Christian Theocracy is an Oxymoron

“When kings are kings, and kings are men—
           And the lonesome rain is raining!
O who shall rule from the red throne then,
And who shall covet the scepter when—
            When the winds are all complaining?”

James Whitcombe Riley, “The Flying Islands of the Night” (1878)

Orthosphere readers a.morphous and Scoot are engaged in a gentlemanly exchange of views in the comment thread of my recent post, their polite back-and-forth enriched with additional comments by Kristor.  I have been silent because I have been, for the better part of the past few days, glued to the steering wheel of an automobile.  While glued to that steering wheel, I did however brood on certain points that a.morphous and Scoot raised, once going so far as to jot a note as I stiffly hobbled across the hot tarmac of a raucous roadside rest area.

The points on which I particularly brooded concern what a.morphous might call the Orthosphere consensus, those broad points of Orthospherian agreement with which he, a.morphous, so strongly and pertinaciously disagrees.  If I were to reduce that consensus to a familiar and homely expression, it is that too many modern thinkers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and that, in matters of theology, morality and political philosophy, our forefathers were not all villains, fogies or fools.  As a corollary, it follows that we Orthospherians also agree that there is much that needs to be said against the ugly and deformed changeling that has been substituted for the baby that those careless modern thinkers threw away.

* * * * *

Here is how a.morphous characterizes the Orthosphere consensus.

“Obviously there are many differences between the Taliban and the orthosphere, but the similarities are interesting and salient: both antimodern, both antifeminist, both advocating cultural uniformity, both advocating, if not theocracy, a strong relationship between the state and religious authority.”

I do not think that this characterization is unfair, although I cannot say the same thing about refusing to capitalize our proper name.  There are definitions of antimodern, antifeminist and monocultural that that I, at least, will heartly own; and I will try to explain these definitions in future posts.  In this post I will take up the claim that we Orthospherians advocate theocracy, or something not so very dissimilar to theocracy.

This is partly true, but it is certainly no more true of us Orthospherians than it is of a.morphous himself.  Every political system requires a supernatural sanction, and every political system therefore requires a sacerdotal class of oracles, teachers, and apologists. Members of this class are reasonably described as theocrats, even when their supernatural sanction does not descend from anything like a God. Buddhism, for instance, is often said to be an atheistic religion, and yet traditional Tibetan Buddhism is just as often said to have been the world’s greatest example of theocracy.  When Auguste Comte wrote his proposal for an entirely scientific society in 1848, he prudently furnished that society with scientific theocrats:

“Henceforth all true men of science will rise to the higher dignity of philosophers, and by so doing will necessarily assume something of the sacerdotal character . . . . Thus the philosophers of the future become priests of Humanity.”*

We must suppose that Comte agreed with de Maistre that,

“All imaginable institutions repose on a religious idea, or they quickly pass away.”**

The political question is not therefore whether there should be theocrats.  Every political system has theocrats, in some places claiming to speak for God, and other places claiming to speak for Science, Reason, Justice, Morality, or some other occult and otherwise cryptic authority.  The political question for any particular society is, who shall serve as the theocrats and how shall these theocrats relate to the other sources of social power?

* * * *

Every social order must balance and combine the four basic sources of social power that are held by the four basic types of men.  These four basic types are Holy Men, Strong Men, Rich Men, and Little Men.  In the traditional social order of India, these were the four basic castes of Brahmans who prayed, Kshatriyas who fought, Vaisyas who worked, and Sudras who performed unclean tasks.  In the traditional social order of Europe, these were the four basic estates of Clergy who prayed, Noblemen who fought, and Commoners who worked and were divided into the two grades of Masters and Menials

The Holy Men are, of course, the theocrats.  Their power is their ability to sanction or censure, bolster or undermine, unify or divide, the other sources of social power.  Holy Men do this with words.  It makes no difference whether they call themselves priests or philosophers, whether they cluster in lamaseries or universities, whether they speak for God in a church, for Reason in a college, or for “Who We Are” in a syndicated newspaper column.  Their function is in every case to sustain or subvert the existing system of status and subordination.

The first Strong Men were warriors, and their power was their ability to reward obedience with plunder and to punish disobedience with pain.  In the modern world, politicians are the Strong Men and the law is their sword.   Obedience they reward with legal plunder; disobedience they punish with legal pain.

The Rich Men are the bankers and merchant princes—what Marx called the bourgeoise—and their power is their ability to make men prosperous or make men poor.  Both Strong Men and Rich Men prefer to have Holy Men on their side, and even Holy Men see the wisdom of being on good terms with the men who hold the sword and the men who hold the purse.

