There are some words in common usage that trip off the tongue without our giving a great deal of thought about their meaning. One of these words is democracy. It is a word that speaks of an aspect of society that we value but often take for granted. We may find ourselves examining the meaning of this word more closely when its opposite, authoritarianism, appears on the horizon. When authoritarian rule threatens a society, people find themselves looking to the institutions which are designed to check it, such as the Press or the independence of the legal system. In this country we value living in a society where constitutionally the will of the people is regularly consulted. The people vote in or vote out an administration according to their perceptions of its competence to manage the country.
Democracy is a relatively new idea. For most of history and in most places, other systems of government have prevailed. Democracy may have had a brief flowering in Athens during the 400s BC, but even there it was a far from perfect implementation. Women and slaves were excluded from the gatherings of free citizens that made decisions. It was also a fragile institution and there was always the threat that autocracy would reassert itself. Many of the words that describe the different systems of government are Greek words. We have mentioned two of them. There are others, oligarchy, theocracy and tyranny. We can also add Latin words like emperor and dictator. Political systems suggested by each these words have prevailed at different times in history. Of all the possible types, democracy was more often merely an idea rather than a reality. Typically, a powerful man would take over one of the organs of state, such as the army, and then declare himself to be ruler. Sometimes dictatorship was exercised benevolently. The Roman Empire had one such period under three successive emperors, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. But, apart from this 80-year period, from 100 -180 AD, the history of Rome is marked by an almost constant series of wars, both internal and external.
Many countries today are going through political upheavals. Some seem to be moving towards authoritarian populist right-wing systems of rule. In the case of the United States we see attempts on the part of the Trump-led Republican Party to undermine the rule of law and the role of the Press. Appointing an obviously partisan judge to the highest court of the land little serves the cause of unbiased justice and oversight of the American Constitution. These efforts in the States to move towards what we would call authoritarian rule or tyranny are supported by a large group of evangelical Christians. Many conservative Christians apparently see Trump’s presidency as opening the way to another form of rule, theocracy. Donald Trump is thought to be the new King Cyrus. He it is who is the tool used by God who is coming to rule the country through his chosen representatives.
As an idea, theocracy has only been attempted in a very few places in history. In summary it is the belief that God’s law and will can be applied to a human society and it will usher in some form of perfection. The idea of theocracy could be said to undergird the indescribable brutalities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In the West it formed part of the idealism of the early English Puritan settlers who moved to New England in the 1620s. In both examples it can be claimed that idealism was quickly translated into violence (albeit on different scales) as not everyone wanted to conform to the ideals of leaders. Contemporary theocratic ideas in America owe much to the writings of R.J. Rushdoony. In the 1960s he conceived of a system of government entirely based on Old Testament law. http://survivingchurch.org/2014/10/21/reconstructionism/ These ideas have been taken up by a powerful segment of Pentecostal/Charismatic thinkers who are organised in a network known as the New Apostolic Reformation. I have referred to this group several times on this blog, but I still find few in this country who know about the political power of this group in the States. Rusdoony and his later imitators are, as we would expect, enthusiastic about extreme sanctions against those who break sexual codes, including the mention of the death sentence for homosexuality and bestiality. One contemporary expression is the ‘Seven Mountains’ doctrine. This states that it is the duty of Christians to take charge of the seven areas of influence in society on God’s behalf. In short, every expression of culture or power should be under the control of ‘bible-believing’ Christians.
Theocracy as a practical system of government has probably not been worked out fully even by its enthusiastic supporters. But it still exists in the minds of many Trump Christian supporters as a political system which can be realistically implemented in the States. The important (and scary) thing is that they have been led by Rushdoony to believe that the Bible is an adequate basis for all decisions of government. Men of God (it will only be men) will arise to rule on behalf of God. Because they are the genuine servants of the living God, they will be faithful interpreters of his will. Whatever they command in his name will be a perfect expression of God’s law.
It is difficult to see how any modern version of theocracy will do better that its historical precedents in 17th century Massachusetts or ISIS controlled parts of Iraq and Syria. The only way that every individual can be persuaded into obeying an ‘infallible’ leader who speaks the will of God is through force and fear. We know that vast crowds will sometimes willingly follow a leader on some spiritual or political quest. But there will always be doubters or sceptics within the crowd. All our post-Enlightenment instincts want to affirm the legal and moral rights of the non-conformer. Infallibility is not a useful concept either in politics or religion and it does nothing to promote freedom of conscience. The craving for total certainties among conservative Christians as among Trump Republican supporters is a false and futile longing. The application of theocratic rule by ‘godly’ infallible leaders ends up being a path to tyranny, destruction of freedom and violence. Theocracy in short is a false dream. Because it depends on human beings to put it into practice, it will always suffer from the fallibilities to which human beings are always prey. For all its draw-backs democracy remains the best of a bad bunch in the systems of government available to us.
Trumpism and the desired move by his followers towards theocratic systems of government will only, we hope, be a temporary historical blip. But the popularity of this totalitarian thinking across the world must still be faced and challenged. Inclusivity, tolerance and the freedom to disagree with others are worthy causes. Theocracy, as it is believed in by some the States, is an enemy of freedom and a threat to the Christian faith itself. Christ invited us to freedom not the tyranny of coercion and fear.