Ken Brown has a post pointing to Joe Carter’s essay on the subject of theocracy and the fear of it that is often expressed by those on the left. Carter argues that accusations that the religious right is pushing for theocracy are empty political rhetoric. While he admits that “some conservative Christians in our country do want to establish a theocracy” he also argues that their numbers “are rather negligible and their political influence almost non-existence (sic)”. I’m going to agree in part and disagree in part. Yes, I think the left often exaggerates the risk of theocracy and applies the term to people who aren’t really theocrats; on the other hand, I think Carter downplays the amount of influence that true theocrats do have within the various apparati of the religious right and even the Republican Party itself.
First, let’s define who we’re talking about. I don’t think that most religious right followers or leaders are actual theocrats. A theocrat is one who believes that religious law, as defined by sacred text, should be the civil and criminal law of the land. There are disagreements among theocrats as to which laws specifically should be enforced and how to do so, but this general definition works for our purposes. I think we should define this narrowly enough that it does not include, for example, someone who applies such laws only minimally.
For example, your average conservative Christian likely thinks, for example, that gay marriage should remain illegal and their primary motivation for thinking that is their understanding of the Biblical conception of marriage. But I don’t think that alone makes one a theocrat. The vast majority of people who are against gay marriage would not go so far as to actually institute the Mosaic law as the civil and criminal law of the land. I think it’s important to distinguish those whose political views are informed and shaped by their religious views – something unavoidable and normal, even if sometimes I find the results dangerous – from those who want to impose the whole of their religion’s laws as the law of the land.
Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, for example, do not quality as theocrats in my view. While it’s possible that, given the political power to do so, they would in fact turn out to be theocrats and would impose Biblical law directly through the civil and criminal law across the board, they at least do not advocate that position either politically or theologically. However, I would argue that the mainstream religious right, while not fitting my fairly narrow definition of theocrats, do at least make common cause with those who do and work side by side with them in many ways.
So who are the theocrats? They are people who hold to a position called, variously, Christian reconstructionism, dominionism (aka dominion theology), or theonomy. Generally speaking, they are post-millenial in their eschatology, though not always. They divide the Old Testament law into two types, moral and ceremonial. Ceremonial law, they argue, was made obsolete by Christ’s coming to earth, but moral law they view as applicable in all times and all places. Thus, they would institute the Mosaic moral law as the civil and criminal law in the US and around the world, unless such law was explicitly overturned in the New Testament.
The leaders of this movement include: Greg Bahnsen (though he is now dead, he remains enormously influential in Calvinist circles in particular); Andrew Sandlin, head of the National Reform Association; Gary North of the Institute for Christian Economics; Gary DeMar, head of American Vision; RJ Rushdoony of the Chalcedon Foundation (in many ways, the founding father of reconstructionism); John Lofton, Howard Phillips and the Constitution Party leadership; and Howard Ahmanson, a billionaire philanthropist whose money funds a wide range of religious right organizations. As we will see, these are not obscure men; they are deeply involved in religious right groups across the nation and prominent in politics as well.
One of the primary religious right groups that few have heard of is the Council for National Policy. The CNP acts as a sort of central steering committee for other religious right organizations. Founded by Tim LaHaye, who also co-founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, the CNP’s behind-the-scenes influence among the religious right can hardly be overstated. To give you an example of how this all integrates with politics, consider that Weyrich is also the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation.
The list of members of the CNP reads like a Who’s Who of conservatives, especially religious conservatives, from Jesse Helms to Jack Abramoff to Ollie North to Pat Robertson. But it also includes a large number of reconstructionists. The CNP Board of Governors and executive committes have included Howard Ahmanson (also a major funder of the Discovery Institute), Howard Phillips, Weyrich and many others with close ties to theocracy movements.
Some of these men are also high officials in the Republican Party itself. David Barton, who has very close ties to reconstructionism, is the vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and was a key advisor to the 2004 Bush campaign. Many others, including DeMar, are regular guests on conservative talk shows like Hannity and Colmes, or write columns for influential conservative outlets. So while it may be unfair to consider most religious right folks as theocrats, they at least make common cause with them often.
What are the chances of America actually becoming a theocracy? Pretty slim, I think. But I do think it’s important to recognize that there are genuine theocrats around and they are taken seriously in the halls of power. Contrary to what Joe Carter thinks, their influence is very real even if it is unlikely to result in an actual theocracy. But our side must be careful not to use the term theocrat to apply to all conservative Christians. If we do so, we risk being viewed as the boy who cried wolf. So let’s be specific about who we apply that label too and let’s not exaggerate the risks; but let us also not pretend that theocrats have no influence on the right because they surely do.