By Michael J. McVicar, Fall 2007
In their struggle to understand George W. Bush, some liberal intellectuals have looked to the writings of Rousas John Rushdoony, the Armenian-American minister whose championing of a theocratic America influenced some of the nooks and crannies of the Christian Right during its rise to prominence. For example Mark Crispin Miller, in his frontal assault on George W. Bush’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,1 charges that Bush not only acted unconstitutionally, but in his religious imagery echoed the infiltration of Rushdoony’s ideas into his Administration (and the Republican Party at large). Miller interprets Rushdoony’s theology as a call for Christians to take “dominion” over all aspects of the federal government and replace it with a theocracy.2 “With their eyes on the future, those [Rushdoony followers] at work on forging an all-Christian USA are overjoyed that Bush is president, for they correctly see the regime’s imposition on the people as itself a signal victory for their movement.”3
But a spokesman for the think tank Rushdoony founded told me Miller is wrong (Rushdoony himself died in 2001). Registering disgust, Chris Ortiz of the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California, explained that Christian Reconstructionists, as they call themselves, think the war in Iraq is both immoral and ungodly. Not only are a good many stridently critical of the Bush administration, Ortiz said, he agreed with Miller’s indictment of Bush, which he heard during a recent radio interview. At best, some Reconstructionists might see Bush as a well-intentioned fool, Ortiz told me. Many see him as a manipulative politician who snowballed the American people into supporting his disastrous presidency.
Those casually familiar with Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction may find Ortiz’s comments befuddling since a recent spat of popular books like Miller’s Cruel and Unusual have argued the exact opposite, identifying Rushdoony and his followers as allies of the Bush administration. Ortiz surely wants to distance himself from a failing president, but his remarks also reveal a Reconstructionist distaste for the hard, government-centered politics that brought Christian conservatives into the corridors of Beltway power.
Since the movement’s emergence in the mid-1960s, Christian Reconstruction has always been a little different from other factions of American conservatism. Not surprisingly, the movement wins attention for Rushdoony’s call for the eventual end of democracy in favor of a Christian theocracy, and his insistence that a “godly order” would enforce the death penalty for homosexuals and those who worship false idols.4 But Christian Reconstructionists insist that they have always been uncomfortable with authoritarian institutions of political power because, unlike Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Rushdoony wedded his rigid theological perspective with a libertarian perspective that looked outside the boundaries of popular conservatism for answers to the problems facing the United States.
At first glance, the phrase “Christian libertarian” seems a contradiction, especially when one applies it to Dominionists – as the full range of those calling for a Christian nation are called – and Christian Reconstructionists. It is true that today a secular – and in some cases rabidly atheistic – tendency dominates libertarianism. But this has not always been the case.
During the 1930s, a wide variety of business, intellectual, and religious leaders banded together to attack Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Those who emphasized the sovereignty of the individual citizen, resistance to a centralized bureaucracy, and the benefits of unfettered free market capitalism eventually coalesced into the libertarian movement that we know today. For a brief period into the 1940s, these anti-New Deal forces formed an alliance with Protestant religious leaders determined to resist “socialistic” tendencies within the church.5 While this cooperation was short-lived, it had a profound impact on the contemporary Christian Right.
The chief target of these economically conservative evangelical clergymen was the Social Gospel, a wide-ranging theological and social movement rooted in the late 19th century whose champions sought to fight poverty and improve the conditions of America’s poorest using the government to regulate market forces. The Social Gospelers pulled together across denominational lines to advocate for a heightened awareness of labor conditions in the country. But the movement had a theological side; its clergy tended to emphasize the corporate, collective nature of salvation. Moreover, many were willing to embrace evolutionary theory as a means of explaining human origins. Such a naturalistic perspective led to a willingness to see human beings as the product of their material and social environment.
Like many in the Progressive Era, the reform-minded period before World War I, the Social Gospelers believed that legislation and government regulation could change Americans for the better by changing the social environment in which they lived. By focusing attention on the social context that drives individuals to sin, the social gospel seemed to downplay the individual, embodied experience of salvation that American evangelicals have traditionally sought.6 Not surprisingly, many prosperous American churchgoers found the emphasis on economic justice over the saving of souls to be yet another expression of the “socialistic” threat to the American way of life.
