The Bible and Conservatism

American Thinker's guest today is David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow in the Discovery Institute's program in Religion, Liberty, and Public Life and a former senior editor of National Review. He is the author of The Lord Will Gather Me In, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, and Shattered Tablets. His new book is, How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative.

Glazov: David Klinghoffer, thanks for joining us. 
Klinghoffer: Thank you.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was dismayed at the way conservatives have let ourselves be bullied by secular liberals into giving up any effort either to draw wisdom from the Bible in shaping our policy goals, or to speak the language of faith in political contests.

In applying Biblical wisdom to the top 20 hot-button issues of our day, my purpose is to give the folks on our side the tools to recover religion as an essential guide to policymaking. We're so terrified that someone might call us a theocrat. I've got news for conservatives: They'll call us that no matter what we do. If we don't talk about faith, they'll just say we're crypto-theocrats. Meanwhile, Republicans have got a presumptive nominee in John McCain who refuses to acknowledge the need many voters have to be spiritually inspired, a need that Barack Obama seems poised to ride quite handily to the White House.

Glazov: Why do you think secular liberals go into a fit of moral indignation if there is even a hint that the Bible is involved in something, but if the Koran enters the picture, they start bending over backwards to appease Muslim forces. If secular liberals are so serious about the separation of Church and State, where is their passion on the despotism of Sharia?

Klinghoffer: Neither secular indignation at the Bible, nor this fawning reverence for Islam, should surprise a student of the Bible. Scripture's laws and narratives describe patterns in human behavior that are timeless. The evidence of this is as observable today as it was three thousand years ago. Again and again, Moses and the later Hebrew prophets warned against the temptation to look to false alien spiritual traditions for inspiration and truth. It is, in a word, the temptation to idolatry. While the Israelites were still on their 40-year sojourn in the desert, Moses foresaw that when they entered the promised land, they would stumble and ask each about the aboriginal Canaanites, "How did these nations worship their gods, and even I will do the same" (Deuteronomy 12:30).

A culture like ours that was until recently guided by Scriptural wisdom will, by its nature, constantly have to face down demands from within that we turn to alien sources of moral authority. Whether those sources are secular or Islamic, it's the same dynamic at work. The irony is that some of the concessions we've seen in the West to Sharia law are not negative, in themselves, at all. Like Harvard's move to block out certain periods at the gym when women, of any religion or none, can exercise without being ogled at by men. That's something that should have been done because our own Western religious tradition values modesty. It's a shame that the reform was instituted only when Muslims demanded it.
Does looking to the Bible for political guidance in any way imply an inclination to trample on the First Amendment or, as some critics would argue, institute some kind of theocracy?

Only if you think that America before about 1972 was a theocracy where freedom of religion was disregarded. Which is nonsense of course. It's true that, read in a simple-minded literal way, the Bible (especially the Hebrew Bible) appears to describe the functions of a theocratic state, with religious courts punishing Sabbath-breakers, homosexuals, and others with the death penalty. But only the simple-minded read the Bible as if it always says what it means in plain terms, like a newspaper.

What I bring out in my book is that the Bible, a deeply cryptic text, really can't be understood without reference to the ancient oral interpretive tradition that Moses received from God at Mt. Sinai. That tradition, preserved for generations and written down in the Talmud and Midrash, makes clear that the Bible very often, in fact typically, does not mean what it appears to mean from a superficial reading. So we find, for example, that in actual jurisprudence, those scary Biblical penalties were completely unenforceable. What was their point then? To teach us values, a comprehensive worldview that speaks to our private and our public lives. To say that the Bible offers a picture of reality that, in turn, has political implications is a long way from saying we should have religious tribunals chasing down Sabbath-breakers. The idea that spiritual values have a legitimate role to play in shaping political values is a basic American assumption, not a theocratic one.

Glazov: So you mean that the Biblical penalties were meant to be metaphors?

Klinghoffer: I would say, instead, they are given to us as objects of carefully study, for contemplation, meditation, and edification.

Glazov: The Bible was written or revealed (depending on one's perspective) thousands of years ago. Tell us how, in this context, its teachings are still relevant to our politics in 2008.

Well, on some issues the relevance is quite apparent, even at the surface level. The Bible, for example, seeks to inculcate us with a prejudice against high taxes. That comes across in texts like Genesis 47:23-25 and 1 Samuel 8:15-18 which, respectively, equate a tax burden of 20 percent with the condition of being a "serf" and a tax rate of 10 percent with being a "slave." Keep in mind that the average American today shoulders a tax burden of 30.8 percent. On other issues - like drug legalization, gun control, or universal health care -- the Bible's position has to be carefully and sensitively teased out.
If our society deems religion a private matter, why bring the Bible into politics at all?

