Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Novels about theocracy

What are the best novels about life in a theocracy?

The inspiration for the question came from a post at a blog run by Ross Douthat: he calls out conservatives Kevin Phillips and Andrew Sullivan, as well as a couple of liberal writers, for their fast and loose use of the term theocracy.

The word used to mean a government-by-priests or religious leaders, which is a pretty far cry from the religious right's agenda--unless, as Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, you think that having prayer in schools and laws against abortion is the equivalent of having the mullahs in charge, in which case 1950s America was a theocratic state. But I don't think the people who toss the word around these days think that, so instead they must think a theocracy means . . . what? A society in which politicians and their proposed political reforms are motivated by religious beliefs? Yes?
Now, you can guess at Douthat's point-of-view. And a dictionary can go part of the way in resolving the issue. But Douthat may be unfair in trying to tag the others with a definition of his own making.

It seems that the writers he's baiting mean something else by theocracy--perhaps something shy of the dictionary definition but more at an undue influence of religious persons and institutions in political life. Maybe Cardinal Richelieu and the original éminence grise are closer comparisons than the mullahs of Iran, although Richelieu is better known for his secular leadership than for bringing the Church into French affairs.

Anyway, I'm not trying to wade into that argument. You probably have your mind made up about how large (or small) a role of religious influence in politics constitutes a theocracy, and whether that is a good (or a bad) thing.

But what is it like to live in a theocracy? I invite your suggestions for novels that explore that question. These can be works of fiction that are set in the actual past, in present societies that might be deemed theocracies, or they can be speculations of what it would be like to live in one in the future.

Novels tend to shine some light on these situations when pundits squabble over definitions. Consider Orwell's 1984: we have lots of nonfiction about what totalitarianism is and why it is bad, but it took a novel to really bring the experience home to many of us who were fortunate enough to not experience totalitarianism first hand. (Actually, it took more than one novel.)

My own candidate for a novel about life in a theocracy is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Yet it's smart to remember that, on art and politics, Atwood herself has said, "when you're writing a novel, you don't want the reader to come out of it voting yes or no. Life is more complicated than that."

There must be other novels about life in a theocracy; perhaps set in contemporary Iran or, sticking with the point about Richelieu, during Louis XIII's reign, or in Cromwell's England; or, like Atwood's, the novel could be about a future society.

Email me with your suggestions. Tell us something about the quality of the novel and how it helps to understand what a theocracy is like. Those suggestions with minimal political axe-grinding--or axe-grinding done in an artful way--may be reproduced here on the blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

UPDATE: Todd Gitlin and Joseph Epstein have suggested novels about life in a theocracy. Click here to read about their suggestions.