While the social gospel lost much of its impulse during the economic boom following the war, popular interest in the movement reignited during the Great Depression of the 1930s. To resist this renewed influence – and defend capitalism – the alliance between business and religious leaders sought to reemphasize individual spiritual regeneration and to downplay the effects of social constraints on individual choices.
In 1935, Rev. James Fifield of Chicago formed Mobilization for Spiritual Ideals to address these concerns. Popularly known as Spiritual Mobilization, Fifield’s operation earned the fiscal support of such right-wing philanthropists as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, Jasper Crane of DuPont, and B.E. Hutchinson of Chrysler. Facing the daunting task of resisting nearly five decades of entrenched liberal Protestant teaching and the harsh reality of the Depression, Fifield recruited preachers and laymen eager to resist the massive redistribution of wealth envisioned by President Roosevelt. His appeal was simplistic but effective. American clergymen needed to start preaching the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” In this, the shortest commandment, Fifield and his followers believed they had found the biblical basis for private property and a limit to the government’s ability to redistribute wealth, tax, and otherwise impede commerce.7
In order to undermine government-sponsored economic redistribution, the ministers and laymen Fifield hired focused on the spiritual causes of poverty rather than the social concerns of the Social Gospelers. The New Deal and the conflicts with the Nazis and Soviets were manifestations of humankind’s rejection of God’s divinity for that of a centralized bureaucracy. An all-powerful bureaucracy, they warned, usurped the “Christian principle of love” with the “collectivist principle of compulsion.”8 Beginning in 1949, the Christ-centered free market ideals of Spiritual Mobilization reached nearly fifty thousand pastors and ministers via the organization’s publication, Faith and Freedom.9 With the rhetorical flare of such libertarian luminaries as the Congregationalist minister Edmund A. Opitz, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and the anarchist Murray Rothbard, Faith and Freedom moved many clergymen to embrace its anti-tax, non-interventionist, anti-statist economic model.
In his Faith and Freedom articles, Opitz formulated a systematic theology in support of capitalism, merging economic responsibility with individual salvation to form a “libertarian theology of freedom.”10 In assessing the threat of communism and fascism, Opitz argued that the solution was not collective political action. Instead, he noted that the “crisis is in man himself, in each individual regardless of his occupation, education, or nationality.”11 Jesus’ Good News was that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” making every man’s salvation an internalized, personal matter. In Opitz’s reading, Jesus’ gospel becomes the basis for a radical individualism that “was the foundation upon which this [American] republic was established.”12
By the mid-1950s, prominent secular libertarian organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI) began to supplant Spiritual Mobilization’s influence in libertarian circles. In fact, many of Faith and Freedom‘s regular contributors like Opitz and Rothbard13 left Spiritual Mobilization and began writing for FEE’s publication, The Freeman. Further, Ayn Rand’s atheistic Objectivism pulled many libertarians away from the Christian ideals of Spiritual Mobilization.
While secular libertarianism triumphed, the remnants of its Christian heritage persisted among a small cadre of thinkers and activists who were reluctant to completely jettison Christ from the economy. Spiritual Mobilization helped a generation of theologically and economically conservative clergy find an alternative to the Social Gospel, New Deal, and communism that resonated with their traditional values, pro-business sympathies, and Christian faith. Faith and Freedom encouraged clergymen to see government as a problem, not a solution. The solution wasn’t to take over the government; it was to replace it with something radically different.
The Libertarian Theology of R. J. Rushdoony
Among the many ministers who read Faith and Freedom was a young Presbyterian pastor living in Santa Cruz, California, named R. J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony was attracted to Faith and Freedom‘s consistent warnings of the dangers of a centralized governmental bureaucracy. Born in New York City in 1916 to survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Rushdoony knew the dangers of centralized power all too well. Just a year before his birth in the States, Rushdoony’s older brother Rousas George died during the Ottoman Siege of Van, becoming one of 1.5 million Armenians eventually killed byTurkish forces.14 Rushdoony’s father Y. K. Rushdoony secured his family’s escape first to Russia and eventually to New York City.
