"Atheocracy" is not the kind of word that gets tossed around very often in bars. Nevertheless, Bishop James Conley recently defined that term and defended its use while speaking in a pub in the heart of Denver's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. The goal, as always, was to use this "Theology on Tap" forum for an informal, frank encounter with young Catholics and others who might be curious.
"America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy -- a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. And I might add -- the faith that our society is most hostile toward is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular," said Conley, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Denver until Pope Benedict XVI names a new archbishop.
"I think we all recognize that there is a new mentality in America, one that has grave risks for all believers -- and puts in jeopardy all faith-based movements for social change and renewal. An atheocracy is a dangerous place -- morally and spiritually. ... We risk becoming a nation without a soul, a people with no common purpose apart from material pursuits."
What happened next was as ironic as public discourse gets there days.
Although Conley was speaking in an isolated part of Stoney's Bar and Grill, some patrons in the establishment began making snide remarks. Eventually, one man aimed obscene remarks at the bishop.
On top of that, the management said some workers complained about serving the bishop and the crowd that came out to hear him on a cold weeknight. It seemed that allowing a bishop to talk theology while sharing a few beers with his flock was too controversial for some customers and bar staffers.
The story spread quickly in the Catholic blogosphere.
"It's a business decision and it's acceptable for them to make that decision," said Jeanette DeMelo, spokesperson for the archdiocese, in a statement to Catholic media. "The bar has a right to be what it is, a sports bar with a non-controversial atmosphere, which allows anyone and everyone to feel at home -- except Catholics in collars."
Lost in the shuffle was the content of the bishop's lecture, which he called "Atheocracy and the Battle for Religious Liberty in America." It opened with the faith-based frenzy swirling around Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and proceeded into discussions of G.K. Chesterton, the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
The key, according to the bishop's printed text, is that it's getting harder to defend universal concepts of morality and human rights in a society in which far too many politicians, academics, jurists, media stars and others have traded neutrality on traditional forms of religion for openly hostility.
Recent popes have called this trend "practical atheism." Pope Benedict XVI openly addressed this issue during a gathering of world religious leaders last year in Assisi, noted Conley.
"The enemies of religion … see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear," argued the pope. "But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself. ...
"The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence. … The denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence."
What the pope was describing, according to Conley, is the "moral and political landscape of an atheocracy." This trend then influences public debates on issues ranging from abortion to the care of the elderly, from same-sex marriage to the new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that require religious institutions to include free health-care coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."
The stakes are high, stressed Conley, which means that these issues must be discussed openly -- even if some are offended.
"Without God, there is no basis for morality and no necessary protections for man," he said. "The strong decide what is right or wrong -- even who lives and who dies. ... That is where we seem to be heading in America today. A lot of people would argue that we are already there."