One of the central topics of the pre-election discussion has been whether the US is at genuine risk of turning into a Christian theocracy. The purpose of this essay is to argue that the risk is real and significant, and to show how this relates to Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s DIM hypothesis. Even though the 2006 mid-term elections will be over tomorrow, the underlying issue will remain important. And my hope is that even if a reader is not immediately convinced by my arguments, he or she will keep them in the back of their mind and remain on the lookout for additional evidence of the trends I will be describing.
First, for the purpose of this essay, I’m defining a “theocracy” as a system of government in which the laws are justified based on their fidelity to religious principles — as opposed to, say, the Objectivist understanding of individual rights.
Hence, a central feature of a theocracy is that there should be no separation of church and state. Quite the contrary — if a government is enforcing laws based on religious grounds, then the state by its very nature must be using religious doctrine as a guiding principle. Conversely, a government which generally adheres to a policy of separation of church and state cannot be a theocracy. (Of course, such a government may be good or bad in other ways; e.g., a Communist dictatorship is not a theocracy, but is still based on bad principles of secular collectivism.)
So one indicator of whether a country is at risk of becoming a theocracy is whether the concept of “separation of church and state” is under serious attack in the culture or whether it is a solid wall.
It is therefore with great interest that I read this recent article in the October 2006 issue of Imprimis (the journal of Hillsdale College, a well known conservative college), entitled “Origins and Dangers of the ‘Wall of Separation’ Between Church and State” by Daniel Dreisbach, professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University. His article is quite detailed and worth reading in its entirety, but here are his main claims:
1. Thomas Jefferson was the originator of the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State”.
2. The US Supreme Court has misinterpreted that metaphor in its constitutional rulings to the detriment of American society. As a result (according to Dr. Dreisbach),
…The “high and impregnable” wall constructed by the modern Court has been used to inhibit religion’s ability to inform the public ethic, to deprive religious citizens of the civil liberty to participate in politics armed with ideas informed by their faith, and to infringe the right of religious communities and institutions to extend their prophetic ministries into the public square. Today, the “wall of separation” is the sacred icon of a strict separationist dogma intolerant of religious influences in the public arena. It has been used to silence religious voices in the public marketplace of ideas and to segregate faith communities behind a restrictive barrier.
Federal and state courts have used the “wall of separation” concept to justify censoring private religious expression (such as Christmas creches) in public, to deny public benefits (such as education vouchers) for religious entities, and to exclude religious citizens and organizations (such as faith-based social welfare agencies) from full participation in civic life on the same terms as their secular counterparts. The systematic and coercive removal of religion from public life not only is at war with our cultural traditions insofar as it evinces a callous indifference toward religion but also offends basic notions of freedom of religious exercise, expression, and association in a pluralistic society.
3. The founding fathers recognized that a self-governing society such as America (as opposed to a tyranny or dictatorship) required a culture of morality and religion amongst the citizenry:
Tyrants and dictators can use the whip and rod to force people to behave as they desire, but clearly this is incompatible with a self-governing people. In response to this challenge the founders looked to religion (and morality informed by religious faith) to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner and thereby promote social order and political stability.
4. The founding fathers believed, “that religion and morality were indispensable to social order and political prosperity” and “that the very survival of the civil state and a civil society was dependent on a vibrant religious culture, and religious liberty nurtured such a religious culture. In other words, the civil state’s respect for religious liberty is an act of self-preservation.”
Dreisbach also argues that First Amendment was meant to protect the churches from being infringed upon by the government, but should not be interpreted as meaning that the government should be immune from influences by religion. He makes a clever analogy with the “freedom of the press” provision of the First Amendment:
The free press guarantee, for example, was not written to protect the civil state from the press, but to protect a free and independent press from control by the national government. Similarly, the religion provisions were added to the Constitution to protect religion and religious institutions from corrupting interference by the national government, not to protect the civil state from the influence of, or overreaching by, religion. As a bilateral barrier, however, the wall unavoidably restricts religion’s ability to influence public life, thereby exceeding the limitations imposed by the First Amendment.
In other words, according to Dreisbach, the constitution only requires separation in one direction — i.e., that churches should not be subject to infringement or interference from the state. However, it does not bar attempts by the church to influence the government. Quite the contrary — because morality and religion are essential to a functioning civil society, then any attempt to erect a “bilateral barrier” (rather than the one-way protections) would jeopardize the very core of the American system.
Dreisbach correctly recognizes that a political philosophy must be (at least implicitly) based on an underlying system of ethics and a theory of human nature. But since he (mistakenly) believes that the only source of morality is religion, then he naturally concludes that the American system of government must therefore allow itself to be informed by religious values.
