With reproductive justice under attack, “don’t say gay” laws gaining traction, and a warped view of religious freedom threatening civil rights; the real possibility of theocracy is at our doorstep, and the Supreme Court of the United States can no longer be counted on to stop it. It is critical that we understand what gives rise to theocratic movements and what can be done to stop the increasing influence of theocratic visions and practices within our society.
Persons who want a theocracy are looking for a way to create a facade of divine support for oppressing anyone they deem the “other.” People who promote theocracy do so in order to create a society of people who tend to look like them, believe like them, and worship like them. The spirit of theocracy is the antithesis of a pluralistic democratic society. Every movement towards theocracy is simultaneously a movement away from democracy.
Autocrats count on religious fervor to justify the weakening of democratic institutions and processes in exchange for advances to the cause of a particular religious vision for society. Ironically, theocrats who argue that society ought to be ruled directly by God are almost always willing to make a deal with the devil of autocracy to further what they mistakenly believe are divine causes. They move quickly to the practice of using any means necessary to bring about their desired results. These means include weakening democratic institutions and processes to accomplish the results they are looking for.
Theocracy is a tool of autocrats to provide the appearance of divine justification for their destruction of democratic institutions and processes for the maintenance and expansion of their power. Most of the major autocratic movements of our time appeal to some form of theocratic vision to manipulate the masses to support them. Putin, Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, Modi, and even Xi Jinping all appeal to elements of divine authority/religious authority to justify their autocratic forms of governing. Putin of Russia, Trump, and Orbán of Hungary all appeal to forms of Christian Nationalism, Erdogan of Turkey appeals to Islamic nationalism, Modi of India taps into Hindu Nationalism, and Xi Jinping of China functions as the equivalent of a divine representation of the religion of the state. Each leader has used a kind of theocratic vision to expand or attempt to expand their autocratic hold on power. It is not surprising that these leaders take on a type of divine status in the eyes of the citizens who support them.
Autocracy and its use of religious fervor for the establishment of theocracy are deeply intertwined with the desire to maintain and strengthen patriarchy. Theocratic autocracies are always and everywhere horrific for the role and status of women in society.
Theocratic autocracies are inherently anti-democratic, anti-Women, anti-any religion other than the one supported by the state, and anti-LGBTQIA+. They also typically show very little concern for the well being of the natural environment. To put it succinctly, theocracies are a nightmare for both people and the planet, and they actually have very little or nothing to do with God or authentic religious expression.
Here In the United States, our typical theocratic brand is Christian fundamentalist extremism, which is being used by people like Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Franklin Graham, and many others to tear apart the very social fabric of our country in an attempt to create some kind of theocratic Christian state; and it seems this movement will justify almost anything to pursue its causes, including a violent attack on our nation’s Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected government. In its embrace of authoritarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and practices; it resembles something more and more like a fascist movement than a religion of love and justice. If this is left unchecked, we will experience continued and increasing violence and injustice, much of which will be done in the name of religion.
Our current situation is tragic on many levels, but one of the saddest things for me is that in the name of Christianity, fundamentalist extremism is taking people farther and farther from the loving and just ways of Jesus in this world and is dividing us through fear and hate rather than uniting us in Beloved Community. Religion is being used to imprison and manipulate rather than renew the human spirit to care for people and the planet, and I believe that would make Jesus weep.
What then can be done to stop the increasing influence of theocratic visions and practices within our society? The only way to stop theocracy is for us to be as persistent in protecting and preserving the institutions of democracy as the theocrats are in weakening and destroying them (at every level – from the school board to the Supreme Court and from the city council to the presidency). It is also the responsibility of every religious leader and every person who believes in genuine religious freedom and a pluralistic democracy to speak out against the dangers of theocracy. This is no time for apathy. It is the time for vigorous action to protect democracy for sake of beloved and diverse community.