In the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei gazed through his telescope and gathered evidence that would challenge the very core of theological doctrine of his time: the Earth was not the center of the universe.
His scientific findings contradicted the geocentric views long endorsed by the Catholic Church, leading to a confrontation that was as much about cosmology as it was about the role of authority and knowledge in society.
In 1633, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and forced to recant his views. The scandal marked a critical point in the history of modern thought, illustrating the tension between emerging scientific understanding and established religious dogma.
Scientific and religious freedom are cornerstones of liberal democracy. Individuals can should practice their beliefs without fear of persecution or discrimination.
Throughout the world, there is a growing concern about the expansion of religious freedom into theocratic ideals and movements, both within the Muslim and Christian faiths. The future of liberal democracy depends on whether we dare to firmly and resoundingly reject the influence of theocracy under any creed. To do otherwise would sacrifice the principles that uphold free movement, belief, and liberty.
The rise of Christian theocratic movements in the United States can be traced through a complex interplay of historical, cultural, and political factors. While the U.S. was founded on principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, a narrative of America as a “Christian nation” has persisted since its inception. This mythology was promoted by Evangelical historians after George Washington’s death and was further bolstered during the Cold War when Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
The 20th century saw Christian nationalism intertwine with political agendas, particularly with the Moral Majority in the 1970s, which lobbied against progressive cultural trends and aligned closely with the Republican Party. The Reagan era cemented this union, as Evangelicalism became a crucial part of American conservative politics.
In the 21st century, Christian nationalism has become increasingly visible and influential. The Trump administration marked a significant period where Christian nationalists penetrated vital political institutions, seeking to impose conservative religious values on a national scale. This agenda was often presented under the guise of defending religious liberty, but in reality, it aimed to erode the pluralistic foundations of liberal democracy and promote a Christian cultural hegemony.
Like their Christian counterparts, Muslim theocratic movements have deep historical roots. Islamic theocracies, such as Iran since the 1979 revolution, epitomise the aspiration of politically active Muslim groups to establish a government based on Sharia (Islamic law), interpreting the Quran and Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as the ultimate legal authority, much as Christian would-be-theocrats look to the Bible as their guide.
Both movements have seen a resurgence in response to a perceived — and highly subjective — moral decline, cultural shifts, technology, gender and sexual diversity and globalisation, which religious conservatives of every flavour seem to regard as personal and coordinated threats to their identity and values. In predominantly Muslim countries, political entities like the Muslim Brotherhood have long sought to implement Sharia at the state level. In the U.S., the Christian Right has sought to embed Christian morals through legislative influence and judicial appointments, succeeding in their goals through the implementation of abortion bans and anti-trans persecution.
The modus operandi of both movements is to portray themselves as defenders of an authentic national identity, which they claim is under siege by secular or foreign influences. In the U.S., Christian nationalists argue that secularism erodes the “Christian fabric” of the nation. Muslim theocratic movements posit that Western secularism undermines Islamic principles and culture. And both are a threat to liberal democratic values.
Within both Islam and Christianity, there exists a spectrum of beliefs regarding the role of religion in governance. Not all followers support the establishment of a theocracy, and many advocate for a clear separation of religion and state, arguing that faith should guide personal morality rather than public law. But, the theocratic factions within these religions wield considerable influence. They control extensive social and communication networks and possess the ability to mobilise a significant portion of the population. Their vision of a society governed by religious law is at odds with the essential democratic principle that the state should not favour any particular religion.
The conflation of national identity with a specific religious identity is inherently exclusionary. It marginalises those of different faiths or no faith at all, undermining the inclusive ethos of liberal democracy. The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion and freedom from state-imposed religion. Theocratic movements attempt to dilute this distinction, pushing the lie that democratic secularism is antithetical to their religious freedom when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Cultural shifts challenging traditional norms indicate a dynamic society, not a society in moral decay. The progress in civil rights, gender equality, and the recognition of LGBTQ+ communities are ethical advancements rather than threats. Theocracies, by their nature, resist change at the expense of human rights and individual liberties.
The rise of theocratic movements is incompatible with modern, pluralistic societies. Theocratic principles directly conflict with contemporary human existence, which includes equality before the law, freedom of expression, and the rights of minorities. Theocracies inherently prioritise the values of a particular religion over these universal standards, leading to the suppression of dissent and the erosion of civil liberties.
To preserve the foundational principles of liberal democracy, it is imperative to uphold the separation of church and state and ensure that laws and policies are based on secular, democratically agreed-upon principles. This does not mean suppressing religious expression; on the contrary, it means protecting the rights of all individuals to practice their faith freely — or to live without it.
The future of liberal democracy hinges on our collective ability to maintain the balance between respecting religious freedom and preventing the encroachment of theocratic ideologies into secular governance.
The public sphere should be free from religious dominance, and policy and law should reflect the people’s will in their diversity, not the dogma of the few. Our democratic institutions must be robust, and our civic education must promote understanding and respect for the principles that allow both religious diversity and secular governance.
The path forward is not through the imposition of religious law, either Christian or Islamic, but through the reaffirmation of the liberal democratic ideals that champion human rights, individual freedoms, and the common good.