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.
Lopez: So is God a Republican? Did the country vote against God when they elected Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? And what about JFK?
Klinghoffer: 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 v. Wade, 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?
Klinghoffer: One thing that neoconservatism has come to mean is an obsession with fighting militant Islam even at the cost of deemphasizing the classic pre-9/11 suite of cultural and social issues. You saw this in the neoconservative romance with Giuliani. I draw your attention to the Biblical prophets, who lived at a time of tremendous danger to their country from foreign enemies then at the height of power — Assyria, Babylon. The prophets were very political, well acquainted with kings and soliders, yet they hammered away relentless not at standing up to Assyrofascism or Babylofascism — that was secondary — but at confronting idolatry. In their days as in ours, idolatry means setting up sources of moral authority independent of God. Norman Podhoretz wrote a brilliant book, The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (2002), that brought out just this point. Every neoconservative should read that book.
Lopez: Considering Islamofascists want to kill Americans, Christians, and Jews, why for heaven’s sake would you ever consider fighting the war we’re in on Islamofascism a misplaced priority?
Klinghoffer: Take a look at my chapter on Islam. The story of Abraham’s son Ishmael, linked with the Arab and Islamic peoples by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition, gives us reason to hope that Islamic culture can be reformed. By the end of Abraham life’s, Ishmael had repented of his previous anti-social behaviors and attitudes. Using war to stimulate Muslims to rethink their values, as we sought to do in Afghanistan and Iraq, may in the end pay off beautifully for us and for them. President Bush was right to try. But you ask, isn’t what I’ve just said a neocon argument? I’m simply urging, let’s not obsess about these things at the cost of putting abortion, say, on the backburner because we want to get a Giuliani elected. The appeal of McCain’s candidacy suffers a little from that dynamic. To the prophets, that would seem completely upside-down.
Lopez: What’s the difference between your vision of the world and, say, the Iranian mullahs?
Klinghoffer: Hmm. That’s a little like asking what’s the difference between America and the old Soviet Union. After all, both have or had Constitutions. Both are constitutional forms of government. The difference lies in what’s in our or their Constitution and in how it’s read. America in the past drew on Biblical wisdom as a source of political guidance. Tocqueville reported that religion in America when he visited was “the first of [the country’s] political institutions.” He commented that he’d never known a nation more deeply influenced by Christianity, “and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.” Is there any similarity between such a Biblically inspired America, which is my vision and you can read about it any good book of American history, and Koran-inspired Iran? The Bible is not the Koran. American Christianity is not Iranian Islam.
Lopez: You talk about America being “a democratic and constitutional government, open to looking to the Bible for political wisdom.” But can’t I abhor the Bible and be a good citizen?
Klinghoffer: You can be a productive, law-abiding citizen and believe in the tooth fairy as a political oracle. But if so, I probably wouldn’t put much stock in your opinions or use them as a guide in casting my vote.
Lopez: Isn’t there a way — an appropriate way — for an American citizen to have his faith inform his political decisions without claiming the Bible mandates a particular policy prescription or candidate?
Klinghoffer: There may be elections with no worldview issues at stake. But they tend to be for offices that are either not very important or not very interesting. Or they are elections that happened long ago, before secularism made the inroads that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Today, in national politics, I don’t see any Biblically authentic way to claim that the Bible implies no concrete approach to policymaking. The most political books of Scripture — I & II Kings and I & II Chronicles — are in the habit of pronouncing on the success or failure of the administrations of the kings of Israel and Judah. The phrase that’s repeated over and over again is that a certain king either “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord” or “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When you say that a citizen can take his faith into consideration without taking a firm stand that some views are wrong and some right, that’s not the Bible’s way of thinking.
Lopez: What’s the criticism of your book that is most surprising to you?
Klinghoffer: It was from a thoughtful conservative, someone I very much respect. I was a queried in an e-mail to the effect of, “Why couldn’t a liberal reply to you that he holds the same Biblical values you do but arrives at different and better policy views — on global warming, on the Iraq war, on smoking bans — based on a combination of prudence, data, common sense, and so on?” My questioner seemed to think that this was an unanswerable objection, that the difference between liberal and conservative policy preferences might possibly be explained in this fashion. My answer is, If it’s just a matter of various differing scientific or strategic judgments that separate a liberal from a conservative, why do these respective sets of policy preferences (liberal, conservative) seem to go so naturally and almost inevitably together? There must be some picture of reality, a worldview, that forms the tree trunk of which discrete opinions, mine or his, form the branches. “Liberalism” isn’t the branches. It’s the trunk. Arguing for our policies or against theirs without addressing the trunk is like the doctor who treats the symptoms but not the underlying illness.
Lopez: What’s the one message from your book that you’d hope that even people who think that “Klinghoffer has finally gone too far” would walk away from it pondering and why?
Klinghoffer: The message would be that we greatly undersell the Bible, whether we are friends or enemies of religious belief. A conservative friend told me his pastor says the Bible doesn’t take political sides. That makes no sense. If the Bible cares what you do in your private life, why not in your public life, as a voter? Christians and Jews alike have a tendency to think of Scripture as just inspiring stories or sound morals or abstract dogma. It’s much more than. It’s a comprehensive blueprint of the moral universe. You don’t have to accept that blueprint as true but at least grasp that that’s what it claims to be.