Illustration by Jon Krause
Even during Christ’s time on earth, the idea of enforcing obedience to God’s law was cherished by some who professed to follow Him. Even Jesus’ own disciples expressed this sentiment. When Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, He sent messengers to a Samaritan village to ask if He could stay the night; but they refused to open their city to Him. “And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?”1
Jesus rebuked the disciples, saying, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.”2 Nevertheless, there are those even today who believe obedience to the divine law must be compelled by threat of force. It is tempting to comfort ourselves with the belief that such individuals exist only on the fringes of society.However, though perhaps relatively few in number, they are not without influence. In June 2019 News Channel 5 Nashville reported on a Tennessee prosecutor who has argued that Muslims do not have rights under the United States Constitution.3
Somewhat disquieting was an article that appeared in The Daily Wire, a mainstream conservative online publication, on June 3, 2019. The article, written by Daily Wire contributor Josh Hammer, argues that conservatives “must make overtly moral arguments about culture, tradition, sovereignty, economics, and foreign policy.”4 Far from being a voice from the fringe, The Daily Wire and its editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro have a large following among the American Right, and especially among young conservatives.
These ideas, of course, are not new. In fact, the implementation of religious and moral doctrine as public policy in America dates to the time of the first European settlers in the New World. Even those who came to America in search of freedom to practice their own religion often refused to extend this right to others. The Pilgrims banished Roger Williams for religious and political dissent; specifically, “he held that magistrates had no right to interfere in matters of religion.”5 In its form of government, the Plymouth colony was “a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political,”6 and its governing document, far from being a shining example of democracy, was “closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than the right of self-rule.”7 One influential nineteenth-century author expressed it this way: “It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with God’s blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a mighty nation. Yet honest and God-fearing as they were, the Pilgrims did not yet comprehend the great principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed so much to secure for themselves, they were not equally ready to grant to others.”8
More recently some have advocated a return to the theocratic government of the Pilgrims. Gary North, a leader in the modern Christian Reconstructionist movement, has openly endorsed the Puritanical position that, not just the moral, but also the civil components of the Mosaic law are still binding, and should be implemented as part of the civil code in our present-day government.9 North is the successor of R. J. Rushdoony, an Armenian immigrant to the United States who founded the Christian Reconstructionist movement.10 In 1973 Rushdoony published The Institutes of Biblical Law, which, in the words of his protégé, “revived a long-dead discipline among Protestants, casuistry: the application of biblical legal principles to real-world situations.”11
Given the Reconstructionist movement’s stated goal of restoring Old Testament law, with its severe penalties, its opposition to centralized government, which, it could be argued, would seem a prerequisite to the enforcement of a theocracy, is almost paradoxical.12 North’s libertarian economics are not quite so difficult to reconcile, as he argues that a free market economy is mandated by Scripture.13 But how is Rushdoony’s criticism of centralization of government compatible with his interpretation of Luke 19:13 as a literal command to “occupy” the nations until Christ’s return?14
The answer is simple: what on the surface seems to be an aversion to centralized authority is in fact an aversion to any centralized authority apart from God. “If Washington makes our laws, Washington is our God. As Christians we cannot believe that. For centuries God’s law has functioned wherever God’s people have been, whether in Israel or in Christendom.”15
The goal of Rushdoony and his followers, then, is not an authoritarian regime in the traditional sense, but one in the law of God, as interpreted by men like Rushdoony and North, is enforced on the local level, with little or no central government apart from a common legal code derived from what they believe to be the requirements of Scripture. To theologists, this is not just as a policy goal, but a religious duty: “If people do not believe that God’s covenant is historically and judicially binding with respect to nations and local civil governments,” North writes, “then they have denied the relevance of Deuteronomy 4:5, 6.”16
Now, it would be easy to dismiss a movement whose leader champions stoning as the preferred method for execution as an extremist.17 However, while the theonomy, or “hard dominionism,” of North may not be mainstream, there is a “soft dominionism” that, while milder in appearance, is no less dangerous. Enjoying much broader support and influence than the theonomy movement, politicians associated with dominionism include former Texas governor Rick Perry18 and Senator Ted Cruz.19 Nor can we ignore the obvious influence that the more radical school has had on its “milder” counterpart. North’s mentor Rushdoony was an integral figure to the homeschooling movement of the 1960s, so his influence has not been insubstantial, and extends beyond this mild movement.20
While North and his supporters unabashedly call for a complete restructuring of government, patterned after Old Testament law, the dominion movement pays lip service to the United States Constitution, saying only that Christians must be in control of the system.21 They argue that America was founded as a Christian nation, and ought to be once again.22 Characteristic of both schools of dominionism, however, is a belief that Christians have a divine imperative to exercise “dominion” over society by “taking control of political and cultural institutions.”23 This is in stark contrast with the words which Christ spoke to Pilate at His trial: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”24
The Bible certainly promises blessings to individuals and nations that obey His commandments.25 The dominionist error is in assuming that such obedience can be pleasing to God or accomplish lasting societal change when it is coerced. The history of the Jewish nation is a testament to the failure of superficial observance of forms to work actual change. Christ’s act of cursing the fig tree, whose luscious leaves gave the false promise of fruit, illustrated the futility and ultimate fate of a nation that makes an outward display of piety, even enshrining religious requirements in the laws of the land, but that lacks genuine heart conversion.26 Such a religion is impotent, producing not holiness but hypocrisy.