In contrast, Objectivists also recognize that a correct political philosophy follows from the application of ethics to a social context. But Objectivists identify individual rights as the proper link between ethics and politics. Rights, not religion, should be the guiding principle behind a proper moral government.
Although Dreisbach is one of the more eloquent defenders of the idea that there should be no “wall of separation” between church and state, this idea has gained common currency amongst many Republican politicians.
One common formulation of this idea is that the Constitution guarantees “freedom FOR religion”, rather than “freedom FROM religion”. In fact Janet Rowland, the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor for Colorado recently stated as much when asked, “How do you feel about the issue of “separation of church and state’?”. Her response was, “It’s not in the Constitution. We should have the freedom OF religion, not the freedom FROM religion.”
In his lecture, “Why America Needs Religion“.
A few excerpts:
Does America really need religion? I believe this question is of supreme importance for our country as we begin the 21st century, and the answer goes far beyond the number of times presidential candidates sprinkle their speeches with references to God. And yet the United States is increasingly characterized by confusion, controversy, and contradiction over the answer.
He then cites, “‘the eternal triangle of first principles’ — a set of three interlocking and interdependent ideas that were viewed as absolutely foundational for sustaining freedom.”
…The three legs of this triangle are liberty, virtue, and religion. The premise is that each leg requires the other so that simply stated: liberty requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires liberty.
…The first leg of the triangle is the principle that liberty requires virtue. For the Framers, liberty was not just a form of negative freedom — a freedom “from”; rather, it was positive freedom — a freedom “for,” or freedom “to be.”
In Lord Acton’s famous formulation, freedom is not the permission to do what we like but the power to do what we ought. In a similar vein, Benjamin Franklin once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
…The second leg of the triangle is the principle that virtue requires religion. For the Framers, virtue was more all-encompassing than many view virtue in today’s society. For one thing, it included strong features such as excellence and courage. For another, it had to be grounded and rooted. It was not a cliche that floated in thin air. Religion provided virtue with its content, its inspiration, and its sanction.
…The third leg of the triangle is the principle that religion requires liberty. Here, and not in the separation of powers, is where our Framers were perhaps most original and most daring.
Simon then repeats the familiar argument the we have strayed from the Founding Fathers and have enshrined a mistaken modern view about the separation of church and state:
Religious freedom then becomes freedom from religion instead of freedom for religion. Public life becomes a “religion-free zone” so that religion is considered inviolably private and public life inviolably secular.
…This view of a “religion-free zone” is a radical departure because for the greater part of our history, America adhered closely to the Framers’ understanding of the First Amendment. Great leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, following in the footsteps of the Framers, continually reminded us that faith and religion are not just important to the character of our people and nation, but also, to repeat Washington’s words, “indispensable” to the preservation of our democratic institutions.
When Michael Novak addressed the Library of Congress in 1998, he was asked, “Can an atheist be a good American?” His answer was yes, “that has been done, many times.” But, he continued, “Can American liberties survive if most of our nation is atheist? The most common, almost universal judgment of the Founders was that it could not.”
In other words, according to Simon, religion is essential for the survival of America. And if an atheistic philosophy such as Objectivism were ever to become dominant in this country, it would mean the end of our liberties.
Now how does this relate to Leonard Peikoff’s DIM hypothesis?
Given that Objectivism is not (yet) a major cultural/political force in America, the Religious Right and the Nihilistic Left are the two main ideological groups dominating political discourse in this country. The Nihilistic Left has an essentially disintegrated view of politics and philosophy (the D in DIM), with its emphasis on moral relativism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, etc. In their view, right and wrong are relative, America has no reason to think of itself as the “good guys”, and if we are attacked by terrorists it must somehow be our fault not theirs.
In contrast, the Religious Right offers a misintegrated view of philosophy (the M in DIM). In their view, right and wrong do exist (and are given to us by God), America is good, the basis of America’s goodness is its religious values, and if America is attacked by evildoers then our enemies must be opposed.
The American sense of life, which is a holdover from the Enlightenment influence of our Founding Fathers, includes a belief that happiness and prosperity are possible to those who are willing to work hard, virtue should be rewarded, and America is a good place, a proverbial “land of opportunity”. This was certainly the view of folks like my parents, who immigrated to the US in search of a better life, as was the case of many immigrants. As Ayn Rand noted, this sense of life is not an explicit philosophy but an implicit “pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence” (“Art and Sense of Life”, Romantic Manifesto).
