November 11, 2017
The United States is a representative constitutional democracy. In our constitutional democracy the authority of the majority is limited legally and institutionally, so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. In this way – if it works properly — the common good can be maintained, the human dignity and equality of all can be assured, and everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be maintained.
At various times in the history of our country, however, echoes of an undemocratic theocracy have reverberated across the land.
Nineteenth century Manifest Destiny, for example, stressed the virtues of the American people and their God-given mission to redeem and remake the world in the image and likeness of the United States.
At the end of the Spanish-American War (12 April 1898 – 9 August 1898), as the United States was becoming an imperial power, President William McKinley felt called by God and addressed a delegation of Methodist church leaders: “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came….that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker) and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.”
Like many of you, I remember the words of former President George W. Bush about invading Iraq: President Bush claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When he met with a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush told the delegation: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”
In a theocracy, religious belief shapes the law of the land, the head of state is considered divinely appointed; and religious leaders control society’s values and norms. Today we find powerful Islamic theocracies in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There is not much room in a theocracy for development, dissent, or debate because the society’s leaders are understood to speak and act with the authority of God. Most often, however, the theocratic God is one made in the image and likeness of authoritarian men and women.
The United States is not yet a theocracy, but we hear strong echoes of theocracy coming from the Donald Trump/Mike Pence presidential administration and their key advisors. A few days ago, ex-White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, gave a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Warren Michigan, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential election. In Bannon’s words, the anniversary should be called “the first anniversary of the high holy day of MAGA.” Bannon is a strange fellow who compares himself to “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, and Satan.” In his vision of America’s future, he calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He considers himself a Catholic Christian, but I see little in his value system that resonates with Catholicism or Christianity. If one can say he has a theology, it is a complex amalgam of varied and sometimes contradictory ideas drawn from far-right nationalism, alternative Christianity, pseudo-historical narratives, and Islamophobic fiction. There are no doubts about his influence on the rhetoric and early policies of the Trump administration. He was a co-author of Trump’s first inaugural address, with its refrain of “America first” and God’s chosen and “totally unstoppable” nation. Yes, Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council in April 2017; but hestill holds a key position as White House chief strategist, very close to the ear of the president.
One of Mr. Trump’s current key religious advisors is the Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress. In early August 2017, Jeffress praised President Trump’s aggressive statement about North Korea as an expression of God’s will. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers,” Jeffress said, “the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” Pastor Jeffress is using the Bible to publicly advocate for President Trump’s right to rule by divine fiat: basically that Trump can do whatever he thinks best.
Another key presidential religious advisor is Ralph Drollinger, a former NBA player, who founded Capitol Ministries (CapMin) 20 years ago, which originally focused on evangelizing politicians in Sacramento, CA. Today CapMin has greatly expanded its Washington DC influence on the Trump cabinet with a clearly theocratic focus. Drollinger dreams of an American Christian theocracy; and he wants “disciples of Christ” to take over the US Government.
Ralph Drollinger is ardently fundamentalist. He interprets the Bible literally. He believes the world was created in six days. He rejects the notion of human-made climate change and warns against the sin of homosexuality. A 2016 letter signed by Drollinger on the CapMin website says, “In no way is God’s Word pro LGBT. Only a Scripture twister could reason otherwise.” Drollinger also believes that women with young children who work outside the house are “sinners;” and he warns that Roman Catholicism “is one of the primary false religions in the world.”
Since March, Drollinger has been holding weekly fundamentalist Christian Bible-study sessions, in the White House, for Trump’s cabinet members. Drollinger has become the in- house spiritual advisor to Vice President Pence and Cabinet Secretaries Carson (Housing and Urban Development), DeVos (Education), Perry (Energy), Perdue (Agriculture) and Pompeo (CIA), Attorney General Sessions, and others close to the president.
Drollinger in fact now has three weekly Bible studies sessions in Washington DC: one for the House on Mondays, one for the Senate on Tuesdays, and the one for the Trump Cabinet on Wednesdays. His version of Christianity stresses that the state must become an “avenger of wrath” and pursue its God-given responsibility to “moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” His alternative Christianity has little place for Jesus’s stress on compassion, love, and tolerance. His vision is also strongly male-dominant. Drollinger again: “The Bible says that men need to be taught by men. It doesn’t ever say that women should be teaching men.… Of course, women can teach, but only women, or males under a certain age. But female legislators can also sit in on a male Bible study. I have a lot of female legislators that sit in on my ministry.… It’s hard to get around the fact God seems to be describing male leadership here. I may not have set it up the same way, but he did, and I just want to be true to that. That’s what it means to be a servant who just wants to carry the meal out of the kitchen correctly and not alter the meal.”
Nevertheless, the United States, to stress it again, is not a theocracy. It must not become a theocracy. I think the greatest problem in a theocracy is that the leaders of a theocratic nation use the fear of God to impose laws and programs that directly benefit only themselves. For a country to develop and improve, its leaders must recognize when change is necessary. Theocratic governments, however, cannot do this because they are usually grounded in an unchanging religious belief which must be obeyed as the primary truth. Finally, the punishments that are imposed on troublesome citizens in a theocracy are often primitive, inhumane, and cruel.
What to do? The biggest protection against theocracy is a strict separation of church and state. It protects the state. In ensures that legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government can freely exercise their responsibilities. It preserves, protects, and defends the constitution. A strict separation of church and state protects and safeguards religious institutions as well. It ensures that they maintain leadership and control over their own religious institutions.
A strict separation of church and state also protects what we call public morality. Public morality maintains the moral and ethical standards in a society that protect individual life and freedom and support and maintain the common good. For all social groups. For all religious groups. For all non-religious groups. For all racial groups. Etc.
Yes of course, religious institutions do have a responsibility to critique social attitudes and trends, and recommend appropriate changes and adjustments to public morality’s values and norms. They do not, however, control public morality. Their responsibility is to enter into the common good dialogue that must be part of any healthy society.
To summarize: In no way does contemporary America need a self-promoting Christian ayatollah to run the show….
Take care. – Jack