As a signer of the Manhattan Declaration in support of life, marriage, and religious liberty, I’ve been sensitive to charges of theocracy: that we've mounted a campaign to run America by private religious values.
A spate of books supposedly exposing some grand theocratic threat came out several years ago, nicely summarized by Ross Douthat in a 2006 First Things article. Just two years ago Sean Faircloth published “Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All—And What We Can Do About It,” a book that Richard Dawkins recommended to atheists as an important source of social and political strategy. I found that book's look-out!-they're-after-us! tone mildly entertaining, which was about the best I could say for it. Of course there is no shortage of blog posts and articles sounding the same warning.
Theocracy alarmists make it a point that private religious beliefs have no place in government—that the wall of separation between church and state must be thick and tall. Indeed, some writers, Dawkins included, plainly wish it were more like a horizontal slab than a wall, under which religion was buried deeply forever out of sight.
The other day, though, I came across a Huffington Post article speaking of a different kind of tomb, and (though its author didn't use the word) a different kind of theocracy. Written by Kerry Walters and published on September 24, the piece was titled “Whited Sepulchers in the House.” The reference is to Matthew 23:27-28, where Jesus says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs [‘whited sepulchers’ in the KJV], which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (ESV)
There is, says Walters, hypocrisy and deadness among House Republicans, 90.3% of whom claim to be Christians (he tells us with admirable precision). These legislators recently cut $40 billion from Federal food aid for the poor, and Walters finds it surprising, “shocking, really,” that they voted as they did:
In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are literally hundreds of injunctions to welcome strangers, feed orphans and widows, and care for the sick and indigent so that justice—justice, mind you, not charity—can roll down like living waters. The prophets and Jesus consistently champion the marginalized and powerless. Jesus punches the point home by saying that whatever we do to the least among us, we do to him. There's just no reasonable room for disagreement about the Christian tradition's insistence that fidelity to Christ means, in part, privileging the poor. Likewise, there's no reasonable way of squaring a vote for H.R. 3102 with a profession of Christianity.
Now, this is interesting on two levels, both theocracy and hypocracy (no, that's not misspelled—see below). First, it's quite clear that Walters is calling on legislators to take money from some people by force of legislation, and to transfer it over to others because (in his view) the Bible says so. It’s a blatant call for biblical theocracy. If there’s anything that should rile up the secularists, that’s exactly the kind of thing that ought to do it.
I was sure the outcry would be swift and vocal, so I ran a Google search, and sure enough:
But wait! I must have gotten something mixed up! Those weren’t written in response to Kerry Walters’ article. Those were reactions to the Manhattan Declaration!
My search for similar criticisms of Walters’ article produced nothing. Not even a peep. Which leads me to wonder why one call to biblically oriented thinking on public policy is roundly condemned as “theocracy,” while another elicits no such reaction at all.
Granted, it could be that no one noticed Walters’ article. It’s had nowhere near the publicity nor the impact the Manhattan Declaration has enjoyed. So it would be pushing the matter rather too hard to draw any conclusions from secularists' silence on it. Still I must admit—I can't help myself—I find it curious anyway.
At any rate, Walters seems oblivious to his own theocratic tendencies, being more intent on exposing hypocracy than advocating theocracy. "Hypocracy," by the way, comes from a scribbling of graffiti I saw once on a wall, in which the writer committed the common mistake of spelling hypocrisy that way. Some wag had come along afterward and added this helpful explanation: “’hypocracy’: a government run by hypocrites.” I don't write on walls, but I wish I could claim credit for the word; it's brilliant. The only problem with it is the difficulty of finding a counter-example, a government run by perfectly pure persons.
For Walters, though, it's enough to point to a specific instance of hypocracy among a specific group of legislators. Where his charge misses its mark, however, is in its underlying theocratic orientation.
The Free Dictionary defines theocracy as “1. A government ruled by or subject to religious authority” or “2. A state so governed.” Any theocracy is likely to be intolerable in its requirement that citizens submit to the religious conscience of the state. It is certain to be evil to the extent that it makes the state the conscience of the people, rather than the people being the conscience of the state. To do that is both to displace and to dull true morality and conscience.
This is what recommendations like Walters' would do. His policy would be to care for the poor not by our own morally motivated choices, but by complying with the conscience of Congress, and not through compassionate sharing but by forcible redistribution of wealth. It's not the kind of care the Bible calls any of us to practice—including legislators. Aside from the unlikely morality and wisdom of meeting one person's needs by taking another's goods involuntarily, it's also deadening to conscience on the personal, local, and community levels, where conscience most needs to be active.
Of course the state must reflect a good conscience in its laws and policies, but that conscience must be kept sharp, alive, and fitted rightly in its proper locus among the people. The Manhattan Declaration seeks just that. It has public policy implications, no doubt about that; but it is first and foremost a call to an awakened conscience among Americans, out of which we then act according to democratic principles in a democratic system to accomplish the change we seek.So Walters misidentifies hypocracy in his article, and misses his own tendency to theocracy. Apparently no one else caught his theocracy either. Maybe they've been too busy misidentifying it in places like the Manhattan Declaration.