Christianity and the Temptation of Theocracy

The incident involving a group of Covington Catholic high school students on a March for Life in Washington DC is noteworthy in that it symbolizes a number of contradictions in the culture of conservative Catholicism and its Evangelist allies.

It is troubling, yet revealing, to me that the youths wore red MAGA baseball caps, chanted “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall” as they marched In support of the cause of ending abortion and access to contraceptives through the enactment of secular legislation which would transpose religious doctrine into civil law.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was born and raised a Catholic and am still very active in the practice of my Faith. I have studied the Bible, church doctrine and its moral teachings, received a Catholic education from kindergarten through college, and have sat in the pews at the receiving end of probably over 15,000 homilies over my lifetime.

I also, however, have closely studied our government, our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the philosophies of our Founders as well as the Greeks and Romans whose culture contributed significantly to the foundational framework of American democracy, and our common law heritage. I have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, and have done my best to do so for over 47 years as a prosecutor and judge (now retired). With this backdrop I offer some thoughts on what I believe are well-intentioned, but very misguided and even hypocritical, efforts by Christian conservatives to implement a theocratic form of government in the United States.

One of the three temptations of Christ as he fasted in the desert befor beginning his public ministry , as described in the Gospels, involved the devil taking him to the highest mountain, showing him all the kingdoms of the world, and offering him dominion over them if he bowed down and worshipped the devil. Christ refused and the devil left him.

I fear many fervent religious zealots have ignored this powerful example and have instead succumbed to the temptation of seeking dominion over worldly powers as a means to enforce their belief system on everyone, including and especially those who do not share those beliefs. I cannot help but observe that in making this bargain they have been willing to sacrifice most of their moral values in order to achieve civil enforcement of a few, focusing specifically on sexual orientation and reproductive rights issues. As a trade-off, they overtly or silently assent to bigotry, racism, misogyny, serial lying from their political allies, and inhumane policies such as the separation of children from their asylum seeking refugee parents and incarcerating them in detention centers. We have even witnessed the then-Attorney General of the Dpartment of Justice quoting Scripture to justify this gross violation of basic human rights and decency and being joined in this hypocrisy by certain of his conservative religious allies.

No wonder the youthful marchers are confused. The adults who forged the unholy alliance between church and the politics of hatred and divisiveness are fully responsible for the mixed messaging. The young are very perceptive in discerning and acting upon the hypocrisy of their elders. And religious leaders need to realize that the devil always gets the best of the bargain.

A final thought. Religious belief systems are toxic breeding grounds for strife, discord, and even warfare. The Crusades were contrary to Christ’s message — he repeatedly emphasized that his kingdom was not of this world. Religious warfare ravaged Europe for centuries in the aftermath of the Reformation and resulting violence between rival factions of Christianity. Courts of Inquisition tortured, imprisoned, and executed “heretics” having been empowered to do so by the State. Our nation’s Founders, acutely familiar with religious persecutions and the volatility of religious disputations, expressly provided for freedom of religion as a right but also that we would be free from the establishment of religion by rhe government. Too many of us applaud the first liberty while ignoring or dismissing the second. Thus there is a constant push to establish Christianity (the orthodox and conservative brand) as the official religion of the nation and implement its precepts through civil law. This is in conflict with the Constitution. I hold firmly to my religious beliefs, but I have no right to compel others to share them. Humanity has a history of trying to do just that. It doesn’t work. Conversion at the point of a sword is an illusion.

Retired federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. Former professor at UofO Law School. Married with 7 children.