Posted on July 22, 2012


Since the relationship between religion and government is rising to the status of a major political controversy in the forthcoming presidential election, our column today is devoted to this issue in history.

A few months ago we saw how the Roman emperor Constantine forged a seemingly unbroken bond between church and state in the fourth century.

Now let’s consider what happens when religion comes to control the state.

This is, by the way, not an issue restricted to the Christian Church and the State, but on religion and government in general.

Let’s begin with Israel as described in the Bible, still the best historical source for the history of ancient Israel. We’ll then proceed to two historical periods when religion exercised (or continues to exercise) major control over government, and sometimes society and culture in general. These two periods are the “theocracy” of John Calvin over the city state of Geneva in the sixteenth century and the rule of the Islamic Shite clerics in modern Iran. Although we cannot be encyclopedic in such a short space, looking at other religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.—and their relationships to governments historically, we can take a brief look at the three religions of the same book, the Bible, since all three trace their origins and evolution to the same sacred Scriptures.

The Israelites were governed by laws and codes received directly from their God, and so were under a form of theocracy (rule by priests) throughout their ancient history. Accepting the divine intervention of God in their national and personal lives made for a life that swung like a pendulum over the course of centuries.

When they obeyed God’s rules—and over 600 existed in the Old Testament—they were blessed. When they strayed and disobeyed, they were cursed with affliction, persecution, near extermination and, often, exile. Judges, kings, prophets, and priests led them, and sometimes misled them, and they learned that being “God’s chosen people” (Deuteronomy 14:2 and numerous other passages) was a two-edged sword. But the concept of being chosen was nonetheless a powerful strand woven into the Jewish fabric. It sustained a religious and cultural identity that survived the blows of enemies and the passage of centuries, for they were often dislocated from their homeland and scattered to the corners of the earth.

In Jewish history, the providential relationship to God was not always expressed as a theocracy. Modern Israel, for example, is basically governed by laws and traditions that represent a delicate and often-amended consensus between God’s hand in Israel and a powerful secular expression of Jewish nationalism.

Christians too believe  they have a special covenant with God, not defined by laws but governed by grace as explained and ushered in by the life of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago.

The Reformation kicked off by Martin Luther when he posted his 95 theses on the church doors in Wittenberg in 1517 rocked the western Christian world, then united as one church in the West, the Roman Catholic Church.

With sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as his battle cry, Luther called for dramatic reforms to restore the Church to its Scriptural bases and root out corruption, venery and twisted doctrines such as the selling of indulgences and clerical offices, or simony. In his efforts to purify the Church, Luther emboldened many of his followers to put the Church in charge of civil society as well as the more traditional religious society it governed.

One of those followers, Jean (Anglicized to John) Calvin, has long been associated with a theocracy created in the city of Geneva in the mid-sixteenth century. Calvin and the city council governing Geneva put everything, it seemed, under the rule of the preachers. As Bradley Nystrom and David Nystrom observed in their book, The History of Christianity, bans or rules were enforced over “morality, adultery, cursing, unauthorized luxury, blasphemy, complaining about Calvin, dancing, unseemly singing and absence from worship.” One theologian, Michael Servetus, got caught between the Catholic Inquisition and Geneva’s new radical Protestantism, and was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553 for heresy, although Calvin recommended “the more humane sentence of decapitation.”

Modern scholarship has revised Calvin’s role in this short-lived Genevan experiment when the city council turned over everything, from social welfare, city planning, and even sanitation, to Calvin and his supporters, as Michael Horton noted in an article Was Geneva a Theocracy in the journal Modern Reformation Magazine in 1992.

But the Genevans chafed under the rule of the Calvinists, and the experiment came to end, even though some of Calvin’s works of charity for the poor, the day-to-day care of the sick, and his lifelong desire to provide universal, free education to all inhabitants of the city were admired, if not universally, by most Genevans.

Calvin also left us a word “Calvinism” closely associated with the Puritan strain of Protestantism that is often associated with a dour and humorless view of the world inhabited by sinners who needed to be controlled for their own good, not to speak of salvation.

And the last of our examples of theocracy is about control as well. It started in modern Iran in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of a revolutionary government largely run by Shiites (many variants on this spelling for purists), one of the two great divisions within Islam. The Iranian state “is the only regime in the Muslim world that is directly ruled by the clergy.” In fact, as two close students of Iran wrote in Religiosity and Islamic Rule in Iran in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2008), “In Iran … the regime equates political obedience with religious duty, public religiosity is inevitably infused with political meanings….[and] all legislation and bills have to be in accordance with Islam …[while] religious tests for office exist and all electoral candidates have” to meet religious qualifications.

The Islamic republic is a complex theocracy, just as Geneva under the influence of Calvin cannot be analyzed with simplistic conclusions, nor can the Hebrews and their relationship to God be rendered into easily assimilable platitudes.

What is common with all theocracies is that they flourish where people in the main accept the expression of religion–whether Jews, Christians or Muslims–, as a correct reflection of the order created by God in virtually all senses, such as in public and private morality, laws, and on down to hot button issues like women and their place in society in Iran.

Theocracies in the main tend to be very close minded. You conform, or you are punished for disobedience. Hence a heretic burned now and then in Geneva, and public stonings to the death, whippings, floggings and mutilation in Iran in accordance with Islamic law.

Theocracies have a way of disappearing or diminishing when the clerics override another Biblical principal, human freedom.

Theocracies also have a dictatorial cast of mind and action, and in another column we’ll take a look at what happens to religion when autocrats and/or dictators come to power and crush all their competitors, including, of course, religion.

This column published in The Tuscaloosa News, July 22, 2012. NOTE. For some reason the first three paragraphs and the last paragraph were dropped or truncated. Read the article in this blog for the significance and context of the column.

Posted in: History