Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A 20% Theocracy and Other Dangers of a Baptist Majority

by Bruce Gourley

In one of his recent radio programs, Al Mohler scoffed at ever-louder charges coming from the middle and the left that theocracy is a goal of the Religious Right. Dismissing Balmer, Goldberg and others who have documented theocratic ambitions among the Religious Right, Mohler suggested that "conservative Christians" are really only interested in controlling about 20% of the United States government. He offered no details as to his 20% theocracy proposal, but he did declare that the New England Puritan colonies were not really theocracies. In fact, according to Mohler, about the only example of true theocracy he can think of is Cromwell's Commonwealth.

In the midst of redefining theocracy, Mohler repeatedly turned to a curious argument: it is easy for a minority group of Christians within a non-democratic nation to know how to behave as a religious minority (referring to Baptists in early colonial America), yet when conservative Christians are a majority voice within a democratic nation (referring to contemporary America), it is difficult to gauge the extent to which the political process should be utilized to try and implement their moral views upon the nation as a whole.

Say what?

Our Baptist forefathers, a religious minority persecuted by colonial theocracies (Mohler's redefining notwithstanding), did not fight merely for their own religious rights, but for full religious liberty for all citizens ... including all manner of non-Christians and atheists.

Today's Baptists, who now as a religious majority have the privilege of holding a powerful voice in American life, should do no less than did their forefathers in the faith. That is, they should fight for full religious liberty for all citizens, including all manner of non-Christians and atheists.

For Mohler to try and justify conservative Christians imposing their will upon the nation as a whole betrays his feigned indignation against theocracy. And that Mohler is only concerned with his own view of religion and morality ... and the granting of rights and privileges to those who share his particular religious/moral convictions ... demonstrates that he has lost his Baptist moorings.


Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Bruce, I've linked to this on my blog!

4:15 AM  
Blogger D.R. said...

Mr. Gourley,

First, forgive my lengthy post and ask you humbly not to delete it on the basis of it's length, but to actually consider it's content and allow your readers to do the same. I do want to say that am glad that you brought this program to light. I heard it when it originally aired and thought it dealt with the issue of the use of theocracy rather well. I was a bit stunned when I heard about your article, as I didn’t remember any of what you reported Dr. Mohler said. So I went back and listened to it again to see if I missed something. And what I heard was something completely different from what you did. Allow me to actually quote the conversation Dr. Mohler had with Ross Douthat. At the 14:50 mark, Douthat said, “I think if all the leaders of the Religious Right were suddenly put in a room and allowed to set public policy they wouldn’t be able to agree on what policies to set.” To that Mohler responded, “Well, and as a matter of fact, I can almost guarantee you that they don’t want to set policies having to with any range of things that government has to do with – as a matter of fact probably about 80% of what government has to do with. And its interesting, I was just ransacking my own historical imagination and…and Cromwell’s Commonwealth was about the thing I could come up with as a Classic Theocracy, even Puritan New England was more of an accidental theocracy, village-by-village and town-by-town.”

So when you say that “Mohler suggested that ‘conservative Christians’ are really only interested in controlling about 20% of the United States government”, it seems to be a complete misrepresentation of what he was really trying to say here. It seems from the context (and even the statement itself devoid of any context) that Mohler was making a point from the negative, explicitly noting not what Religious leaders wanted to “control” (a terribly misleading term that Mohler actually never used or even implied, especially since he was commenting on an entirely hypothetical situation Douthat brought up), but rather what leaders of the Religious Right would want nothing to do with in government! So it seems you have flipped his statement upside down and placed words in his mouth that he clearly did not utter.

Futhermore, concerning your statement, “but he did declare that the New England Puritan states were not really theocracies. In fact, according to Mohler, about the only example of theocracy he can think of is Cromwell's Parliament.” This is a bit misleading as well, given the actual statement Mohler made was an affirmation that Puritan New England was a theocracy, just not a classic example, thus taking issue not with the structure of the government, but rather how it developed and functioned (“town-by-town” and “village-by-village” as opposed to an organized state government like that of Cromwell and certainly vastly different that what political moderates and liberals who use this term flippantly suggest the Religious Right is trying to do in this country). So on this point as well I think you have stretched Mohler’s words to mean something other than what he actually said.

