Theocracy Without God

Yesterday in the roundtable discussion on ABC’s This Week George Will characterized former Pennsylvania senator Rich Santorum as an evangelical Christian. A bit later he was gently corrected by another of the panelists: Mr. Santorum is, in fact, a Roman Catholic albeit of a very conservative type (very much the sort actively encouraged by John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI). Back to this later.

I’m not a sports fan. I’m not parituclarly a fan of evangelical Christian denominations. I am especially not a fan of political organization from an evangelical Christian pulpit or any pulpit for that matter. I’m somewhat bemused by all of the furor surrounding Tim Tebow.

I wouldn’t even know his name if it weren’t for this furor. Commentaries on the furor frequently contrast the reaction to the treatment of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and Shawn Green, Jewish baseball players who demurred from playing on the High Holidays. The commentators sometimes speculate that they aren’t particularly concerned about a Jewish theocratic takeover of the U. S. I think that’s only partly correct.

Judaism is a tribal or national religion rather than a universal one like Christianity or Islam. Although they accept converts as a rule they don’t proselytize. Christians, on the other hand, do proselytize—indeed, it’s an obligation of their faith.

Largely out of a sense of self-preservation born of a millennium of European persecution, Jews tend to keep their religion out of the public square and, although I have no specific evidence to confirm this, I suspect that they’re uncomfortable with others displaying their religions in public. I think this is less the case than once it was, at least locally. Here in Chicago, for example, it used to be the case that synagogues were virtually invisible. That’s no longer the case.

I suspect that, particularly in the national news media, that Messrs. Greenberg, Koufax, and Green avoided criticism because public anti-Semitism was no longer acceptable there. Or perhaps it was because they were baseball players, something of a national religion itself.

I’ve got to admit that I’m confused about the worries about theocracy. Of course the values held by evangelical Christians inform their political views and of course they want to see them enshrined in law. The same is true of humanists and atheists. Is it possible to have a theocracy without believing in God? If your definition of theocracy is displaying your beliefs in the public square, allowing them to inform your political views, and wanting the law to instrumentalize those views, I think it’s obvious that it is.

The constitutional prohibition of funding religion through tax dollars and protection of the free exercise of religion is not a demand to remove religion from the public square but a call for tolerance of the religious views of others. We may not agree with those others but I don’t think we can simultaneously accomplish the tolerance required while despising them. We can disagree, deny, be amused, be confused, but not despise.

I don’t know what George Will’s religious beliefs are, if any. I suspect that he’s a secularized Episcopalian. Confusing Roman Catholicism with evangelical Christianity is peculiar to say the least, particularly for someone who was an undergraduate religion major. Are all of those religious nutcases really the same?

31 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I think George Will is an agnostic.

    But I think we’ve argued about this before. The term “evangelical” Christian seems unmoored from a clear definition, and I’ve seen surveys where Roman Catholics identify as “evangelical,” which to me suggests at least some are using it to describe a certain type of religious enthusiasm.

    I think over time, the word will be used more to describe the rise of non-denominational Protestantism, which itself is unmoored to many of the doctrines and theological arguments of past centuries. And even distinct from the dogmas of the Five Fundamentals of fundamentalism.

  • Drew Link

    As someone with absolutely no reigious training or history I have trouble even following some terminology here. Just a couple throwaways…

    While at the bank I worked with a predominantly Jewish staff and predominantly Jewish attorney’s. To Dave’s (I think) point, they were remarkably reserved and welcoming wrt various religious – as they would always say – “traditions.”

    There is a struggling blogger I occasionally write for/am a thought partner with who is an “evangelical.” We have had an ongoing debate/discussion about how they will deal with Romney. (I’ve thought he was the inevitable nominee for two years.) Its interesting. He will support ABO, but he’s not sure evangelicals will. I advise him that if the government turns a few more percent of the electorate into state dependant entities evangelicals social views will be mute.

    By the way, I’m agnostic. I think its the only intellectually pure position one can have unless you default to blind faith. I’m not big on blind faith.

