Is the U.S. in Danger of Becoming a Theocracy?
Recently, the term “theocracy” has been used in the media with derision. Whether in reference to Mike Pence’s Christian faith, or Betsy DeVos’ support of charter schools, the term keeps popping up in conversations about a number of topics. The word “theocracy” is generally defined as a form of government in which religious rulers are the government. In my experience, when people express concern over the U.S. becoming a “theocracy,” they are either misusing the term intentionally, to inspire a kind of fear-mongering; or, they are misusing the term unintentionally because they don’t understand it. Most people who study actual “theocracies” would agree the U.S. is not heading in that direction. Nor are we in danger of reverting to the very form of government in England from which the Protestants and Pilgrims fled. I think the true nature of the controversy is captured by the ever-popular phrase, “separation of church and state.”
This is the first in a series of blog posts, based on our book Navigating Public Schools, that aims to clarify where the term, “separation of church and state,” came from and what it means today. With upcoming decisions about school choice from Betsy DeVos, there has never been a better time to really understand this phrase and be able to gracefully correct misconceptions.
The misinterpretation of the phrase “separation of church and state” has permeated our culture and has robbed many parents and students of their willingness to live out their faith in public schools and culture. Most Christians are being shipwrecked by this tragically misleading metaphor. The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Williams Rehnquist said this in 1985:
“But the greatest injury of the ‘wall’ notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights… The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
Most people have heard the phrase “separation of church and state,” yet they will flounder when asked how the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution impacts their freedom of religion. How could a phrase such as the separation of church and state (which is not even in the Constitution) garner so much attention, while the First Amendment collects dust in the American consciousness? For all practical purposes, the false notion of the separation of church and state has replaced the First Amendment in many people’s minds. There has been a very successful agenda that has accomplished this mission.
It is impossible to truly understand the topic of the “separation of church and state” without understanding the First Amendment. Our next blog post will clarify our First Amendment rights, followed by a post that will give the history and background of the phrase, “separation of church and state.” We hope this series will help you refute myths about “the immanent dangers of theocracy.”