Human history is full of surprises. Who would have imagined that something called the Internet would come along and comprehensively transform how the inhabitants of this planet relate to one another not only culturally and socially but even politically? After 1989, when one had decent reason to believe that the age of totalitarian ideologies was definitively over (or at least banished for many generations), who would have expected a new totalitarian ideology to be a significant global player so soon? And who on earth would have predicted that ancient theocracy, of all things, would come to define the core of this new ideology?
The problem of religion and politics is obviously still very much with us. For 35 years, we have had a stubbornly illiberal clerical regime in Iran. In Egypt not long ago we saw a popularly elected theocratic government, which was subsequently overthrown by what amounted to a military coup. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are fighting deadly serious jihadi insurgencies with theocratic ambitions that may or may not be defeated. In Syria and Iraq, the jihadi movement that now calls itself "the Islamic State" (formerly ISIL or ISIS) aspires to a restored caliphate, and has been able to demonstrate, with notable military victories against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, that those aspirations are not a wild fantasy. No one surveying the scene in 2014 could confidently assert that theocracy as a possible regime has been banished to the past.
Islam gets most of the headlines, but the problem of contemporary theocratic politics is by no means limited to Islamic contexts. In Israel, both domestic politics and relations with the Palestinians are severely complicated by theocratic political parties. In the Balkans, we recently saw the Serbian Orthodox Church trying to scuttle a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by the European Union. Or consider reports, not long ago, of radical Buddhist monks helping to incite anti-Islamic ethnic violence in central Myanmar. The last is perhaps especially disturbing (certainly if one presumes that no religious tradition could be more politically benign than Buddhism!) since it underscores the existence of ugly forms of theocratic politics beyond the ambit of the three Abrahamic faiths. We see a similar phenomenon in Hindu nationalism. Indeed, a theocratic potential exists in all the world religions.
All of this, of course, demands urgent responses at the level of policy and practical judgement. But the renewed challenge of theocracy in our time also demands more considered intellectual responses at the level of moral reflection. For starters, we need to ask ourselves once again what defines a secular society (that is, a society founded on a principled rejection of theocracy), and why we prize secularist principles as we do. Why is secularism for us in liberal democratic societies an indispensable civic good?
Religion's complicated balance sheet
We have a classic statement of the theocratic idea in Rev. Jerry Falwell's memorable line (in his 1976 U.S. Independence Day sermon) that "the idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country." To begin working through what is at issue here, think back for a moment to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. We wouldn't want to bar Mitt Romney, a former bishop of the Mormon church, from seeking the presidency on account of his religious beliefs, but neither would we want those religious beliefs to have assumed any special authority had he been elected.
Political association is a community of citizens, not a community of believers. The political philosopher Will Kymlicka has written, "The boundaries of state and nation rarely if ever coincide perfectly, and so viewing the state as the possession of a particular national group can only alienate minority groups. The state must be seen as belonging equally to all people who are governed by it, regardless of their nationality." The principle articulated here, which for me is a foundational one, is just the...