  • I’ll take issue with the paragraph you wrote beginning “Judaism Is a tribal or national religion.” My father, Joseph, the Commie pinko carpenter reared us on the teachings of Rabbi Levi Olan.

    Daddy watched his broadcast “religiously” on Sunday mornings.

  • sam Link

    Theocracy Without God…Flannery O’Connor took this seriously. She thought it was the logical conclusion of protestantism as exemplified by the Southern versions she was familiar with.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I don’t agree with the “of course,” argument. I’m an atheist, but I’m in no hurry to see my values enshrined in our politics. I’m not even sure what that would look like. A constitutional amendment requiring skepticism? Outlaw Sunday school?

    I don’t see the rationale for tax-exempt status for churches, but I wouldn’t try to make that policy. It would be an unnecessary attack just to demonstrate some abstract principle. I don’t care if there’s a manger scene in a public park or whatever. I find street corner preachers irritating but I wouldn’t send the cops around to tune them up.

    I’m not a tribalist, it doesn’t have to be “my people” against “your people.” The “other” doesn’t bother me, rather the contrary, I like variety. I like a country full of people who look different and sound different (one of the reasons I got quickly bored with Italy) and believe whatever nonsense they want to believe so long as they extend that same courtesy to everyone else. The only reason I even think of myself as Jewish is because anti-semitism persists. If you could snap your fingers and suddenly no one was determined to murder Jews I’d dismiss the entire ethnic identity thing as a minor historical curiosity.

    My beef with religious politicians is not with what they believe but with what they do. It doesn’t matter to me if they don’t approve of gay people, so long as they don’t use that belief as a pretext for turning some of my fellow Americans into second-class citizens. It’s about actions, not beliefs. Believe whatever you want to believe, leave other people alone — those would be American values not atheist values.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Drew, I see “evangelicals” as a political identifier, as a self-conscious attempt to broaden the group of people who identify their politics with Christianity beyond the “fundamentalists” that became prominent in the 80s. There are not many Christian fundamentalists outside of the South, and the movement essentially organized around the notion that the foremost problem is that other churches aren’t Christian or aren’t Christian enough. Political dead end.

    The exemplar of evangelicalism, is Billy Graham, who offended fundamentalists by suggesting that Catholicism was not a heresy and that Protestants should work with Catholics on matters they agree on. By broadening the identifier, however, you end up with polls (as Alex Knapp likes to point out) that show a not insignificant number of evangelicals identifying as liberals or supporting liberal policies.

    So, I’m not surprised that some people who identify as Christian won’t vote for a Mormon; I think the question is whether they will be significant in any swing state and whether there is any pushback from evangelicals.

  • Drew Link

    “It’s about actions, not beliefs. Believe whatever you want to believe, leave other people alone — those would be American values not atheist values.”

    You damned and crazed Randian utopia-monger…..

  • Drew Link

    PD –

    That’s interesting. The states this fellow identified as potential “sit it out a/c he’s a Mormon” were deep south states.

  • i think evangelical Christians can be summed up in a statement by my Southern Baptist mother-in-law regarding a young woman up a block or two who had an unfortunate marriage: “She’s a nice Christian girl even if she is a Catholic.”

  • I’m not a tribalist, it doesn’t have to be “my people” against “your people.” The “other” doesn’t bother me, rather the contrary, I like variety. I like a country full of people who look different and sound different (one of the reasons I got quickly bored with Italy) and believe whatever nonsense they want to believe so long as they extend that same courtesy to everyone else.

    Pretty much how I feel…well except the Jewish part. It is why I like living in California, there is so much diversity here and you don’t have to go very far at all to find it.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Drew, I also believe there is a lot of anti-Mormonism in the West, but many of these states are not up for grabs either, except perhaps Nevada, and Nevada doesn’t seem to have a problem voting for Mormons for the Senate.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @michael, the rotunda of the Illinois capital is open to religious displays during the month of December, a month obviously chosen at random. A few years ago, you could walk past the Christmas tree, to see a menorah display, which was followed by some Muslim display (IIRC of the New Year). All colorful and informative, and then the next display was a white poster with black printed words on it: “There is no god or gods or other mythological beings; there is no soul or life after this one. There are no miracles or divine interventions. There is no Easter Bunny, . . .” etc., etc. In all its stark negation, one wonders if the theists had not paid the atheists to make this display.

