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Are Theocratic Authoritarians Dangerous?

Bible lays on top of the American flag

Getty Images/ehrlif

“I’m not naïve enough to say that public officials should leave their religious convictions at home. Of course, their policy positions are influenced by their beliefs. How could they not be? The question is, What kind of religious beliefs? How compatible are they with established law and the principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution? How do they affect citizens with other beliefs?”

Last October, Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame Law School. It was more of a jeremiad than a lecture about the law, and reading the transcript of it on the Justice Department website gave me chills. Throwing a right uppercut in the culture war that has been waging since the upheavals of the 1960s, Barr lamented the decline in influence of the “Judeo-Christian moral system,” which, he claims, has given us “the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.” He attributed to this development all manner of social ills, from suicide rates to drug addiction to violence to the “wreckage of the family,” and he blamed it on a campaign of “organized destruction” against religion propagated by “secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives.’”

This is the kind or oratory we’ve been hearing from conservative religious voices for more than half a century, but it is alarming to hear it from the highest ranking law enforcement figure in the country, the official charged with upholding Constitutional principles such as church-state separation and freedom of religion. Of course, Barr couched his argument as a defense of religious freedom, which he thinks is threatened by “secularism and moral relativism.” As far as I can tell, however, secularists, atheists, and even anti-religionists are not in the business of prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no one is trying to shut down churches. What might appear anti-religious is usually an effort to prohibit religious factions from interfering with the rights of others or injecting specific religious expressions into the public sphere.

It’s certainly legitimate for reasonable people to argue, as they have, heatedly, about specific instances, and to take strong positions on whether one side or the other goes too far in either denying public religious expression or asserting it. But having an Attorney General declare an ideological position so adamantly feels dangerous to me, as it could easily lead to questionable policies.

I’m not naïve enough to say that public officials should leave their religious convictions at home. Of course, their policy positions are influenced by their beliefs. How could they not be? The question is, What kind of religious beliefs? How compatible are they with established law and the principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution? How do they affect citizens with other beliefs?

It should be patently obvious that “eye of the beholder” applies even more to religion than it does to beauty. There are widely divergent views about what the Founders thought about religion’s role in the new nation, and the term “Judeo-Christian” can be applied to pretty much anything from democratic socialism to right-wing theocracy. So, in the end, applying religious values in the public sphere depends on who happens to be in power. Which is why secularists are triggered by anything that looks like religious imposition and religious leaders are triggered by any attempt to limit their authority.

William Barr’s religious convictions seem to skew in conservative, even authoritarian directions. He is a member of the controversial organization Opus Dei, and at one point sat on the board of Opus Dei’s influential Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC. This places him closer in belief to the Evangelicalism of Billy Graham and Pat Robertson than to the Catholicism of, say, Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day. In his Notre Dame speech, Barr made this assertion: “In the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people—a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.” Many scholars would disagree with that statement, of course, and even those who agree with it might differ radically on what that “transcendent moral order” consists of. That dissenting group would include not only Christians and Jews but Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims.

The implications of the Attorney General’s religiosity are, of course, too complicated to sort out in this limited space. My purpose here is to call attention to a situation that could have major repercussions. It is not unreasonable to assume, for instance, that Barr’s stated belief in maximum Presidential authority and minimal Congressional oversight might be rooted in a religious orientation that favors strong top-down authority. (In that regard, his disturbing treatment of the Mueller Report and his acquiescence to a President whose connection to Christian morality is, shall we say, tenuous, offer reason to be concerned).

Add to this picture the fact that Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo are Evangelicals who believe in the Rapture, and we have fervent conservative religious figures in high places. This is, to me, worth keeping an eye on because the era we live in, and the future we are moving toward, requires a spiritual orientation that is inclusive not exclusive, ecumenical not supremacist, egalitarian not authoritarian, and respectful of religious diversity not disdainful of it. Maybe I’m alarmist, or paranoid, but I can’t help thinking of a quote attributed (perhaps wrongly) to Sinclair Lewis: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Read Philip Goldberg’s “Spiritualizing Democracy.”


By Philip Goldberg. Click here for more!

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