America is facing an acute threat of “theocracy” — or so you would think from reading several recent articles. “Welcome to the theocracy,” writes Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. “If you don’t think this country is sliding toward theocracy, you’re not paying attention,” writes Charles Blow in The New York Times. “The Republican Party wants to turn America into a theocracy,” reads the title of a Robert Reich piece in The Guardian.

The occasion for the recent handwringing about theocracy is the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision that frozen embryos in IVF centers count as “human lives” for the purposes of Alabama law. Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote in his concurring opinion (which doesn’t carry the force of law) that “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” According to this judge, Alabama law recognizes “that even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Parker’s use of religious language in a legal opinion is rare today, but the premise of the theocratic concern — that any influence of religious beliefs on public policy is the establishment of theocracy — is misguided. Religious ideas have been influential throughout U.S. history, including in America’s foundational beliefs as well as in its most important social and moral reforms.

As I argue below, the charge of theocracy in American politics is also used very selectively, often as a rhetorical device to marginalize certain viewpoints, particularly on controversial topics such as abortion or sexual morality. Though we should be careful to maintain an institutional separation between church and state, religious Americans should not feel like they have to check their beliefs at the door when engaged in the public square, including seeking to shape public policy.

Let’s begin with a common argument against the influence of religion on politics: that it constitutes an “establishment of religion,” something explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. Many people believe that the Constitution creates a “wall of separation” between church and state, borrowing the famous (if misleading) language of Thomas Jefferson.

But the Constitution creates no such wall. As scholars have argued, the main point of the Establishment Clause was to prevent the establishment of a national church, not to rid the government of any connection to religion or religious beliefs.

Indeed, completely eliminating the influence of religion in politics in the United States would be impossible and counterproductive. Religious beliefs, actors, rhetoric and ideas have been influential in many of the most important reform movements in U.S. history. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, was largely (if not exclusively) a religious campaign that drew on religious beliefs, utilized churches to recruit and organize supporters, and was led by religious leaders — including, most visibly, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was not reticent about using religious language and ideas to advance his political objectives: “When people think about race problems they are often more concerned with men than with God ... (people owe their) ultimate allegiance to God.”

I could mention other political movements as well — the abolitionist movement and the social gospel movement, for example — but the conclusion is unavoidable: religious beliefs and advocacy have played an essential and beneficial role in the moral development of the country. And this is nothing to be ashamed of.

As scholar Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently put it, “the institutional separation of church and state does not entail a separation of politics and religion, or law and morality. All law is based on morality, and all moral systems, secular or religious, rest on ideas about the ultimate source of meaning and value. That’s inevitable for everyone — secular or religious.”

Still, some could object: Why should some people’s religious beliefs determine the laws that govern us all? Let’s note, before going further, that the charge of “theocracy” only comes up in certain political debates. Rarely is someone called a “theocrat” for saying that their religious beliefs lead them to advocate for more legal immigration or more environmental protections — even if their advocacy has large implications for how other people live their lives.

No, the theocrat epithet is more typically leveled against people who take certain stands, such as on issues surrounding life or sexual morality. The idea seems to be that most modern people just “know” that “reason” is in favor of certain answers to these questions — elective abortion, and sexual libertarianism so long as all parties consent — so anyone who thinks differently must be relying on religious beliefs and trying to “impose” their personal views on everyone else.

This logic is self-congratulatory. It allows the holder of said view to feel superior (compared to those superstitious, self-righteous, authoritarian religious folks who haven’t yet seen the light of reason), while also not really engaging in the arguments they give.

In another recent Washington Post article by Ruth Marcus, she criticized the way pro-life advocates sometimes use science in their advocacy, before suggesting that even if they are right on the science, they should still not be taken seriously: “And however much anti-abortion advocates insist that their view is rooted in science, they also tend to be guided by a religious philosophy with which other Americans simply disagree.”

This is a classic heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argument. Critics of the influence of religion in politics say that religion cannot be the basis of law and policy because it is merely private, personal and subjective — not the sort of thing that can be established by “reason.” But when, in this case, religious pro-life advocates play by the rules of the game and give reasons of the kind some critics ask for (e.g., science), they cry foul, because the pro-lifers also have religious beliefs for their views.

As Robert George says in a response to Marcus, “All this business about ‘imposing religion’ is a sideshow.” Religious people are not barred from public participation in policy debates just because they happen to hold religious views. Many pro-life advocates are not religious and still other religious pro-lifers give secular reasons for believing in the dignity of the unborn child. Indeed, the fundamental belief of the pro-life movement — that all human beings, regardless of their size, location, or stage of development, are bearers of “profound, inherent, and equal dignity” — sounds remarkably similar to the general Western commitment to the basic human dignity and rights of all people.

But here’s where things get interesting. What if that commitment—the commitment to the basic dignity and human rights of all people—is itself an idea with an unavoidably moral or even religious pedigree? As author Tom Holland writes, this notion has been rare throughout human history: “How common, in antiquity, are the fundamental tenets of humanism: that humans — no matter their sex, their place of origin, their class — are all of equal value; and that those who walk in darkness must be brought into light?”

“Not common at all,” he proposes. “Indeed, I would go so far as to say that their fusion was pretty much a one-off.” “In other words,” as Louise Perry writes in response to this passage, “secular humanism is just Christianity with nothing upstairs.”

Many religious beliefs are false, and many secular beliefs are also false. Whether a belief should inform law and policy depends not on whether it is religious or secular but on whether it is true. To the extent that religion helps us perceive important moral truths, we should welcome its influence. And if the future is anything like the past, religion will continue to play an important role in the moral development of this nation.