Message to Al Queda: America Is Already a Theocracy
Shortly after 9/11, I attended a local prayer breakfast at which service club members, clergy and town officials gathered to consider the Pledge of Allegiance’s phrase “one Nation under God.”
As I reflected on that theme, it occurred to me that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts – the Taliban of Afghanistan – might also say their objective is “one Nation under God.” After all, they speak of the “nation of Islam” and call for an Islamic theocracy.
A theocracy is defined by Mr. Webster as a state governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials – a monarch, council or junta – who are regarded as divinely guided. What distinguishes the Islamists’ version of nationhood from ours?
Let’s start with the Declaration of Independence, our founding document. The Declaration is as much a spiritual document as a political one. It has four references to deity – “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the World” and “divine Providence.” Those phrases collectively declare that God is the mighty author of our being and the moral authority for our laws, and that we humans, by virtue of our spiritual nature derived from God, are created equal and are endowed with “certain unalienable rights.” The purpose of government, the Declaration says, is to ensure that those rights are not violated because each individual citizen is sacred and sovereign. Did bin Laden and the Taliban offer anything comparable?
Look at Afghanistan under the Taliban, which hosted bin Laden. Where was the freedom we cherish – freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and the press, freedom to assemble and to travel, freedom to criticize the government, freedom to seek redress of grievances, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to work as we wish, freedom of education, and so forth? The Taliban suppressed all that. Radio, TV and entertainment were forbidden except for government-approved forms. There were no minority parties campaigning for election because critics of the government were publicly executed. People were jailed for the “crime” of teaching about Christianity.
The Declaration of Independence states that all men – meaning all people – are created equal. Did bin Laden and the Taliban have anything comparable? Just look at the condition of women under their rule. They had to be covered from head to foot, including their face; they were beaten on the street for showing even an ankle. They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t go to school or work outside the home. Female teachers couldn’t teach. Even female doctors, whose medical services were badly needed, were forbidden to practice their profession. (Please note that this terrible treatment of women is not inherent in Islam, but was due to the twisted mentality of the Taliban.) As for other religions, Christians were persecuted and Hindus were forced to wear a sign on their clothing to identify themselves as non-Muslim. Ancient Buddhist sculptures regarded by the world as art treasures were blown up.
Noble-sounding words can be misused to disguise something totally opposite to their meaning. That is what the Taliban, bin Laden and their followers did. Their version of “one Nation under God” was a brutal totalitarian dictatorship – the antithesis of everything for which America stands (and, according to many Muslim scholars, the antithesis of what Islam stands for also).
Whether you believe in God or not, if you are American, you should understand the profound difference which our theory of government makes for us from all other theories and forms of political organization. The fundamental idea of America is this: Our liberty, our sovereignty, our equality, our rights, our justice and our human dignity are bestowed upon us by God and guaranteed by the Constitution; all that may not be violated or taken away by laws, court decisions, executive orders or social majorities who think otherwise. Rather, the primary role of government is to protect all that from anyone who seeks to harm it or override it. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, governments are instituted to ensure those God-given rights.
Our Founders believed that Man is made in the living image of God and that the basis on which our nation stands is acknowledgement of God as the supreme authority for the conduct of our national life and our personal life. If God is the foundation of America, we can rightfully say this nation is a theocracy. But it is a democratic nonsectarian theocracy operating through a constitutional republic rather than an autocratic religious junta such as the Taliban. Our Founders wisely separated church and state to prevent just that.
Unlike the former condition of Afghanistan with the Taliban and unlike the former condition of China and Japan with their emperors, clerics and divine-right monarchs do not rule here and the First Amendment assures they never will. The individual comes first, not the state, not an establishment of religion, not a clerical caste, not a ruler regarded as semidivine. By virtue of our spiritual nature and our moral equality, in American society every citizen is a direct representative of God and every citizen is a full and equal member of the ruling body known as “we the people.” Through the Constitution, we the people rule America.
Ideally speaking, therefore, America is a theocracy because it is governed by God through the total population of our divinely guided citizenry who are the true heads of state and who are educated in the religio-moral ideals, principles and values of our society. They provide the governance of our society from which the representatives of our government are elected. Our national character is the seedbed from which our public officials grow.
That is a radically new form of theocracy – both new and better. It is unique in history. It is an advancement beyond even that which our Pilgrim forefathers intended, which was a theocracy, a Holy Commonweal of the elect. The Pilgrims were separatists; they separated from England in order to set up a society in which God, not the King, was head of state. “No king but God,” they said. Yet for all the debt of gratitude we owe our Pilgrim forefathers, we must not overlook the fact that their theocracy was a decidedly narrow, restrictive one, and intolerant of divergent religious beliefs. In fact, in the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was oppressive enough to send Roger Williams into the Rhode Island wilderness to establish a colony more hospitable to religious freedom for all. So understanding the magnificence of our Founders’ achievement – a theocracy based on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for all individuals, including even those who deny the existence of God – is critical for the future of freedom around the globe.
Although our Founders separated church and state, they did not separate God and state. How could they? The Declaration makes clear that from our beginning we have been “one Nation under God.”
What follows from that theory of government is the marvelous liberty of our nation in which people can worship, speak, assemble, write, travel, work, marry and live as they wish – in short, can pursue happiness as they wish – so long as they do not violate another’s right to do the same. Yes, that marvelous liberty has been abused by some citizens. And, yes, because liberty carries inherent responsibility, it requires a conscience, a sense of civic duty and a sense of respect for public decorum – in short, voluntary compliance – to live properly in accordance with our national ideals, principles and values. As Thomas Jefferson said, the qualifications for self-government are not innate; they are the result of habit and long training. But without that spiritual foundation asserting your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and without the constitutional protection guaranteeing your freedom and your rights… well, renounce your American citizenship, move to Taliban City and find out for yourself what follows.
We Americans should thank God for the blessings we have: personal, political, economic and social freedom, the right to self-determination of our lives and the opportunity to lawfully pursue happiness as we define it for ourselves, rather than being forced into abject, slavish service to a totalitarian state run by despots claiming to be divinely guided. We should express that gratitude through lives which serve – not rule – others, from the nuclear family to the human family. We should also gratefully honor those who went before us – often in great hardship, suffering and bloodshed – to build and defend a haven for us in the wilderness of man’s longstanding inhumanity to man. Last of all, we should be vigilant, active citizens who work to preserve the blessings of liberty so they may be passed on to our posterity and the boundaries of our haven may be peacefully enlarged to educate and eventually encompass all humanity. We should do all that in recognition that the blessings of liberty come to us from our Creator, Nature’s God, Divine Providence, the Supreme Judge of the world who is, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the common Father of us all.”
America – love it and live it!
JOHN WHITE is an author in the fields of spirituality and higher human culture. This essay is drawn from a book in progress, The Pledge of Allegiance & The Star-Spangled Banner: A Patriot’s Primer on the American Spirit. He has published 15 books, including The Meeting of Science and Spirit, What Is Enlightenment? and A Practical Guide to Death and Dying. His books have been translated into ten languages. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, Omni, Woman’s Day, The New American and various other newspapers and magazines. He lives in Cheshire, Connecticut.