Thursday, March 18, 2021

Theofascism Part 2: Speaking a Common Language

This post is part one of my series on Theofascism. As I post future installments, I will list them here:


Part 1: Everybody Does It - Politics and Philosophy




Having established in the first part that everyone lets their beliefs influence their politics, and argued that the issue is whether those beliefs are shitty or not, I hope in this part to clarify the difference between beliefs that are purely religious, and ones that are more universal. 


For those of us who grew up in the Protestant, Evangelical, Christian tradition, we learned to read the Torah as separated into different “kinds” of laws. Specifically, there were the laws that were related to the ceremonial Jewish religion - sacrifices, temple and tabernacle, and so on - and laws that were about morality - say, the 10 Commandments. Some have gone further and divided the laws into “civil,” “ceremonial,” and “moral.” 


This was problematic for a few reasons. First is that the peoples of the Ancient Near East didn’t make those distinctions - Law was Law, and the idea that religious purification rituals were somehow different in essence from civil laws would not have made sense to them. Second, and more problematic in practice, is that categorizing laws is pretty difficult to do. For example, why is the prohibition on male homosexuality a “moral” law that applies to all time, while having sex with a menstruating woman is just a purity law? (Well, theonomists like Bill Gothard accepted most of the purity rules as binding now, but even he picked and chose a lot…) Or, why can’t we kill people who curse their parents? And that thing about wool and flax, or about shrimp or cheeseburgers?  


So what happens, of course, is that people pick and choose. This rule applies, but this one doesn’t. This one is moral only (we don’t stone people who have affairs - or Trump would have been long dead) while this one should be enforced by the government. It is impossible to avoid at least some arbitrary decisions. And in any case, reasonable people will disagree. (And unreasonable people, can guess where that goes.)


And this is just when it comes to CHRISTIANS trying to decide what parts of their own holy book apply to them. Multiply that by the many denominations, religions, cultures, and it becomes an impossible task. 


But more than that, using one religion and its book as the starting point for political policy discussions is a non-starter. 


We live in a pluralistic world. Full. Stop. Unless you are willing to commit to the use of violence to enforce belief (and believe me, some Fundies are), the functioning of society depends on finding solutions that do not depend on one religious group cramming things down the throat of everyone else. 


And that means we need a common language. 


The good news is, we have one! Humans have discussed ethics and morality and politics and policy since the dawn of recorded history. We have a generally consistent way of understanding ethics, which is why certain laws have been universal - if not exactly identical - across human societies in time and place.


When we discuss political issues, we need to limit ourselves to those issues that are truly universal - that can be discussed with others who do not share our specific theology.


Here is an example. Every society forbids murder. There may be differences as to what constitutes murder (as opposed to justifiable homicide, or negligent manslaughter), but pretty much all humans past and present have had some proscription of killing other humans. 


We can discuss this using universal terms of ethics. I can have this discussion with my Sikh neighbor. Jews can discuss it with Catholics. Ethiopians can discuss it with Cambodians. Atheists can discuss it with Buddhists. It is universal enough that we can find common ground. We don’t have to go with “God said do not murder” in order to have a discussion - and come up with a mutual solution.


Not everything is like that, however. For an Orthodox Jew (or a follower of Bill Gothard), having sex with a menstruating woman is taboo. For many others of us, it is not. The problem is, can we even discuss this without resorting to an appeal to religious authority? In this case, no. There is no scientific basis for such a prohibition, and “ew, gross” is not an argument. It boils down to either you believe God forbids it or you don’t. 


The issue is a purely religious one.


And, in cases like this, we are best off acknowledging that this isn’t an issue that government should get involved in. 


We have decided this regarding a number of issues. Religious purity rules should not be enforced by government in a pluralistic society. Furthermore, even if society agrees that some things are immoral, they should not be enforced by the government. A classic example of this is adultery. Most people agree that having sex with someone else behind your spouse’s back is morally wrong. But few think you should get arrested for it. It is a moral issue but not one that requires society to intervene with violence against the offenders. (On a related note, Sex and the Constitution is an excellent historical look at the law and sexuality. And specifically about the 19th Century movement to criminalize most sexuality and even knowledge about sex.)


My proposal therefore, is that we start thinking of politics and the law in terms of universals. The law should get involved only where there is a universal value that can be discussed without bringing religious beliefs into the discussion. Even in cases of morality, not every moral wrong should be addressed politically. And when a particular policy makes sense only in light of a particular theological belief, then the government should stay out of it. 


What you will find is that, in general, the “universal” issues are ones of how we relate to our fellow humans. Purity rules tend to be very personal, while universal rules are those that allow us to live in peace with each other.


The right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” found in one of our founding documents here in the United States. The necessity for a society to care for its weakest members. Protection of the commons: air, water, environment. Infrastructure like roads, fire protection, education, healthcare, courts. And so on. 


In my experience, when you see people get off on trying to enforce religious purity rules using government, it is because they don’t want to address the legitimate functioning of government. (And historically, that is because they don’t believe that “those people” should be benefitted.) Focus on religious rules allows them to feel good about themselves while doing immense harm to others. 




