Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Do the Bible and the Koran Support Theocracy?

In his prophetic essay from 1990, Bernard Lewis warned that Islamic fundamentalism would bring a "clash of civilizations" with radical Islamists promoting theocracy and attacking the Western tradition of religious liberty and toleration. In this essay, Lewis argued that Islam did not share the Christian tradition of separating Church and State, a tradition based on the New Testament teaching about rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and rendering to God the things that are God's (Matthew 22:20-22).

Conservatives generally accept this principle of separating Church and State and support the idea that a free government of limited powers will leave people free to exercise religious liberty without enforcing any particular religious beliefs by law. But some Christian conservatives now reject the idea of Church/State separation as a "myth." And some--like the "Christian Reconstructionists"--want to establish a theocracy based on the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. Recently, there have been a half-dozen books warning that the Christian Right promotes theocracy. Richard John Neuhaus and others at the journal First Things dismiss this fear of Christian theocracy as ridiculous. (An example can be found here.) But Damon Linker, a former editor at First Things claims in a recent article that Neuhaus's vision of a Catholic Chrisian America really is theocratic.

Some Christian conservatives are suspicious of the idea of religious liberty and toleration because they fear that it promotes atheism. They suspect that the philosophic defenders of toleration--like John Locke--were secretly engaged in an atheistic attack on Christianity.

But I would argue that Lewis is right in suggesting that the idea of religious liberty really is rooted in the New Testament, and therefore Christians should support it. I have come to this conclusion after spending the past academic year teaching a series of three graduate seminars on the political teaching of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.

From these studies, I have been persuaded that Roger Williams was right in reading the New Testament as teaching that Christians must defend religious liberty and reject theocracy or any governmental supervision of religion. Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century for making this argument. In 1644, he published The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, in which he laid out his theological arguments for religious liberty as rooted in Christian doctrine. He established the colony of Rhode Island as a place where such religious liberty would be secured.

Williams rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is theocratic, because the Mosaic law enforced religious belief and practice by coercion. But he points out that the New Testament sets aside Mosaic theocracy by declaring that the spiritual salvation of Christians does not depend upon assuming earthly political power. The New Testament never presents the Christians as using political power to enforce Christian doctrine. Rather, the Christian churches enforced their beliefs on their members and expelled those that refused to obey, but they never used legal coercion.

Williams' point becomes clear when one notices that Christian theocrats--from the Puritans to the Christian Reconstructionists--always have to go back to the Old Testament to get their laws, because the New Testament provides no guidance for theocratic politics. (The early American Puritan laws drawn from the Old Testament can be found here.)

As only one example of how the doctrine of religious liberty enters the New Testament, consider Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. He advises the Corinthians to enforce their Christian morality within the assembly of believers, but without trying to coerce those outside the church. "For what is it for me to judge those outside? Is it not for you to judge those inside? But God is to judge those outside" (I Cor 5:12-13).

Consider the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament in handling homosexuality. The Old Testament prescribes that homosexuals must be killed (Lev. 20:13). The New Testament condemns homosexuality but does not order that they be killed (Romans 1:26-27). The New Testament Christians have no desire to use the legal and political power of the state to enforce their religious prescriptions against homosexuality. By contrast, the Christian Reconstructionists want to restore the Mosaic law for stoning homosexuals to death.

Williams rightly reads the New Testament as separating civil authority and spiritual authority. All citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, are subject to the civil authority of the state to enforce a peaceful social order (as indicated by Romans 13:1-7). But the spiritual authority of God over the believer is a matter of individual conscience that cannot properly be dictated by the legal power of the state (as it was in the Mosaic regime of the Old Testament).

Christian conservatives should look to Williams as providing a Christian understanding of religious liberty based on a strict separation of Church and State.

So what about the Koran? It's ambiguous on this issue. It declares that "there is to be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). And some Muslims see this as Koranic authority for religious liberty and toleration. Some argue for "minding one's own business," and they cite the Koranic verse that says: "O you who believe! Guard your own souls: If you follow right guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray" (5:108). But the Koran also speaks of the unquestionable authority of the Prophet in a manner that can be read as suggesting the rule of the Caliphate--the merging of political and religious authority (2:30, 4:59, 4:80, 38:26). And, of course, Muhammad--unlike Jesus--combined military and political power with religious authority.

The most disturbing part of the Koran to me is that the Old Testament stories are altered to remove any indication of the immoral weaknesses of those who ruled over the people of Israel. For example, the Koran speaks of King David without ever speaking about his commiting adultery and murder in the service of his sexual lust for Bathsheba. The Koran repeatedly denounces the people of Israel for their sinfulness, while praising their leaders as morally perfect (27:15-44, 38:26-40). This denies the fundamental premise of limited government--that human beings are too limited in their virtue to be trusted with absolute power. The Old Testament supports limited government by depicting the rulers of Israel as having all the moral defects of power-seeking men. The warnings about the despotic character of kingship (I Samuel 8) have often been quoted by the critics of monarchy. The Old Testament fails, however, to see that imperfect human beings are not to be trusted with political power over the religious beliefs of the citizens.

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