Let me state this very bluntly at the outset, I have not determined who I will support in the Republican Presidential Primary (if we ever get to vote in Texas). All candidates have significant benefits and significant drawbacks. This post is not one in support of Rick Santorum for President. It is simply a comment on the troubling misuse of the word theocracy.
Santorum is clearly a Christian conservative. He embodies the principles of social conservatism; the protection of the unborn, the purpose and sanctity of marriage, and the role of God in the public arena. Time after time, I have read or heard commentators refer to him as a theocrat (here, and here). He has even been compared to Iran’s Ahmadinejad (here and here). He’s been ridiculed for bringing up God in his day-to-day decision making.
Let us understand two things. One, if you are in public office, you believe in God, acknowledge His presence in your life, and admit He influences your decisions, it does not make you a theocrat or the government you run a theocracy. Theocracies are not defined as states which allow God to be mentioned in the public sphere. Theocracies are states which force its subjects to conform to the stated theology of the state. For Santorum to be a theocrat in charge of a theocracy, he would need to be able to force Americans to church on Sundays, read their Bibles regularly, and hang crucifixions above their dinner tables. Santorum would have to punish those who refused to obey the state’s theological (not policy) positions.
Secondly, any position any candidate espouses is a position borne from their worldview. It is a position with inherent theological implications. Communist countries are by definition atheistic. Religion is outlawed because the state is omnipotent. Despite its atheistic view, it is a type of theocracy because if you disagree with the states position on God, you are punished by the state. The concept of God—or non-god—is something the state forces down the throats of its populace. One the other hand, if you live in a free country and believe God does exist, but shouldn’t be mentioned in public debates, you have essentially state a theological position that God is small and irrelevant. He cares not about things He created. Simply refusing to allow God into the public debate does not mean you have freed your state from theology’s influence. It only means you have shaped the debate according to your own theology. There is no such thing as theologically neutral.
It is true that Santorum is basing many of his policy position on his Christian faith. His prohibition of abortion and gay marriage are policy positions originally based on his theology, but supported by his understanding of their negative influences on society. Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not abortion or gay marriage are bad for society—that is, after all, the purpose of public discourse—but to argue his positions are theocratic shows either a lack of understanding the meaning of the term, or, worse, a desire to dismiss his positions as invalid without actually addressing the issues. What he is not advocating is state sanctioned punishment for being a non-Christian. Instead, he wants the state to prohibit what he sees as bad public policy. While his policy positions—like all of ours, even atheists—are influenced by his theology, his policies are not forcing anyone into a theological position.
It should be noted that if Santorum were to be elected, and get the policies he wished for (doubtful considering separation of powers) it would not make everyone following those laws a de facto Christian. Christianity is not a set of man-made laws voted on by Congress and signed by the President. It is quite silly for critics of Santorum to argue otherwise. There are many reasons to oppose Santorum, but to throw out words like theocrat and theocracy without actually considering their true meaning does not help the public discourse. It also makes us look quite foolish and petty in the eyes of those suffering under the rule of true theocrats.
Michael is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science and can be reached at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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