Some members of America’s political and cultural elite have been having a tough time lately distinguishing between the political philosophy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that of our country’s religious conservatives. Ahmadinejad is a classic theocrat whose regime subjects his country to religious law. Can we say the same of a Christian like George W. Bush? Perhaps so, according to several prominent books that have come out in recent months, including Kevin Phillips’s “American Theocracy,” Rabbi James Rudin’s “The Baptizing of America” and Michelle Goldberg’s “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.” As Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, asked after Bush sought to keep the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo from being taken off life-support, “Are we going to live in a theocracy where the highest powers tells us what to do?” Even a GOP legislator, Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays, has lamented that his party is morphing into the “party of theocracy.” Meanwhile, Time magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan speaks of Christian conservatives as “Christianists,” a newly coined word that is supposed to remind us of “Islamists,” or radical Muslim theocrats. Any truth in all this? Not much. As my former National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru observes, even the most ambitious members of the so-called Christian right wish to do nothing more radical than return the United States to the status quo of the 1950s. No government-sanctioned same-sex marriage, no sex education in public schools, no abortion on demand, and so on. Obviously, writes Ponnuru, “the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.” That should be clear. Yet among people like Dean, Shays and Sullivan, it’s not. Their confusion, I think, arises from the mental picture of religious conservatives pouring over the Bible as a political guide and inspiration. The picture may be partly correct — but not its perceived implications. The Bible on the desk of frequently vilified Christian leaders like Charles Colson or James Dobson has two parts, the New and the Old Testaments. The New Testament is remarkably non-political, making a sharp differentiation between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of man. As Jesus put it, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36). He also said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The distinction was carried on by Christian theology, as in Augustine’s City of God, which he contrasted with the City of Man. Teachings like these make an unlikely basis for theocracy. But what of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, which anyone who takes Scripture seriously can’t ignore? A glance through the Bible could leave the impression that taking Moses and his prophecy to heart means establishing a theocratic regime. The Torah envisions religious courts imposing capital punishment for offenses like Sabbath desecration and homosexual intercourse, does it not? Sounds pretty theocratic, not to mention terrifying.
Except that the Bible envisions these as the laws of an operating government only in two circumstances: the ancient Israelite past and the messianic future. The latter assumes the rule of a promised Messiah, for which Jews and Christians have been waiting — with their different understandings of what it will mean — for thousands of years. That time isn’t here.
In the messianic future, according to the Hebrew prophets, human nature will be radically transformed. It thus seems unlikely that there will be a need to execute Sabbath breakers or homosexuals.
For now, though, such laws are certainly intended only to instruct us philosophically and morally. What sort of instruction do I mean? Among the Bible’s laws as a whole, it is crucial to make a basic distinction, between what in Hebrew is called a mishpat, or judgment, and a chok, or statute. According to the traditional understanding, a mishpat is a law that any morally serious culture should theoretically be able to arrive at through reason, without its being revealed by God. But a chok can only be known by revelation. It is intended for Jewish observance alone.
So the law against murder or stealing would be an example of a mishpat, while the requirement of eating only kosher food arises from a chok. In the later language of philosophy, mishpat-based law is basically natural law, accessible to all. You don’t absolutely need the Bible to know it. However, the Bible reminds us of it, recalling to our minds timeless wisdom. That is Scripture’s major political function today.
A chok, while eternally valid for the Jewish people, has no place in American government. But a mishpat is different. Those laws emerge from principles that are at the foundations of American civilization.
That idea only became controversial in recent years, when any standard of justice with a biblical precedent — even if it has a rationally accessible basis independent of the Bible — has automatically been deemed to be theocratic. That secular outlook leads to absurdities like the argument that because Scripture endorses protecting innocent life, saving Terri Schiavo would have amounted to the imposition of theocracy.
People familiar with the Bible understand these things. People like Howard Dean — who famously asserted (before later correcting himself) that the book of Job is part of the New Testament — probably don’t. No wonder, then, that they needlessly panic about an Iranian-style Christian theocracy setting up shop on Main Street USA.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).