Theocracy and Its Discontents

two whole fish on a platter

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One of the central paradoxes in Western Christianity has been that forcing a religion on a large number of people, as European nations have been want to do, produces a whole lot of Christian people, sure, yet given  the variety of thought in the human mind when there’s a whole lot of people believing something, the outward show of Christianity and the inward experience of it will almost necessarily be different things. What did being a Christian mean to a farmer’s wife in southern France in the year 900? We have little to no idea.

One thing we can count on given human nature, however: the subjective experience wasn’t likely to be what the local priest would have approved of.

In my youth, the school cafeteria at my public school served fish on Fridays in an attempt to make us all fasting and pious non-meat eaters at school. My attitude about being forced to eat fish, however, was not as pious as the Pope might have wished. As a matter of fact, I reacted by outright revolt. Ss a good Pentecostal Protestant lad, I took my lunchbox with me to school on Fridays and ate a good Protestant baloney sandwich. “Up yours, Pope and your minions!”

My revolt did not have quite the level of consequence that Luther’s did, nor was it reported as another outbreak of the Thirty Years War, but despite moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we have to admit that requiring outward piety sets up those requiring it for potential rebellion. Happened in the Reformation. Happened when Brit-derived hillbillies such as I found ourselves driven by economic necessity into German Catholic industrial towns. 

Theocracy is like that. The Handmaid’s Tale in both its print and screen forms demonstrates how we love to hate theocratic structures and dogmatic mindsets. The kicker in that rebellious mindset seems to be that one has to be in power in order to get rebelled against. My baloney rebellion felt good because I was resisting the power. Being the power, however, is a sandwich of a different color. 

For an interesting read on this subject, see religion reporter Michelle Boorstein’s recent Washington Post article about the religious motivations of many of the January 6 insurgents. In that attack, the religious coalition was broad based, even ecumenical if you will. Yet, had the coup been successful, how long would Christian nationalists and New Age shamans (sha-persons?) dwelt in the same tent?

If there’s one thing that the history of European religion in Europe and its colonies shows, it is that familiarity breeds a lot more than contempt. Rebellion comes with the territory. Just ask Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Another example: in the American northwest, “none” is the top religious choice. Interestingly, nones, secular people, and mainline religious people all rank environmental sustainability is a top concern. So . . . guess what the evangelicals in the area most oppose. No, you don’t need more than one guess.

This is why the looming threat of Christian nationalism doesn’t worry me all that much. The right wing might indeed be successful in imposing a theocracy in the US. Could happen. What I consider more likely, however, is that as Christian nationalists become more virulent in their attacks, more rightwing Christians will move just a wee bit toward the center. And perhaps the New Age folks on the right will realize that there’s actually no place for them in a rightwing Christian United States.

After all, in matters of religion, if you give a person a fish, they might just choose a baloney sandwich.

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