On Faith: Democracy vs. Theocracy | perspective


About a week ago, Robert Reich published a revealing essay in the US edition of The Guardian entitled “The Second American Civil War Is Already Happening” (May 11). At one point, he finds a succinct phrase to make a key observation: “The red zip codes keep getting redder and the blue zip codes keep getting bluer.” He sees a split in our nation into two nations that are forced to live side by side – not happily . In his usual thorough and scholarly manner, Reich presents many observations that support his thesis.

But one observation does not appear in his essay and I think it is important. As part of this two-nation mutation, there are increasingly two opposing approaches to how religion should function in society: one approach holds that our democracy must remain carefully neutral to religions and denominations, in accordance with the opt-out clause in our constitution; the other approach wants to increasingly make our democracy a semi-theocracy – one in which our system of government and our laws are to be based largely on a very conservative and fundamentalist brand of Christianity. There are now Protestants and Catholics pushing in this semi-theocratic direction.

This is why the red-blue split is becoming so vehement and many consider the other side to be “evil”. If civil wars are bad for you, think about how bad religious wars were – and how they can last not just for years but for decades and even centuries. In his essay, Reich leaves religion out of his equation. In a way I don’t blame him – it’s too painful and too scary.

But that’s all the more reason why we need to face him and speak to him. As it is now, the fundamentalists are beginning to gain the upper hand (even globally) – particularly in relation to requiring governments to obey religious laws and in relation to the conflation of religion with nationalism. This is happening not only in the US, but also in a number of Muslim countries with fundamentalist Salifi versions of Islam. In Israel, the orthodox fundamentalist Haredim are causing major problems, making governance difficult and compromise impossible. In Putin’s Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church is now fundamentalist and strongly nationalist.

There are many religious people in America who are not fundamentalists and do not want their country to become theocratic. Statistics show that these non-fundamentalists are in the majority. We must strive to help their voices be heard. In the US, only 25-30% are fundamentalist Christians (according to the Pew Research Center). This is clearly not a majority, but it is a voting bloc that can influence elections – as we saw in 2016.

We in the liberal, largely non-fundamentalist Christian West, and particularly in the US, must do much more to make moderate and responsible religious voices heard. The US and world media must stop giving religious fundamentalists front pages and front row seats for their positions – no matter how insane they may be – while all too often ignoring non-fundamentalist religious positions.

The fundamentalist right-wing nationalist wing in America makes it almost impossible to have a rational and compassionate discourse on crucial issues related to: sex and sexuality, family planning, immigration, gun control, suffrage, Israel, separation of church and state, conservation of democratic rule, coexistence with Islam and many other issues that have now become political land mines.

These are all issues that are complex and critical to our nation’s existence and future. The answers to these questions are not found by simply reading the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah over and over again. I am absolutely in favor of people studying and respecting these books and these religious traditions. I do it myself. However, various individuals and peoples at various times and places throughout history have attempted to establish theocratic forms of government based on these books – they did not end well, not well at all. Finally, look at what is happening in Afghanistan and Iran. Further back, the fundamentalist Puritan theocratic government in Massachusetts ended with Salem witch trials.

So I have a real problem staying philosophical about the “second American civil war.” I can’t be as calm as Prof. Reich seems to be. I cannot reconcile living with or accepting the stalemate of the status quo that we find ourselves in because I think it pushes us towards a religious war rather than a civil war. We don’t want to go there. I’m not sure if the country can survive going there.

There are those reading this who will say about now, “Well, that’s exactly why we need to shut down religions, expel them, they only cause trouble and violence, there’s no place for them in the modern world, they make bad citizens. ‘ No, it is a bad religion that breeds bad citizens. Not all religions are bad citizens.

And further, perhaps most importantly, we know that bad religion, or no religion at all, produces very bad rulers. We are seeing two classic examples right now: Trump and Putin. Neither is for a minute serious about their religion except how it can be manipulated (cynically and pragmatically) in the service of autocratic rule and nationalism.

For those who think we would all be better off without religion, consider the violently anti-religious forms of government created under Hitler, Stalin and Mao. When those in power have no guiding principles other than the will to power and Machiavellian pragmatism, all hell breaks loose, killing millions and millions of people. The 20th century has proved this point beyond any doubt. Sorry to keep bringing this up, but those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. It’s worth saying that more than once.

Also, “turning off religion” is far easier said than done. Humans are religious by nature and have been for thousands upon thousands of years. If you abolish religions, people will turn the state and nationalism into a religion. The trick is to eliminate the bad religions or at least minimize their influence. One of the best examples of the worst religion in modern times (since the Renaissance) is theocracy or semi-theocracy.

Theocracy and democracy cannot coexist. They are like matter and antimatter. All governments and all politicians must remember this. And all members of the US Supreme Court need to remember that, especially now. We live in a country where, according to the constitution, no religion or denomination is allowed to impose its will on all people.

We have to keep it that way.

John Nassivera is a former professor who remains a member of Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.


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