Theocracy and democracy are antithetical and incompatible. The idea of an Islamic Republic is an oxymoron, but so too is a Christian, Jewish, or Hindu Republic. The dictionary defines republic as “a state in which supreme power is held by the people.” In that, even “state religions” work only if they are largely ignored, relegated to the symbolic and ceremonial. Think England and Denmark. Any semblance of democracy under religious rule is at best destined to be compromised and at worst a cosmetic charade. At some inevitable point, when “democracy” finds itself in conflict with God, or to put it more accurately God as those in power would define it, kiss the voice of the people goodbye.
So it is a consideration of theocracy and in a larger sense the role religion plays in governance that comes to mind most in watching the sad and frustrating events unfold in Iran. Not surprisingly, the newly repackaged Newsweek devotes its current issue to the subject beginning with a stage setting piece by editor Jon Meacham entitled, Theocracies are Doomed, Thank God. Meacham, who with Sally Quinn also moderates the Washington Post’s On Faith “conversations on religion and politics”, has written extensively on religion’s role in the making of, and he would likely say sustaining, our nation.
Largely because it is out of tune with modernity, Meacham contends theocracy can’t survive. Hopefully he’s right but I am less sanguine about that happening any time soon. The fact is that, to one degree or another, we have been the throws of modernity for more than a century and theocracies, some relatively newly minted like Iran’s, are still with us. When the Shah was deposed in 1979 we certainly thought of ourselves as living in modern times even if we lacked some of gadgets that have become so ubiquitous in our lives. If the monarchy of Jordan or the constitutional dictatorship in Egypt were swept aside today, chances are they will be replaced by some kind of theocratic rule, just as would be the case if the Pakistani democracy fails. In fact, today’s theocrats don’t seem undermined by modernity. They actually use its tools very effectively to their advantage in spreading or solidifying their power. Meacham would say that’s not his point, that modernity empowers the individual, and over time he may be right, but “over time” is the pesky detail that may prevent many of us, regardless of our age, from ever seeing it.
Of course you don’t have to have a full-blown theocracy to have religion playing a significant, and in my view detrimental, role in governance. The experience of America in the last three decades has brought that home to all of us. Alan Keyes, whose last appearance on the political stage was as Barack Obama’s opponent in the Illinois Senate race, has become somewhat of a caricature, but is perhaps more upfront about the motivations of the Religious Right than others. Keyes is an unabashed theocrat who, understanding Constitutional restrictions at the federal level, has argued for the establishment of theocracies in individual states. Keyes-like thinking and power grabs continue, and there is no indication that they won’t do so into the foreseeable future. “To say that theocracies are doomed,” Meacham writes,” is not to argue that religion is any less important in our age.” He sees it continuing its active role but within a democratic context. Of course, the same modernity that may ultimately spell the demise of theocracies could spell trouble for religion itself. After all in the ultimate sense, all religions believe that God rules and I see trends that modernity, especially as expressed by a growing number of our young people, is beginning to question that fundamental premise.
Theocracies are the invention and tool of orthodox religion, often at the extreme. That’s not surprising because democracy is anathema to all orthodoxies where “free will” in the sense that whatever individuals, even a majority, may want at any given time is simply not possible if it goes contrary to doctrine. Mortals speaking for themselves never have the last word. If democracy were at play, the Catholic Church would be ordaining priests and promoting protected safe sex. There are rules and rulers who have been empowered, often claimed to be empowered, by the divine to set limits and to be the ultimate arbiters as is the case, at least to this point, with the “supreme leader” in Iran. So whether or not votes were counted accurately or at all is really irrelevant because under any circumstance the power of the ballot box is subject to, and arbitrarily accepted by, those who invoke a “higher authority”.
However enduring religion may be and no matter how it may enrich the lives of its adherents, when God rules in whole or in part humans always come off with the short end of the stick. The ultimate supreme ruler, the unseen and unseeable God gives enormous license and cover to those mortals who purport to speak in “the name of the divine”, those ultimately self-proclaimed surrogates here on earth. Divine authority is a discussion stifler, a showstopper. “God says” is the ultimate trump card of theocracies, but also of any debate whether on matters of state or those religious-based issues that still plague us like abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research and end of life. In each, logic and even empirical evidence doesn’t play, much less have a chance. Once God is in power, absolute democracy dies.
Of course we do live in a democracy and a majority of our citizens consider themselves religious. They are troubled by what they see in Iran and what people are doing elsewhere in “God’s name”. They urgently tell themselves and their children, that’s not me/us, not my/our religion. And they are right and perhaps also wrong. For those who have been alienated by religion, it isn’t necessarily the religion they have experienced first hand that turns them off, but where religion can, does and did go. It may be an unfair way to judge religion as a whole, but it’s an unmistakable fact. Looking at the vehemence of those on the hard right when it comes to social issues here or the brutality being expressed by the Mullah’s in Iran, I see a kind of desperation at play. Perhaps I think modernity will take us to a different place than does Jon Meacham, but the passion and over-the-top action of all these “religious” bespeaks people who see their world and their particular values system coming undone. Iran brings that sense of desperation to the fore, as did the recent murder of Dr. Tiller. It’s hard to argue that we’re not headed for more of it as the desperation level rises. Theocracies may be doomed, but they are still very much with us.