Ever since the Religious Right burst onto the American scene in the 1980s, its opponents have regularly accused Christians of being closet theocrats, Jesus-jihadis who want to subject the U.S. to a biblical equivalent of shari’a. Just as regularly, Christians have denied the charge, sometimes vehemently.
The denials are understandable. Christianity has always distinguished civil order from the Church. The Apostle Paul urged Christians to submit peaceably to the “powers that be” (Rom. 13), an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of Roman power. Pope Gelasius said the world is governed by two powers, the priestly and the royal, and in the medieval West this developed into the theory of the “two swords,” the spiritual sword of the Church and the coercive sword of the state.
Eastern Christianity developed differently, yet Justinian, an architect of Byzantine symphonia, echoed the Gelasian principle of double authority. Priest and emperor are “closely interdependent,” but neither dominates the other. Each has his own zone of responsibility: The emperor is “concerned with human affairs” and priests with “things divine.”
If theocracy means “the rule of priests” or involves the absorption of civil order into religious institutions, Christianity has been chary toward the idea. In fact, Christianity can be credited with introducing the distinction between religion and politics into a world where the two were fused in what Francis Oakley calls “sacral kingship.” Civil authority, Augustine insisted, belongs to the saeculum, the time between the kingdom’s coming and its consummation. The Church alone is the sacred and eternal society.
Still, there’s something disingenuous about the denials. The Church has often interfered with civil authority, sometimes calling brutal rulers to account and standing up for the weak, sometimes shamefully providing cover for the brutes. As Pierre Manent has noted, Christianity simultaneously frees “secular” society and demands that all human life conform to the will of God.
In the final analysis, “human affairs” and “things divine” won’t stay put in their neutral corners. This is why I prefer Stanley Hauerwas’s straightforward confession: “I often enjoy making liberal friends, particularly American liberal friends, nervous by acknowledging that I am of course a theocrat.”
That “of course” is the kicker. For Hauerwas, it’s obvious that a Christian must be a theocrat. He’s right. “Theocracy” means “rule of God,” and the Christian gospel is, in a literal sense, a theocratic message: Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. Against the Roman conviction that “Caesar is lord,” Christians proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.”
One of the most-cited psalms in the New Testament is Psalm 2, which announces that the Lord has established his Son as king, ruler, and heir to the nations. Another recurring text is Psalm 110, where David says “my Lord” is seated at the right hand of God, ruling until his enemies become his footstool. The theocratic import of the gospel wasn’t lost on the Church’s enemies. At Thessalonica, Paul’s Jewish opponents dragged Christians before the city leaders on the charge that they turned the world upside down by saying that “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17).
Christians sometimes flinch from the political import of these claims. We nervously spiritualize, we frantically privatize. “Jesus is Lord” is translated into “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior”—somewhat, as Ken Myers likes to put it, like a “personal trainer.” Jesus’s kingdom is said to be a “spiritual kingdom” that leaves Caesar’s realm pretty much intact.
That’s a dangerous misreading of the gospel. As Hauerwas says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ is not my personal opinion” but “a determinative political claim.” Psalm 2 ends with an exhortation to kings and judges to acknowledge the Lord’s anointed as King of Kings. For political rulers, repentance means bowing to Jesus as a superior authority.
This is frightening, and it’s supposed to be. Psalm 2 exhorts rulers and judges to “take warning, worship with reverence, and rejoice with trembling.” Jesus is gentle, but he’s not someone you trifle with.
Yet theocracy is ultimately reassuring. Because it proclaims Jesus’s kingship, Christian theocracy bends politics toward compassion, mercy, and impartial justice. I don’t share Hauerwas’s pacifism, but he’s right that Christianity introduces a new politics of patience: “Christ, through the Holy Spirit, bestows upon his disciples the long-suffering patience necessary to resist any politics whose impatience makes coercion and violence the only and inevitable response to conflict.” Christian theocracy is premised on the persuasion that there is love deep down things. It reminds rulers that King Jesus is also Judge. It’s frightening mainly to thugs.
After all, Christian theocrats call political leaders to follow and conform to a King who forgives his enemies, a suffering Servant who gives himself for his people, a world emperor who still, in heaven, bears the scars of a Roman cross.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.