Additionally, Mohler actually never offered a definition of theocracy, but rather allowed Douthat to offer a definition, which, if you take issue with, you might consider interacting with it rather than just suggesting it was a redefinition. Here is his actual definition given at the 14:12 mark: “Well, a theocracy, I mean, well there are several different kinds but basically it involves the establishment . . . uh, the establishment of religion, but also government by religious authorities, um… so it goes beyond just beyond having an official state church. You also have to have clerics either writing the laws or setting governmental policy in some way the way as you have in Iran now, as you have in Afghanistan under the Taliban or as you arguable had in Cromwell’s Engand or Puritan New England and obviously nothing like that is close to happening in the United States today.” I don’t have all the facts about theocracies, but I would dare say that historians would generally agree with his definition and it seems Mohler did so as well – or at the least he never contradicted it.

Finally, in your second paragraph you fairly butchered what Mohler said (a huge problem with paraphrasing rather than actually quoting primary sources), which was less of an argument and more of a series of rhetorical questions aimed at forcing his audience to think through the issues rather than simply applying a Christian glaze on the subject – something he noted was problematic for the Religious Right in his discussion with Douthat. His quote in full (around the 21:40 mark) was:

You know maybe for Christians the easiest political situation to figure out is when you have no influence on the government and are being persecuted. We can figure that out. We know what Christians are supposed to do under that circumstance – we’ve got the New Testament. We have the experience of the early Christians. We know that in such a situation that we have to refuse to bow the knee to Caesar, and we have to give witness to Christ even if that means violating the Law and going up against the regime. Where Christians have a much more difficult task is when we have influence. When, for instance, we are living in a participatory democracy – a Constitutional Republic – where we have a voice, we have a vote, we have the opportunity to make our voice known. You know, just how should Christians then operate? To what extent should we seek to have Christians principles instilled in Law? To what extent should we use expressly Christian arguments when dealing with things that get to be right in the neighborhood of where Christian conviction has to be at odds with the secular thinking on an issue like euthanasia, on an issue like marriage, on issues related to sexuality? These are raging issues and what we have right now in our political context is you have a secular left that is arguing that every time Christians show up and say, “My thinking is Christian – that’s what motivates me”, that this is an effort to install or inaugurate a theocracy. I think Ross Douthat’s exactly right – that’s not only an exaggeration – it’s paranoia!

So, I hope Mr. Gourley that you would consider actually interacting with his main premise, which was that the term “theocracy” should not be applied to what Christian conservatives hope to do when they voice their positions and lobby for specific laws relegated most often to moral issues that were all but settled 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Mohler asks a very poignant question that should be considered by all those who use the term theocracy and I hope will challenge your readers. He says at about the 24:25 mark, “For instance, to reject same sex marriage is to inaugurate a theocracy? Does that mean America was a theocracy until now or even is one now? To render abortion no longer legal, to push back on the culture of death – does that mean that we have inaugurated a theocracy? Does that mean that before January of 1973 that American was a theocracy? That’s the kind of question these folks evidentally don’t answer.”

So I ask you and your audience to answer Mohler’s question and to interact with him on what he actually said, not a misrepresentation of his words that doesn’t actually address the core issue at hand. Thanks again for bringing this particular segment of the Albert Mohler Program to light and I look forward to some honest responses.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Bruce Gourley said...


I stand by what I said about Mohler on theocracy, but you are certainly welcome to come to Mohler's defense and try to make him sound more benign on the subject than he really is. And thanks for taking the time to cut and paste some of actual statements on that radio program.

You show your disposition to play semantics when you quote Mohler as saying that "I can almost guarantee you that they don’t want to set policies having to with any range of things that government has to do with – as a matter of fact probably about 80%." In fact, setting the "policies" of 20% of the "things" the government has do with" is the same as "controlling" 20% of the government.

