David Klinghoffer, an orthodox Jew, believes the Bible is undersold as a political guide. He hopes to make a few sales to voters in his new book How Would God Vote? He recently took some questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So does God get a vote? And how did you get out of him what it would be? Is there Gallup in Heaven? Perhaps a Catholic might next poll the Communion of Saints on the presidential election?
David Klinghoffer: God gets a vote if citizen Kathryn Lopez gives him one. And I know that in November, you will. It’s like the old pre-women’s suffrage rationale for letting only men vole. The idea was, a husband would vote on behalf of the entire family. If I’m an enlightened husband, I consult my wife and take her views seriously, thereby voting for both of us. In this analogy, my wife is God. When we vote, we have the choice of either consulting God — as it were — or not. No, I don’t have in mind using an Ouija board. (V-O-T-E-F-O-R-M-C-C-A-I-N.) Instead, Christians and Jews used to agree that the Bible conveys a picture of reality, of how the world works, from which practical guidance can be drawn on private and public matters. That would naturally include the 20 hot-button issues that I deal with in my book, from poverty, taxes and health care to climate change, drug legalization and Islamic terror. It turns out that, when read sensitively and holistically, the Bible advocates views that are deeply conservative. Not on every issue but on most.
Lopez: Are you actually arguing that the Bible argues for the election of John McCain over Barack Obama? That voting for Obama is to vote against God?
Klinghoffer: It would probably violate federal tax laws if I told you the Bible endorses a particular candidate. I work at a think tank, after all, a 501(c)(3) organization. But even if I didn’t, I wrote this book not to inflate anyone’s election chances but to give readers and voters the tools to read the Bible as a guide to thinking about a range of issues. If on that basis, you concluded that a Biblical worldview was at odds with Obama on most issues, or on certain key litmus test issues, yet you went ahead and voted for him anyway, that would be a vote against giving God a voice in our public affairs. It would be a vote to silence God’s influence in that area, as far as it’s in your power to do so. In a real sense it would be a vote against God.
So is God a Republican? Did the country vote against God when they elected Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? And what about JFK?
God doesn’t have a party. He has wisdom. A party can reflect that wisdom to a greater or lesser extent. In recent decades, the Republican party has been open to granting some degree of influence to Biblical wisdom, at a time when God’s role in public life has been under attack from secularists. The conflict is more severe than ever. In elections of the past, the clash of worldviews wasn’t as blatant. You could say that of Kennedy versus Nixon. In the years since Roe
, though, we’ve seen the rise of an ideological grouping that is formed pretty clearly around an opposition to giving God a voice in public affairs. The tragedy of McCain is that while his biography gives evidence of spiritual sensitivity, he’s too allergic to public religious expression to make that clear to voters who long for a leader who “gets” it. Many in Republican leadership seem deaf to this.
Lopez: How do you explain Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama? Clearly these are men who think they’ve been reading the Bible?
Klinghoffer: There have always been people who used God’s name creatively, as a resource, to create an illusion that their prescriptions for society have a source in transcendent wisdom. The phenomenon is alluded to in the Bible. See Deuteronomy 18:20-22. Regarding Obama in particular, the Scriptural figure of Esau casts an interesting light on his appeal to secular Europeans. See my chapter on Europe as a litmus test for judging a candidate. At the same time, he’s obviously striking a chord that McCain doesn’t, precisely because he frames his appeal in quasi-spiritual terms.
Lopez: Isn’t it just a fact that Bible-believers can read the Bible and come to legitimately different policy subscriptions? Amnesty for illegal immigrants isn’t in the Bible last time I checked. And enforcing sensible border laws doesn’t violate a Commandment, as far as I can tell?
Klinghoffer: Yes, well-intentioned people can read the same text and come to different conclusions. That happens with the Constitution too. Funny, isn’t it? Either this is because the Bible doesn’t really mean anything at all, since it’s just a bunch of nice or irrelevant stories from long ago; or it’s because someone on one end of the disagreement is wrong. He hasn’t read deeply enough, or he hasn’t taken ancient traditions into consideration that clarify what the Bible means when that isn’t obvious. Often, it’s not. On immigration, you need to consider not just the verses that speak of welcoming strangers (for example, Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, etc.) but also the strict moral requirements that Biblical wisdom places on the would-be immigrant. There’s a two-tiered system. In Scriptural language, the immigrant is a ger or a ger toshav, a converted “stranger” or something like a resident alien. Either way, he’s welcomed only on the condition of his giving serious proof of having absorbed the values of the host culture. The most beautiful story of an alien who does so is told in the book of Ruth. On this and other issues, the Bible is trying to give us the right sort of prejudices. Taken seriously, they would result in a nuanced immigration policy that would tick off both the nativist Right and the alienist Left if it were implement today.
Lopez: Who is your book aimed at? Someone who wants to replace the Republican platform with the Bible?
Klinghoffer: You’re picturing American women in burkas meekly trailing behind their husbands in the shopping mall as verses from Deuteronomy are intoned over the loudspeaker system? Not at all. I’m talking about recovering a way of thinking about faith that was in currency in our country less than 60 years ago. As Whittaker Chambers put it in Witness, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.” My book tries to bring such a reading down from the level of generality to that of discrete issues. I wrote for someone who’s left cold by the bland, banal recommendations for wonkish “reform,” as the basis of a future Republican party, stripped of any grounding in ultimate, transcendent reality.
Lopez: Is there any point to arguing against gay marriage on Biblical grounds? Isn’t there a more reasoned data-driven approach, based on arguing for protecting traditional marriage?
Klinghoffer: I do both. The problem with leaving out the religious side is that everyone knows the data-driven arguments don’t entirely persuade even us. That way of arguing is fine as a kind of apologetics, justifying God’s ways to man. But it’s the fear and trembling we feel about going down California’s road, a spiritual response with its roots in the Bible, that drives most of us who oppose gay marriage. I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves. Go on, admit it Kathryn. Denying all this makes us seem disingenuous and calculating, which hurts us politically. They see through us, I promise you. Of course, some of us have actually mesmerized ourselves into thinking that the pragmatic case against homosexual matrimony is stronger than the spiritual case, that it makes the latter superfluous. When McCain was asked by Ellen DeGeneres to explain his position on gay marriage, he had absolutely nothing to say. Nothing. But to argue in a sophisticated way about homosexuality from the perspective of a Scriptural worldview requires more than just simplemindedly quoting Leviticus 18:22. Again, I try to supply the tools for conservatives who want to argue both honestly and effectively.
Lopez: As a political movement, don’t Republicans and conservatives want to be able to reach out to even the author of God Is Not Great?
Klinghoffer: Sure, but at what cost? The roots of conservatism are in religious tradition — not the Andrew Sullivan kind where you make God stand for what pleases you, but the eternal truths. Russell Kirk 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.” Should conservatism stand for abandoning the 14 percent of Americans who are still willing to admit that faith is the first criterion they bring to bear in shaping their political views? Of weekly churchgoing Evangelicals, 39 percent say this of themselves. (See the findings of the recent Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey.) A much larger group of Americans, including me, would include religious views as one of their criteria, along with others. That’s a key constituency and it’s very mainstream. One lesson for conservatives from the coming McCain disaster is that religiously neutered conservatism, cast up against a spiritually engaged liberalism (however vacuous that engagement), is an election loser. Voters crave meaning.
Lopez: What is neoconservatism in your book and why would you say God doesn’t go for it?