A person who advocates a law solely on religious grounds, and for which there are no secular justifications, is adopting a theocratic position (in this subject area). A nation that implements religious laws in one area (say, marriage law) but not anywhere else is theocratic in that area. Moreover, even in a full-blown theocracy, not everything will be technically "theocratic." If the Reconstructionist fantasy were realized, for example, there would still be secular traffic laws. There is always a mix of some sort: more or less democracy, more or less theocracy, etc.

Neither of the first two above cases are of total theocracy being advocated or implemented, but this alone should not mean that they can't be described as theocratic -- at least when discussing the specific subject areas in question. We shouldn't limit "theocratic" to "pure" theocracies any more than we limit "democratic" to "pure" democracies (there ain't no such thing). We're used to people supporting democratic reforms without also supporting a full democracy, so saying one doesn't necessarily imply the other. We're not as used to this distinction when discussing theocratic "reforms," though, so it will be necessary to make the distinction clear.

Some people are full-blown theocrats who want a full-blown theocracy. There are many more, though, who advocate something less than a full-blown theocracy (maybe a little less, maybe a lot less), but which is still theocratic to varying degrees and in varying ways. Sometimes, pointing out that what they are advocating is essentially theocratic in nature may be a good way to get them to confront the real implications of their position. A person who really isn't a theocrat and who really doesn't want a theocracy will want to find a way to restructure their ideas to eliminate any theocratic aspects.

by Austin Cline on Sun Apr 08, 2007 at 04:45:55 PM EST


but I live in a world where I've never heard of most of the folks you talk about, with the consequence that the implications of the distinctions you are making seem vague.

People like me would be greatly helped if folks who are deep in the struggle against theocracy could help us understand a continuum of opinion that runs from a vague, but non-coercive, sense that this country ought to be more ruled by morals up to and through full blown Rushdoony dominionism. I don't know how to make those distinctions intelligently and I suspect there are people who write here who could help.
Can It Happen Here?
by janinsanfran on Mon Apr 09, 2007 at 03:26:26 PM EST

this is a theme we repeatedly come around to.

Chip Berlet and I in particular, have for years argued that using terms of description, defining them and using them fairly is the only intellectually honest and politically effective way to go.

Many people make at once a political, as well as a reportorial or intellectual error by abusing perfectly useful terms like theocracy, dominionism, or Christian nationalism. The principal abuse is using these terms as epithets; another, is to misapply terms, as Ed describes so well above. It is important to get facts right.  You can't have a good analysis without facts.

On other ocasions, some people use invented terms like Christofacist, American Taliban, and a host of other undefined epithets that roughly means: "I fear and don't like religious right."  Empty name calling and sloganeering are no substitute for solid information and careful analysis.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Apr 09, 2007 at 04:34:56 PM EST
Parent



Your message has been posted to the First Freedom First blog at www.firstfreedomfirst.org/. Beth Corbin First Freedom First Project Director - AU

by BAC on Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 01:21:23 PM EST
where of the cross posting:
http://www.firstfreedomfirst.org/node/485

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 01:46:11 PM EST
Parent



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