The Bible does not prescribe an ideal form of government. Yet, for a long time, and to an exceptional degree among religious types in America, evangelicals have found in their national identity a convergence of first principles: They believe in constitutional democracy and they believe that their Bible-based religion is not only compatible with this system, but actually essential to it.
The Bible museum under construction near the National Mall springs from this conviction. Its founder, Steve Green (who also founded Hobby Lobby), recently explained to The Washington Post that the $800 million structure will help to school the public on “the biblical foundations of our nation.”
This concept is as axiomatic to many evangelicals as it is anathema to secularists. When evangelicals refer to America as a “Christian nation,” they venture more than just a demographic claim about the 1770s or an originalist argument about the intentions of the Founding Fathers. They maintain that modern democracy itself has theological moorings in the Bible.
Sound as it may like a mythology of the New Right, the claim has long roots, predating even the American Revolution, and arguably playing a formative role in it. That is not to say that the claim is correct, but only that in order to scrutinize it, one needs to look beyond contemporary discussions of religion and politics and interrogate the Bible itself.
So, where in the Bible do the foundations of modern democracy reside?
Christians started embracing a pro-democratic reading of the Bible in the late sixteenth century. To do so, they rallied around the Old Testament book of I Samuel, and specifically to its account of a pivotal moment in Israel’s ancient history.
In Chapter 8, the Israelites, who had by now lived in the Promised Land for centuries without an official monarchy, suddenly shifted gears and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint “a king to judge us like all the nations.” Samuel threw a fit, issuing a comprehensive warning against the idea — “he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots . . . he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers” — but he eventually acceded to their demand, anointing Saul, a handsome and wealthy (if not especially cerebral) youth from the tribe of Benjamin.
Saul seems handpicked to demonstrate the folly of monarchy. When the reader first meets him in Chapter 9, Saul is chasing his family’s donkeys around Israel, traveling the equivalent of some 45 miles before giving up. The imagery is not subtle: Samuel is set to inaugurate the new regime by selecting a king who cannot locate his own ass on a map.
But back to Chapter 8: In verse 7, God assures Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being king over them.” This verse was an epiphany to Protestants living under abusive popes and monarchs, suggesting something fundamentally corrupt about monarchy — and, by extension, something wholesome about a free society. Hence, a kind of Samuel thesis of democracy emerged early on in the Reformation.
As Eric Nelson puts it in his book The Hebrew Republic, once early modern thinkers latched onto this interpretation, monarchy itself became a “sin . . . everywhere and always the act of bowing down to flesh and blood instead of God.” Protestant cognoscenti, from John Milton to the pulpiteers of the
American Revolution, took to condemning the events of I Samuel 8 and to romanticizing the ancien regime that preceded — what they named the “Hebrew Republic.” (We needn’t get into it here, but modern democracy resembles what the ancients would have called republics, or representative systems).
The linking of Christianity and democracy, in other words, really does have a substantive backdrop. However, the Samuel thesis has some major problems. We don’t even have to leave the Old Testament to find them. Here are just four fallacies in the logic:
1. The Hebrew Bible also blesses the institution of monarchy.
In an earlier passage of scripture, Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites, “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose.” Moses warns the Israelites to limit the king’s treasury and authority, but this approval still complicates the notion that monarchy is inherently idolatrous.
2. The “Hebrew Republic” was not actually a republic.
The Bible refers to it as the era of the “Judges.” Israel was ruled by a series of warrior-prophets, who each rose to power on the basis of his (or, indeed, her) ability to amass armies against both internal and external threats. The lack of a permanent or consolidated power structure suggests a kind of “limited” government, but that fact neither reflected nor precipitated a durable era of peace and good faith among the people of God. They still engaged in repetitive cycles of idolatry and intertribal warfare, and experienced frequent bouts of disorder.
3. Israel really did need a regime change.
Prior to Samuel, the Israelites suffered under the corruption of Eli and his sons, and Samuel’s tenure was marked by abuse as well:
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. . . . Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (I Samuel 8:1-5)
To parachute into Samuel’s sanctimonious warning against kings in verses 11-18 is to ignore his own breach of public trust. The elders of Israel had a compelling grievance, not to mention misgivings about an ad hoc system that invited recurring patterns of corruption. The language they used to demand a king — “like all the nations” — explicitly echoes Deuteronomy 17, making loud and clear the scriptural basis of their request. Israel’s decision for monarchy comes as a rational and biblically grounded plea for change, not as some impetuous display of idolatry.
To his listeners and especially to the victims of his family’s corruption, Samuel’s lecture on monarchy would have lacked the barest credibility, like that of an exploitative factory owner warning against the perils of trade unions. Samuel neither takes responsibility for his sons’ behavior nor offers any reassurance about the future were Israel to back down from its demand. Samuel raises, at best, a diminished voice against the venality of kings.
4. The scriptures are inconclusive as to how Samuel’s prediction played out.
The narrative makes no systematic effort to document the experience of monarchy from a populist perspective. The things that might have made life burdensome under kings — the more frequent wars, the construction of the temple — are also things that increased Israel’s security and geopolitical standing. Israel became a truly great nation in short order under its kings, even under King Saul the Pitiful.
Thus the Samuel thesis, as empowering as it has been to Christian proponents of democracy, gets undermined even by the narrative logic of the Hebrew Scriptures.
A larger exegetical lesson looms for modern political theology: The Bible does not offer a simple, categorical answer to the question of how to arrange authority in the city of man. Out of respect for scripture, American evangelicals would be prudent to concede this, even if it means also conceding a central trope of their cultural identity.
Does this mean that devout readers of the Bible, evangelical or otherwise, should abandon the scriptures for political insight? Absolutely not. However, in the long arc of the Hebrew and Christian Bible, politics emerge as a highly circumstantial variable against the running subtext of God’s work in human history. Political theologies need to be constructed with attention to these individual contexts.