Beyond the dangers of governmental violence, Rushdoony was also particularly attracted to Faith and Freedom‘s articles on public education.15 Like many conservative clergymen, Rushdoony saw public schools as hotbeds for collectivist indoctrination and anti-Christian pluralism. Faith and Freedom suggested that it was just to resist compulsory public education, but Rushdoony found the publication’s writers to be inadequate theologians. Therefore, during the 1950s Rushdoony set about to provide a systematic theological justification for Christians to reject public education and embrace locally organized, independent Christian schools. Deploying a unique blend of libertarianism with the most rigorous Calvinistic theology he could muster, Rushdoony delivered a series of lectures on Christian education. When Rushdoony collected the lectures into a single volume, Intellectual Schizophrenia, Edmund Optiz wrote an enthusiastic foreword and helped to secure Rushdoony’s position as a rising star in the Christian libertarian movement.
It is important to understand Rushdoony’s critique of public education, because it is a microcosm of his broader theological project. As a theologian Rushdoony saw human beings as primarily religious creatures bound to God, not as rational autonomous thinkers. While this may seem an esoteric theological point, it isn’t. All of Rushdoony’s influence on the Christian Right stems from this single, essential fact. Many critics of Christian Reconstructionism assume that Rushdoony’s unique contribution to the Christian Right was his focus on theocracy. In fact, Rushdoony’s primary innovation was his single-minded effort to popularize a pre-Enlightenment, medieval view of a God-centered world. By de-emphasizing humanity’s ability to reason independently of God, Rushdoony attacked the assumptions most of us uncritically accept.
Following the lead of the Reformed theologians Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til,16 Rushdoony argued that all human knowledge is invalid if it is not rooted in the Bible. In his first book, By What Standard, published in 1958, Rushdoony summarized the ideas of Van Til and Dooyeweerd. Van Til, a Reformed Presbyterian teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, offered a radical critique of all human knowledge, arguing that it emerges from one’s theological presumptions (e.g. there is one God, many gods, or no god). For Christians, that means a three-in-one Christian God is the source of reliable human knowledge.
The implications of Van Til’s thought are far reaching. As Rushdoony explains, mankind’s first sin was an ethical fact with consequences for the nature of knowledge: when Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation to “be as gods, knowing good from evil,” she asserted her own intellectual autonomy over that of God’s.17 Mankind’s “fall” into sin was precipitated by a desire to reason independently from God’s authority.18 Rushdoony extended Van Til’s ideas to their logical end to argue that all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is “stolen” from “Christian-theistic” sources.19
In Rushdoony’s thought, knowledge becomes a matter of disputed sovereignty. Every thought that does not begin with God and the Bible is rebellious: “Man seeks to think creatively rather than think God’s thoughts after Him. Evil is the result of man’s rebellion against God…. Man’s fall was his attempt to become the original interpreter rather than the re-interpreter, to be the ultimate instead of the proximate source of knowledge.”20 Accordingly, humanity’s pretence to independent knowledge becomes a matter of rebellion against God’s Kingdom because “any attempt to know and control the future outside of God is to set up another god in contempt of the LORD.”21 Rushdoony made thinking an explicitly religious activity, a shift in focus with political implications: thinking becomes a matter of kingship, power, rebellion, and, in the final analysis, warfare. Either human thought recognizes God’s sovereignty, or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground, no compromise. It is a war between those who, like Rushdoony, think God’s thoughts after Him and those who do not.
If thinking and education are a matter of God’s disputed sovereignty, then Rushdoony believed that Christians who turned their children over to public schools were in open rebellion against God. In Rushdoony’s view, court orders forcing public schools to cease prayer and bible readings actually removed the only possible foundation for viable knowledge. Following such earlier Presbyterian luminaries as A.A. Hodge (1823-1886) and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), Rushdoony’s solution was to remove one’s children from public schools and to educate them in an explicitly Christian environment. Such an action brings both child and parent into accord with the “fundamental task of Christian education,” which, Rushdoony summarized, is to exercise dominion, “subduing the earth agriculturally, scientifically, culturally, artistically, in every way asserting the crown rights of King Jesus in every realm of life.”22
In many of the Faith and Freedom articles published during the 1940s and 1950s, Rushdoony saw a reservoir of popular discontent with compulsory public education and he hoped to develop it as an explicitly Christian resistance to the authority of centralized political structures. In this sense, Rushdoony was a shepherd in search of a flock and the libertarians looked more promising than alternatives. When Edmund Opitz helped secure Rushdoony a position with a small but influential libertarian organization known as the Volker Fund in 1962, Rushdoony moved to exert his unique brand of Calvinist-inspired libertarianism on the organization. He began writing a host of position papers that attacked public education, reinterpreted American history in starkly Christian terms (see box), and advocated for the regeneration of America along explicitly Christian lines. After some internal wrangling, the Fund fired Rushdoony in 1963, but the separation was gentle, giving Rushdoony the necessary resources to write two more books.