You also play semantics in defending Mohler on defining theocracy: "To what extent should we [Religious Right] seek to have Christians principles instilled in Law?" is Mohler's statement. To suggest that we should even consider dictating national law based on personal religious tenets is a betrayal of the Baptist heritage of full religious liberty and separation of church and state.

9:30 AM  
Blogger D.R. said...


I don't think it is playing semantics to show that there is a huge difference between what Mohler said would occur in a purely hypothetical situation he didn't even frame and what he actually believes should take place. Had he blatantly said, "The Religious Right currently cares about dictating 20% of governmental policy" as your post suggested, then you might accuse me of playing semantical games. But such was not the case and I believe your use of paraphrasing rather than direct quotations blurred the issue.

As for his comments on to what extent should we (meaning all Christians, not just the Religious Right, for even many on this board would seek to inform governmental policies based on their religious views of justice, creation care, and religious freedom) seek to install Christian principles into government policy, I think you should go back and listen at how he describes what Lincoln, Roosevelt, and others said as they dictated their policies (lots of Biblical allusions and plenty of religious speech, illustrating they formed their views from the Bible, not simply secular law, which even the Founders suggested came from a religious conscience -- you know that whole, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalianable rights?"). If those who wrote the Declaration of Independance and the Constitution could be informed by their religious convictions regarding the rights of men, why cannot 20th century Christians be informed by their convictions as they go to the polls to vote for candidates, send money to campaigns, and support lobbyists (as all other special interest groups do)? Could it be that some simply do not agree with them and thus are attempting to marginalize them using rhetorical rather than engage their ideas in a public forum?

Christians shouldn't be made to feel like second-class citizens and marginalized because they vote their conscience and lobby for those things they believe to be true. To stifly religious convictions is to eliminate the very freedom of religion you claim to be defending. Honestly fifty years ago we would have thought nothing of a public figure saying that he voted according to his religious convictions and a president saying he acted in accordance with those convictions (and many still don't when it comes to poverty, the environment, etc - Evangelicals even being encouraged on the latter issue by a secular humanist lately to allow their religious convictions to inform their view of the environment), yet when it comes to issues of abortion and gay marriage, conservative Christians are all of a sudden theocrats that are dictating policy based on their beliefs. There is a contradication there as to what religious beliefs are legitimate to work from and which ones are not. Simply labeling the other side doesn't actually address the issues, but just divides the country and gives people an indoctrination and not an education.

Finally, again, I would like to see you answer his last question I posed. But thanks for the response. I look forward to what others have to say about this.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Bruce Gourley said...

Voting one's conviction (religious or otherwise) is something Baptists have always championed. Using the legislative process to expressly force your religious beliefs on people of other faiths or no faiths is another matter entirely, and is a position that Baptists have historically opposed until recent decades (even the late 19th/early 20th century Baptist campaign against alcohol was based on the social evils of alcohol, not religious dogma). Your Baptist forefathers shed their blood to oppose forcing religious beliefs on citizens via government legislation ... because for some 150 years they had been bleeding at the hands of legislators who dictated religious beliefs.

As to our founding documents, religion is barely mentioned, and then only in the very vaguest of terms, referring to a heavenly being who was a generic impersonal force. European nations howled over America's founding secular documents, accusing the new nation of being godless. That the Religious Right today has created and placed their faith in a myth about America as a Christian nation reveals how little they care for historical truth.

As to Mohler's "questions," he seeks to muddy the waters. I can think of a few nations which prohibit abortion, prohibit homosexuality, and prohibit sex outside of marriage (beliefs all based on religious dogma) ... and all of these nations are theocracies ... Islamic theocracies to be precise. If the Religious Right in America forces the same religious moral restrictions upon the U.S. as Islamic clerics force upon certain Islamic nations, then yes, America will be a theocracy ... even if only a 20% theocracy.

5:25 PM  

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