I Interview David Klinghoffer About His New Book – ‘How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative’

Ever since I switched my phone service to Time-Warner, I’ve had horrible audio quality.

Any phone call is a headache inducing collection of snaps, crackles and pops.

Today is no exception.

Luke: "Why did you write this book?"

David: "To ingratiate myself with fellow Jews."

I laugh.

David: "One of the things that excited me about Judaism early on was the idea that Judaism was relevant to everything. Not just your private life but public life as well."

"I remember being struck in 1991 by a comment made by my rabbi of the time, Barry Freundel. I was going to the Georgetown synagogue in Washington D.C., Joe Lieberman’s shul.

"He gave a great sermon about this idea. He said with disappointment that people often come to him with questions about cutlery. I dropped my meat spoon in my milk pot. That’s fine but he wished that people would come to him with questions about philosophy or business ethics, the whole gamut of Jewish halakhic (legal) and hashgafic (outlook) concerns. That’s an aspect of Judaism that often gets overlooked and I wanted to correct that by looking at what the Bible has to say about 20 contemporary issues."

Luke: "What surprised you in researching and writing this book?"

David: "There are a few points where Judaism departs from a conventional understanding of political conservatism. Gun control. That is one chapter that has not ingratiated me with other conservatives. I’ve extrapolated from the Bible and the Talmud that there are grounds not to be a gun rights extremist. That there’s a limited right, not an unlimited right, to self-defense in your own home. The Talmud is very discouraging of selling weapons to idolaters. There are grounds for some kind of a gun control regime."

Luke: "You puzzle me on this. Are you saying that good people should not be able to defend themselves?"

David: "No, no. Exodus 22:1-2. There’s not an unqualified right to kill someone who [intrudes into your home to rob]. Even though the personalities of the Bible are for the most part well-armed… Even Abraham famously armed his disciples and went to war, in the end he’s criticized for that. There’s an ambivalence about weapons [in the Jewish tradition] and an ambivalence about selling weapons in a culture that’s not ready for them."

Luke: "Do you believe that good people should be allowed to defend themselves?"

David: "It depends. No one is for unlimited access to firearms. Even for good people. A good person can’t buy a firearm without training. I’m not sure I understand the question."

Luke: "Do you believe that good people should be allowed to own a gun to defend themselves?"

David: "Depending on how you define a good person, yes. If the premise is that a person is a solid citizen and grounded, sure. If I could know for sure my neighbor was absolutely a good person and responsible and had trained himself in the use of a firearm, then of course I’m comfortable with him having a weapon. But we’re talking about a big country with a lot of people in it, and there are no perfect ways for vetting applications for gun ownership and for carrying. In a situation like that, where it’s not so easy to determine who’s a good person and who’s an appropriate owner for a firearm.

"I’m not saying that no one should own a fire arm but you’ll find among conservatives an absolutism about this and a resistance to any kind of control.

"I’m not saying that neighborhoods or universities should be gun free.

"The Bible does not prescribe for us precise policy prescriptions. It inculcates proper prejudices. One of those would be a skepticism… Virginia Tech was the context in which I changed my mind about this. You had conservatives saying wildly silly things along the line of, ‘The university boasts it is a gun free zone. What if people on campus had guns?’ It’s unrealistic. Imagine a professor going into class armed. It’s not the real world. Imagine college students with guns in the dorm. Imagine rowdy drunk college freshman in a dorm with guns. Nobody with common sense is in favor of arming everybody. The question is, where do you want to draw the line? Sometimes conservatives are not realistic about where they want to draw the line."

Luke: "Has your religion affected your politics more than your politics has affected your religion?"

David: "I was a political conservative before I was Jewishly committed. Hmm, looking back on it, they developed hand in hand. It might be a little of a chicken and an egg question. I didn’t always perceive the connection. I was already a Jew and a conservative without perceiving the connection, so I would say they were independent."

"There are people who become a conservative overnight. I know people who that happened to after 9/11. Mature people don’t have overnight conversions to Judaism."

Luke: "But they do to Christianity."

David: "Judaism is an incredibly complicated, deep, confusing… To call it a religion undersells it. To commit yourself to all of that in a minute is not true to Judaism."

Luke: "How has your conservatism been changed by your Judaism?"

David: "The answer to that is contained in this book."

David outlines the various ways the Bible differs from conservative political philosophy.

David: "Conservatism without God is incoherent. It’s long been recognized that belief in a moral reality that is transcendent is a fundamental aspect of being conservative."

Luke: "How much did you wrestle with the in-your-face nature of this book?"

David: "Tell me what you mean."

Luke: "When I brought it to shul and showed various people the cover, they got angry. They were saying, ‘You can be religious and a liberal or a conservative. You can be of any political stripe."

