I’ll share with you a moment I had this summer, when I was on a panel at Worldcon, one of those surprisingly contentious ones involving medicine. One of the audience members was talking about, I think, either birth control or abortion (or some combination of those two), and made the concluding remark that she hated living in what she saw increasingly as a theocracy, which she saw as legislating her right to control her own body. My immediate response was to comment that as far as the “theocracy” bit went, we weren’t actually living in one and that I suspected we’d gotten about as far we were going to go on that end of things. The reaction to the comment in the audience was not what I would call charitable; indeed, I suspect I lost the room for the rest of the panel.
But, of course, so what. Time has vindicated me. The mid-term elections were not a referendum on “theocracy” — they were a referendum on Iraq, corruption, and many other more prosaic subjects — but to the extent that “theocracy” is coextensive with “right-wing fundamentalism,” and its influence on the day-to-day functioning of our government, yes, any budding theocracy we might have had was nicely chopped in the neck last Tuesday. The theocratic influence is not gone by any stretch of the imagination, since our President is still the same man he was before the election. But I don’t think you can look at the 110th Congress and suggest to me that the right-wing fundamentalist agenda will have the same sort of stickiness it had before. “Theocracy” is not where we’ll be going as a nation anymore. I’m not crushed.
But those of you who might have your hopes/fears up for an orgy of Washington godlessness better get ready for disappointment, too, because it ain’t happening. The United States is a deeply religious country; its elected representatives are going to have religion (or at least will bow in its direction). What I expect we’ll be seeing is religion and the religious continuing to have an influence but that more moderate (and — gasp — liberal) religious folks will be having more of a say. If you don’t like religion at all this may not be an improvement, but those of us who are not necessarily automatically suspect of religion will see this as an entirely normal thing and a reflection of the complexity of life here in the US. Also (and of course), not every religion or religious person is bent on cultural hegemony; there are lots of churches and religious folk who like the idea of the separation of church and state, which is a fact that has tended to get forgotten over the last several years.
It’s also worth noting that the swings in this country are not only political but cultural, even within Christianity, and indeed even within the evangelical movement. I’m on the outside of Christianity so I can’t claim this observation as anything other than anecdotal, but it at least appears to me that within US Christianity the fundamentalist movement is on its way down, and that the new hotness in Christianity might as well be called “Bonoism” for lack of anything better: A focus on dealing with poverty and human rights and environmentalism, from a Christian perspective. This is one of those “what’s old is new again” things, since Christianity has been actively engaged in issues of poverty and human rights before (the environmental angle may be new; I confess ignorance on the history of Christian environmentalism), and equally have been now, even when those good works have not been in the spotlight. But I can’t say I’m not happy to see this aspect of the Christian mission make a comeback in the national perception of the religion. It’s nice when some of the prominent aspects of Christianity have more than a tiny bit of Jesus in them.
So, theocracy: Not so much, and frankly, not much missed. But a culturally engaged Christianity as part of a tolerant and pluralistic society? Bring it on. That’s not theocracy, that’s just people and institutions playing their part. Hard to see a downside there.