Monday, June 27, 2005

"The US is a theocracy suffering from galloping spiritual inflation"

Or so Mark Lawson thinks. Personally, I think we're seeing an inflation in dodgy historical comparisons and the misuse of political concepts. States that are authoritarian become "totalitarian" or "fascist" and any country where rulers make reference to religious ideas or imagery become "theocratic".

It should go without saying that to describe the United States as a "theocracy" is completely ridiculous. The word literally means "the rule of god" - but historically, of course, it has meant the rulership of priests. Lawson describes well the impression European visitors have when they visit the United States and see the unashamed religiosity of many Americans.

But what also should strike the visitor is how rigid the separation between religion and the state is in this country. Religious education - even lessons in comparative religion - is illegal in the American school system because the Supreme Court ruled that this would be in violation of the constitutional ban on Congress either establishing a religion or interfering with its free exercise. It is for this reason that prayer, worship or indeed any kind of religious assembly is forbidden.

But having emptied the concept of its political content (and thereby rendering it meaningless) what Lawson is really saying is simply that America is becoming more religious and it's politicians reflect this trend. Worrying for those of us fairly hostile to organised religion but the term theocracy is not applicable.

This example is merely one of the more absurd uses of a concept that has been misapplied to countries that are religious - but not theocracies. Historically, few countries have been fully-fledged theocracies. Even ancient Israel ceased to become a pure theocracy when they appointed a monarchy (note to religious monarchists: God was very miffed when the Israelites wanted to be like all the other nations by having a King). Monarchial sponsorship of an official religion does not constitute theocracy and this is the reason that Saudi Arabia should not be classed as a theocracy. Iran, even, isn't a pure theocracy. America used to have virtual theocracies at local level, until the Supreme Court established the principle that state-sponsored religion at the local level was constitutionally forbidden too. One of these, which one would have thought someone of Mark Lawson's learning would be aware of, was the Mormon state of Utah - which remained outside the union until they agreed to drop the open practice of polygamy. Yet religion is extraordinarily powerful still in Utah and polygamy is still practiced. It's hardly typical of the rest of the country but that doesn't stop Lawson using it as an example:
"Last week an 11-year-old boy from Utah disappeared during a scout camp. After four days in the wilderness, the child was found, thirsty but perky. It's true that even British phone-ins in these circumstances would have freely invoked a "miracle", but the public comments of the boy's relatives and family friends resembled scenes from Iran of the ayatollahs unexpectedly dubbed into American."
Family friends and family, relieved at the return of a loved one, waxing lyrical in a religious way - what could be more sinister?

America is a very religious country. The chances are that anyone visiting one of the "Bible-belt" states will have been asked by a wide-eyed religious enthusiast if they know Jesus as their "personal saviour". Very disconcerting for us Brits who "don't do god" but it doesn't amount to a confrontation with theocracy and we can be grateful that the constitution bans religious loons from enforcing their confessional preference on the rest of the country. Imagine what use they could make of Britain's constitution where the monarch is the titular head of an established church that controls about 25% of the schools in England and Wales; which has unelected representation in the second chamber of the legislature; and whose influence ensures religious instruction and assembly is compulsory in British schools. Secular Americans should thank god for their godless constitution...

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