Rushdoony’s dismissal from the Fund reflected many of the secularizing changes in American libertarianism of that time. As libertarianism evolved into a more mainstream movement, it forced most of its religious defenders to the side. Rushdoony was but one casualty in this process. By the time he left the Fund, however, he had secured enough experience as a grant writer and public lecturer to set his own course. In 1965, he founded the Chalcedon Foundation, an educational organization that he used to popularize his call for a “Christian Reconstruction” of American society. In the process of forming Chalcedon, Rushdoony decided to mentor an ambitious college student who shared his passion for libertarian economics and Christianity. Their relationship would prove one of the most fascinating – and volatile – in the history of the Christian Right.
Dominionist theology generally and Christian Reconstruction specifically would not be what they are today without Gary North. When he first met Rushdoony in 1962, the two grew so close that North eventfully married Rushdoony’s daughter, Sharon, in the early 1970s. As Rushdoony’s son-in-law, North proved to be a prolific and able popularizer of Rushdoony’s complex theological ideas. North demonstrated a willingness to reach out across sectarian boundaries in order to engage folks who were not quite as Christian as Rushdoony might have preferred, and directly engaged politically active conservatives, something Rushdoony largely avoided unless he could maintain strict control over their theological allegiances. As a result of his popular appeal and tireless advocacy of the Reconstructionist world-view, one could argue that North did more than any other Reconstructionist short of Rushdoony to reconstruct the world for Christendom.
Beginning in 1963 Rushdoony helped North secure a series of jobs working for the Volker Fund and the Foundation for Economic Education. So by the time North went to work for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation in 1973, he was a bona fide veteran of the American libertarian movement. He had worked for two of its most important organizations and maintained friendly relationships with men like Opitz, among many others. Rushdoony brought him to Chalcedon to research the relationship between biblical law and laissez-faire economics. North threw himself into a project that he has yet to finish. Since 1977 he has spent a minimum of ten hours a week, fifty weeks a year writing a commentary on biblical economics.23
This nineteen volume (and counting) series documents North’s assessment of the relationship between Rushdoony-style “theonomy” (or God-rooted law) and the prescriptions for economic behavior North believed he found in the Bible. A complex mix of Austrian economic theory, Van Til-inspired ethics, and acrid prose, North’s study of biblical economics laid the foundation for a series of failed predictions regarding the imminent collapse of the federal government. Most notoriously, North predicted that the Y2K computer glitch would lead to the total collapse of the global economy, leaving Christians in the United States to pick up the pieces.24 North’s pessimism, unrelenting literary output, and hardboiled rhetoric eventually earned him the nickname “Scary Gary.”
“Scary’s” track record of failed predictions belies a neglected aspect of his theology. North, unlike Rushdoony, believes that the eternal human social institution is the Christian church. In the event of the catastrophic collapse of such transient institutions as the federal government, churches will step into the void left by its implosion. While this view of the emergent, decentralized church is consistent with North’s unique fusion of libertarianism and postmillenarian eschatology, it is sharply at odds with Rushdoony’s view. Rushdoony envisioned the church and family as two separate, exclusive spheres. For Rushdoony the family is the primary social unit while the church represents a limited ecclesiastical organization of believers in Christ. Conversely, North believed men owed their allegiances to a church first and the family second.
