Friday, January 20, 2012

Another writer misuses “theocracy”

What is a “theocracy”?

The term itself was coined by Flavius Josephus in Against Apion to describe the kingdom of Israel (2:17), although the word is probably more descriptive of Judea under the Sanhedrin. Literally, it means “direct government by God”; less literally but more technically, it means government controlled or influenced by a state-sponsored church.

However, in the same way other emotionally charged words get tossed around casually to provoke reaction or beat down opposition, “theocracy” is now being used as a buzzword for any government in which religious people have a say in their laws. It’s bad enough when “Brights” invoke the horrors of repressive inquisitions and jihad when Christians express a desire for certain laws; it’s all you can do to keep from rolling your eyes at the shameless melodrama.

When you see a headline that screams, “Error Has No Rights: Time to Ditch Liberalism for Theocracy”, the first thing you have to do is unclench your sphincter. No, a Catholic couldn’t seriously be proposing the very thing that’s caused nativist bigots to riot at the thought of papists living in America: rulership by the Church!  And as it turns out, author Philip Primeau isn’t going quite that far … he’s simply using it in the same imprecise fashion as anti-Christians are. Which isn’t the end of his sloppy terminology, as “liberalism” turns out to be the half-baked muddle of secularism, materialism and narcissistic individualism that passes for progressive thought nowadays; the fact is, progressives stopped being meaningfully liberal thirty years ago.

Let me give Primeau as much credit as I can: I know very few Catholic writers who haven’t at some point railed and ranted against the toxic “culture of death” that’s chipping away at our institutions and Constitutional rights in the name of an irresponsible freedom from moral constraints. It’s out there, and it’s slowly destroying us as a nation and a society. In the little goldfish bowl we inhabit, self-professed Catholics who not only drink the progressive Kool-Aid but pass it around to others through the National Catholic Fishwrap, the Tablet (aka the Bitter Pill), US Catholic and other organs of dissent — they’re all quislings and CINOs, worthy only of our ire and contempt: “Treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:17). Ranting against liberals and progressives … heck, that’s almost de rigueur, the minimal manner of establishing your orthodox street cred.

Mea culpa, I’ve done it too, and am likely to do it again. So I could hardly fault Primeau for engaging in Catholic bloggers’ favorite pastime: librul-bashing.

Once we correct for Primeau’s misuse of terms — and filter out his overwrought prose and shallow historical analysis — we see he’s calling for a religiously homogeneous polity:

Since liberalism has shown its true colors, let us abandon it for the certain comforts of Christian commonwealth. There is no reason to be embarrassed of theocracy. It was the norm up until the eighteenth century. And what have the last three hundred years given us but a few hundred million deaths thanks to the godless spawn of Enlightenment infidels?
We need not conceive of theocracy in terms of the Muslim model.  Christian theocracy is built upon Jesus Christ, who is love incarnate. It is therefore inherently charitable, oriented toward freedom tempered by truth. Quite an improvement on the present heathen consumerism! Only the presence of God in our social life ensures that the human being is respected in every dimension of his existence. Only when we recognize His sovereignty do we enable the “responsible use of freedom, in accordance with the dictates of the moral law” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48).

Okay, very little in details, very long on hyperbole. But in essence what Primeau calls for is not much different from what Rick Santorum calls for: laws that respect God’s law, the law He encoded into the universe, and a society of faithful Christians — yes, he’ll grudgingly concede citizenship to our separated brothers and sisters — to obey them faithfully. 

Only when Primeau starts to answer questions in the combox does he reveal: “Well, in a perfect world, we would thrive under a benevolent Catholic monarch who works in harmony with the See of Rome. … I would settle for a sort of non-denominational theocracy established upon moral and cultural truths which are traditional and explicitly Scriptural, and thus common to all the Nicene orthodox.” As for Jews and Moslems? “Prohibit the construction of new mosques or synagogues. Forbid evangelism or propaganda of any sort. Teach Christianity in the schools but ignore Judaism and Islam except in so much as they address the Faith. Bar Jews and Muslims from running for office (though allow them to be appointed by Christian politicians).”

Yikes. The major problem with a monarch, benevolent or not, is that you can’t fire his butt if he proves incompetent, short of civil war. Nor can you guarantee that his successors will be either benevolent or competent. As for squelching Jewish and Moslem participation … can anyone see why such a position would be attractive outside of a small circle of rad-trads?

For Primeau is the very kind of traditionalist who makes traditionalism look ugly and unappetizing, the kind that Simcha Fisher once saidalways make me want to hide in the catacombs, to get away from those awful Catholics. Brrr.” To a commenter who took issue with what she perceived as his wish to “do away with the American experiment,” Primeau adopts an irritating condescension, dismissing her objections as “spirit of Vatican II” and “liberal” with the same profound disregard for accuracy that led him to call for a “theocracy” rather than religious unity.

In sum, “Error Has No Rights: Time to Ditch Liberalism for Theocracy” is the right message coming from the wrong person, in words more provocative than substantive. We have enough problems trying to return sanity to the public square without monarchist street-corner agitprop.