“Theocracy” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and most of the people using it these days don’t appear to have the foggiest idea what it means.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines theocracy as “government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.” A Google search provides a similar definition: “A system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.” (Bill Murray, call your office.)
In contemporary American parlance, “theocracy” is inevitably used in the context of a threat — as in “So-and-so wants us to live in a theocracy!” So when I saw it popping up all over the Twitterverse last week, I was curious: What now?
Turns out it originated right here at Notre Dame. United States Attorney General William Barr spoke at Notre Dame Law School on Oct. 11. Right on cue, all the unhappy warriors who see Gileads bubbling up in every American small town raced to warn us of our impending doom. Also as per usual, in their screeds were seeds of the very things Barr described.
It wasn’t just fringe groups like RefuseFascism.org, which proclaimed in a headline, “At Notre Dame, William Barr Lays Out a Christian Fascist Nightmare.” Or even LGBTQ Nation, which mentioned the separation of church and state and accused the Trump administration of wanting to “tear it down.” (The headline read, “2 Trump officials said the US should be run as a Christian theocracy.”) The Nation headline cried, “William Barr Is Neck-Deep in Extremist Catholic Institutions,” and writer Joan Walsh described Barr as “a paranoid right-wing Catholic ideologue who won’t respect the separation of church and state.” She mocked the Catholic men’s service group Knights of Columbus (of which Barr has been a member) as “a patriarchal cosplay group.” Walsh’s distaste for Catholicism is matched only by her evident loathing of evangelicals.
The Washington Post asked in a headline, “Is this Barr’s cry for help?” and author Catherine Rampell dutifully repeated the trope that Barr’s speech was “a tacit endorsement of theocracy.” Columnist Paul Krugman at The New York Times perhaps took it furthest: “God Is Now Trump’s Co-Conspirator,” read his headline. (To his credit — I think — he was speaking tongue-in-cheek and hypothesized that Barr’s speech was less about establishing a theocracy and more about providing a smoke screen against Trump’s impeachment by rallying the anti-secularist troops.)
A bit of constitutional clarity might help here. The opening language of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains two important clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise clause. It reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” When Barr’s detractors (the most charitable term possible) express horror about the attorney general of the United States criticizing what he views as an onslaught of secularism, it would appear that they are focusing on the Establishment Clause, the first 10 words of the First Amendment.
But Barr’s primary concern is for the protection of the Free Exercise clause, not the Establishment Clause, as the full text of his remarks makes clear. In other words, the attorney general endeavors to protect the right of the American citizen to practice his or her religion without undue government interference. He is not asserting — explicitly or implicitly — that the government should make Christianity (much less Catholicism) the “official religion” of the United States. Claims to the contrary are ignorant, deceitful or both.
Not to mention ahistorical.
Barr’s speech was peppered with quotes from philosophers and America’s founders alike. John Adams’ statement about the necessity of a moral citizenry is particularly well known: “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by ... morality and Religion. ... Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Barr also cited James Madison: “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves ...” He expounded upon this, saying, “This is really what was meant by ‘self-government.’ It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.”
Proof of the truth of Madison’s and Adams’ statements is everywhere. The more self-restraint citizens exercise in their daily lives, the less government is needed. Is it any surprise, then, that so many people in our present culture are clamoring for more and more government?
No one is calling for a theocracy. But a free country comprised of citizens with strong moral values grounded in (for example) Judeo-Christian belief is not a theocracy. If, as we so often hear, it is not the job of the government to “legislate morality,” then morals, values and principles must have some other source. Our government should be protecting citizens whose lives are a reflection of their religious beliefs and practices. The U.S. Constitution requires it. The stability of our country and our culture depend upon it.
All William Barr did was acknowledge it.