Little Men are not very strong, not very rich, and not very holy; but they have a sort of power because they are so very numerous.  They can be whipped into a swarming nuisance by a turbulent Holy Man who turns the mass of Little Men against the Strong Men, the Rich Men, or the Holy Men other than himself.  This is why the Little Men are normally pacified with some combination of threats from the Strong Men, goodies from the Rich Men, and flattering words from Holy Men of the established theocracy.

* * * * *

My epigraph asks the pregnant questions “who shall rule” and who shall “covet the scepter.”  The answer to the first question is uncertain because the answer to the second question is, very nearly everyone.  The Strong Men say that they should rule, and the Money Men, Holy Men and Little Men all say likewise.  This is because all men are naturally gripped by an unslakable will to power.  Gripped by the will to power, Strong Men clamor to establish an Aristocracy in which Strong Men rule, Rich Men clamor to establish a Plutocracy in which Rich Men rule, Little Men clamor to establish a Democracy in which Little Men rule, and Holy Men clamor to establish a Theocracy in which Holy Men hold the scepter and sit gloating on the throne.

As Thomas Hobbes famously asserted,

“I put it for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”***

St. Augustine called this perpetual and restless desire of power after power libido dominandi, and he agreed with Hobbes that men are by nature slaves to this overmastering lust for mastery.  Augustine’s symbol of libido dominandi was the imperial capital of Rome, an “earthly city” that was at the same time splendid, terrifying and doomed.

“I cannot . . . pass over in silence that earthly city which, when it seeks for mastery, though the nations are its slaves, has as its own master that very lust for mastery.”†

In Augustine’s Christian theology, one mark of a Holy Man is that grace has delivered him from his natural slavery to the will to power and ibido dominandi.  A Christian Holy Man is a sojourner in the “earthly city,” and is therefore exempt from many of the duties and tolls that lay so heavily on its earthly citizens.  In imperial Rome, a Christian Holy Man was a resident alien.  His carried the passport and lived as a citizen of the far away “city of God.”

From this we may conclude that Christian Theocracy is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.   Christian Holy Men can serve as a mere theocrats, and I daresay the Orthosphere consensus is that all our theocrats should be Christian Holy Men; but true Christian Holy Men will not, indeed cannot, clamor to establish a Theocracy in which Holy Men hold the scepter and sit gloating on the throne.   This is impossible for the very simple and obvious reason that grace has delivered Christian Holy Men from their natural slavery to the will to power and ibido dominandi.

*) Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism, trans. J. B. Bridges (1848)
**) Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions (1814)
***) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
†) St. Augustine, City of God (426)

24 thoughts on “Christian Theocracy is an Oxymoron

  1. Prof, your saying you have been glued to the wheel for two days makes one wonder, and fear, whether you are fleeing College Station. I hope not.

  2. The only true Theocracy is arguably the Millennial Reign of Christ with its mandatory Feast of Tabernacles and ultra-long lives

    “20No longer will a nursing infant live but a few days,

    or an old man fail to live out his years.

    For the youth will die at a hundred years,

    and he who fails to reach a hundred

    will be considered accursed.

    21They will build houses and dwell in them;

    they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

    22No longer will they build houses for others to inhabit,

    nor plant for others to eat.

    For as is the lifetime of a tree,

    so will be the days of My people,

    and My chosen ones will fully enjoy

    the work of their hands.”

    • I’m saying that is what true Christian Holy Men do not do. Of course there have been plenty of false Christian Holy Men who have put an elbow into the windpipe of other false Christian Holy Men as they scrambled for the throne.

    • You might say we are orthodox in the same way Anglicans are catholic. If you have never seen this is action, a Catholic who introduces himself to an Anglican as a Catholic will be sharply reminded that he is, in fact, a Roman Catholic.

  3. These are excellent points well made, JM. I was groping in the dark for this idea and never quite arrived at it. Christianity is a stabilizing force in man and moderates his excesses and mitigates his deficiencies. I especially like the point that all politics is in some way or other an advocacy for theocracy. Tyranny of scientific method would be just as much a tyranny as would a Tyranny of religion. This is why the meek will inherit the earth–the rest will be consumed by the libido dominandi.

    • Disturbingly, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro theocratically declared two summers ago that his presidency (and, I presume, all of the damage he did while in office) was “fulfilling a mission from God”. Although the Amazonian rainforest is home to a third of all known terrestrial plant, animal and insect species and our planet’s natural environment honors no international boundary, he told the rest of the rightfully concerned world, “You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours”.