Just some obvious applications here:


What consenting adults do with their genitals is a matter of personal belief. These are purity rules. I have yet to see any argument contrary that does not, in the end, boil down to “God doesn’t like it.”) And the government should never enforce these kinds of purity rules. (Food and water purity, on the other hand…) 


But, there is a role for government here. Because beliefs about sexual purity are inherently religious, a functioning society requires that people not be excluded from society for failing to follow religious purity rules. Therefore, government does have a role in ensuring that people who do not believe that same-sex sexual activity is taboo are not forced to follow the religious rules, or be excluded from jobs, housing, healthcare, goods, and services. In a pluralistic society, you can’t have the religious majority excluding those who have different beliefs. 


Another one here is the abortion issue. This would require a series of its own (maybe someday), but here is a quick and dirty summary of the issues. The issue isn’t “life.” It is personhood - the existence of a sentient being. I am an organ donor. If part of my body goes to another person after my death, my DNA - and a freaking whole organ - will live on. It is human “life.” On the other hand, “I” - a person - am not alive at that point. My kidney is not sentient, and nobody would seriously claim that we should keep the rest of the donee person alive indefinitely because anything else would be murder. Likewise, if my brain dies, I am no longer a person - just a corpse kept alive by a machine. Donate my organs and let my corpse die. Most of us understand that. Our “personhood” is connected to our sentience. 


Believe it or not, this is the mainstream belief, historically, of most religions. Including Christianity, which has predominantly held that a person gains a soul either with first breath or with first perceived movement in the womb. The idea that sperm meeting egg creates a soul is younger than I am. (The Abortion Wars™ are about, shall we say, other issues.


You can go on down the list on Culture War™ issues, and it becomes obvious that most of them depend entirely on theology. And many of them depend strongly on a particular view of gender - namely that women are to be subordinate to men. (That’s a whole other discussion.) 


Back to the bottom line:


If an issue cannot be discussed without bringing theology into it, then it shouldn’t be the basis for political policy.




A fair point: As society has changed, the realm of what can be discussed without reference to religion has changed as well. Some of this is for obvious reasons.


Not too long ago, only wealthy white men had a say in our politics. Since women and people of color were largely excluded, their viewpoints were not really considered. The increasing equality of these historically excluded groups has affected what is religious and not. 


For example, it used to be that the congenital inferiority - the subhuman status - of females was a given. Everyone (or close enough) believed it, so there was no need to appeal to “god says” in assuming it. Ditto for “non-whites are subhuman” and “the races should be kept separate.” And “god hates fags” wasn’t necessary when people believed it was a mental illness. 


Science too has changed the discussion, and not just about LGBTQ rights. Our discussions of economics, the environment, and medicine have been greatly altered by increasing scientific knowledge. 


One thing that is fascinating to watch is Fundies trying to argue without using references to religion. Their problem is that they have a perceived theological need to come to the exact same conclusion, so they keep stretching reality further and further. As the subordination of women becomes increasingly indefensible, they cling to any “science” they can find to justify the result. But as the real science doesn’t support their position, they sound ever more shrill and ridiculous. And this belief in the congenital inferiority of women is behind most of their theopolitics, from abortion to LGBTQ rights. 


But the fact that culture has changed is not an excuse to try to impose a religious viewpoint on others. Rather, our discussion of ethics and politics needs to reflect the new information and the needs of a more pluralistic society. 




As I mentioned in the first installment, this only becomes theofascism when the power of government is imposed on nonbelievers to enforce religious rules. However, quite obviously, this culture war is being fought on multiple levels, from employers who fire LGBTQ people or women pregnant out of wedlock, to individual families who browbeat members who refuse to follow the religious rules. This isn’t theofascism, but it IS bigotry. (That’s a future installment.) And it is tremendously damaging. 


Following my advice, in all of these situations, discussing things using a common language is helpful. And realising that if you have to bring God into it to make your point, people who do not share your specific theology will not find your argument persuasive, but rather offensively insulting. 



  1. While I typically enjoy your writing, I feel like this was a weaker installment. Particularly, the way you seem to be saying that it's okay for the government to enforce morality as long as that morality is universal - eg. murder is illegal because everyone agrees murder is wrong.

    But this contrasts to what you point out later - that commonly accepted moral precepts change over time.

    Morality, whether sect-specific or universal, is not something that should be legislated. It's simply not the government's business. Murder and theft are illegal not because everyone's opposed to them, but because they are deleterious to public order. The government's concern is properly practical good, not moral good.

    That's how I see it, anyway. And your explanation above seems by comparison to be the same sort of convoluted reasoning you decry: "THIS moral precept is okay for the government to enforce BECAUSE..."

    1. My point here is not to come up with a philosophical basis for legislation - public order as you put it. That's a whole rabbit hole outside the scope of this series, and something far better minds than mine have addressed. The point I was trying to make was much more narrow, which is that if you cannot justify a rule without resorting to theology, it has no place in public policy. When it comes to theofascism, that is the core of the problem. When you cannot convince people using a common moral or "public order" argument, you end up resorting to a raw assertion of power - of violence - against those who disagree.