Gods and Governments
Religious and Secular mixed rule is always toxic
October 10th 2021
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
One sentiment you hear from religious fundamentalists in the United States is something along the lines of “God should be the government” It’s nothing new; religions have always sought to gain political and economic power and influence, and there are hundreds of examples throughout history where they have succeeded in doing that. These political cultures are broadly referred to as theocracies.
Usually in such a regime there is a religious hierarchy that interprets divine will (which is always most obliging to their wants and needs) and then passes edicts on to a secular authority who do the dirty work—mostly in the form of executing, banning, or enslaving.
Ancient Egypt is an example that is well known, as is China. The Byzantine Empire was an uneasy and often bloody power-sharing arrangement between the government of Rome and the Catholic Church. Most European countries had similar arrangements, leading to civil wars, pogroms, and the occasional genocide.
Edward the Second threw the Jews out of England, and those slow to leave learned to their regret that England was on an island.
King Henry VIII had 983 senior clerics killed as part of his drive to replace the Catholic Church with his own brand.
Elizabeth 1 killed thousands of Catholics in England, and in Ireland a million and a half Catholics died from cruel English policies based in large measure on the idea that idolaters should not be countenanced.
Adolph Hitler had Catholic support during his rise to power, but the relationship went sour and Hitler, too, sought to replace Catholicism with his own peculiar blend of Nordic mysticism, Christianity, and “racial science.”
The Test Acts codified prejudice against all non-Protestants in England. It’s still against the law in England for a Catholic to be Prime Minister, although since Tony Blair that law only gets lip service.
Pure theocracies in Europe are fairly rare: Münster and Zurich are the only well-known examples, and both rapidly turned into cults and collapsed.
Modern theocracies are mostly limited to the middle east these days: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and to an extent, Israel.
America was founded on the notion that keeping religious and secular power separate was the key to avoiding religious strife (nearly all the Founders had ancestors who, within the past 300 years, had been imprisoned or executed for religious reasons) and to a certain degree, that has been successful.
The first Christian-based religious strife in North America came when Protestants came to America seeking freedom of religion. No, not the Puritans—the French Huguenot, who settled in Florida, then a Spanish colony. The Spanish were unamused by the infestation of heretics, and proceeded to wipe the colony out.
While the founders wanted to end religious persecution (the Constitution explicitly bans Test Acts), the Protestant majority brought with them the attitudes and prejudices of the mother lands. Despite the noble intentions of the Constitution, many states actually had Test Acts in their laws, forbidding Catholics, Jews, or other unbelievers from holding office, or even owning property. I’m told that in six states, atheists legally cannot hold office to this day. Some communities mandated church attendance for all well into the 19th century.
Much of the genocide of native peoples was met with anything ranging from indifference to beaming approval by church authorities. “Godless heathen” very nearly became one word.
However, the anti-Catholic practices of England and other lands ironically made it harder to discriminate against Catholics in America because of the huge influx of refugees seeking freedom in America. By the twentieth century Catholicism was the biggest single Christian sect in America.
But it would be a mistake to think religious oppression—both oppressor and oppressed—ended there.
Catholics in Boston had to violently riot for the right to have their own schools—and were met by rioting Protestants who didn’t want to allow such a thing. Their Lord’s Prayer was the one true Lord’s Prayer, and people who didn’t accept that should not be allowed to teach their children.
But compared to Europe, America got off lightly (except for the aforementioned Godless Heathens, of course). Even as Churches in Europe lost direct control of secular governments—a long bloody process in itself—most European conflicts remained thinly disguised religious disputations.
The only way a society can be free is by holding religion at at least arm’s length from the centers of power. The Founders understood this all too well. They knew something about governments “run by God”–such governments are cruel, repressive, and deeply antipathetic to the notions of independent thought and individual freedom. One only need read the Bible, or the Talmud, or the Q’uran to see how deep this antipathy goes. How long can dissent last in a form of government where the Law says dissent should be punished by death? Well, you can find an answer for that with Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
All theocracies are viciously repressive. All require a steady stream of executions and terror to force compliance from the flock, formerly known as the electorate. Holy Books don’t discuss liberty, or freedom to disagree. They instead give lessons on disemboweling non-believers or forcing abortions on unfaithful women (Numbers 11, look it up). There has never been a theocracy that was multicultural, enlightened, or particularly literate. Ever. And it won’t start with the Christians Dominionists and Falangists of present day America.
The last thing anyone wants, or needs is ‘government under God.’ If someone could figure out a way to ask God, they would probably find he was pretty much against the idea himself. He has enough smiting to do as it is.