The Difference Between Theocracy and Influence

The theocrat in us all tries to force change. The influencer tries to make change attractive: he befriends and looks for common cause, he persuades by teaching and example. 

(This article is excerpted and adapted from Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew?, available exclusively at our book store.)

Jesus is the Lord of everything. He makes all things new. This has to mean that he cares as much about public life as a does about private life. And if he cares about public life, then so should those who claim to be his people. It is this public caring that gets us into trouble with each other politically, for we are bound to disagree on the best way to do it.

Think about the arguments we can get into over what ought to become law. Certainly everybody legislates their values (When people cry “How dare you legislate morality?” what they really mean is, “How dare you legislate that particular morality, since I disagree with it?”).  But the question still remains, “Which values do we think should be enforced by law, and why?” When we try to answer this question we can land in hot water, not just with our unbelieving neighbors, but with each other. It is very difficult to decide what makes one law more “Christian” than another. Is it more Christian to regulate banks or to grant them freedom? Is it more Christian to open the borders more widely to immigrants or to close them more tightly? What is the best legal strategy, in the present circumstances, for reducing abortions or for enabling healthy marriages?

Sorting out questions like these takes work. We ought to engage each other over them, for we all have blind spots and need each other’s help getting past them.

But how can we engage amicably?

What can help us to navigate our differences with patience in this area (as in other areas of public life) are three sets of distinctions. In a previous article, we discussed the first: the distinction between political strategy and moral principle. Human laws (as opposed to God’s) are flawed political strategies: they are blunt instruments that offend nearly everyone at some point, either directly or through unintended consequences. So, after all the discussion is in (and we should be talking to each other), we need to cut each other some slack if we remain in different places on any particular piece of legislation.

Here is a second distinction that I have found helpful, especially when it comes to the question of enforcing moral standards legally: We need to distinguish between the Christian control of government (what we might call the theocratic impulse) and the Christian influence upon government.  The first of these is mistaken while the second is wise and good.

Some of us are nostalgic about what we perceive to have been a “Christian golden age” and this dream fires us with zeal to recapture that past, by law if necessary. Such a roll-back won’t work. The American population today is far more diverse both ethnically and religiously than it once was. The concern in the eighteenth century was that no particular brand of Christianity should gain political ascendancy; today America welcomes a seemingly endless variety of faiths—religious and nonreligious. Any approach taken by Christians to promote the values of Christ in public life must deal with this reality. If we seek to circumvent pluralism in the name of Christ, or to blast a path through it, we will in the end produce a culture that tolerates a Christian presence even less than it does now.

The theocrat in us all tries to force change. The influencer tries to make change attractive: he befriends and looks for common cause, he persuades by teaching and example.

The most important reason not to make America legally Christian is that God forbids us to. Theocracy belongs to an earlier stage in redemptive history, when God’s kingdom was identified with a particular earthly kingdom. Jesus does wield a sword today, but it comes from his mouth and not his arm (see Revelation 1:16), a vivid reminder that the sort of allegiance he seeks cannot be forced. It must be chosen freely out of love in response to his word.

This does not mean that Christians may never seek to enforce moral values by law. But it does mean that when we do, we need to understand the limits of what we are doing. We are not building the kingdom of God. We are giving our best shot at trying to make the world a little bit better while we await the King.

The theocrat in us is impatient, with the world and with other believers. The influencer is more patient, for she realizes that she doesn’t have to set the kingdom up herself. Instead she simply gets to represent the King in what she teaches and in how she conducts herself. Many times in that role she may not appear particularly effective, but that’s okay, because effectiveness isn’t her job. And sometimes she may find herself to be enormously effective. PBS President Ervin Duggan spoke of the impact of faithful influencers at the Davidson College 1994 fall convocation:

Only years after leaving this place did I realize that the religious tradition honored by those starchy old Calvinists [Davidson’s founders] was what brought into being many of the things I cherished most.  The teaching that all persons are created in the image of God, for example: that religious idea gives the only transcendent depth and meaning to our notions of human rights, of human beings as sacred. The ancient doctrine of Original Sin, for example: it led James Madison and John Adams to insist upon limitations of power, upon a system of checks and balances. The Judeo-Christian idea of covenantal laws and relationships, for example: this led, in time, to modern democratic constitutions and the Bill of Rights. Indeed, our modern ideas of tolerance and pluralism owe much to great assertions of human universality like that of St. Paul: “I am persuaded that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek.” (“Pluralism That Makes a Difference,” First Things , April 1995, p. 58)

Don’t sell influence short.

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  • Rev. Drew is a member of the Christian Civics teaching team and the author of "Surprised By Community: Democrats and Republicans In The Same Pew." He recently retired from Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in New York City, a ministry with a particular focus on Columbia University and nearby schools. He and his wife live in New York City, where he continues to teach and preach.

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