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NEXT: Theocracy in America?

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My undergraduate major was ancient history, which I switched to (from economics) because of a brilliant and charismatic professor. I hung on his every word.

Except for one occasion.

He made a statement in class once to the effect that “Every society’s form of government eventually becomes a theocracy.” As an ancient historian, he was taking a long view, and made this statement in the context of so many societies throughout human history being governed as theocracies.

Even the Greeks, the inventors of democracy, over the centuries eventually evolved into a theocratic government. Democracy is a difficult form of government to sustain, my professor said. Democracy is not our “natural condition,” he was suggesting, and that theocracy is humanity’s “default setting.”

My professor even offered the prediction that the United States would eventually transform into a theocracy. What Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers had created, he said, would give way to rule by religious leaders.

“Ridiculous!” I exclaimed. So much of what my professor said was brilliant, but here I thought he was off his rocker.

But, I look at some instances lately, and it makes me wonder whether my professor might have been correct. Could the United States eventually become a theocracy?

A theocracy is a form of government where political authority derives from the gods. In a democracy, political authority derives from the people, from those who are governed. Rulers in a theocracy govern as representatives of the gods on earth. Human laws — if they exist — do not derive from the will of the people, but are subordinated to the will of the gods. The Vatican is an example of a current theocratic government, as is Iran.

To be clear, it is insufficient to be a theocracy if political leaders are religious people. Nor is it theocratic if the decisions made by political leaders are guided by their religious or moral considerations. A theocratic government would be one where a political leader would claim to rule because of God’s authority: “I am your leader,” says the theocrat, “because God has directly placed me here.”

The next step in theocracy is saying “I am God’s representative. I am not making decisions on my own, but carrying out God’s instructions.”

The final phase of theocracy would be a situation where the leader would explain that “I am a god myself.”

A theocracy is the antithesis of a democracy. In a democracy, political authority comes from the consent of the governed, represented via direct voting or election of representatives. In a theocracy, authority derives directly from God. How does one vote the representative of God out of office? The answer, of course, is that you don’t. And in a theocracy, you do not even have the chance to do so.

Remember Kim Davis, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky? She was the one who denied a marriage license for a homosexual couple. When angry couples demanded to know under whose authority she was denying them their legally-permissible licenses, Davis said “Under God’s authority.” As a private citizen, Davis’ statement is not theocratic. She said her conscience would not allow it, a view that may be understandable but is not theocratic.

But as a representative of the government — albeit of Rowan County, Kentucky — Davis’ decision could be viewed as theocratic in attitude. When God’s authority supersedes the electorate’s authority, a route to theocracy is opened.

Jeff Sessions recently drew a great deal of criticism for citing Romans 13:1-2 as a justification for the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from the parents of asylum seekers.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Sessions was roundly criticized for citing a passage that was frequently invoked to justify slavery in the 19th century.

But another reading of this situation suggests that the Attorney General was making a theocratic defense of the policy. That the authority to carry out this particular policy comes from God and can therefore not be questioned. John Locke made the idea of the “consent of the governed” a cornerstone of his political philosophy, and said that rebellion was necessary when the government was at odds with the will of the governed. Rebelling against government was the stuff of the American Revolution.

Scott Pruitt’s resignation letter had theocratic undertones. “I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service.” Pruitt, whatever his other failings, was not advocating theocracy here. But his suggestion that God directly influences the results of elections could be understood as a theocratic attitude.

To repeat: just because someone is religious does not make them theocratic. Just because someone allows their faith to guide their political actions does not make them theocratic. (As President, both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were men of deep faith, but neither was in any way a theocrat.)

Indeed, the “Theocracy in America” scenario might seem rather remote at present. A recent World Values Survey poll asked Americans whether “Having religious leaders interpret laws is essential to democracy.” Less than 5 percent agreed. Even though Kim Davis can make a theocratic claim, this does not mean that Americans are ready to give up their democracy. Indeed, it would appear that conditions in Turkey or Poland are more conducive to the emergence of theocracies than here in the US. Davis, Sessions and Pruitt are merely very weak signals of a potential theocracy.

We will have a theocracy in this country if and only if the electorate listen to a politician or a group of leaders proclaim “We govern because it is the Will of God” not the will of the Electoral College…and the electorate agree, ceding their political rights to the theocrats.

Maybe my professor was wrong after all?

David Staley is director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus. The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday, September 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) The topic for the evening will be “The Modern Workforce is Freelance.” The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, September 21 at 8:30 a.m. at the Columbus Museum of Art. Nikki Gnezda will speak on the theme “Chaos.”

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