Jews and Christians alike tend to undersell or dumb down our faiths. We're content to think the Bible is just a book of stories, ethical rules for personal observance, or abstract theological dogma. On its own terms, however, Scripture is much more than that. Something I found incredibly exciting about Judaism, my own inherited religion, when I was getting to know it as an adult, is that it addresses every conceivable kind of question a person or a society could have. Based on Proverbs 8:30, Biblical tradition depicts Scripture as nothing less than a blueprint of moral reality. I can't think of any reason a wise person would not want to know what the Bible can teach us about immigration, climate change, war, Islamic terror, or any of the other issues I cover.
Does a Biblical worldview match up exactly with a conservative political outlook, and if not, why?

Notice that the book isn't subtitled "Why God Commands You to Be a Republican." Even "conservative" may not be exactly the right word. There are points where Biblical wisdom parts ways with standard right-wing Republican orthodoxy. On immigration, I show from a reading of the Book of Ruth and other texts the nuanced approach, being both demanding of and welcoming toward immigrants, that Scripture would have us adopt. Based on the spiritual significance that the Bible attaches to race and nation - the 3 primordial races and the 70 primordial nations - I don't think the mantra of "color-blindness" and "letting race go" can be fully sustained.

Glazov: What do you mean exactly that the mantra of "color-blindness" and "letting race go" cannot be fully sustained?

Klinghoffer: There's an understandable tendency among conservatives to wish that race would just go away as something that people have to be aware of or think about. But that tendency may not be Biblically correct. Take affirmative action. From a secular perspective, it has two possible justifications: as 1) racial spoils or payback, and 2) as a way to insure that a university or workplace should not lack persons representing the unique perspective of the African-American, the Hispanic-American, or what have you. Now, the Bible is not unfamiliar with racial spoils, and gives some approval to it. The Jews when they left Egyptian slavery are said to have emptied the country of its riches (Exodus 12:36), which they then took with them into the wilderness and used to construct the implements of the Tabernacle. Biblical tradition also links the institution of pidyon ha'ben, the redemption of the first born by paying a certain token amount to a priest, with "payback" for the sin Joseph's brothers committed in selling him as a slave. As for the unique perspective offered by a member of a racial minority, there are Biblical grounds for thinking that, say, an African-American can indeed contribute something, spiritually, that a European-American can't, and vice versa.

The Bible sees apparently material phenomena, like race, as being ultimately spiritual in nature. That's in contrast with secularism, which sees material stuff as the only reality. So a person's race has spiritual significance. God created races and nations because each has something unique to contribute, a goal or mission different from that of any other group. So to want, let's say, your university to include a fair representation of African-Americans, even if that means having different admission criteria, seems at least defensible.
Can there be a coherent political conservatism without God?

Not really. Russell Kirk lays this out in The Conservative Mind, where he identifies the very first principle of a conservative worldview as "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems." Whittaker Chambers wrote in Witness that, "Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible." So maybe there's an alternative secular path to constructing a political philosophy of ordered liberty? The problem is that the kind of freedom Chambers came to embrace, at the same time he was undergoing a spiritual awakening, is founded on a respect for personal responsibility, the idea that the government should clear a space for us to live our lives and make our own mistakes. That's perfectly compatible with the Bible. The most important word in a discussion of Scripture is "commandment." Our being commanded by God assumes our personal responsibility, free moral agency. Secular materialism, by contrast, tends to see people as captives of Nature, like sophisticated animals, neither morally free nor morally responsible. A secular worldview is ripe for the temptation on the part of lawmakers to coerce us - for "own good," of course.
What philosophical question, if any, underlies the range of differences between conservatives and liberals on the hottest political issues of the day?

Precisely this question of moral responsibility. On issue after issue, conservatism follows the Bible in assuming that people can be held responsible for their actions. A pro-life position (which the Talmud traces to Genesis 9:6) is simply the view that a woman is responsible for the life growing in her womb. She can't just evade that responsibility through surgery. The death penalty? It's appropriate for our government to assume the awesome responsibility of executing the worst criminals, even if that means - one hopes very rarely - that a jury or a judge may err. The Bible's institution of witness falsification (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) demonstrates that Scriptural wisdom is realistic about human fallibility, yet it gives us the responsibility anyway.
If the Bible can't be reconciled with liberalism, what about libertarianism?

Well, this point about responsibility can cut both ways, can't it. The Bible doesn't value liberty for its own sake. It favors freedom because freedom clears a space for our making free moral choices. Where such a choice would be at the expense of someone else's life (abortion), the Bible would most definitely counsel against radical liberty. So too on the issue of drug legalization. The Bible speaks warmly of the value of wine in life (Psalm 104:15), but harder drugs have the effect of undercutting our power to make free choices. There too the Bible would draw a line.

Glazov: What do you hope your book will help achieve?
Klinghoffer: I hope readers will be empowered to look to the Bible for wisdom on specific practical political issues, and that conservatives will then feel freer to argue for the right policies not just on anemic, unconvincing secular grounds but because we have access to a source of timeless truth that Americans have revered for generations, going back to the Revolution.

Glazov: David Klinghoffer, thank you for joining FrontPage Interview.
Klinghoffer: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
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