A fatal flaw in the conservative notion of theocracy

by Brendan Beery

In an essay at Salon.com, Heather Cox Richardson surveys the history of the Republican split that is now manifest. Chief among the reasons for the split has been the widespread belief among some (but not all) Republicans that Christianity, rather than being one of the world’s religions, should become our national project. There is no other word for this but theocracy. Cox Richardson notes,

Chief among (Senator Joseph) McCarthy’s defenders was William F. Buckley, Jr. In 1951, fresh out of college, he had launched a broadside at America’s post-WWII government. In God and Man at Yale, he argued against the Enlightenment idea that society improved as the public weighed fact-based arguments. The popularity of the New Deal over Taft Republicanism proved that truth did not win out in a free contest of ideas, he argued. Instead of pursuing “truth,” leaders must attack bad ideas like secularism and New Deal economics, replacing them with Christianity and individualism.

That last part – the part about “Christianity and individualism” – lays bare the fatal flaw in this Buckleyan worldview. The problem is that Christianity and individualism are deeply and irreconcilably at odds.

By individualism, Buckley and his ilk meant (and mean) independent living, and they mostly mean the capacity of every individual to make her own way – or dig her own grave. The idea here is not what it seems; it is not some celebration of the unique magnificence of each discrete soul. Rather, it is an application of Darwinian principles, which is to say the cruel violence of the animal world, to human society. Just like the animal kingdom, this thinking posits, human society has its winners and its losers. And just like in the animal kingdom, losers should be put out of their own herd and left to the sad fates that await the weak.

A healthier and less diabolical notion of individualism would be the aforementioned celebration of the unique magnificence of each discrete soul. Most of us – those of us who are not beset by grim and soulless ideologies – would see the fruits of a more benign notion of individualism in the choice of a busy law partner to leave it all behind and open a bakery, or the choice of a tax accountant to move to a cabin in the woods and create beautiful paintings, or the choice of a Catholic to become a Buddhist, or the choice of a coal miner to attend law school.

So individualism means survival of the fittest or self-governance. Either way, it is altogether incompatible with Christianity.

“Christians” today, for the benefit of those of us who seek to understand and deal with them, would do well to self-identify as either Old-Testament or New-Testament Christians. Most conservative Christians are what I would call Old-Testament Christians, which is to say that they pay only lip service to the Gospels of Christ while leaning more heavily on the monstrosities of the Book of Leviticus, wherein one will find license (or even the command) to, for example, stone homosexuals to death. New-Testament Christians, on the other hand, tend to eschew the fire-and-brimstone hysteria of the Old-Testament set while embracing the commands of Christ to care for the poor and the sick, dwell among the least of us, and uplift one’s neighbors through service and selflessness.

Put simply, Old-Testament Christians seek to enjoin individuals from making their own choices (especially as to matters of sexuality, personal space, and secular mindfulness) wile New-Testament Christians see a society where every individual’s wellbeing is the concern of all. Either way, the individual is subsumed under the strictures of the religious missions of others.

A theocracy based on Old-Testament Christianity would be characterized by compulsory religious indoctrination and strict adherence to the pent-up sexual mores of people who have done violence to their own natures. Evangelizing and proselytizing would become governmental functions, and the role of the individual could be summed up in one word: obey. A theocracy based on New-Testament Christianity would be characterized by the submission of all to the greater good – no individual would be at liberty to ignore the plight of anyone else, and the role of the individual could be summed up in one word: participate.

Whether one’s role is to obey or to participate, individualism would have no place. Under both worldviews, the concern is not one’s dominion over one’s own life. Rather, the concern is with the whole: either that all those around us become indoctrinated or that all those around us become our wards.

It is no small wonder that a movement based on the mutually exclusive ideas of Christianity and individualism is imploding. It is a movement that has sought to achieve the impossible.

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