Two Cheers For Monarchy


In the Mosaic magazine debate, the University of Chicago scholar Yuval Levin quotes John Locke and other Western political philosophers in support of a role for the Jewish religion in the State of Israel. That is well and good, but  the Jewish sources in my view are more pertinent than the Anglo-Saxon philosophers.

The nations of the West are all made in the image of ancient Israel, from the Visigoths and Franks of the low Middle Ages through to the Tudor monarchy. Political systems cannot survive without a higher authority; peoples cannot survive without the hope of life beyond mere physical existence. This great insight I learned from the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. That has a dark side, as I discussed in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die. If each nation believes itself to be chosen in the flesh like the Jewish people, it may justify wars with other nations on such grounds (that influenced Franco-Spanish rivalry during the Thirty Years War). Or it may turn into a Satanic parody of Election, as with Hitler's "master race" delusion. The United States has the great advantage of lacking an ethnicity, and understanding itself (at its best) to be "almost chosen," as in Lincoln's famous joke.

It is appropriate for modern Israel, therefore, to provide a case in point for the relationship of theology and constitutional theory. Wyschogrod's remarkable essay has broad implications for constitutional theory in general. We Americans will not install a monarch, but we must remember that our Constitution rests on a religious premise, as de Tocqueville understood so well a century and a half ago.

Here is a relevant extract from How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):

Christian chroniclers cast the newly-baptized European monarchs in the role of biblical kings, and their nations in the role of the biblical Israel. The first claims to national election came at the crest of the early Dark Ages, from the sixth-century chronicler St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), and the seventh-century Iberian churchman St. Isidore of Seville.

St. Gregory's History of the Franks conflates the deeds of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul with biblical events, in a salvation history intended to persuade the Frankish kings of their divine calling as leaders of Christendom. "One can see the historico-theological drama in Book II of the Histories Gregory's conception of Gaul as a holy land, a New Israel," writes Notre Dame University historian Phillip Wynn. "Here the author comes to grips with events central to his contemporary society, the establishment by Clovis of a Frankish kingdom in Gaul ruled by the Merovingian dynasty. How this happened within the framework of a divinely-actuated history and what lessons this past had for Gregory's present explain many of the peculiar aspects of his narrative in Book II, including its disordered chronology and historical errors.'"[i]

            And the historian Réne Rémond  notes, “It was perhaps in France that the identification of religion with national destiny was oldest, because it was one of the oldest nations. At a very early date, a tradition accredited by the abbey of St. Denis presented the kingdom of France as the chosen nation, called upon, after Christ’s coming, to be the one to carry on the Israel of the Old Testament; hence the adage Gesta Dei per Francos—the deeds of God through the Franks.”[ii] The election of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E. provided a foundation for the French claim to chosenness.

            If the Franks were the first European nation to discover their own national election in the manner of biblical Israel, the Spanish were not far behind. Seventh-century Spain was ruled by the Visigoths, “who considered themselves to be a chosen people with all the associated privileges and obligations. And in support of this proposition, the great Visigothic chroniclers such as St. Isidore, St. Julian, and Juan Biclarense argued that the Visigothic people was God’s instrument on earth,” literary critic Jack Weiner writes in his study of the theme of the “chosen people” in medieval Spanish poetry.[iii] It’s no accident that the Visigoth King Ricared I (586-601 C.E.) promulgated the first anti-Semitic laws on the European record, prohibiting circumcision, preparation of kosher food, observance of the Jewish Sabbath and festivals, and other forms of observance, on pain of death by burning. The nations that sought to replace Israel—rather than seek adoption into Israel—always viewed the continued presence of the Jewish people as a stumbling-block before to their own pretensions to Election.

[i] Phillip Wynn, "Wars and Warriors of Gregory of Tours' Histories," in Francia Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte Vol. 28, 2001 (Ostfildern 2001).

[ii]              Religion and Society in Modern Europe, by Réne Rémond (Wiley-Blackwell 1999), p. 110-111.

[iii] Jack Weiner, El Poema de mio Cid (Edition Reichenberger 2001), p. 6.


Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle

images courtesy shutterstock / Zvonimir Atletic /  egd