David: "I think that’s nonsense. I’ve been doing a debate on BeliefNet with Jim Wallis who seems disingenuous about where he falls politically. He’s clearly a man of the Left. That’s fine. If someone like Barack Obama wants to make an argument that his favorite policy prescriptions are grounded in the Bible, that’s fine. My premise is that the Bible means something. It doesn’t mean whatever you want it to mean. It has a singular meaning. To limit that meaning to your private life is not Jewish. The Hebrew Bible is incredibly political. Why would a Jew want to limit the Bible’s relevance and exclude politics? It doesn’t make sense. Can you give me an answer?"

Luke: "Because most of Jewish sacred text revolves around a Jewish state or a Jewish community, and it has much less to say about how Jews should act as part of a nation where they are a minority."

David: "That’s true, but does it mean that God doesn’t care what a Jew does as a citizen? It’s not like poskening (ruling) about kashrut where there’s not a lot of ambiguity. Yes, there’s ambiguity. That’s why one can discuss it. But if you say that being an Orthodox Jew tells me nothing about whether one should be a liberal or a conservative, meaning that God doesn’t care how I vote, how can you say that? That’s nonsense. Why this Maginot line around politics? It’s totally unsupportable from Jewish tradition."

Luke: "Do you believe that each generation is in spiritual decline from the one before?"

David: "Yes. Just look around. Look at how decayed and decrepit our moral culture is. I can’t believe that previous generations were in as bad a shape as we are."

Luke: "Can one be authentic to Torah and be a liberal?"

David: "You can be an observant Orthodox Jew and believe in the tooth fairy but that doesn’t mean that your belief in the tooth fairy is grounded in Judaism."

Luke: "Right. That’s why I asked if you can be authentic to Torah and be a liberal?"

David: "I guess there would have to be a gap in your understanding of what authentic Judaism is."

Luke: "In other words, you can’t be authentic to Torah and be liberal?"

David: "Depends on what you mean by authentic to Torah. You can be mistaken. Does that mean you are not authentic to Judaism? Almost everyone’s Judaism is imperfect."

Luke: "What role does skin color play in the Bible?"

David: "It seems to have an eternal spiritual significance. Same with nationality… People are made different. No two people are made identical. That’s because every person has something unique to contribute. Why would the same not be true of races?"

Luke: "I asked my friend Larry Yudelson if he had any questions for you. He replied: ‘In the chapter on War, David praises Pope Urban (I think the word "farsighted" was used) and the Crusades as an example of Biblical war. What does he say to those who claim that the Crusades decimated the Jewish communities of Europe, and that the blood that filled Jerusalem
was in large measure Jewish blood?’"

David: "The crusades were a defensive measure on the part of Christians against Muslims. The Holy Land was originally in Jewish hands, then Christian hands. It was taken by Muslims and Christians legitimately felt threatened by increasing Muslim strength in the Holy Land and subsequently in Europe. To take defensive measures against that Muslim threat was legitimate. To slaughter Jews on the way was obviously not legitimate. It’s a foolish question. That American soldiers abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and that that is indefensible, does that mean, as some foolish people have said, that the whole war in Iraq is illegitimate? How ridiculous is that?"

Luke: "How does a society make good people and consequently a good society?"

David: "The responsibility is first and foremost upon parents. It’s a great struggle. We’ve got five kids. It’s something my wife and I deal with every day — the worry that we’re not doing the best job we can to form good people out of our children. Even if you do your best, there are no guarantees. Abraham raised Ishmael. Even though he was a good parent, he didn’t make a good person."

Luke: "I think about that question a lot. There are so many necessary ingredients to making good people. While the exceptional individual does not need God and religion to be good, generally speaking, most people need God and religion to morally educate themselves."

David: "To ground their sense of right and wrong."

Luke: "One way I approach this question is to look inside myself and ask what has the most influence on how I believe, which is the way people I love react to me. When I am close to good people, I don’t want to disappoint them. When I am not close, I am much more free to do what I want."

David: "That’s a good point, but why are the people you don’t want to disappoint, why are they good? Why would they be disappointed in your actions if they don’t materially hurt them? I would argue that they, like you, are formed by a moral culture which determines their responses to you."

Luke: "Did you have much concern that the title of your book would close off much of your potential audience?"

David: "No, because most of the potential audience is conservative. I’m speaking to conservatives. My primary intention in writing this book is not to convince liberals to become conservatives, but to give courage to conservatives to use Biblical language and to make use of Biblical wisdom to argue for beliefs we already hold."

"The title the book got was facetious."

Luke: "I had a hard time at first taking it seriously because of the title, but once I got ten pages in, I found subtle insights I had not thought of. Throughout the book, I found insights I had not thought of."

"It’s exhausting to live for God. I couldn’t kick back and enjoy ‘The Sopranos’ if everything I did was for God. It’s a great TV show but I can’t claim God would be thrilled with me watching it."

David: "In theory, you would say that God does belong in every part of your life."

Luke: "Right, but on an experiential level, I get tired."

"A statement can be wise and profound, but after you’ve heard it a certain number of times, you don’t want to hear it anymore."

David: "Like what?"

Luke: "Davening."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in David Klinghoffer and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.