Originally published at Ithilien in 2006.
The catchphrase on the Left these days (and among many who see themselves as moderate) is “theocracy.” Allegedly, conservative Christians are pushing for an explicitly Christian government ruled by Biblical law, in which those who offend Christian codes of belief or ethics will be persecuted. These claims are supported by copious citations from the more extreme writings of the small group of conservative Protestants known as “Reconstructionists,” who are in fact working toward an explicitly Christian society based on what they see as Biblical law (although they admit that this probably won’t happen for centuries at best). The easy way to respond to this claims is to point out the huge diversity of belief within the “Christian Right,” and the minority status of strict Reconstructionists. Still, it does seem to be true that Reconstructionists have influenced some of the presuppositions of the broader “Christian Right,” much as (in an earlier “red scare”) hardline Communists exercised a certain influence over a much broader community of left-leaning intellectuals.
I would like to propose a more radical thesis than a simple denial that most conservative Protestants are going to the “extreme” of theocracy. Theocracy is not in any sense the logical outcome of what passes for the conservative Protestant political agenda. It is not even (despite their own claims!) the true position of the Reconstructionists.
No, the problem with the Christian Right is not that they are too theocratic. It is that they are not theocratic enough.
It’s not that they reject the separation of church and state, but that they have bought into a particularly vicious form of that particular piece of Enlightenment propaganda. And this is true even of the dreaded Reconstructionists.
I came to this conclusion while reading Greg Bahnsen’s contribution to the anthology “Law and Gospel: Five Views.” This is part of a series of books on various topics of interest to evangelicals, in which representatives of different perspectives (Reformed, Arminian, dispensationalist, etc.) offer alternative views and criticize each other’s contributions. Bahnsen (recognized as one of the more thoughtful and moderate reconstructionists) rejects explicitly the claim that reconstructionists deny separation of church and state.
According to Bahnsen, church and state are to be sharply distinguished according to their proper function. The Church is to teach doctrine, care for the poor, and proclaim the Gospel, while the state is to maintain order and punish the wicked. The state thus has a purely “negative” function of restraining human wickedness (according to God’s Law) and dare not overstep these bounds.
Bahnsen explicitly contrasts his position to that of Richard Mouw, accusing Mouw of violating true church-state separation by advocating that the government engage in legislation on behalf of the poor (I haven’t read the work by Mouw to which Bahnsen was responding, so I’m relying on Bahnsen’s no doubt biased summary). This is not theocracy–Mouw is closer in this respect to true Biblical theocracy than Bahnsen (though of course Bahnsen claims that the Bible is on his side).
The problem with religion in American politics is not theocracy.
The problem is that two different (but equally faithless) versions of church-state separation are being peddled by demagogues on the left and right respectively. The left doesn’t want society to have any truck with Christian values that clash with the expression of individual freedom. The right doesn’t want to have any truck with Christian values that clash with patriotism and capitalism and law and order and the nuclear family. Both are denying some part of the Gospel. The answer to both is not theocracy per se but an unashamed proclamation of what the Puritans (of whom the Reconstructionists would claim to be heirs) would call the “crown rights of King Jesus” and what Catholics used to call “the social reign of Christ the King.”
It’s not the purpose of this post to say just what recognizing the Kingship of Christ will mean. Indeed, nothing is healthier for us right now than a vigorous intra-Christian debate over just what it means. I am privileged to teach at a Christian college where such a debate is going on (painful as that often is). But the possibility of such a debate is short-circuited when one side plays the “theocracy” card and the other plays the “secularism” card, each arguing that the other side should be ruled summarily out of court because it is not making a genuinely Christian argument at all.
Those who consider themselves the spiritual heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., should be ashamed of accusing conservative Christians of theocracy simply because they have a different view of what the public implementation of Christian values looks like. The quarrel is not over whether religion should influence politics. The quarrel is always and only over how religion should influence politics and what kind of religion should do so. And the sooner that is acknowledged on all sides the sooner we can get on to the real debate.
Or rather debates–for the final irony here is that the accusation that one side is illegitimately bringing religion into politics violates the church-state barrier that really counts, namely the methodological one. People with religious convictions have every right to try to enact their beliefs into law, and their opponents have every right to fight them with all the weapons in the arsenal of democratic politics. And at the same time both sides also have the right to engage in a public theological debate as to the religious merits of their respective positions. But because this is not a country with an Established Church, the two debates are independent of each other (though not unconnected with each other).
Recent attacks on the “theocracy” of the Christian Right (at least those launched by Christians such as Randall Balmer) ignore this. They claim to be defending democracy when in fact they are engaging in a particular theological debate running parallel to the political debate. Whether or not gay marriage should be recognized or abortion made illegal–these are both religious and political questions. As political questions, they should be decided by the proper instruments of democractic politics. But the question of which side Christians should take, and whether Christians qua Christians should care about these issues it all, is a specifically religious question and must be treated as such.