Implied or Realized Theocracy?

Mike Horton writes:

“Ironically, in the land that prizes the legal separation of church and state, the identification of church and sub-culture, each with its political agenda, is nearly total: white suburban evangelicals, the Black church, mainline social gospels, and the more recent ‘new urbanism’ of the emergent movement.”

This statement seems to imply that there exists something of a “suggested theocracy” in our American context insofar as certain cultural and political agendas are identified with the Church. I think he is absolutely right on, of course. I find this statement hugely insightful and useful to make the case that American religion is about as confused and mixed up in its conflation of the traditions of men with the Gospel as Jesus’ own Pharisees. It helps make the case against all forms of social and political gospels. This is also a thesis of A Secular Faith.

Yet, when it is observed by Canada’s former ambassador to the United States, Frank McKenna that, “Right now the United States is in many ways a theocratic state, not dissimilar to some of the other religious states in the world where religion has a huge part to play in government,” Riddlebarger misses the point and interprets, “I’ll bet our theonomist friends would be surprised to learn that a theonomic state already exists. I guess Canada has fallen so far that the presence of any Christians in government is taken as ‘proof’ of a theocracy.”

Clever. But McKenna’s words were “in many ways,” which were a cue to the notion of the “covert theocracy” Horton explicitly points out—not an overt or realized theocracy. Does Riddlebarger really think that McKenna meant to say we live in a realized theocracy? This is the whole point of McKenna’s words, to point out that which is not so obvious. If McKenna really meant to say we live in a realized theocracy, the “former” in his title is more than apt. It isn’t that because there are “Christians in government,” which “proves” a theocracy. It is more when a presidential candidate says his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ to the cheers of those who seem to think Jesus Christ has something directly to do with the American project (and I won’t bunny trail by addressing the whole notion of His being a “philosopher.” But, yeow). And what is meant that “Canada has fallen so far”? Is it because of the socialized medicine or that gay marriage is recognized? Is it to imply that America stands head and shoulders above all other nations because she can produce everything from Britney Spears to Tom Perkins to Monica Lewinsky?

I take Riddlebarger to read McKenna’s words as just more religious prejudice meant to heap upon American Christians, which, frankly, I would expect from those cranky about the fact that the implied theocracy is more implied than theocracy. If Riddlebarger would champion Horton’s consistent observances that the American religious landscape is rife with these sorts of conflations and is a big part of our problem anymore, I am puzzled as to this sort of take. If McKenna is just another religious bigot piling on sarcastic scorn, then who and what is Horton talking about? He must be hallucinating, since everybody knows we separate church and state.

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10 Responses to Implied or Realized Theocracy?

  1. Rick says:

    Sure, make one of our favorite dudes mad.

    I don’t know if you’re reading Riddlebarger right. But you might be. Let’s invite him to respond.

  2. Zrim says:


    1. My intention is not to get anyone mad but to elicit conversation…but you already knew that.

    2. Tell me how to read Riddlebarger then. He seems to be quite clearly sarcastic about the utterances of McKenna, which usually means that one views what is being said as faulty. What I hear is that the only time you may call something a theocracy is when it is expicit and obvious. But when my altar-call Arminian family tells me they believe “God saves sinners,” their explicitness about being “Calvinists” is trumped by their behavior and secondary-speech…implication is the most powerful form of communication. You can tell me all day long you think God saves sinners or that the lines are properly drawn in the American religious landscape…but I ain’t buying it.

  3. Echo_ohcE says:


    I’m a little more sure than Rick that you’ve got Riddlebarger wrong.

    I think you’re also reading McKenna wrong. Of course, McKenna’s comment is here taken out of context.

    However, let me apply a little nuance to this. For a former ambassador to the US to make comments like this publicly tells me a lot about why he is saying it. I have a friend who is not a Christian, and who is a liberal New Englander, and he is downright afraid of the direction this country is going, because his perception is that it is heading toward a theocracy, and he is fighting against that. This tells me – because of knowing my friend fairly well – that this is probably typical of intelligent liberals who are not believers. This is probably how they are interpreting today’s American culture.

    It sounds to me like McKenna is echoing those same sentiments. He too is likely afraid that these dispensationalist evangelicals are taking over. One of the things people find so alarming about that is the dispensational view toward Israel and toward Muslims. These people really interpret the war on terror as a new Crusade. Seriously. These people are very concerned about what’s going on.