So during a time of crisis when there is an external threat from violent Islamists, how will Americans respond? My prediction is that if Americans perceive the choice to be between a Nihilistic Left that proclaims there is no objective morality and that America deserved to be attacked vs. a Religious Right that proclaims that America is right and that the attackers need to be opposed, most Americans will side with the Right. Indeed, we saw this exact visceral reaction in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And although support for this particular Republican administration has faded in the intervening 5 years, the basic American sense of life hasn’t changed significantly.
So allow me to propose a hypothetical scenario which could lead to a theocracy within a few decades. This hypothetical is not original to me, nor is it the only path that could lead to a theocracy, but I hope it will illustrate my point. Suppose that sometime in the next few years, Islamic terrorists managed to acquire half a dozen nuclear weapons (perhaps from North Korea, Iran, or from a Pakistan that has succumbed to Islamic rule.) The terrorists smuggled them into the US and simultaneously detonated them in the six largest American cities. Such an attack would cause immense loss of life and immense physical and economic devastation, making the casualties from 9/11 look like small change in comparison, but it wouldn’t destroy the US per se. Much of our military capacity would still remain intact.
In the aftermath of these new attacks, the atmosphere would be right for a political leader to proclaim, “Enough is enough — we need to really fight back now. No more half-measures! We are being attacked because we are a Christian nation, and we now have to take the battle to them!”
A charismatic Christian political leader who (correctly) identified that this was indeed a war with Islam, who asserted (correctly) America needed to fight back with overwhelming military force, and who (incorrectly) claimed that America was a Christian nation and that the essential nature of the struggle was Christianity vs. Islam, could gain an enormous popular following in a country overwhelmed by grief, shock, and fury following the deaths of millions at the hands of such Islamists. At such a time, Americans hunger for moral certainty from their leaders, and his views would provided them with precisely that.
Although this may seem improbable now, those ideas may seem much more plausible to a country that has been softened up by a barrage of conservative Christian academics and intellectuals who have been teaching that America is a Christian country, that American virtue depends on its religiosity, that the very survival of America depends on the inclusion of religious values in the government, that the “wall of separation” between church and state imposed by the secular Left has been a major source of our problems, and that the attacks we have suffered are the price we are paying for ignoring these “truths”. This misintegrated worldview could gain significant traction amongst a large segment of Americans who aren’t otherwise armed with a opposing strong rational explicit philosophy.
Furthermore (and this is an element of the DIM hypothesis which has also been emphasized in Mike Williams’ recent essay), the more “moderate” conservatives who are also personally religous but who have some emotional sympathy for the separation of church and state would be philosophically disarmed and unable to make a principled defense for the separation of church and state in the face of the more consistent arguments made by the dedicated Christian extremists. This is merely an application of the principles identified by Ayn Rand in her essay, “Anatomy of Compromise”:
In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.
…When two men (or groups) hold the same basic principles, yet oppose each other on a given issue, it means that at least one of them is inconsistent. Since basic principles determine the ultimate goal of any long-range process of action, the person who holds a clearer, more consistent view of the end to be achieved, will be more consistently right in his choice of means; and the contradictions of his opponent will work to his advantage, psychologically and existentially.
Psychologically, the inconsistent person will endorse and propagate the same ideas as his adversary, but in a weaker, diluted form and thus will sanction, assist, and hasten his adversary’s victory, creating in the minds of their disputed following the impression of his adversary’s greater honesty and courage, while discrediting himself by an aura of evasion and cowardice.
Existentially, every step or measure taken to achieve their common goal will necessitate further and more crucial steps or measures in the same direction (unless the goal is rejected and the basic principles reversed) thus strengthening the leadership of the consistent person and reducing the inconsistent one to impotence.
The conflict will follow that course regardless of whether the basic principles shared by the two adversaries are right or wrong, true or false, rational or irrational.
In other words, the moderate Christians who believe in some sort of separation of church and state, but who also believe that religion is the only source of morality and functioning civic society will lose to the more consistent extremist Christians who believe that there should be no separation of church and state. And this is how America could slowly (or quickly) devolve into a theocracy.
Once people explicitly accept the idea that separation of church and state is wrong, then neither the American sense of life, nor the Bill of Rights will pose much of an obstacle to theocracy. I can’t predict how long it will take, but I don’t think a generation (i.e., ~ 30 years) is all that implausible. If one sees how long it took bad ideas of the Left to percolate from academia to practical politics in the mid-20th century, or radical Islamist ideas to percolate from the religious schools of the Middle East in the 1980′s to popular culture on the “Arab street”, then a 20-40 year time span seems about right.
For those who think this is overly speculative, as just one concrete example I’d like to point to the website of the John Jay Institute, a think tank based in Colorado Springs less than an hour away from my house, whose mission is “to prepare Christians for principled leadership in public life”.
