Theocracy and Atheocracy

One of the strangest charges tossed about in American politics in recent years has been the assertion that those on the “religious right” (i.e., conservative Christians, mostly Evangelical Protestants, who are active in politics) are “theocrats.” These folks, so the accusation runs, wish to transform the United States from a democracy into a theocracy.
When asked to give examples of what they mean by “theocracy,” the accusers point, correctly enough, to the ayatollah regime in Iran. Or they cite the system of church-state relations that prevailed in the Middle Ages. (Of course, one has to be woefully ignorant of medieval history to imagine that popes and bishops got along swimmingly with emperors and kings in those days, let alone to imagine that popes and bishops dictated to emperors and kings.) Or they cite the system that prevailed in 17th-century Massachusetts; and here they are closer to the mark, for that system really was a theocracy.
Now, if theocracy is defined as “government by clerics,” what evidence is there, one can ask, that religious conservatives wish to create such a government in America? In answer, those of what may be called the “irreligious left” make one of two moves. Sometimes they cite certain lunatic fringe groups or individuals who actually do wish to create something like a theocracy (this is done in the book American Fascists). But tarring all religious conservatives with this brush is equivalent to putting political liberals in the same category as those fringe communist groups that still survive in America. It’s not a description; it’s a libel.
The other, far more common move is to point to those religious conservatives who ardently wish to do two things: prevent the legal institution of same-sex marriage and make abortion illegal. “There you have it, plain as day,” the accusers say. “Those people want to impose their old-time Christian religion and their pre-modern sexual morality on all the rest of us — including scores of millions of Americans who are either non-Christians or Christians of a more modernistic stripe. If that’s not theocracy, I don’t know what is.”
(In passing, it is perhaps worth noting that if it is theocratic to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage, then the United States has been a theocracy during almost its entire existence. For it is only 35 years ago that abortion became universally legal in America, and right up to the present day same-sex marriage — or the same thing under a different name: same-sex civil unions — is still illegal in most jurisdictions. Thus Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, et al. were theocrats.)
But “imposing” your views on others doesn’t fit the dictionary definition of “theocracy.” For doesn’t the winning side “impose” its views on others every time we have an election or take a vote in a legislative assembly? Didn’t Lincoln “impose” his views regarding slavery and secession on the South? Was Lincoln thereby a theocrat?
But let’s waive the lexical point. No matter how ridiculous it may be, let’s grant for the sake of argument that those who don’t like abortion and same-sex marriage are theocrats. Fine — but what then are we to make of those who favor abortion and same-sex marriage? What are we to call those who wish to “impose” their pro-homosexuality and pro-choice views on society? By parity of reasoning, they must be the converse of theocrats. In other words, they must be atheocrats, persons who favor atheocracy. (Pardon me if I have just been guilty of coining a couple of words. Sometimes one has no choice.)
Having begun to put the shoe on the other foot, let me see if I can put both shoes on. It seems to me that those on the irreligious left are far more appropriately called atheocrats than are those on the religious right called theocrats. Many conservative Christians, it is true, hope the day will eventually arrive when the United States becomes a “Christian nation” — that is, when the overwhelming majority of Americans will accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But this is more of an abstract than a concrete hope. It depends on the will of God, and conservative Christians have no expectation that God will grant such a consummation in the remotely foreseeable future; indeed, almost none of them expects that God will ever grant such a happy mass conversion.
By contrast, secularists of the irreligious left have a decidedly concrete hope that the United States can be transformed into an essentially atheistic nation. They are confident that, not centuries from now but in the near future, an atheism-based system of moral values will come to prevail in America; that is, a system of great sexual freedom, of universally accepted abortion and homosexuality (not to mention bisexuality and transgender-ness), of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, etc. Regrettably, a certain amount of Christianity will survive; but it will survive as a strictly private, and somewhat shameful, thing. Being private and shameful, it will be in those respects something like masturbation — except of course that masturbation will be far more respectable than Christianity. For the merits of masturbation will be taught in public schools, whereas Christianity will remain unmentioned except for the Crusades and the Inquisition.
For those on the irreligious left, this atheocratic vision is not some “far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves.” No, it is their immediate agenda. If old-fashioned Christians fight back, this is not because of any theocratic ambitions on their part; it is because they are trying to avert the destruction of their religion.

By

David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Great stuff, Dave. I appreciate your lucidity and economy of language.

    Along with your point about the dogmatism of the “atheocrats” it can be pointed out how many of the movements that sympathize with them (and join in denouncing the Religious Right) likewise display the singleminded zeal, intolerance of heresy, and sense of evangelical mission that we’re taught to associate with the religious. Radical feminists and environmentalists, dogmatic multiculturalists, and so on.

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