What's even more important than discussing the differences between the U.S. and other nations, though, is the difference between the role of religion in American politics now versus the role of religion in America's past, and the potential problems we could face in the future. There is currently a relatively small, yet extremely vocal minority in America that longs to see a political system much closer to that of a country like Iran than the one we currently have. These people have their own hyperbolic rhetoric, with terms like "secular revolution," "judicially imposed atheism," and "Christophobia." In their minds, the country is not moving towards a fascist theocracy, but in the opposite direction, toward atheistic totalitarianism. As much as I would like to, I can't seem to find a reason to see the rhetoric of some on the left as more dangerous than this rhetoric from the right. They both have the effect of undercutting the possibility of intelligent discussion by contracting the conceptual space in which important distinctions can be made.
A recent example might help to illustrate my point. In a recent article by Bruce Walker entitled "The Nuclear Solution to Judicially Imposed Atheism," the following amendment to the Constitution is suggested:
Jason Juznicki has already written an excellent post on the substance of this proposal, and I have nothing to add to it. Instead, I want to use this as an example of the problems with the rhetoric on both sides, and on the left in particular. The suggested amendment is clearly reactionary, and to an absurdly unnecessary degree. There is no evidence whatsoever of a concerted effort of secularist judges to infringe upon the religious freedoms of anyone. Sure, some conservative Christians feel like judicial decisions which force the removal of religious symbols from courthouses, or disallow the teaching of their own creation myths in science classrooms, amount to infringements on their religious freedom, but these infringements, if they can even be called that, are minor relative to the rhetoric and proposed solutions some conservative Christians are using. The government, including the judicial branch, has made no attempts to curtail the rights of individuals to worship privately as they please, or even to remove such visible religious symbols as the references to God on coins. Once we've made such overstated accusations as "judicially imposed atheism," how do we begin to discuss government attempts to impose limits on private worship if and when they actually do occur?
“SECTION ONE: The government of the United States holds this truth to be self-evident: that all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
“SECTION TWO: Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, shall forever be encouraged. The foundational principles of the American government are based upon the faiths of Christianity and of Judaism.
“SECTION THREE: When any judge of the United States or justice of the Supreme Court of the United States construes the Constitution contrary to the foregoing sections of this amendment, then when two thirds of the members of the House of Representatives concur, that officer shall be removed from office.
Fortunately for all of us, and those conservative Christians who are crying foul in particular, there are few people, if any, in the U.S. today who are calling for the government to infringe upon the rights of citizens to worship as they please. There are, however, people calling for a substantial increase in the role played by religion in the public sphere. Walker's proposed amendment to the Constitution is an excellent example of this. If such an amendment were to pass, then we would be right to express worry about theocratic tendencies in America. Yet, as Jason notes, amendments like this have absolutely no chance of passing in today's United States. This is because overall, the theocratic impulses of the American people and their government are at most extremely limited. Yet the distinction between an atmosphere in which such an amendment would have a chance of passing, and the current atmosphere in American politics, disappears when we describe our current situation as "fascist theocracy." How, then, are we supposed to combat the theocratic tendencies in some, if we can't articulate the distinction between a fairly marginalized political view and a genuine threat? Wouldn't it be more productive to use language that allowed for such distinctions?
For now, both those who feel we are in the midst of a theocratic revolution, and those who feel an atheistic one is well underway, are in the extreme minority. My impression is that to the average American, neither of these fears seems realistic. Yet I worry that the influence that those who use such claims to attract attention, and even those who genuinely believe them, might be growing. What would we do if these two ways of speaking about the direction of our country were to reach the level of national debate, or worse, to dominate it? That is a fear that I think is much more reasonable.