You may have noticed that the topic of whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation is once again much in the news. There are some people in the U.S. who are pushing hard to undo the First Amendment, especially where it applies to separation of church and state. The concept of separation of church and state takes a regular beating from some folk--pointing out, correctly, that the term "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. But the question I have is would we REALLY want the U.S. to erase the lines that separate church and state? Would we really want the U.S. to be a Christian nation in the sense that we would govern as a theocracy?
A quick note here, about definitions. Theocracy is generally defined as "a form of government in which god or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God's or deity's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities."
A most interesting article entitled "Theocracy in America" gives a sense of what life could be like were the U.S. a theocracy. The author grew up in Utah, with her family being non-Mormons. She has many interesting observations, and I commend her entire article for your reading. Some of what the author points out in that article, I can resonate with, based on our visit to Utah. She notes:
"As you might imagine, being a Utah Gentile can be tough. In fact, living as a non-Mormon in Utah may be the closest a white person can come to understanding what it's like to be a minority in this country. . . It's not that Mormons are bad people. They aren't. They have a church welfare system that is without rival, and their family focus makes Utah a safe place to grow up. . . But the cultural differences between Mormons and Gentiles are significant."
She pointed out that her family was one of only a few non-Mormons in their neighborhood. They were regularly besieged by Mormon missionaries trying to convert them, or trying to collect the tithe church members must give to the church.
We recently visited with an old college friend of mine. Their son now lives in Utah, also a non-Mormon. Our friend told us that neighborhoods are divided into wards, by the church, and that houses where non-Mormons live are marked with Xs so people know a "Gentile" lives there. Gentile is the term Mormons use for anyone who is not Mormon, including--ironically--anyone who is Jewish. Our friend's son has small children, and while the neighborhood where they live has many children, the Mormon children rarely play with these "Gentile" children.
So, what would the U.S. be like if we were a theocracy? Is the Utah experience instructive? Utah, of course, is not technically a theocracy—they gave up that approach to government (along with polygamy) when they were admitted to the United States. It is striking that even though Utah gave up being a theocracy, there are ways in which the pressure is on non-Mormons. During our recent trip, when we were offered to take post-cards so we could request more information on being Mormon--we all declined. But our daughter-in-law got a rejoinder from the young Mormon missionary who was pressuring her. Oh, a non-believer, she sniffed.
True, early American history did feature some colonies that functioned as mini-theocracies. Settlers from England fled religious persecution and intolerance, only to set up places in New England that duplicated those same conditions. I have always been struck by the irony of those first English Puritans who came to the New World to escape religious persecution ended up persecuting others in the name of religion. The Middle Colonies (including Pennsylvania) were a bit more tolerant, at least toward other religions. By the colonies came together to form the union, the concept of not having a state established religion had taken hold.
Whatever the framers of the Constitution had in mind, they clearly intended to prohibit the kind of intolerance that they had experienced that drove them to seek a new place in which to live. The language of the first amendment--Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances--makes it clear (at least to me) that the founders of what became the United States did not want a theocracy.
What of other experiences around the world where theocracies exist? Here, let us turn to current examples of theocracy in the world. Wikipedia identifies three theocracies: Iran, the Vatican, and Israel. Ah--how's that for a nice balance, representing three different religions. What they share is the concept that the laws of the state are the laws that God has decreed. The head of state is the religious leader, either elected or appointed. That leader is the interpreter of God's intent as far as law is concerned. What these examples also share is the dominance of the religion over matters of state. If you are the follower of another religion, you may not be free to worship as you wish under a theocracy.
The particular genius of the United States is that, while the majority may rule, the Constitution also builds in a strong protection for the minority. It is that genius that is lost in those countries that are theocracies. The minority is not protected, and in the worst of circumstances is totally subjected by the power of the majority.
I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the prospect of the United States becoming a theocracy. For me, because of our ever-so-brief time in Utah and my own perusal of information on the topic of theocracy, I am unalterably opposed to the U.S. ever moving to being a theocracy. Keep church and state apart. The inch-by-inch erasure of that invisible line that separate church and state is one of the greatest threats to the particular genius of the United States.