Theocracy Is No Cure for the Demoralization of Society

September 21, 2023 | Max Prowant
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As the United States becomes less religious, and is beset by a variety of concomitant social ills, a number of thinkers have sought out some alternative to present political arrangements in which the state will help more actively to restore moral order. Max Prowant acknowledges the appeal of such arguments, but points to the case of Iran—where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established a regime with the goal of combatting secularization—as evidence of their weakness:

The post-liberals will be happy to learn that there are no pride parades in Iran (the authorities do not allow that). There is also no drag-queen story hour. Religious symbols and exhortations, along with portraits of martyrs, adorn the streets of Tehran. But despite Khomeini’s efforts, Iranians are growing less and less religious. In 2020, a survey found that over 30 percent of Iranians identified themselves as either atheist or “none.” What is more, a full 88 percent of Iranians believe a democracy is the best form of government while two-thirds believe this government should be secular.

The decline in religiosity is surprising given the popularity clerics enjoyed in the days of the shah. Before the 1979 revolution, the clerics were respected to an astonishing degree, in part because they were a strong voice of resistance to the shah’s forced modernization programs. Their network of 70,000 mosques proved essential in every mass political movement in 20th-century Iran. Indeed, when Khomeini returned from exile in 1979, he was greeted by millions in Tehran and even more across the country. But because of the discretionary powers clerics enjoy in the judiciary and their privileged economic access, the clerics as a political class have proven prone to corruption.

Post-liberals are right to bemoan the sad state of social discourse and cultural stagnation in the West. But the Iranian case should serve as a warning to their authoritarian prescriptions. . . . This happens wherever final authority is endowed to a special class of persons, be they ayatollahs, popes, unchecked bureaucrats, or any messianic man with good intentions. Post-liberals would do well to remember this bit of liberal wisdom.

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