    Over in the corner, all by itself, and away from these disputes, stood a Festivus poll, with a poster explaining the ceremonial Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength. It was quite funny.

    If I ever were to leave my theist tribe, I would definitely go Festivus. But there was no Festivus display this year, or atheist display for this matter.

  • Janis, there’s a story my wife likes to tell along those lines. Many years ago she went out to lunch with her very WASP-y paternal grandmother. Her grandmother, then in her 80s, was gossiping about someone else and said, whispering, literally behind her napkin “You know she’s a Catholic” to which my wife responded, also whispering “So am I”.

  • My mother-in-law, coming up to 92 on March 5, admits that she was reared thinking Catholics ate babies, or an equivalent southern hyperbole.

  • sam Link

    I recommend Wise Blood to all.

  • And, of course, I’m consigned to hell because I don’t love Jesus. But we get along fine.

  • I have her short stories, Sam, but I haven’t read that book.

  • sam Link

    Read it, Janis. If you’re from a Southern family, it’ll resonate for you.

    My grandmother was deeply religious in that peculiar Southern way. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t a religious bone in her body. She said to me once, in my grandmother’s hearing, “You know you Mamaw is a Holy Roller.” My grandmother got incensed and yelled, “Pentecostal, Pentecostal!!”

  • I like Pentecostals. The best tamales in town come from the Apostolic Life Tabernacle.

  • Drew Link

    I like Pentacostals, too. The tamales aside, the five sided oil wells off the shore look great at night……….

  • You’re piddling , Drew. I’d trade both our boys for their friend who is a “mud guy” offshore.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @sam, reading some O’Connor is a longterm ambition; your recommendation in personal terms moves it up a notch.

    Higher on my to-do list is Kate Chopin’s Awakening because its about New Orleans where I lived a spell and its been brought up in other things I’ve read about the Reconstruction South. I don’t have much in terms of Southern background, but Walker Percy’s _The Moviegoer_ was one I quickly identified with while I was there. I don’t know if I would feel the same way today.

    Since all three of the people I mentioned were raised Catholic, I wonder if being an outsider has anything to do with being appreciated as a good writer (he asks rhetorically)?

  • @ PD I’ve read Kate Chopin. She’s forgettable. She’s a women’s writer more than a Catholic writer. She’s classed with Virginia Wolfe, whom only Elizabeth Taylor made memorable.

    A more interesting younger writer is Kaye Gibbons. I won’t forget the image of the poor black family who ate their meals off of 72’s because they couldn’t afford plates. The music!

  • Drew Link

    “You’re piddling , Drew.”

    That’s a term of affection, er, right?

  • Only because I have a Christian temperament, Drew.

  • Drew Link

    It was just a wisecrack, Janis. Have one of Michael’s whiskey pops and relax…..

  • You’re a chemical engineer. Isn’t whiskey’s freeze point too low to do pops? Cheers, hon.

  • Drew Link

    Janis –

    Metallurgical, chemical……..who’s counting unless you are a self esteem challenged atom? Eh?? (Personally, I always preferred the copper girls.)

    Everything freezes at some point. Think about -30 degrees F for Michael’s most excellent freeze pops. See also: absolute zero……hon.

  • Andy Link

    Everyone’s almost friendly on a post about religion – one of the reasons I like this blog.

  • jan Link

    Everyone’s almost friendly on a post about religion

    Friendly with a heavy dollop of humor, aiding and abetting taste bud receptivity.

  • Hope this helps in understanding true meaning of “theocracy.”

    John Lofton
    Recovering Republican

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