This should not be understood to mean that Christianity has no place in the public sphere. In the Old Testament, prophets such as Samuel, Nathan, and Elijah witnessed to kings and nations.27 The apostle Paul appeared before Festus, Agrippa, and Caesar and proclaimed Christ to them.28 If only there were more like these, who were not afraid to speak against injustice and oppression, to shine the light of the gospel into the hearts of monarchs and governors! How beautiful would be a society whose people, in true repentance, forsook their sins and followed Christ, not out of compulsion, but with a willing spirit! Then there would be no need for God’s law to be enforced by the sword of government. It is for such a society, and not merely for temporal dominion, that the church should be laboring.
Christians, like all human beings, will have political views. Those views will be influenced by their beliefs, their values. Christianity has often been the driving force behind reform movements in society. Christian churches, including my own, were some of the strongest voices in opposition to slavery.29 Motivated by a love of justice and compassion for the oppressed, Christians may still accomplish much for the betterment of society. But society will not be bettered by Christians trampling the rights of others.
The primary error of the dominionist and theonomist is theological. Firmly entrenched in the Calvinist tradition,30 theirs is the natural and logical conclusion arising from an acceptance of the doctrine of predestination. If God Himself does not regard the free will of His creatures, why should we have any concern for the liberty of our fellow citizens? Combined with the postmillennialist teaching that Christians must on their own bring about a thousand years of peace,31 a theology of determinism leaves little room for plurality, religious or political.
But God does regard the free will of His creatures. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”32 He sets before us the way of life and of death, and begs us to choose life.33 If we truly want to be Christ’s disciples, we also will respect and defend liberty of conscience for all.
1 Luke 9:54.
2 Verse 55.
3 Phil Williams, “Tennessee Prosecutor: Gay People Not Entitled to Domestic Violence Protections,” News Channel 5 Nashville, June 3, 2019, accessed August 9, 2019.
4 Josh Hammer, “Conservatives Must Make Their Arguments in Moral Language,” The Daily Wire, June 3, 2019, accessed August 9, 2019.
5 “Roger Williams,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed August 22, 2019.
6 Kenneth C. Davis, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance,” Smithsonian.com, October 1, 2010, accessed August 22, 2019.
7 Robert Tracy McKenzie, “Five Myths About the Pilgrims,” Washington Post, November 22, 2013, accessed August 22, 2019.
8 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), pp. 292, 293.
9 Gary North, Theonomy: An Informed Response (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 5.
10 Gary North, “R. J. Rushdoony, R.I.P.,” LewRockwell.com, February 10, 2001, accessed September 6, 2019.
12 Rousas John Rushdoony, interview by Joseph McAucliffe, n.d., accessed September 6, 2019.
13 Gary North, Political Polytheism (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 123, 124.
16 North, Political Polytheism, p. 34.
17 Walter Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Invitation to a Stoning,” Reason, November 1998, accessed September 6, 2019.
18 Forrest Wilder, “Rick Perry’s Army of God,” The Texas Observer, August 3, 2011, accessed September 6, 2019.
19 Frederick Clarkson, “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight,” Political Research Associates, August 18, 2016, accessed September 6, 2019.
20 North, “R. J. Rushdoony, R.I.P.”
21 David R. Brockman, “The Radical Theology That Could Make Religious Liberty a Thing of the Past,” The Texas Observer, June 2, 2016, accessed September 3, 2019.
24 John 18:36.
25 Deuteronomy 4:5, 6; Psalm 33:12, etc.
26 Mark 11:12-25.
27 1 Samuel 13:8-14; 2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Kings 17:1; 18:17-41.
28 Acts 25:10-12; 26:1-9.
29 James White, “The Nation,” Review and Herald, August 12, 1862, accessed June 9, 2019.
30 North, Political Polytheism, pp. 27, 28.
32 2 Peter 3:9.
33 Deuteronomy 30:15, 19.
Article Author: Nathan Ruedinger
Nathan Ruedinger writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.