    McKenna is likely picking up on this. His comments imply that he sees American Evangelicals as picking up more and more power, and he doesn’t like where it’s headed.

    Riddlebarger, I think understands this rightly, and so opines that theonomists might take issue with McKenna on this. Theonomists, as you know, want to institute a theocracy. They think our culture is getting FURTHER and further away from the theocracy they want to have. Thus we can see why theonomists would be so surprised at McKenna’s comment. I think this is what Riddlebarger meant to point out.

    I’m interpreting Riddlebarger in this way because if I had made the comments he did, this is how I would have meant it, and of course, I think I’m right, and I assume Riddlebarger is as sharp as me. 🙂

    Zrim, it seems to me that you have engaged in much the same kind of analysis. You have considered what YOU would have meant had you made Riddlebarger’s comments. But I think what you have missed is the attitude among non-Christians and among theonomists about where our culture is heading.

    But I see a disturbing trend in your posts lately, Zrim. You are awfully quick to assume you know how to understand what people are saying and then lump them together with those who are not on your side. You are slow to take a charitable approach. You don’t seem to consider that you might have misunderstood what someone is saying. You assumed here that you knew just what McKenna meant, and that you knew just what Riddlebarger meant. And maybe you’re right about both. But maybe you aren’t. The possibility that you aren’t right in your interpretation doesn’t seem to occur to you.

    What this leads to is you end up attacking people for their views unjustly. For instance, here you seem to imply that Riddlebarger and Horton disagree on this point and pronounce some form of judgment upon Riddlebarger, as if Riddlebarger doesn’t get something that you and Horton do.

    Never mind that Riddlebarger and Horton are great friends who are almost carbon copies of each other and have done a radio show together for over a decade. Never mind that Riddlebarger is a minister in good standing in a Reformed denomination, and as such his reputation ought to be carefully guarded by you, even if you disagree with him. You ought to try to FIND ways in which what Riddlebarger has said can be agreeable to the truth, rather than finding ways to criticize it. This guy is on your side, or rather, you are trying to define yourself on his side.

    So have a little more charity to your fellow man, particularly ministers, and have a bit more humility.

    I am not condemning you here, but admonishing you as a brother. If you are wise, you will carefully consider what I have said to see if there is any merit to it. You might even ask around and see if anyone else agrees with me.

    And if you find that you just cannot agree with me on this and if people who know you can’t agree with me on this, then bring your objections in a humble and charitable way, and disagree with me politely and admonish me as a brother.

    But if you respond with some scathing attack on me because of my comments here, which I am afraid you will – and that ought to tell you something – then you will only prove my point.

    Just stop and consider a minute.

  4. Rick says:

    I should have put a smiley face in my comment. I didn’t really think you were trying to get KR mad.

    Now, before I respond, I need to read what Echo wrote. This might take a while.

  5. Zrim says:


    Sounds like you are still licking your perceived wounds over previous exchanges we have had. To be honest, I am genuinely puzzled by how you read me; I don’t know why you choose to engage me when you think all I want to do is attack you. The conversations I have with you (and those I observe you engage in) are exactly why I had to be coaxed into joining the blog cacophony. Take it easy. It is just a blog post meant to reflect out loud. It is not a place for admonishment, etc. Don’t over-realize this forum. I am, however fallibly, honestly asking some questions, not trying to dishonestly frame people.

    As you say, this is all a matter of interpretation, etc. I may very well have it all wrong, but there is not much in what you say that assures me that your take is any better or worse than mine. I think it may be a futile exercise to get behind someone’s eyeballs and predict why he said what he did or responded to someone the way he did. If you ask me, it’s not all that complicated, but you seem to want to ask and answer questions that are just too difficult…at least, for me.

    Since this might get into some tail chasing trying to figure out what someone meant (I guess we are to assume Riddlebarger has McKenna right because…he’s Riddlebarger…or something, I don’t know), let’s try dropping the quotes, because I really want to use them for a spring board to my larger question: is there an implied or silent or suggested theocracy in our culture? Does the word theocracy bother? Should another word be used? If there is no conflation, as I read Ridlebarger to perhaps imply, just what is Horton talking about? Is a theocracy only a reality when it is explicit?

  6. Echo_ohcE says:


    First, you’re right to say that it is a largely futile exercise to try to figure out why people say what they do, or exactly what they mean by what they do. However, this is what we engage in when we communicate. The principle I long for you to embrace is this: is there a way to interpret my brother’s comments such that he’s NOT saying the same thing as the mushy evangelicals I hate so much?

