". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


The ‘-Ocracy’ Confusion on the Left

February 27, 2024

The secular Left has picked up a new hammer, so everything is a nail. “Theocracy” is the new catchphrase. “Theocracy” is the new bogeyman in the closet. “Theocracy” is the new codeword for elites seeking to communicate their superiority to those Bible-thumping deplorables. But, in their quest to find theocracy everywhere, our elites have forgotten what theocracy looks like, to the very point of mimicking what they despise.

“Welcome to the theocracy,” signaled Washington Post editor Ruth Marcus, in a February 20 opinion column. For her, the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos are human beings was a world-shaking moment — in a way.

What does the Left call theocracy?

Marcus spent most of her time critiquing not the court’s ruling, signed by seven out of nine justices, but a concurring opinion, signed by only one.

The reason why Marcus largely overlooked the majority opinion is that it contained straightforward legal interpretation. The court considered the text of the law (“The Text of the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act Applies to All Children, Without Exception”), their own precedents (“This Court’s Precedents Do Not Compel Creation of an Unwritten Exception for Extrauterine Children”), and nothing else (“policy-focused arguments belong before the Legislature, not this Court”). Unless influenced by ulterior motives, why would a court do otherwise?

More to her point, the majority opinion offered Marcus little material with which to fashion a charge of “theocracy.” Instead, she focused on a non-controlling concurrence signed only by Chief Justice Tom Parker, in which he offered commentary on the state’s constitutional amendment regarding the Sanctity of Unborn Life. “Parker cites Genesis (man is created “in the image of God”), the prophet Jeremiah (“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”), Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and other Christian thinkers,” Marcus listed.

In other words, Parker relied on Western tradition’s longstanding recognition of the value of human life — the same one that gave rise to the concept of human rights, due to the extensive influence of Christianity. Parker’s compilation of historical support for the value of unborn life is neither wild-eyed extremism nor obscure legal pedantry. In fact, in his brochure on Biblical Principles for Pro-Life Engagement, David Closson, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview, assembled similar historical support for the value of unborn life, as would any historical review of (largely Christian) Western thinkers. The only way to escape this pro-life, Christian influence in Western thought would be to ignore historical tradition and consider only modern, radical thinkers.

Marcus’s criticism of Parker’s commentary extended to Alabama’s Sanctity of Unborn Life amendment, without drawing any distinction between the two — and she was right to do so. That amendment begins, “This state acknowledges, declares, and affirms that it is the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life.” This constitutional language is obviously built on the foundation of the Western legal tradition, steeped as it has been with Christian influence. In various critiques of Parker’s opinion, I haven’t seen anyone argue that he was wrong about what the text of the amendment means.

However, this reality underscores a weakness in Marcus’s case: what she decried as “theocracy” had been overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Alabama. In fact, during the “blue wave” election of 2018, 916,061 Alabama voters (59%) approved the constitutional amendment, and 975,564 voters (57%) elected Chief Justice Parker to a six-year term. In fact, the entire Supreme Court in Alabama is elected by citizens to staggered, six-year terms (except that two current justices were appointed to vacancies by Governor Kay Ivey).

To summarize, what Marcus criticized was an elected official (who won by a 15-point margin) articulating the obvious rationale for a law that voters directly passed (by an 18-point margin). If an “-ocracy” applies to these facts, it would be not “theocracy” but “democracy.”

Yet “-cracy” (from the Greek word for “power” or “rule”) is inappropriate when applied to Parker’s solo concurrence because his opinion rules nothing. The 7-2 majority opinion — which is actually controlling precedent — did not cite the religious authorities to which Marcus objected. A future court could favorably cite Parker’s opinion, but it is not required to do so. Nothing about Parker’s opinion inherently elevates it to a special status above the other three concurrences, or even the two dissents, filed in the same case.

“Welcome to the theocracy,” scoffed The Washington Post. Yet in context, the statement meant: 1) that Alabamans voted six years ago to protect unborn life in their state constitution, 2) that a single, elected justice wrote a nonbinding, historical commentary on that constitutional amendment, or 3) that the elected Alabama Supreme Court did not allow contemporary political considerations (or religious ones, for that matter) to interfere with their analysis of a law passed during the Grant administration.

“This is not about theocracy,” Family Research Council Action President Jody Hice said on “Washington Watch.” This is about the rule of law and the sanctity of life.”

At minimum, leftists’ use of the word “theocracy” is confused. At most, leftists deliberately misapply it as a rhetorical cudgel against any policy they don’t like.

How is theocracy defined?

There are three possible definitions of “theocracy” that would at least make sense of the word, which is derived from the Greek “theos” (God) and “kratia” (rule).

The technically precise definition would be direct rule by God himself, a historical rarity.

The more common definition (see, for example, here and here) would be rule by a church or religious establishment, which might be more properly but cumbersomely called “ecclesiocracy.”

A third plausible definition would refer to rule by the adherents of a particular religion.

However, this third category must be subdivided by whether the “rule by religious adherents” is deliberate or accidental. That is, are regime officials systematically required to adhere to a certain religion, or does it just so happen that they do? Such subdivision is necessary because only the former category (what we might call an “established religion”) could plausibly be labeled a “theocracy.” It would render the term “theocracy” meaningless to apply it to a system of government where officials adhering to one religion could easily be replaced by officials belonging to another or no religion.

Where do we find theocracy?

Which governments qualify as theocracies depends on the definition employed.

In one sense, the only nation to ever have God rule directly over them was ancient Israel (1 Samuel 8:7). In another sense, God rules over all nations (Acts 17:26), and all rulers are exhorted to serve him (Psalm 2:10-11). Of course, modern secularists don’t believe God rules in either sense, which is why they don’t often use the most precise definition of theocracy, “rule by God.”