      He also advised France’s president to “mind your own business”. If only it were true the environmental damage done by morally and ethically corrupt governments and corporate puppet-masters was all somehow poetically miraculously confined strictly to the owners’ territory! Astonishingly, what matters most to this leader, and the many thinly veiled theocrats like him, is the creation of jobs, however limited or temporary, and economic stimulation, however intangible the concept when compared to the grand-scale, consequential environmental destruction.

      Christ was all about compassion, non-violence and, most notably, absolute charity. But here in the West, when a public person simply openly fantasizes about a clean, pristinely green global environment, or a cessation of all wars, or a guaranteed minimum income, many ‘Christians’ reactively presume he/she must therefore be Godless thus evil or, far worse, a socialist. This, despite Christ’s own teachings epitomizing the primary component of socialism — do not hoard morbidly superfluous wealth when so very many people have little or nothing.

      • If the Brazilians are not good stewards of Amazonia, it is hard to see why bureaucrats on the other side of the world would be. I agree that governments are corrupt and corporations are greedy, but I am not surprised by this because governments and corporations are made of (and by) fallen men and women. This also means that “putting the right people in charge” is not an answer, since we have no “right people” to put in charge. We have nothing to work with but greedy, dishonest human beings. A person who “openly fantasizes about a clean, pristinely green global environment” and “a cessation of all wars” is, I daresay, fantasizing about a world after all the humans have been massacred. I like a clean environment as much as anyone, and more than most, but I understand that man (made in the image of God) is a filthy beast. I by no means thirst for war, but understand that peace is in many instances nothing but crushing tyranny. Guaranteed minimum income strikes me as a carnal device to escape God’s curse of Adam (“by the sweat of thy brow thou shall earn thy bread”), although I worry as much as anyone about the looming robot apocalypse.

  4. I wrote an entire unpublished and extremely amateurish book to say what you said in this post. I think I’ll just burn it now.

    No king but King Jesus!

    • Don’t burn it. Put the manuscript in a bottom drawer and let it mellow for a few years. Then pull it out, tear out the parts that didn’t age well, and try to punish that. Time is a great editor because, as time passes, hollow words turn brown at the edges.

  5. Many of Canada’s Conservative party politicians — not to mention our thinly-veiled-theocrat former prime minister Stephen Harper — are/were ideologically aligned with the pro-fossil-fuel mainstream American Evangelical community and Republican Party. They generally share the belief that to defend the natural environment from the planet’s greatest polluters, notably big fossil fuel, is to go against God’s will and therefore is inherently evil. (No wonder they hate any carbon tax!)

    Yet, even more damaging to the faith’s reputation may be: While many genuine Christians have rejected Trump (albeit mostly silently), regardless of his tempting conservative politics and pro-life professions, it’s the very vocal and politically active ‘Christian’ element celebrating Trump conservatism that gets the brightest news-media spotlight. Christ was all about compassion, non-violence and, most notably, absolute charity.

    Surely they realize that Jesus clearly would not tolerate the accumulation of tens of billions of dollars while so many others go hungry and homeless. But that blatant contradiction apparently takes a back seat to Trump’s successful nominations of three conservative justices for the U.S. Supreme Court; and, from my understanding, he was strategically doing likewise with a number of lower courts. There also was his politically/diplomatically destabilizing (fire-stoking?) move of the U.S Embassy in Israel, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

    • I don’t think Christ was “all about compassion, non-violence and . . . absolute charity.” He did not, for instance, make the slightest effort to feel the pain of the Pharisees. He was conspicuously violent with the money-changers in the temple, and the crucifixion is one of the most violent act in religious history. I realize that Jesus was the one crucified, but it hard for a Christian to absolutely oppose violence when our salvation required such a violent act. Jesus was certainly charitable, but not absolutely charitable or notably charitable in the modern meaning of that word. If you read the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes in John’s gospel, for instance, he specifically and rather pointedly rejects the popular notion that he came to earth to run a soup kitchen.

      If Jesus were on earth today, I suspect he would condemn our politics indiscriminately. He would see that we resemble the Pharisees insofar as we aspire, through politics, to improve ourselves by external modification, and because we are obsessed with the magic tricks that his miracles were so often mistaken for,

      • Be careful, fgsjr2015, to refrain from worship of a deity of any sort lesser than the Most High, who outpasses all our human categories and desires – including charity, non-violence, and compassion. YHWH is himself, in his very being, the judgement:

        Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

        He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

        Matthew 10:34-38

        Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

        Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

        Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

        Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

        Matthew 23:23-33

        But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

        Revelation 21:18

        Only as judge might Christ be merciful. As himself the Supreme Judge, so is Christ in his mere being also the penalty; thus is he the effectual Angel of Death: to Cross Christ *just is* to invoke Death.

