I appreciate the thoughtfulness of everyone’s comments, as well as the civility with which they have been presented. I have a handful of comments, first for Andrew and Mark, and second for Philip.
Andrew and Mark: In my experience working, for a time, among the leading intellectual lights of the (Catholic) religious right, I learned that there are indeed many Americans who deny that we (in Mark’s words) “legitimately govern ourselves.” This doesn’t mean that they deny the legitimacy of American democracy as a form of government; it means, rather, that they emphatically believe that American democracy stands under divine judgment. In that sense, then, we don’t really “govern ourselves” at all; we are a Christian nation “under God,” and it is He who rules.
But to repeat a point I tried to make in my initial response to Mark’s essay on political theology, the religious right’s emphasis on God’s ultimate sovereignty does not mean that the religious right (aside from a few nuts on the extreme fringe) aims to install a different “system of government” (Mark) or intends to attack the Constitution “frontally” (Andrew). On the contrary, the religious right believes that such radical actions are thoroughly unnecessary because the Constitution is already on their side — and that it is secular liberals who have had to engage in violent and ahistorical misreadings of constitutional law in order to make their interpretation of our founding documents sound even remotely plausible.
Do I worry that this theological way of understanding the Constitution will prevail — meaning that a substantial majority of Americans will come to accept its truth and then seek to rule politically in its name? Not really. What worries me far more is the fact that a significant number of Americans accept it at all, because that means that a significant number of Americans live, as it were, in another America from the rest of us. (This is where I think we should all take heed of Mark’s concern about the civic consequences of the home schooling movement.) The culture war, as I previously noted, is fundamentally about America’s theological identity. As long as the American people are divided about the theological (or rather, non-theological) character of the country, its history, and its political institutions, the culture war will go on, and perhaps deepen.
Philip: There is, I think, something unique — and uniquely threatening (politically speaking) — about the theoconservative approach to religion. For most of our history, American Christianity has been riven by discord — not enough, for the most part, to spark outright theological conflict among groups, but enough to keep a large number of groups from working together in concert to achieve common political ends. There are exceptions, of course, the foremost being Prohibition. But in most other cases (e.g., abolitionism, civil rights), one denomination, or small numbers of like-minded believers in several denominations, engaged in protest that eventually made a political difference, but only once large numbers of people who were not especially motivated by religious conviction added their support to the cause. Conversely, when large numbers of Christian groups have come together to work for common goals (as the Protestant “Mainline” did in the middle decades of the twentieth century), they have tended to downplay their theological motivations, precisely because of the difficulty of finding theological consensus among believers from different denominations. All of this has been very good for American politics, contributing significantly to our nation’s stability over the past 231 years.
Theoconservative ideology is meant to overcome this confessional pluralism, precisely because its leading theorists understand that such pluralism has tended to stand in the way of orthodox Christians working together to set the nation’s agenda and influence its self-understanding. Building on trends already underway in American religious life over the past several decades, the theocons have worked to develop a new theological-political consensus — a consensus that in my book I call “mere orthodoxy” — on which all devout Christians, Catholic or Protestant, can agree. The motivation for building this interdenominational coalition of traditionalist Christian believers is blatantly partisan — the theological counterpart of Karl Rove’s ambition to create a Republican governing coalition that will last for a generation or more.
Now, it may well be that the current disarray on the religious right is an indication that the theocon program has failed; that is a judgment we will be unable to make for many years. But regardless of its long-term prospects, it is clear, I think, that the theoconservative strategy for overcoming confessional pluralism, and the theocons’ ambition to use a new theological consensus to influence the country’s political culture at the national level, is something new in American history and thus something worthy of special attention and even concern.