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A recent piece in the New York Times raised an alarm about the “theocratic worldview” of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Uh oh! I have a theocratic worldview.

I’m a Calvinist, and I speak of the “Sovereignty of God.” You don’t have to be a Calvinist to belt out “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” from the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Of course there are any number of theocratic worldviews. They can be thick or thin or hard or soft. Judge Alito’s is Roman Catholic, but so was Dorothy Day’s. You might have been taught the theocratic worldview of Abraham Kuyper, probably leaning more towards his later Common Grace than his earlier Antithesis. At Calvin College I was challenged with the critically theocratic worldview of Jacques Ellul, who himself developed the dialectical theocracy of Karl Barth. At New Brunswick Seminary I learned the very different theocratic worldview of Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler.

Theocratic worldviews are widespread. Islam is inherently theocratic. Hinduism has not been actively theocratic until recently, with Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalism threatening the secular democracy of India.

I admit that I get defensive when the critique of “theocratic worldviews” comes from a pretended neutrality that wants to keep religion in a small, safe box. But I also fully sympathize with the New York Times on the danger of theocratic worldviews to America right now — for at least two reasons.

First, I just don’t want to go back to Christendom. I have no interest in the United States being a Christian nation. I believe that the Holy Catholic Church is much better off when it keeps itself from possessing political power, even if that means surrendering certain rights to which we might actually be entitled. The Lord Jesus rejected the political power to which he was entitled as the Son of David.

Second, the United States is a particularly violent country, and theocracy in America could not help but be a violent one. There may well have been theocracies that were generally beneficial, and I would be intrigued to see them identified, but the USA would not be one of them. As H. Rap Brown famously said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”

Managing violence is one chief function of religion. That management might variously glorify violence, sanctify it, focus it, channel it, structure it, restrict it, or condemn it. Hinduism, for example, structured violence as a caste system, and India had to become a secular state to dismantle it. Christians have been able to justify our own violence because the Bible is full of violence, much of it apparently sanctioned by God. The Cross itself is violent, but the Gospel claims that this violence is the end of all further violence.

The United States is the most violent country I have ever spent time in. As a dual citizen, I can vouch that Canada is certainly less violent than the States. I am no expert on the Sultanate of Oman, but for the month I spent there I found it to be a remarkably peaceful country. All countries are more or less violent, essentially so, because they hold “the power of the sword,” which St. Paul says is God’s will. In peaceful countries like Oman the government holds a “monopoly on violence.” That’s mostly so in Canada. It is not so in the United States, if it ever was. Americans believe that their personal right to violence is guaranteed them by the Bill of Rights. We are taught that we can use violence to protect ourselves from violence!

Theocracy is particularly alarming when it’s violent. Narendra Modi’s theocratic Hinduism sanctions violence against Muslims, to which state governments turn blind eyes. Donald Trump has no theocratic worldview, but his followers do. The guy who keeps hinting at more violence to come has the support of the Speaker of the House, who claims that his “worldview” comes right out of the Bible.

Yes, you can make the Bible supportive of violence. Bibi Netanyahu has done so by calling Palestinians “Amalek.” But the Lord Jesus clearly rejected it, and kept his disciples from it, and the early church refused it.

The task of theology to correctly interpret the Bible is as critically important now as it ever was. I don’t mean just preaching against violence. I mean boning up on and rightly dividing such doctrines as the Atonement, Creation, and Covenant, and preaching and teaching those, and I mean addressing what is the nature and to what end is the Kingdom of God. Public safety may be at stake.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.

14 Comments

  • Lisa says:

    Thanks, Daniel—a much needed and timely correction to the current public narrative.

  • David Landegent says:

    Really good stuff.

    • David Landegent says:

      This reminds me of Bruce Cockburn’s old lyric, “Tried to build a New Jerusalem, ended up with New York” — (with some apologies to New York, this disaster actually happens everywhere).

  • RZ says:

    Theocracy is a useful tool in the hands of those who wish to dismantle shalom in all its forms, including democracy. Their superior moral judgment and chosen status supercede the self-determunation of others. As history demonstrates, no nation, not even the church, can be trusted with this kind of power. And this principle trickles down to all levels of governance, civil or church. Thanks for raising this Daniel. Timely!

  • John Hubers says:

    One thing worth noting about the two countries you cite as being less violent than ours – normal citizens cannot buy weapons. The violence in America is made more deadly by ready access to weapons of mass destruction (as all guns are). The Surgeon General just declared this access to guns a “public health crisis” we need to fight with ss much vigor as we expended in our battle against tobacco.

    May it be so.

    • Hugh Reid says:

      “Normal” Canadians are certainly free to buy weapons, though for the most part we exercise that freedom by not buying the. It true there are more controls: Assault weapons were banned a couple of years ago for instance. But we do not conflate guns with freedom or with manhood, so there is less of a predilection to buy guns. Still, we are plagued with gun violence and gang violence fueled by the smuggling of illegal guns from the abundant supply in the US.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    “The kingdom of God is like . . .”
    nothing we humans have ever conceived of or instituted, in His name or in our own.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, Daniel.

  • Timothy Huizenga says:

    Dan’s reference to Jacques Ellul constrains me to point out that there is a conference in Chicago on July 11-13 put on by the International Jacques Ellul Society. I did not even know that such a society existed. I plan to attend, even though my 70 year old brain may not be able to keep up with the Ellul gurus.

  • George Hunsberger says:

    Dan, Thank you for the clarity about multiple “theocratic worldviews.” And for the acute distinction between such worldviews and their possibility that America might be one–with its violence intact.

  • David Meyer says:

    Daniel, thank you for your thoughts. Your observation that, “All countries are more or less violent, essentially so, because they hold ‘the power of the sword’ ,” brings to mind the rebuke Jesus directed to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matt 26:52 NIV. If Christians today seek to advance a theocracy that uses the mechanizations of government to “advance” the kingdom of God, they should remember Jesus warned that the mechanizations of government can be turned, logically, against such an endeavor in similar fashion.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you for clarifying this so beautifully

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