Governments that fall into the second definition, “rule by church,” are uncommon in Christendom because many Christians have historically believed that the civil magistrate is a distinct and separate authority from the church. As far as I’m aware, the Vatican is the only state in Christendom that falls under the authority of a church.

However, nations ruled by churches are not confined to Christendom. Islamic Iran is probably the modern nation-state that most closely fits this label. Islam does not recognize the distinction between church and state authority developed by Christianity.

Then we reach the third definition, nations that systematically require government officials to adhere to a certain religion, or who have an established religion. Such nations were once common in Christendom (one thinks of Henry IV converting to Catholicism to take the throne of France, or the English Parliament deposing James II for being Catholic). Some American colonies had an established church, but such arrangements were being phased out around the time of America’s founding due to the unsustainable political turmoil they often provoked. While some countries (the U.K., Scandinavian countries) still technically retain an established Christian church, they are little more than nominal.

On the other hand, establishments of religion remain alive and well throughout the Islamic world. Islam is declared to be the state religion in the constitutions of 23 countries, or half of all majority-Muslim nations. That list doesn’t even include countries like Turkey, which is increasingly embracing an overt Islamic nationalism.

We do not find a theocracy, under any plausible definition, where government officials adhere to a certain religion only as a matter of accident. For example, the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 3) stipulates that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The only requirements for office relate to age, residency, and citizenship.

This is relevant, for example, to poorly-aimed attacks on House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). When Johnson, in his first speech as speaker, stated his belief that “God is the one that raises up those in authority,” a humanist member of Congress, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), accused him of starting down “a slippery, dangerous slope to theocracy.” But that member needn’t worry, so long as the Constitution prohibits religious tests and establishments of religion.

The recent controversy over Alabama’s protection for unborn babies also demonstrates this point. The people of Alabama have the freedom to elect people of any religion to public office. They have the freedom to pass any amendments they wish into their state constitution. Six years ago, they approved an amendment protecting unborn life, and they elected a justice who cited historical precedents, including religious ones, to explain that amendment.

Alabamans could just as easily have chosen to elect a different justice or disapprove the constitutional amendment, and they retain the power to replace both. That’s not theocracy. That’s a government accountable to the will of the people.

Why is the Left crying “theocracy”?

Without a wholesale revision of our governmental system, there is no plausible definition of “theocracy” that applies to the American context. Yet the Left is still crying “theocracy” based on no clear definition at all. The question is, why? What is their real objection?

The Left has embraced an intolerant, illiberal brand of progressivism that believes the past was evil and therefore rationalizes censorship of viewpoints it considers antiquated. Hence Marcus’s utter refusal to countenance opposition to abortion rooted in Christian belief — a position once so common it went undisputed. Hence also her dismissive treatment of brilliant minds such as Augustine and Aquinas, not to mention the infallible Word of God.

Let’s zoom in on Aquinas for a moment. While no theocrat, the scholastic theologian did systematize a Christian theory of law. Aquinas argued that human law should flow out of natural law, which in turn resulted from God’s eternal law. This argument implied that all human law should be a reflection of God’s design for the world, and that human lawmakers are ultimately accountable to God. Despite Aquinas’s attempt to accommodate Christian theology with secular government, Marcus dismissed him out of hand simply for making a Christian argument.

In other words, what Marcus really objects to is anyone in power that is firmly committed to a biblical worldview that informs his or her policy positions.

Who is actually seeking to systematically entrench their religion in American government?

Leftists crying “theocracy” reflect their opponents more than they would like to admit. Not only do they celebrate their own religious figures in government, but they also try to shape policy according to their own preexisting worldview.

This is evident when left-wing officials — despite their loud pledges of allegiance to “democracy” — defy laws enacted by the people’s elected representatives. They demonstrate their conviction that there is a higher standard of morality, to which human law must conform — just like Aquinas. (The difference, of course, is that, instead of acknowledging an objective morality rooted in God’s character and purposes, they define morality according to their own god, self.)

Thus, the Biden administration is unilaterally canceling billions of dollars in student loan debt, despite no congressional authorization and despite a court decision that he lacked the authority to do so.

On a smaller scale, two Missouri school districts recently decided to defy state law and betray parents, in order to foist a radical, sexual ideology upon the children in their care. “This is our General Assembly … the people’s elected representatives, speaking through statute,” protested Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R) on “Washington Watch.” “So, when local school officials ignore that statute, it undermines the rule of law. It harms children. And it’s a direct assault on parental rights.”

This sort of behavior flows out of a deeply secular worldview that has zero respect for religious beliefs or anything religions hold precious, such as marriage, family, or the rule of law.

In fact, the Left is taking their secularism one step further by seeking to establish their anti-religion in American public life. It is in pursuit of this goal that they cry “theocracy” whenever a public figure is open about Christian convictions that contradict their anti-Christian convictions. Given their godlessness, perhaps “theocracy” is a poor name for what they seek to establish. Is it, then, a secul-ocracy?

At least for now, the American system of government is robust enough to resist these secularizing inroads. Our system of public accountability in elections, checks and balances, and freedom of speech and religion should allow us to continue living together in a pluralistic society — although sometimes our commitments to those fundamental principles have been sorely tested.

One outcome is that elected officials will hold different beliefs in different places, reflecting the beliefs of their constituents. Californians might elect a humanist congressman like Jared Huffman, while Alabamans might elect a Christian jurist like Tom Parker. That’s a feature of the system, not a bug. And it certainly isn’t theocracy.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.