      • Fair enough. Although, while he did overturn the currency traders’ tables out of passionate indignation, he nevertheless taught to turn the other cheek. Perhaps more to my general point, what part of Christ’s teachings would have excused the support, political or otherwise, by institutional Christians of such deviants (from Christ’s fundamental message) as the former U.S. president, for instance?

        To be clear, I, a believer in Christ’s unmistakable miracles, am not writing these things to troll for some agitation; rather, it’s as someone angered by supposedly Christian people behaving very little or nothing Christlike. I feel that too many have, unfortunately, created God’s nature in their own angry and vengeful image, especially the part insisting via publicized protest pickets that God hates this or that group of people. Often being the most vocal, they make very bad examples of Christ’s fundamental message, especially to the young and impressionable.

        I can imagine many of them even finding inconvenient or annoying trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator. (Really, why couldn’t Jesus have been one who’d enjoy a belly-shaking laugh over a good joke with his disciples, now and then? I sometimes wonder whether the general human need for retributive justice can be intrinsically linked to the same terribly flawed aspect of humankind that enables the most horrible acts of violent cruelty to readily occur on this planet, perhaps not all of which we learn about.)

        From my understanding: Judaism’s messiah is reflective of the unambiguously fire-and-brimstone angry-God creator of the Torah, Quran and Old Testament. The Judaic messiah is essentially one who will come liberate his people from their enemies, which logically consists of some form of violence, before ruling over every nation on Earth. This left even John the Baptist, who believed in Jesus as the savior, troubled by Jesus’ apparently contradictory version of Messiah, notably his revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy.

        Maybe Jesus was viciously killed because he did not in the least behave in accordance to corrupted human conduct and expectation — and in particular because he was nowhere near to being the vengeful, wrathful behemoth so many people seemingly wanted or needed their savior to be and therefore believed he’d have to be.

      • My parents came out of “fire-and-brimstone” churches, but I have never heard a “fire-and-brimstone” sermon. I’ve read such sermons by Jonathan Edwards, but never once heard a preacher pound the pulpit and consign anyone to Hell. I don’t doubt they exist, but the I also think the ferociously judgmental Christian is cultural stereotype that was invented by anti-Christians and then taken up by liberal Christians. There are stereotypes of liberal Christians, and I do my best to try to see past them.

        It seems to me that Jesus was no less judgmental than Yahweh, although his remedy for human depravity was very different. There is no question but that he regarded all humans as deeply depraved, sunk in carnality, stupid, selfish, etc., etc., etc. His love was such that he wished to save humans from their appalling condition, but his love was not such that it blinded him to the fact that humans were appalling. It also seems clear to me that Jesus knew that a great many humans could not be saved because they loved the things that made them appalling. This does not mean that I should be on the streets telling sinners they are going to Hell, but it does suggest that Jesus is in the end a very stern judge. He wants us to be saved, but will not pretend we are saved when we are not.

        I suspect that Jesus may have been indifferent to violence. His mission, so far as I can tell, was to reconcile men to God. The old religion that claimed to do this was a fake sham and the legalism of the Pharisees was even worse. The reconciliation required an internal spiritual transformation that could be brought about under many circumstances, the strain of war included. Insofar as war detached men and women from the transitory shams of the world and made them honest in themselves, I suspect that Jesus was all for it.

        If Jesus wanted men and women to be happy in this world, he would have gone on manufacturing loaves and fishes just as the carnal multitude hoped he would. But instead he ran away from the carnal multitude and returned to his disciples in the very un-carnal guise of a man walking on top of the water.

      • My parents came out of “fire-and-brimstone” churches…I think the ferociously judgmental Christian is cultural stereotype that was invented by anti-Christians and then taken up by liberal Christians.

        Ever read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Don’t think Joyce was just making it up:

        —Now let us try for a moment to realise, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.

        —They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a neverending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharaohs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?

        —The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

        —But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property that it preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity it rages for ever.

      • Yes I have, as a matter of fact. And as I said, I have also read Jonathan Edwards sermon on “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” The first step in a critical reading of historical documents is, however, to adjust for the probable bias of the author. When possible, one should read sermons rather than second-hand accounts of sermons from pens that wish to make sermons objects of ridicule or horror. I don’t doubt that there are ferociously intolerant Christians, but I also understand that, say, Sinclair Lewis has an axe to grind. Critical reading also teaches us not to take vivid figures of speech at face value.


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