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“Look out for theocracy!”

Beware of scare tactics from secular gatekeepers trying to reorder society in their own image

A pro-life family prays while pro-abortion demonstrators protest the Dobbs decision outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in late June. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

“Look out for theocracy!”

We’re hearing a lot about “theocracy,” and from some quarters, “theonomy,” or what I more often hear called “Christian nationalism” by its detractors and its advocates. But with Christians in such a culturally weakened position, it is curious as to why we suddenly hear this alarm.

Theocracy, most simply, is our creator God’s government of His universe, which, if you accept the creational premise, should be entirely uncontroversial. As a political arrangement, however, theocracy is government by the clergy, presented as the ministers of Theos, God. Iran is a theocracy. It’s governed by the mullahs. The papal states, the secular realm in central Italy governed directly by the popes up until the unification of Italy in 1870, were a theocracy. Despite what some academics or pundits might say, that is not at all like, say, a member of Congress making a judgment or casting a vote based on his or her religiously informed understanding of justice and the human good.

But when a people’s majority and predominant culture is Biblically informed and self-consciously Christian, their laws and customs will naturally reflect that. Such was the case for more than a thousand years of European and English-speaking civilization on both sides of the Atlantic. To call that “theocracy” is just rhetorical scare language from a secular governing class that is trying to reorder society in its own image.

Of course, when Jesus commands us to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19), and when people respond favorably, isn’t a nation of recognizably Christian laws and customs the consequence? Does it not become a “Christian nation” as it brings its laws and customs into conformity with what its people now believe to be true and just and wholesome? Is it fair to call the desire for one’s people to be so blessed “Christian nationalism?” Clearly not.

One might call the alternative a “Christian national secularism,” which would follow a principled conviction to keep one’s religion entirely individualized and private, something our faith does not command and the law of love arguably forbids.

Christian nationalism can mean different things, from an idolatrous, worldly, political triumphalism to hope for realizing (or realizing once again) the Great Commission among our people.

Theonomy is another matter. Whereas theocracy is literally political power centered in and exercised by God, theonomy is law derived solely from God, in particular from Scripture. The theonomic movement, or Christian reconstructionism, was a small, American movement in the 1970s and ’80s that argued for a particular way a Christian people must give themselves good laws. Christians have always drawn general principles of justice and equity from God’s law, sometimes even specific provisions, like death penalties, limits of consanguinity in marriage, prohibitions against bribery, etc. Theonomy is a much tighter application of Biblical law for every national situation. Sadly, people who are not thinking carefully or very clearly at all hear, “The Bible says that’s wrong,” and they say (gasp!), “That’s theonomy!” or even “That’s theocracy!” But that’s just not true.

That is how Christians have always settled on what justice is for making just laws, and how healthy human relations are to be guided and supported by wise laws and institutions. Of course, local customs and common sense have also worked their way in, for example, the jury system and the principle of justice delayed is justice denied.

Christian nationalism can mean different things, from an idolatrous, worldly, political triumphalism to hope for realizing (or realizing once again) the Great Commission among our people. As a charge, it’s often flung from within a culture (or a cultural leadership) that is becoming ever more antagonistic to the orthodox faith. Aaron Renn describes us as having passed from the “positive world” of confident Christian culture to the neutral world of secular modernity to where we are now: the negative world that is openly hostile, even fearfully so, to all things Christian. We are viewed as oppressors of women and homosexuals and little trans children. We are “haters” and enemies of liberty’s progress.

Now that the abortion question has been returned to the states to be settled democratically, we are seeing abortion laws conform to the moral sensibilities of our various regions, some of which are more Christian than others. But we can expect the advocates of “choice” to shame the godly against “imposing” their religion, even though the pro-abortion proponents are doing the very same thing but with their own views of justice and human well-being. Someone’s “theocracy,” someone’s nationalism, someone’s moral and religious consensus is always reigning—whether it follows the God of the Bible or the gods issuing from the idol of the imperial self.

David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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