Theocratic Quips Less Scary Than Advertised

I’m enjoying the process of deflagging quotes. Today, I came across an article on Slate describing what are portrayed as theocratic tendencies among Republican Presidential candidates. So without referencing the original Slate article with these quotes, see if you can match up the following statements to the following Presidential candidates competing for the Republican nomination:

Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law. … As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law. Rick Santorum
I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says. Michelle Bachmann
What we are seeing is a wider gap between people of faith and people of nonfaith. … Those of us that are people of faith and strong faith have allowed the nonfaith element to intimidate us into not fighting back. I believe we’ve been too passive. We have maybe pushed back, but as people of faith, we have not fought back. Herman Cain
Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the president of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers. Rick Perry
American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law. That’s what Blackstone said—the English jurist—and our founders looked to Blackstone for the foundation of our law. That’s our law. Michelle Bachmann
God gave us rights, but He also gave us laws upon which to exercise those rights, and that’s what you ought to do. And, by the way, the law should comport—the laws of this country should comport with that moral vision. Why? Because the law is a teacher. If something is illegal in this country because it is immoral and it is wrong and it is harmful to society, saying that it is illegal and putting a law in place teaches. It’s not just—laws cannot be neutral. There is no neutral, [Rival]. There is only moral and immoral. And the law has to reflect what is right and good and just for our society. Rick Santorum.
In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ. Rick Perry

I’ve left out some other quotes, because they aren’t explicitly religious the way the above quotes are. Those are from Gingrich and Santorum and they bear analysis because they point to rather expansive visions of Federal power. But that’s a different post than this one.

The Slate article is intended to scare civil libertarians (among others) about the continuing presence of ambitious theocracy within the Republican party. I’m an atheist civil libertarian so I’m at the dead center of the target of this scare attack, but I’m less scared than I suspect the author wanted me to be. Only the first three quotes even make me itch.

Part of the reason is that the speakers are all pretty well marginalized in the primaries at this point. Also consider that in some cases, there are (cherry-picked) historical facts grounding the sentiments expressed. For instance, Blackstone did reference the Decalogue, although that was hardly all of what he wrote about the origins of British common law. I’m conscious that the quotes here have been mined from a forum aimed at goading the candidates to reach out to Christian voters so I am aware that what I’ve been presented with has been filtered at least twice (by the forum sponsor first, then again by the author of the Slate article). Finally, I’m sanguine about candidates, particularly ones playing catch-up, making bold statements in a bid to distinguish themselves and attract votes.

The first quote (“…our civil laws have to comport with the higher law”) does bug me, though. Part of it is the intellectual dissonance that while it’s bad for “Islam” to unite religious and civil laws (See, e.g., the constitution of Iraq, which mandates that civil laws not contradict the Koran), it’s okay for the USA to harmonize religious and civil laws. Part of it is the selective ignorance of the substantial amount of civil governmental regulation that is found in the Old Testament, enshrined as the religious law, demonstrating that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, religious and civil laws were, at least at one time, a unity. It’s double talk and it reveals that unifying Christian moral teachings and American civil law would be just fine. And part of it is the intellectual hurdle race the candidate goes through, very quickly, to get from using Muslims as whipping boys to unifying Christianity into our civil laws. This isn’t theocracy, but it opens the door to it; it’s more than just indicating that “As President, my moral compass will be guided by my religion.”

The second quote (“He [God] created government”) bugs me. If the speaker wants to state as a profession of faith that God created Man, okay, I disagree but go ahead and speak your mind. But God did not create the government. The American people did that, in Constitutional conventions held over the course of 1787 and 1788. If God was involved, He was most indirect indeed about His participation. The vision that disturbs me here is that government obtains its legitimacy based upon its divine origins rather than democratic approval. If governmental legitimacy is handed down from above, then the consent of the governed is irrelevant and legitimate government may run contrary to the will of the citizenry; the use of the law to compel compliance with God’s will becomes the appropriate mission of government. That couldn’t be more wrong. That doesn’t open the door to theocracy. That is theocracy.

And the third quote (“…as people of faith, we have not fought back”) is disturbing in its ambiguity. The candidate acknowledges that there has been organized pushback against – what, exactly? Civil liberties? Enforcement of the First Amendment? But it’s not enough for him. He wants to “fight,” not just “push.” The word “fight” invokes imagery of violence. Now, I doubt the candidate seriously advocates violence; it is obviously a metaphor. Nevertheless, it seems that to this candidate, the passage of laws at the Federal and state level to protect and promote governmental expression of religious ideas and imagery, efforts to enshrine Christian moral norms into law, and the packing of the judiciary with judges sympathetic to both the normative moral goals of these particular voters as well as a vision of a diminished scope of application for the Establishment Clause, have been somehow insufficient to “protect” religious voters from the “intimidation” wreaked upon them by a minority of seculars who would like our government to leave religion a matter for individuals to as they see fit.

But at the end of the day, while these things raise issues for me, they are not worthy of my anxiety. They are, however, reasonable starting-off points for a discussion about a vision of the appropriate relationship between religion, politics, government, and society — particularly in a society that has as cultural touchstones both a rich Christian heritages as well as substantial pluralism, upon which robust Constitutional guarantees of individual liberty and limitations on the power of government are superimposed.

After all, if a Presidential candidate can invoke the book of Isaiah, then so can I, chapter 1, verse 18: “Come now, and let us reason together.”

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. “The vision that disturbs me here is that government obtains its legitimacy based upon its divine origins rather than democratic approval….. That is theocracy”

    Well, it is, at the minimum, the divine right of kings. And our Revolution (and, to a lesser extent, its English predecessors of 1642 and 1688) categorically rejected that notion as a basis for government.

    I’ve always suspected that Newt was really a crypto-monarchist.

  2. “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

    No. Few people have such a congenital heart defect. This can be remedied by surgery. Surgery made possible by scientific understanding of human anatomy.

    From the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH website :

    “A hole in the septum between the heart’s two upper chambers is called an atrial septal defect (ASD). A hole in the septum between the heart’s two lower chambers is called a ventricular septal defect (VSD).

    ASDs and VSDs allow blood to pass from the left side of the heart to the right side. Thus, oxygen-rich blood mixes with oxygen-poor blood. As a result, some oxygen-rich blood is pumped to the lungs instead of the body.”

    People with oxygen-poor blood flow to their brains caused by such birth defects should consult licensed physicians and cease and desist propagating dangerous pseudo-medical myths by claiming that Mr. Jesus can fill these holes (with tire sealant and concrete, perhaps?)

    You should report this Jesus dude for medical malpractice.

    The only Republican candidate qualified to give medical advice is Dr. Paul.

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