    I wish you would embrace that principle when considering what people say to you here or wherever. Try to find a way to interpret peoples’ comments positively if you can. Or say things like, maybe they mean this, maybe that. If they mean this, here’s my response, but if they mean that, I’ll respond in this way.

    Always make sure, absolutely sure you know what you’re talking about before you say that Riddlebarger is anything like an Evangelical. Riddlebarger is not like an Evangelical. I’m not saying that we ASSUME Riddlebarger is always right. I’m saying that you interpret his comments as charitably as you possibly can. If you misunderstand someone, it’s far better to misunderstand them charitably.

    Take Gaffin and Shepherd for instance. I am told that Gaffin now regrets endorsing “Call of Grace”, Shepherd’s horrible book which understands the gospel.

    But right on the back of that book, you’ll see Gaffin’s glowing endorsement praising Shepherd’s book, calling it clear and helpful.

    So I can approach this in one of two ways. I can say that Gaffin is a heretic on the one hand, or I can say that maybe he read Shepherd’s book too quickly, or something like that.

    If I say that Gaffin is a heretic, I’d be wrong. Gaffin is one of the authors of the OPC’s recent justification report, in which Shepherd is quoted liberally from that very same book, and said to be out of accord with the Scriptures and our confession. (Note: this means that the OPC has declared Shepherd’s ideas as heresy, BUT they have not brought the man himself to trial.)

    Furthermore, I saw Gaffin with my own eyes say on the floor of the General Assembly that there is only one justification and it’s based on the merits of Christ alone.

    So the man is orthodox and actually doesn’t agree with Shepherd. So now how should Gaffin’s endorsement of Shepherd’s book be understood?

    Again, it would be very easy to say that Gaffin simply agrees with Shepherd, since he endorsed his book. That was MY assumption. But it has been proven that he DOESN’T agree with Shepherd. So how do we interpret Gaffin’s endorsement correctly?

    Well, we say maybe he read the book too quickly, or maybe he didn’t understand it, or maybe he has learned since then, or whatever. But now, Gaffin is the author of a report that heavily criticizes Shepherd in the strongest language available to him.

    So, had we been quick to assume we understood Gaffin, we might have lumped him in with Shepherd. I did. Now I know better. That just goes to show that it’s a tricky business interpreting what people say, and we should be slow to assume that we have done it properly.

    If I misunderstand something someone has said, that does not speak to my intellect. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It just means that communication hasn’t been clear. It may mean that the problem is with me, but it also may mean that the problem is with the speaker as well. I may lack the intelligence to understand what is said, or I may have an emotional reaction to what is said, or the person may have been unclear, or whatever.

    The best assumption you can make is that you probably don’t understand what someone has said as well as they were hoping you would. So always ask questions of clarification.

    But when you misunderstand someone, you are not condemned as immoral or stupid. So there should be nothing in us that prevents us from admitting that we might have misunderstood. This is only wise.

    And it makes sense that if you object to something Riddlebarger said, you might do well to consider that it’s quite possible that you’ve misunderstood him. Riddlebarger is a sharp guy, not a mushy Evangelical. You assumed that you understood what he said and then proceeded to treat him like the mushy Evangelical that you know well he isn’t.

    Should we assume these guys are perfect? No. Of course not. They aren’t perfect. I’m just saying interpret him charitably. This is only wise.

    Now, I realize that as you read this, you are reacting against the fact that I have dared to presume to try to tell you that something you are doing is unwise and to try to explain to you how to be more wise in the future. I realize that. I can understand that, and I’m sympathetic to your plight. If I were you, Echo would be the last person I’d want to learn from.

    But remember that even the donkey could speak when God put words in his mouth.

    So if you learn something from what I am saying, you don’t have to acknowledge me as superior to you in any way in order to do it. You don’t have to admit that I’m wiser than you. I doubt I am anyway. All of this is not the point. Take what I’ve said on its own merits and consider it.

    The end of the matter is this: interpret peoples’ comments charitably. I don’t care if this is just a blog and just about ideas, and just a simple discussion. Who cares? That doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility to interpret your brother’s comments charitably. You don’t check wisdom at the door when you blog, you don’t check law at the door when you blog.

    In fact, because of the nature of blogs, you might do well to be even MORE wise here than elsewhere, and be even MORE charitable here than elsewhere.

