May 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

The World Congress of Families’ desire to forge a community where everyone happily lives under “God’s law” is nothing new. The quest for a fundamentalist Christian utopia has long roots in America, stretching back to the earliest days of European settlement in the New World. But it has also proved to be something of a fool’s errand. Attempts to create an officially “Christian” government have always fared poorly.

America’s first theocrats were the Puritans, among the early settlers on these shores. Adherents of the strict views of John Calvin, the Puritans fled England and later Holland in search of religious freedom – but only for themselves.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy. Its leaders believed they had an obligation to enforce “God’s law.” Only church members could vote, and laws reflecting Cal­vin­ist tenets were imposed. For example, it was against the law to work on Sunday, skip church services, criticize the Christian faith and even to display frivolity. Reportedly, a man was imprisoned for three days for smiling during a baptism.

Dissenters, such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were exiled from the colony.

The adoption of separation of church and state at the federal level put an end to the theocrats’ hopes for an officially “Christian America,” and gradually states began to implement separation as well. Massachusetts’ state church was the last to go, in 1833.

The adoption of separation of church and state at the federal level put an end to the theocrats’ hopes for an officially “Christian America,” and gradually states began to implement separation as well. Massachusetts’ state church was the last to go, in 1833.

Repudiation of officially Christian government at the national and state levels did nothing to temper the enthusiasm of some theocrats at the local level, however. One example is the city of Zion, Ill., which was founded in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie, a Scottish evangelist and faith healer who created the Zion Tabernacle of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.

Under Dowie, Zion was a heartland theocracy. Residents were not allowed to smoke, drink, eat pork or avail themselves of modern medicine. The city’s public schools rejected evolution and taught that the Earth was flat because that’s what Dowie’s church believed.

Wilbur Glenn Voliva, Dowie’s successor, oversaw a period of even more church power in Zion. Competing sects were banned, and the church controlled all real estate sales in town. But Zion’s theocracy didn’t last. By the late 1930s, Voliva was enmeshed in financial scandals, and the church began to lose members. Its grip on Zion was fully broken after Voliva’s death in 1942.

Ocean Grove, N.J., was founded in 1869 by a group of Methodist ministers and was for many years a popular site for Christian camp meetings. The town maintained religious laws. People were banned from shopping, visiting the beach or driving cars on city streets on Sundays. It took a ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court to end these laws in 1979.

The town retains a flavor of its theocratic past even today. In 2007, two same-sex couples sought to use a pavilion on the town boardwalk for commitment ceremonies. City officials refused, citing old religious regulations. A state judge ruled in favor of the couples, noting that the pavilion had received tax-exempt status by claiming that it was “open for public use on an equal basis.”

Methodists founded a similar community, Bay View, Mich., in 1875. Officially incorporated as a town in 1889, the community’s mission statement referred to it as “an institution in which Christian values and traditions are central ... to provide a Christian perspective in a changing world.”

For years, laws in the community restricted home ownership to Christians. The association that runs the town voted to drop the requirement in August 2018 rather than face a lawsuit.

In the early 20th century, a group of fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy formed two communities at the Utah-Arizona border. Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, collectively known as Short Creek, exist to this day. Town leaders, who belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), have been accused of refusing to allow people who are not fundamentalist Mormons to settle in the region and using the police to harass outsiders. In recent years, state officials in Arizona and federal officials have been working through the courts to end the FLDS’s control over the area.

Occasionally, would-be theocrats have looked beyond America’s shores for a safe haven. In the 1990s, TV preacher Pat Robertson and several leaders of the Christian Reconstructionist movement – a fringe Religious Right faction that openly calls for “biblical law” in America – became enamored of Frederick Chiluba, who at the time was president of the central African nation of Zambia. 

Occasionally, would-be theocrats have looked beyond America’s shores for a safe haven. In the 1990s, TV preacher Pat Robertson and several leaders of the Christian Reconstructionist movement – a fringe Religious Right faction that openly calls for “biblical law” in America – became enamored of Frederick Chiluba, who at the time was president of the central African nation of Zambia. 

Chiluba had declared the country officially Christian. He ordered that conservative Christianity be taught in schools, gave state funding to Christian television networks, attempted to ban most abortions and launched an anti-pornography crusade. Robertson interviewed Chiluba on his “700 Club” program on April 25, 1995, and gushed, “Your country is a standard for not only Africa but the rest of the world.”

Several Reconstructionists began plotting to move to Zambia and use it as a base to evangelize the United States. It’s unlikely that any of them actually went. In 1997 Chiluba, after surviving a coup attempt, began jailing opposition leaders and was later accused of corruption. Christian pastors in the country started to question the sincerity of Chiluba’s faith after he abruptly divorced his wife in 2000 and took up with another woman. He left office in 2002 and died nine years later.

More recently, several Religious Right leaders have fallen under the spell of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under communism, the former Soviet Union was officially an atheistic state. Since the fall of the Eastern European bloc, Russia has taken steps to reaffirm that country’s historic ties with the Orthodox Church.

Under Putin, several laws have been passed that reflect Religious Right views.

LGBTQ rights are under attack in the country, and a 2013 law that aims to ban the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to minors has been used to squelch public gatherings of gay people and detain gay-rights activists. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community are soaring; reportedly, even display of rainbow flags is a crime.

In addition, classes in religion are now mandatory in Russian public schools. A 2012 law requires that Russian public schools teach a course called “Fundamentals of Religion” to elementary- and secondary-school students. Although the courses are offered in four religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – with an ethics course being offered as well, critics have charged that many schools are steeped in Orthodoxy. Creationism is also gaining a foothold. In 2010, an official with the Orthodox Church called for an end to the “monopoly of Darwinism” in Russian schools.

Women’s rights are in steady retreat in Russia, and Orthodox Church officials are pressing for women to remain confined to “traditional” gender roles. The country also doesn’t respect freedom of conscience, and certain religions are banned there.

None of this has deterred the far right. In December 2013, Ben Carson, who’s now U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said Putin’s growing alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church has that country “gaining prestige and influence throughout the world while we are losing ours.”

Similar policies are in effect in some former East Bloc states – and they’ve excited the Religious Right. David Barton, a popular Religious Right fake historian who promotes “Christian nation” views, has recently been playing up Poland, where the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party has been demonizing LGBTQ people in advance of this fall’s elections.

If they can’t create heaven on earth, another option for fundamentalist zeal­ots is to forge a united front of believers to defeat the perceived enemies of religious orthodoxy. This dream, too, has proved elusive.

If they can’t create heaven on earth, another option for fundamentalist zeal­ots is to forge a united front of believers to defeat the perceived enemies of religious orthodoxy. This dream, too, has proved elusive. In 2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called on Jews and Christians to join him in a kind of triple alliance to stamp out atheism. 

“I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased,” Abdullah said. “That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.” 

Nothing much came of the move, perhaps because Saudi Arabia’s record on religious freedom is dismal, and Abdullah died in 2015.

Will the World Congress of Families succeed where so many others have failed? Stay tuned.