The Legacy of Theocracy: Discord in the Public Realm

Lucas Swaine
Dartmouth College

Date: September 25, 2001
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road


On September 25, 2001, Lucas Swaine of Dartmouth’s Department of Government led a luncheon discussion on a timely subject—the challenge of theocracy for liberal political societies. In light of the events of September 11, Swaine argued that the real threat to the U.S. and other liberal democracies is neither terrorism nor Islam per se, but rather "religious enthusiasm" as embodied in theocratic visions of the good. The task for liberal governments, Swaine asserted, is to find better ways to communicate with theocratic groups and to justify government actions and policies that limit such groups in ways that they will find convincing. Rather than continuing to claim that all public reasons have to be framed in solely secular terms, liberal government sought to affirm the prudential, theological and conciliatory components of the reasons they give to theocrats. Put simply, liberalism needs to affirm religiosity, not just tolerate religion.

In the lively discussion that followed, participants raised a number of issues relating in particular to Islam. For example, in proposing increased efforts at rational dialogue with theocratic groups, one participant asked whether Swaine was anticipating a kind of "conversion" of these groups, an Islamic Reformation." He further asked if all religious traditions have there sources to engage in the rational discussion Swaine envisions. Swaine and others were quick to note that Islam, like other religious traditions, has substantial internal religious divisions, and that militant theocracy represents only one interpretation of Islam. In addition, it is important to recognize the dynamics of power, rather than faith, operating in fundamentalist, theocratic movements.