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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

A friend liked this picture:

I’ve heard arguments like this – that if voters or legislators act on their religious belief, it adds up to theocracy. But I’m not so sure. To be clear up front, here’s what I mean by the main terms:

  1. theocracy: a government where the laws are determined by some particular religion’s teachings</p>
  2. democracy: a government where the laws are determined by the expressed opinion of the majority of voters

I won’t distinguish between indirect and direct democracies, or democracies vs. republics. With apologies to political wonks, I’ll use “democracy” as a kind of umbrella term for all those situations where the majority of peoples’ opinion sets the rules. That’s different from a theocracy or a monarchy or oligarchy or whatever, where you have one person or a small group deciding what reasons are good. In a democracy, the fact that I don’t find your reason convincing (even if I’m right on that point!) doesn’t take away your right to have your opinion counted along with everyone else’s.

So let’s take an example. Earlier this year North Carolina voted to make gay marriage unconstitutional. Let’ suppose we knew somehow that those people who voted against marriage equality did it for religious reasons: they believed their Bible told them marriage was one man, one woman. Would this be theocracy at work? I don’t think so – it’s still the majority’s opinion that’s deciding things here.

Now, imagine some other religion came along and said this amendment violated their religion. They’re not trying to convince individual voters before the election; they’re saying that the vote be damned, their religion’s teaching should be the one that decides that’s legal and what’s not in North Carolina. If they actually got what they wanted, that would be theocracy. And if it was a non-religious group making the case on non-religious grounds, it wouldn’t be a theocracy but it would be something analogous. Philosocracy? Logocracy? Something like that.

To be clear: I was deeply upset by the North Carolina vote. I would love to see it overturned by the courts. And I hate the thought of religious people imposing their beliefs on society at large through the law. (This is not love of neighbor as yourself, IMO.) But I think it’s also important to remember that in a democracy you try to convince citizens to change their minds; you don’t cut them out of the loop retroactively, unless it violates some other democratically-passed bill. That may be a bad thing; I get as frustrated as anyone by the thought of people who haven’t thought things through having a voice that cancels out my own. But I really don’t think it rises to the level of theocracy.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2012 09:15 pm (UTC)
I don't have a problem with religious legislators being guided by their faith. It's part of who they are. However, they must not be allowed to impose their faith on others.

It's one thing to pray that the Lord will guide you in making the right decision for yourself, it's another to make decisions that are binding on other people who may believe something different.
Nov. 8th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how clean a distinction you can draw here. I mean, what you're saying sounds really good in principle. And when I think about specific cases where a governor or someone might use his discretion to impose religion, I definitely don't like it. At all. But with elected officials we ask them to use their good judgment. How could someone be guided by his faith without using it to make decisions that are binding on other people who may believe something different? I honestly don't know.

Really, though, my point was simpler. While I'm majorly uncomfortable with people voting a certain way because their religion requires it, I don't think that's theocracy - it's just people misusing democracy. This matters, because when you accuse someone voting to outlaw abortions or whatever of wanting a theocracy, the discussion you end up having is off point. At least that's my thoughts on this!
Nov. 8th, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
Ah! I see what you are saying here! It's a matter of definition, and I completely agree.

A theocracy is a state deliberately set up to be run by the beliefs of a particular religion--like many of the governments of the Middle-east.

It's not a theocracy here because even if individual legislators/executives/judges use their personal religious beliefs to guide them in their actions it's not required of them to do so. Furthermore, a legislator of another religious faith is perfectly free to be guided by his/her own religious beliefs, even if he/she is of a different faith than the first legislator.

As to the question of how the differences between being guided by one's own beliefs/imposition on others would work, I think about my vote this week on allowing alcohol to be sold on Sunday. Even though I do not drink, and think that it wouldn't hurt folks to abstain one day a week, I voted for the measure because it's not my place to impose that on someone else. I would like to hope that it could work the same way of someone who has actually been elected to make such decisions.

Note that I said "HOPE". *rolls eyes*

Edited at 2012-11-08 10:17 pm (UTC)
Nov. 8th, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC)
Yep, that's it!

I'm in philosophy. That means I am bothered by very particular things, even when I'm not talking with other philosophers. It means I get focused on things that probably wouldn't bother most people, and I know deep down that I shouldn't be bothered by them... but I am.

This is a good example. I'm really glad all those states opened up marriage to homosexual people. I'm a big supporter of marriage equality, not just because I want homosexual people to have the same legal protections as anyone else (you know, because freedom is good :-D) but also because I think the current set-up is sexist. It only makes sense if you think men and women are different deep down, and I have problems with that. But when you say a Christian can't vote her values without it devolving into theocracy... that feels like a personal attack, and that's where my attention goes. Not because I want to defend anyone voting against marriage equality; it's a different issue entirely.

Btw, Aearwen had some good comments over at the WordPress blog. If you're interested in this, you may want to check it out. She definitely gave me food for thought.
Nov. 8th, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC)
It helps to include a link! http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/?p=680
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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