Their mission statement includes the following very explicit position:
Within two decades of America’s birth John Jay and other founding fathers were alarmed that contemporary currents of unbelief and secularism would become a “political engine” to the ruin of American society and constitutional order. In retrospect Jay has been proven prescient. Today American civilization manifests a loss of ethics, mores, manners, civility, and common decency. This cultural crisis is religious and spiritual at its root and stems from the triumph of radical ideologies to sever faith from society, politics, and law. As a consequence Americans are reaping a whirlwind of confusion about the meaning of our civilization, our country, and our selves.
The late Russell Kirk observed how this crisis portends on government and law, “When the religious understanding, from which the concept of law arose in culture, has been discarded or denied, the laws may endure for some time… but in the long run, the laws will be discarded or denied…. I venture to suggest that the corpus of English and American laws …cannot endure forever unless it is animated by the spirit that moved it in the beginning: that is, by religion, and specifically by the Christian people.”
Among their many activities, they are sponsoring a 2006 calendar year lecture series entitled “Christian Perspectives on Engaging Political Islam”, which features a number of talks by prominent thinkers on the conflict between America and the Islamists. One lecture is entited “The Ghosts of Appeasement: Christian Realism and the Rise of Islamo-Facism“, and the central argument is that the only viable alternative to the current leftist/secular appeasement and surrender to Islam is “a recovery of Christian realism about the problem of evil in a post-9/11 world”, i.e., the willingness to make moral judgments and take a stand against Islamism based on Christian values.
Another of their lectures entited “Just War in an Age of Terrorism“, argues that only the Christian “Just War Theory” provides America with the moral clarity to fight Islam.
(Of course, Dr. Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein have provided a devastating Objectivist critique of Just War Theory in their own recent article in the Objective Standard, “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense“.
And the John Jay Institute is not even the largest nor most well-known of many such think tanks, merely the one geographically closest to my house!
And what will be the practical consequences of the widespread adoption of this religion-centered political philosophy? Dr. Peikoff has spelled this out in great detail in his 1986 Ford Hall Forum speech, “.”>here.)
In the Summer 2006 issue of The Objective Standard (Vol. 1 No. 2), Craig Biddle has published an article entitled “Religion vs. Free Speech” which shows how religious values are at the root fundamentally incompatible with free speech. (The full article is only available to subscribers, but the opening paragraphs are available to all.)
As Dr. Peikoff points out, the choice is not between the Left and the Religious Right. Both alternatives will lead to statism; the Right’s version would merely be a statist system based on religious values. And it would be especially pernicious because its advocates will attempt to claim that that they aren’t adopting any revolutionary new ideas, merely returning us to “real” American values that we have lost. And if history is any guide, under their rule the outward forms of government will remain the same — there will still be President in the White House, a Congress in Capitol Hill, and a Supreme Court in session as before. But the fundamental principles guiding these institutions will be gone. And this religious form of statism will be far more dangerous than the leftist form precisely because of its seemingly pro-American veneer and consequent appeal to the American sense of life.
Just as the Islamists rose rapidly to prominence in the Middle East from seemingly nowhere over the past 20 years, taking many casual observers by surprise even though the intellectual seeds had been sown for the prior generation, I believe that the groundwork is being set for a similar rise in Christian ideology in this country that will take many casual secular observers by surprise over the next 20 years. I understand why a rational secular person could easily underestimate this danger, especially if they believe that the underlying religious ideology is too irrational for anyone to take seriously. But the same would have applied to those who in the 1980′s would have discounted the potential threat posed to American foreign policy interests by a bunch of rag-tag Middle Eastern Islamists 20 years in the future. A Christian theocracy won’t spring up overnight here, and it’s not an inevitable development. But the ideological seeds are being planted as we speak, and we may be reaping the bitter fruits within a generation.
In conclusion, given the strength of our country and the (still fairly good) sense of life of most Americans, I don’t think we are at serious risk of being physically taken over by Islamic fundamentalists who will impose sharia law on the US. The Islamists could cause a lot of death and destruction to this country, but they won’t conquer us. Nor do I think that a socialist dictatorship is a realistic long-term danger (even though the leftists will continue to remain a serious political force for the near to medium future and their bad ideas will still have to be firmly opposed). But I think that if America were to ever fall into a dictatorship, it will be as a form of fascism which is cloaked as a “return to founding American principles”, but which in reality is a theocracy. And given the energy of the religious conservative intellectuals who are mounting an explicit and determined attack against the idea of the separation of church and state, I contend that the risk is a significant one.
In other words, the biggest long-term ideological danger to the US will comes from those who argue, “Why America Needs Religion“, and the only principled opposition will have to come from Objectivists who recognize that the real issue is “Religion vs. America“.