If Democracy is a Crime Under Religious Right’s Biblical Law, What is the Punishment?

About Frederick Clarkson

The League of the South, best known for its advocacy of white supremacy and the secession of Southern states in the name of Southern Independence, has another less well known dimension: The advocacy of Old Testament notions of the “law of the Bible” as the standard for contemporary civil law— including the prescribed criminal punishments for non-believers.

The League and its leaders are not exactly household names, although New York Times best-selling author Thomas Woods is an unapologetic founding member and close confederate of Ron Paul. But they overlap with the more extreme elements of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice movements, and led by elements of the virulently theocratic theological strain, Christian Reconstructionism.

image via the Florida League of the South's website

image via the Florida League of the South’s website

Contemporary Christian Right leaders have focused on matters of sexuality, notably homosexuality and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).  But it wasn’t until the notorious “kill the gays bill” in Uganda, where the notion of the death penalty was formally raised. But if the Old Testament Biblical Laws that are foundational to the contemporary Christian Right are to be the standard, then it stands to reason that the biblically prescribed punishments would, in their view, fit the crimes. If that is so, then many of us who think that democracy and religious pluralism are good things may, come the theocracy, find ourselves guilty of capital crimes.

League of the South president Michael Hill laid it out in stark terms in a recent column.

In a piece titled The League and Theocracy, Hill claims that theocracy is what God wants for us, and that anyone who says otherwise is committing treason against God’s Laws. While this is serious enough coming from an organizational leader, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is worth considering that such views maybe more common than usually meet the eye.

Hill argues that religious pluralism is an affront to “the law of the Bible,” and anything other than a theocratic approach to Christianity and government is, he declares, “watered-down, emasculated, wimpy, liberal-sotted ‘Christianity-lite’.” A theocracy, he insists, “is a government ruled by the triune God of the Bible: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. More precisely, it is a government whose code of law is firmly grounded in the law of the Bible.”

Before we get into this further, it is worth noting that Hill’s views are at odds with history. The ratification of the Constitution by the original 13 states, most of which had been miniature theocracies for a century and a half, set in motion the disestablishment of state churches and the elevation of religious equality and the individual’s right to believe (or not) as they choose as a central value of our society. It is this right to believe as we will, and to believe differently than the rich and the powerful, which was the original contribution of the framers of the Constitution and a central part of our story as a nation. We can’t have religious freedom without religious equality, and we can’t have religious equality without religious pluralism.

In light of this, Hill’s argument may sound arcane and his reasoning circular—but it is nevertheless worth understanding because Hill is far from alone in such views, and arguably versions of his thesis are part of the driving ideology of the wider leadership of the Christian Right and their agenda.

Hill continues:

“Simply put, locate the source of law for a society and you have found its god. In a democracy, for instance, the people serve as god – the ultimate source of sovereignty…. All societies are theocracies, whether they realize it or not. But there is a major difference in what traditional Christians (regardless of denomination), on the one hand, and pagans, on the other, have believed and that is this: a society that is not explicitly Christian is a theocracy under the sway of a false god. The false god of the modern American Empire is the god who demands tolerance and pluralism…”

In this way, Hill identifies democracy as idolatry (worship of a false god) or apostasy (abandonment of the faith.) Either way, as Hill understands it, these will not be matters of religious but civil law. And they may well be capital offenses. These, along with more than 30 others, were enumerated by the leading theocratic theologian of the 20thcentury, R. J. Rushdoony—an American whose work has been profoundly influential in catalyzing the contemporary Christian Right. Beyond such crimes as murder and kidnapping, death penalties apply, according to Rushdoony and the influential Christian Reconstructionist movement he launched, are mostly related to religion and sexuality. In addition to idolatry and apostasy, there is blasphemy, and the propagation of false religions, and specifically, astrology and witchcraft. Crimes related to sexuality include adultery, homosexuality, and premarital sex (for women only).

In his foundational tome, Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony called idolatry, “treason” against “the one true God.”

These things said, there are many contemporary theocrats who do not follow Rushdoony down every detail of what ought to be the basis of a criminal code in the U.S. and everywhere else in the world. But since Rushdoony was the first to systematize what he calls “Biblical Law,” everyone interested in the topic measures where they are stand in relation to him.  (Biblically approved methods of execution, according to Reconstructionists, include stoning, hanging and “the sword.”) How the law would be implemented, would depend entirely on the interpretation of the Bible, and the political predilections of the leading faction at the time.

Hill writes:  “There is really only the choice between pagan law and Christian law and nothing else. There is no neutral position where one can comfortably sit. The God of the Bible specifically forbids pluralism (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Ex 20:3).” Hill couldn’t be clearer that in his view that religious pluralism under the law, is idolatry. “The simple choice that lies before nations,” he concludes, “is either pluralism or faithful obedience to God’s word, and the two are mutually exclusive.”

Like his fellow members of the League of the South, Maryland Republican candidates Michael Peroutka and David Whitney, Hill argues that if governmental leaders fall out of synch with Biblical Law—“If they rule unfaithfully, and thus tyrannically, they are illegitimate and their decrees have no authority.” Peroutka and Whitney have previously made this point regarding the Maryland legislature’s endorsement of marriage equality.

So this is the problem for contemporary Americans wrangling with the definition of religious liberty. Is religious liberty to be reserved only for Christians of the right sort, as defined by the likes of Hill, Peroutka and Whitney (or other leaders of the Religious Right and the Catholic Bishops)? Or is religious liberty something that belongs to all citizens without regard to their stated religious or non-religious identity at any particular time?

Such questions have, in centuries past, been the stuff of religious wars. And some Christian Right leaders are coming to see violence as an inevitable result of contemporary religious and political tensions on these matters. The question of whether, or to what extent, opponents of contraception and abortion get to define the standard for religious liberty in these matters was not settled by the Hobby Lobby decision. And who gets to be the arbiter of religious liberty on marriage equality is also deeply contentious, in light of the spread of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been proposed in several states and signed into law in Mississippi and allows businesses to discriminate against LGTBQ employees and customers if their personal faith does not approve of homosexuality. The legislation is modeled on a bill which was originally crafted in large part by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), and the Arizona political affiliate of Focus on the Family. But in North Carolina, the mainline protestant United Church of Christ (UCC) has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s constitutional amendment banning the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. The UCC argues that this law violates the religious liberty of their church, its clergy and its members. The million member denomination has officially recognized same-sex marriages since 2005. As it happens, a recent federal court ruling in Virginia overturning a similar amendment, may also apply to North Carolina which is located in the same federal court jurisdiction. At this writing, it appears that will be the case.

But even as the courts are recognizing marriage equality and the debate over religious liberty continues, the view of doctrinaire theocrats that governments and government officials and others who do not comport with God’s Law as they understand it, remains unchanged. How they reconcile their views with the contemporary struggles over the law is also a struggle whose outcome remains to be seen. However, it is worth not losing sight of the fact that for some, there is no answer but armed resistance. Hill has called not only for the South to rise again, but to lead the resurrection  with vigilante death squads targeting government officials, journalists and others who do not comport with their particular religious and political views.

We have become almost accustomed to hearing declarations from the likes of these men justifying vigilante violence against everyone from abortion providers to government officials, said to be tyrants. But it is helpful to remind ourselves that the society that they envision is not only based on Biblical Laws, but on Biblical punishments. And those who advocate for religious liberty, and if the theocrats ever achieve their desired governmental control, are likely to find themselves charged with a variety of crimes, and punished accordingly.

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Frederick Clarkson is a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. He co-founded the group blog Talk To Action and authored Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.