  7. Rick says:

    Eh, I’m gonna sit this one out.

  8. Echo_ohcE says:

    Anyway, about theocracy: I think Horton is right, and I think there is a nugget of truth to what McKenna says.

    However much, though, peoples’ religions influence their political agendas, I wouldn’t call this country a theocracy or even say that it’s leaning in that direction.

    Theocracy means rule by God. In our country, that’s the farthest thing from anyone’s minds. Our country is becoming less of a republic and more of a democracy every day. People seem to think that they have divine right to rule.

    Now, there may be some people who think that they are ruling in such a way, or trying to influence the country in a religious direction. But even if they succeed, God cannot be said to still be in charge of our nation.

    Or consider Emperor Constantine. He was a Christian emperor of Rome. Was that a theocracy? No, I say not. It was still an empire under an emperor. God wasn’t the ruler, the man was the ruler. True, the man tried to follow the Word of God to an extent, but God was not the one recognized as king.

    A pure theocracy is Israel before Saul. No king but God. That was a pure theocracy. Once there was a king, sure, he brought about a lot of benefits, but he could always choose to disobey God if he so desired. Not a true, pure theocracy. Well, and even in the time of the judges, it wasn’t really a theocracy either, because you still had judges.

    In fact, the only true and pure theocracies have been the Garden of Eden and the eschaton that is to come. And oh yeah, the church, at least presbyterian churches, who confess that the only king of the church is Jesus Christ. But the church is different from the state.

    Israel was a type/shadow of theocracy. God really didn’t rule hearts.

    Anyway, our country then may be drifting in a direction in some peoples’ minds, but it will never get there, because the religion that governs people is a profane one that only slightly resembles Christianity.

  9. Zrim says:

    If McKenna means that we are heading toward a realized theocracy, I would also roll my eyes. If his comment is viewed as one that is meant to come against the current administration and use some sort of scare tactic against those who “prize (at least in theory) the separation of church and state,” I have no use for it as it would seem like just more fear-mongering in the white heat of our political scene. But if he means what Horton means (that we run roughshod over the rules and make idols out of our social/cultural/moral/political views), then truer words were never spoken. As to what Riddlebarger means, nobody has persuaded me away from how I infer his meaning (however wrong that might be).

    My point is that I believe we should recognize that there are both realized and implied theocracies. Horton seems to have always grasped that extremely well. When people suggest that “public policy over reproductive rights is a religious issue,” or when there are debates over whether the Decalogue should be in the public square or children should recite “under God” each morning in public educational institutions, it reveals the subsuming tensions about how implied and/or how realized the theocracy should be—over against any notion that rigid lines ought to be drawn stripping the cultural of cultic value and the cultic of any hint of cultural value (read: a Christian secularist argument).

    When MLK made biblical reference to the plights of the civil rights movement and called those in marches “children of God bringing forth righteousness,” are we really that shocked to hear it suggested ours is an implied theocracy?

  10. Echo_ohcE says:


    I could be wrong, but it seems to me like what Horton is saying is that the very people who prize a separation of church and state only seem to want to separate other religions from the state. I’m not convinced that he is saying that since people have religious views, and that that informs how they behave in the political sphere, that this translates into something that can be called an implied theocracy.

    Also, while abortion should be decided based on natural law, our religious beliefs cause us to want to recognize natural law. To be sure, that we should not kill little babies can be answered by general revelation. But such answers are not absent from special revelation.

    In other words, you don’t need to be a Christian to be able to recognize that abortion is wrong, but at the same time, if you’re a Christian, you HAVE to recognize abortion as wrong. Being in favor of abortion is inconsistent with Christianity as well as natural law.

    So I think the claim that abortion is simply not a religious issue is reductionistic and overly simplified. I would seek to nuance that.

    But at the same time, I don’t think we should be seeking to convince unbelievers that they should be against abortion by citing Scripture. Rather, we should just talk about how it is murder, and murder is bad. We argue to the unbeliever from natural law. But it is our religion that motivates us to do it.

    Consider Islam. They don’t have a doctrine of man in the image of God. Consequently, human life is not very valuable to them. Their religion has clouded their perception of natural law, even usurped it.

    So how do we convince Muslims to view human life as valuable? Probably the most effective arguments will be those from reason that say that murder just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps a Kantian ethic or something else that fairly faithfully represents natural law.

