Nanny v. Clergy
By A.D. Freudenheim  

13 November 2005

One large complaint of America’s so-called conservatives – those who claim the mantle of “fiscal” or small-government Republicans and those who fall into the Moral Majority class of GOPers – has long been that what Democrats and liberals have created is the “nanny” state. Their clever term is meant to suggest that what American lefties want (and have, to some degree, achieved) is a kind of socialist state super-structure that looks after the specific needs of its citizens the way a nanny would watch over her young charges. For the Republicans, the implication is that the American left does not think citizens capable of guarding their own basic self-interests and needs, from housing to medical care. To a great degree, in fact, they are correct; the lefty perspective on how to “help” people can be seen as paternalistic and controlling.

In response to the lefty-nanny state, the Republicans have spent more than forty years working on their own model, funding think tanks and investing in media networks, waiting for the day they could push their proposal to the fore. Oddly, however, despite decades of work – hours and hours developing theory, days and days spent at conferences, and word after word after word of foaming manifesto – the GOP government model is very similar to the Democrats’ version. It just has a different name.

The Republican version? It is called the “clergy” state. Now, do not confuse this terminology with a “theocracy,” such as can be found in Iran; a theocratic state is clearly at odds with the American Constitution, and few things are more precious to Republicans than that document. Rather, the theory behind the clergy state is more straightforwardly moralistic and less governmental: leaders (also known as politicians) should stand upright and tell citizens what to do, remind them of the consequences of not acting as they suggest, and then leave them alone. That’s the theory; just like with church (or synagogue, or a mosque), the GOP wants politicians to stand up, give direction, and step aside.

No, really, it’s true. Republicans do not want a theocracy; Constitutional issues aside, a theocracy is unhelpful because it demands an essential level of confrontation with every opposing perspective, and the state must always be the victor. A theocracy cannot tolerate even the concept of dissent, never mind whether that dissent is valid or representative of widely-held views. (In this, theocracies share characteristics with so-called “permanent revolutionary” governments such as the old Soviet totalitarian model, China, or the Iranian socio-theocracy, which cleverly combines both religious devotion, socialism, and permanent-revolutionary zeal.) Nor do Republicans want a return to the full-on paternalism of an earlier age, even though it sometimes appears so. After forty years of civil rights legislation and other protections of the lefty nanny state, the GOP has realized that not everyone will do as they ask, and that is no longer the true goal.

Indeed, the clergyman-politicians of the GOP, and the theorists behind them, are increasingly comfortable with the idea that there might be “offenders” – people who are simply unable or unwilling to follow the recommendations of those who know best. They accept this implicit dissent because they need it, because the people who fail – who fail to follow the rules, who fail in life – provide useful examples of what not to do, how not to live. It almost looks like a pyramid: the misery of the poor helps keep the middle class above them in line; the struggles of the middle class helps to support the ongoing success and exponentially-increasing wealth of the elites at the top. For Republicans, there is great comfort to be found in all of this because it does so closely mirror the workings of the Bible, where the righteous are saved and the sinners are damned, and that is basically that. (Well, it mirrors the Old Testament, anyway; it is hardly Christ-like.)

So you see, don’t you, why things are the way they are in the United States these days. The mess we are in is similar to the horrors witnessed by Martin Luther in the 16th century, when he realized the scope of the corruption in the Catholic Church and rebelled against what he saw as the “sale” of the sacrament to the wealthy. President Bush fancies himself a pope, an infallible interpreter of law, deed, and history. In his Veterans Day speech this year, the President said “Evil men obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience must be taken very seriously, and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply.”[1] Indeed! Bush noted that “Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims. Its leaders pretend to be an aggrieved party representing the powerless against imperial enemies.” How true! He continued “And our debate at home must also be fair-minded. One of the hallmarks of a free society and what makes our country strong is that our political leaders can discuss their differences openly, even in times of war.” But, of course! The President solidified the point by noting that “While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decisions or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” And President Bush concluded his speech with this point: “We do know the love of freedom is the mightiest force of history, and we do know the cause of freedom will once again prevail.”

Think about that “once again.” One wonders where freedom has gone to in the meantime. Perhaps it is hiding under the skirts of that voluptuous nanny the Republicans hope will soon be unemployed – hiding there along with opportunities for health care for all Americans, and the ability to earn a decent wage, and the right to make decisions about one’s own life according to one’s own values. So you see, don’t you, why things are the way they are in the United States these days. If only we (the people) would do as they (our clergy-politicians) say, it would all be so much easier. And what with all this talk of “evil” and “enemies,” and the grand, moralistic vision for how everyone should act, well, any resemblance to a theocracy is purely coincidental.

[1] A transcript of President Bush’s speech can be found via The New York Times, at:
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