(Dis)Integrating Church and State

1. That reason is a gift from God and that we should believe
in its ability to comprehend the world.
-Czeslaw Milosz, What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch

churchstatecropHere’s what I admire about David Klinghoffer: first, he’s enviably prolific, pumping out a book a year, with frequent articles in between.  Second, his knowledge of Scripture is impressive.  A political conservative and observant Jew, Klinghoffer quotes with authority from both Jewish and Christian texts, elucidating with clarity and insight.  Much of his writing is, for me, an education.

Here’s what I don’t admire about David Klinghoffer: in the service of God and conservatism, he conflates religion and politics, ignores huge chunks of human history, and twists the rules of logic until they shriek and beg for mercy.

His 2005 book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, exemplifies these contradictions.  Klinghoffer provides an illuminating explanation of why the Jews would not accept the Good News (Jesus, apparently, did not fulfill the Messianic expectations of the Hebrew prophets).  And then he suggests that we thank them for the existence of the United States of America.  See, if the Jews had accepted Jesus, then Paul would not have had to break from Judaism. And without this break, there would be no Christianity.  And without Christianity, there would be no Western civilization.  And without a Western civilization (are you still with me?), there would be no America.

Well, as a Jew myself, I’m proud of a lot of things, like the Talmud and Bar Rafaeli.  But I don’t see a straight line from Moses to Madison. Klinghoffer has conveniently forgotten that Western civilization also owes a lot to those pagan Romans and Greeks, and America to the distinctly anticlerical Enlightenment.

But this elision (motivated, I’m guessing, by religious chauvinism) is nothing when compared to the absurdities in his latest book, How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative (Doubleday 2008).  Here, Klinghoffer takes us through the controversies of our day-abortion, taxes, gun control, etc.-and attempts to settle them with “Scripture’s political meaning.”

Considering the subtitle, God’s imagined voting record should be obvious.  The Lord supports home schooling, individual charity, capital punishment, censoring pornography, “war, in general, as a concept,” and Israel.  The Lord is against women in the workplace, gay marriage, taxes, universal health care, recreational drugs, and godless Europe.

The book does have some surprises: the Almighty would vote for some form of gun control.  And while abortion is “a moral outrage whenever it is committed,” it should only be a criminal act “from the 40th day [after conception] on.”  Oh, and God wants us to be moderately concerned about global warming.

The astute reader may have noticed a pattern.  The political ideals of   Klinghoffer-sorry, I mean God-are suspiciously close to those of evangelical Republicans.  Which may explain why How Would God Vote reads like its author has reasoned backwards, looked to Scripture for answers already in mind.  But even that does not fully explain the flagrant weakness of his argumentation.

To be clear: I’m not against using Scripture to shed light on contemporary issues.  Often I’m struck by how human Scripture is, how so much of it reflects the problems and experiences common to every generation.  And much of it does not.  But that doesn’t seem to trouble Klinghoffer: in the absence of a clear connection between Scripture and a particular political issue, he simply invents one.

Just one example is his case for the Patriot Act.  Intelligence networks are not incompatible with Scripture, he says, because King Solomon had one: a metaphorical “bird of the air” that relayed seditious whisperings (Ecclesiastes 10:20).  From a narrowly religious perspective, the contention is reasonable: if Solomon spied on his subjects, it may be permissible for our government to do it too.  (Some Americans, though, may recall that we had a revolution to rid ourselves of paranoid kings.)

Klinghoffer then points out that the Talmud allows for using covert intelligence, citing a passage that deals with subversive idolaters.  Which is kind of interesting, but irrelevant, since the Patriot Act is designed to catch Islamic terrorists.  And those guys hate idols.  Regardless, Klinghoffer forces an equivalency.  His proof text is God’s threat to backsliders: “I will destroy your lofty buildings[…].  I will lay your cities in ruin” (Leviticus 26:30-31).

Wait, that reminds me of something…my gosh, September 11th!  God does to idolaters what terrorists would do to Americans!  So terrorists and idolaters must be the same thing. Ergo, the government has a right to spy on its own citizens.

Now, I could tell you that two of my Bibles render “lofty buildings” as the more ambiguous “high places,” and the third as “hill-shrines.”  But to catalogue all of the author’s disingenuous translations and risible assertions, I’d have to write a book myself.  Actually, two guys already did: Larry Yudelson and Yori Yanover, who published How Would God Really Vote?: A Jewish Rebuttal to David Klinghoffer’s Conservative Polemic (Ben Yehuda Press 2008). As its subtitle suggests, the book is a strictly liberal, strictly Jewish response.  As such, I recommend it.  However, I should add that this book, too, is tendentious: often it glosses over the inherent conservancies of Rabbinic Judaism.  (The sages presaged a lot of things, but I doubt that they would have danced at a gay wedding.)

Look, I’m glad that Klinghoffer’s screed hasn’t gone unanswered.  But neither book satisfactorily responds to the ur-absurdity of looking to Scripture, Jewish or Christian, for a coherent political narrative.  In the nonsense category, though, Klinghoffer is the clear winner.  What puts him on top is his flagrant disregard for logic-and of a little thing that I like to call “the separation of church and state.”

In all fairness, when Klinghoffer asserts that America is a “Christian country,” he’s not far from the truth.  Despite the (almost) godless Constitution and those pesky Supreme Court rulings, Christianity affects how Americans vote-especially evangelical Christianity.  However, when he quotes John McCain, who said that America “was founded primarily on Christian principles,” he’s participating in an egregious oversimplification.  Yes, the Founding Fathers were Christian and were influenced by “Christian principles.”  But ignoring (once again) the enormous influence of Enlightenment principles is, at best, a form of selective amnesia.

In a country with a strong religious impulse, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to keep religion out of politics.  And yet one thing’s for sure: the framers considered the establishment of a state religion as an aspect of tyranny.  Klinghoffer ignores this as well. When he advocates for a “Biblically correct” government, that would, in the name of the Lord, keep women at home, expand capital punishment, and treat illness as a “spiritual” problem, he is advocating for a state religion, in all but name.

In How Would God Vote?, when Klinghoffer suggests that there’s a whiff of totalitarianism in liberal thought, I agree with him.  (If you don’t, try suggesting to a liberal that affirmative action may be unconstitutional and see what happens.)  However, he is willfully blind to the tyrannical implications of his own ideas.

It’s difficult to know what to make of David Klinghoffer.  Just how cynical is he?  Does he understand just how bad this book is, how sloppy to the point of embarrassment?  Or does he believe that it’s okay to distort facts and logic when fighting for God?

Actually, I suppose that it really doesn’t matter.  Either way, his approach is intellectually bankrupt.  And for that, I would argue that it is morally bankrupt as well.

Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.