    We should not make the argument in the political sphere that depends on God as a premise, because it won’t be effective. We need to seek common ground on which to cooperate in the common sphere.

    Meanwhile, I certainly agree in your assessment that much of what constitutes the “religious right” is utter idolatry.

    The fact is, most of these people are influenced by post-millennial revivalism type ideas. They want to bring in the millennium through faithfulness of the state. They think that instituting a Christian state will bring about a utopia.

    While on the surface this appears wise, it undermines the gospel. Christ fulfilled Israel, the theocracy. To desire to reinstitute that is to deny what Christ has accomplished.

    I’m all for a separation of cult and culture. However, we must remember that IN US, these two can’t really be separated. I don’t vote Republican, for example, because I think that the Republican party is furthering the cause of Christ. (And actually I’m a registered Libertarian, though I am not aware of all that that party stands for, and have no interest in making apologies for their views. I just like some of their ideas.) Anyway, the Republican party or any other party, is not furthering the cause of Christ.

    There can be no such thing as furthering the cause of Christ in the political realm, provided we still have freedom of religion. However, if they try to outlaw Christianity, then of course to stand against that will be a religious act, even though it takes place in the cultural/political sphere.

    As it turns out – if I can remember my Assembly of God days – what I think a lot of Evangelicals are afraid of is that the Democrats/Liberals are trying to bring us to a point where Christianity will be outlawed. I believed this at one time. So some Christians are fighting against liberalism because they think that as the morals become looser, we grow closer and closer to the day when Christianity will be outlawed, and Christians will be put in concentration camps and put to death.

    Now, these people are certainly misguided, though this kind of thing is perhaps always a potential, since it has happened in history and is happening right now in certain parts of the world. They are misguided, but I think in some ways, their intentions are not purely idolatrous. They are truly fighting to keep Christianity legal. However, in the meantime, they get carried away, and misinterpret things because of this.

    So for example, for them, they have to fight against gay marriage because it is one step closer to the outlawing of Christianity. I don’t see how it does bring us closer to that, but they think so.

    Part of the problem is that they don’t really understand what Paul is saying in Rom 1. They think that being gay is a sure sign that God has given up on these people, because it is a super sin which the elect could never partake of.

    Now, they don’t believe in election, but here their understanding is inconsistent with that. They think that if you’re gay, God has given up on you, and you are eternally lost.

    Frankly, I’m tempted to agree with them. But no, this is not what Paul means. Someone could be gay and become a Christian later on. There is no such thing as a super sin which damns you forever beyond the reach of the redemption purchased by Christ.

    But since they don’t understand this, they understandably fight against gay marriage, because they think it will increase the acceptance of homosexuality, and therefore more people will go that route. And of course, they don’t remember that there have been countless civilizations which found this practice perfectly acceptable, to include Muslims (including Iran), though for them I suppose it’s still somewhat taboo.

    You see, Evangelicals have accepted more of Roman dogma than they realize. Many of them really do believe in mortal sins.

    But I seem to be rambling now.

    Here’s the point. Christians are called to be separate from the culture, separate from the world. Today’s Evangelicals don’t seem to get this, because they seem to think that if the culture gets worse, then Christians will decrease. But the fact is, our call is to be different from the culture. So we should let the culture go so to speak. We should not really worry too much about the culture influencing us per se – though it does – because we are to be separate from us.

    So they are misguided who try to save or redeem the culture, because they ought to be stressing the need to be separated from it. This is the heart of the matter.

    This is why they are misguided to try to influence the culture away from outlawing Christianity. If Christianity is outlawed – so be it. This world is not our home. And anyway, contrary to popular belief, persecution actually strengthens the church. While it may produce great anxiety for us to come under persecution, we ought to follow Jesus’ example and be like lambs led to the slaughter. We ought not open our mouths.

    In other words, God uses suffering to sanctify his people. We ought not fight against that. God is the one who declared, “I will put enmity between your seed and her seed” to the devil. Why is there persecution? Because God has brought it about. He has ordained it. We can rest in his sovereignty and trust him.

    But nonetheless, he has granted us a vote in this country, so as Christians, we are obligated not to toss this responsibility aside. We ought to be diligent and vote for the best qualified candidate, no matter the party. There is more to our government than morals.

    We ought to pursue not morality, but justice in the political sphere. Which candidate will be most faithful to justice for all? That’s the meat and potatoes.

    Alas, all dialogue about justice in this country has all but ceased. It’s a pity.

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