Listening to all the complaints, you’d think America is full of theocrats nowadays. A recent issue of First Things reviewed no fewer than three new books on this subject. It is increasingly common for the religious right to be described as advocating theocracy only a little less vehemently than hard-line Muslims. The potential loss of liberty at the hands of theocrats in the United States is, apparently, nothing short of terrifying.
Of course this rising tide of anti-theocratic complaint may be largely driven by rhetoric. Everybody knows theocracy is bad. Therefore, if you can dismiss a position of principle as tantamount to theocracy, you’ve scored a debating point. But let’s assume for the moment that the plaintiffs are really serious. If so, they are making several huge mistakes.
What Theocracy Isn’t
The first mistake is to confuse theocracy with principled secular government. Theocracy exists when, and only when, God is regarded as the ultimate civil ruler and ecclesiastical authority controls the civil law. It is not theocracy for lay people to be inspired by their personal beliefs to pass some kinds of civil laws and not others. That is how every form of government other than theocracy works, be it monarchical, aristocratic, republican or democratic.
The second mistake is to confuse theocratic law with moral law. A theocratic law is one which compels citizens to observe a rule or behavior particular to a specific religion, the wisdom of which is known only through that religion. In contrast, a moral law is one which compels citizens to observe a rule or behavior conducive to the common good and knowable through human reason. Such a rule or behavior may or may not also be known through and inspired by the creed of a particular religion. Thus a law which compels all citizens to attend Mass is a theocratic law, but a law which prohibits all citizens from stealing, or compels them to stop at red lights, is not.
The third mistake is to confuse theocratic discourse with civil political discourse. The purpose of theocratic discussion is to determine what truths have been made known through revelation alone so that the commonwealth’s laws may incorporate and enforce these uniquely revealed truths. The purpose of civil political discourse is quite different, and consists of two tasks. The first task is to determine what truths or principles, gleaned initially from any and all possible sources, can be understood through human reason to be theoretically beneficial to the commonwealth; the second task is to consider how to apply such wholesome principles to the commonwealth’s particular situation in order to prudently advance the common good.
The Problem of Transcendence
These fundamental errors point to a deeper problem which is characteristic of those who ultimately regard their own materialistic selves as the measure of all things. For want of a better term, we’ll call such people not theocrats but meocrats. When anyone regards man as the measure of all things he closes himself off to revelation from a higher power but not to philosophical inquiry into reality. In contrast, when a materialistic man regards himself as the measure of all things, he closes himself off to everything but his own inclinations, reducing the use of reason to mere rationalizing, and thereby eliminating every transcendent principle from his life.
We have come now in America, and in the West generally, to a divide which separates not only the theological man from the philosophical man but also the philosophical man from the materialist man. Using the proverbial dichotomy, we may say that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who recognize transcendence, and those who do not. Most who recognize transcendent values are opposed to theocracy, as both right reason and the common good demand; but all who refuse to recognize transcendent values are ultimately either narcissists or suicides, and all political narcissists are meocrats.
Confused by Sin
How do we identify meocrats, and how does one become a meocrat? There is some difficulty in identifying meocrats because a meocrat looks very much like a person of principle caught in an inconsistency, or a religious person caught in sin. You become a meocrat only when you persistently, over an extended period of time, deal with your inconsistencies (or sins) by redefining your principles to suit your inclinations. If you do this, you will also find yourself taking delight in the failures of persons of principle to live up to what they believe, and you will publicly denounce sin and failure as hypocrisy whenever you can, the better to discredit those who claim a transcendent point of view.
If this sort of behavior sounds familiar, it may be because meocracy is one of the most potent forces in American politics today, and it is rooted in that unbridling of the passions which we call vice. By its very nature, vice clouds the intellect. It begins by making it difficult for people to reach sound conclusions about how best to live personally and how best to promote the common good politically. It continues by causing increasingly stupid people to deny that transcendent principles and values are anything more than peculiar prejudices. And it ends in the blind defense mechanism by which people define good as evil and evil as good, adopting false principles to protect their passions.
This redefinition of reality to protect vice creates the great divide that haunts American culture today. As long as any who recognize transcendence remain, the only alternative to conversion is conflict. While this is a battle which has been fought throughout history, it has taken on a particularly acute form in the United States, with abortion and homosexual marriage as the chief flashpoints of the struggle. The redefinition of reality surrounding these and similar issues is both the cause and the battleground of the contemporary culture wars.
As we have seen, meocrats believe that a person who seeks to apply moral principles to politics is a theocrat. This itself is a redefinition of reality and, like the impulse to theocracy, it leaves no middle ground for a civil public square. Although it is very hard to find a theocrat in America, it is not hard to find those who create the same kind of conflict by denying transcendence and redefining reality to suit their own inclinations. Yet transcendence is essential to both public discourse and the proper exercise of authority. Without transcendence, there is only meocracy, because without transcendence there is only me.
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