Like all aspects of Reconstructionist theology, these two perspectives have real-world consequences. When translated into theology, North’s focus on the future role of the church led him to embrace a more active political agenda. Long before North and Rushdoony publicly parted ways, North had already aggressively sought out political influence. In 1976 he worked in Washington, D.C. as a staffer for Texas Representative Ron Paul. After Paul’s defeat, North wrote a testy screed warning Christians that Washington was a cesspool that can’t be changed overnight.25 He turned his back on national politics and began developing practical tactics for churches to deploy at the grassroots level.26 Unlike Rushdoony who focused most of his attention on ideas, North explicitly worked to pull together disparate church groups, most notably reaching out to charismatic and Pentecostal congregations in the South in an effort to fuse Reconstructionism’s grassroots activism with committed congregations. When American society collapses under the combined weight of massive foreign debt, military overstretch, and internal decadence, North hopes to have a network of churches ready to step into the breech. In preparation, he has written book after book aimed at educating Christians on how to live debt free, avoid electronic surveillance, and develop the skills necessary for surviving economic collapse.27 In short, North’s version of Reconstructionism blazed a path for the militia and Christian survivalist groups of the 1990s to follow.
For all their tension, North and Rushdoony did agree on one point: the Kingdom of God would emerge over time. They disagreed on the conditions of this emergence. Rushdoony’s perspective was patient. He argued that over the course of thousands of years God’s grace would regenerate enough people so that a Kingdom of reconstructed men would willingly submit to the strictures of God’s law. North on the other hand constantly warned of impending disaster. At the moment of cataclysmic collapse, Godly men could suddenly step forward and rule. God’s law was therefore a blueprint for reestablishing social order following the collapse of the current secular system. Both men agreed that the invisible hand of God’s grace and not the top-down imposition of authority would guide the process. In theory, men will submit to God’s law voluntarily, leaving no place for a ruling body of theocratic clerics.
Of course, in practice, things are much more complicated.
A Movement in Decline?
In 1981, North and Rushdoony had a very public falling out and the two never spoke again. This dispute led to a deep rift in the Reconstructionist camp. North initially founded his Institute for Christian Economics (ICE) as a complement to Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation, but following their split North moved his operations to Tyler, Texas, and used ICE to popularize a dissident brand of Reconstructionism and spread its ideas to an ever wider audience. Interestingly, the rift between Rushdoony and North was arguably good for the movement because it led to a vital upsurge in competing publications.
While the short terms gains of the Rushdoony/North split temporarily reinvigorated the movement, a series of three critical setbacks in the 1990s weakened Christian Reconstruction. First, two of the movement’s most promising young theologians, Greg Bahnsen and David Chilton, died suddenly in 1995 and 1997 respectively. Bahnsen in particular had been an important rising star in the movement. His major theological work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics,28 was widely read and reviewed. Further, Bahnsen was a capable teacher who brought a level of intellectual respectability to Rushdoony’s ideas that few other Reconstructionists have managed. Second, as I noted above, Gary North managed to alienate himself from practically everyone inside and outside of the movement because of his overconfident tone and failed predications of looming societal collapse.
Third and most importantly, Rushdoony ceased to be the driving intellectual and fundraising force of the movement. Most mainstream accounts since the 1990s portray Rushdoony as a stern patriarch ruling over an influential theological fiefdom. The image painted by movement insiders and financial documents suggests this popular conception is partly an illusion. Nowhere is this more obvious then Rushdoony’s inability to control the content published in his long running newsletter, The Chalcedon Report. In the mid-1990s, The Chalcedon Report ran several articles by Unitarian authors leading some loyal Reconstructionists to wonder if the rock-ribbed Trinitarian crusader had become a mealy-mouthed Unitarian rejecting the mystery of god’s three-inone nature. He hadn’t, of course, but he had lost enough control of the operation of Chalcedon that such rumors could circulate with some legitimacy. In 1994 North offered a harsh assessment of Rushdoony’s failure to handle this theological meltdown. He shockingly revealed that Rushdoony “was not really in charge” of The Chalcedon Report, observing, “In recent years, as [Rushdoony] has grown older… and increasingly deaf, he has tended to hand over much of Chalcedon’s operations to inexperienced people without any theological training.”29
This image of a declining movement is also supported by the deterioration of financial support for the Chalcedon Foundation. As a tax exempt 501(c) (3) religious charity, Chalcedon’s tax returns are a matter of public record. A cursory survey suggests that gifts to the organization peaked just before Rushdoony’s death in 2001 and haven’t recovered since. Before 2001, the Foundation’s assets never totaled much more than $1 million and they remained largely stagnant during the 1990s. The departure of Howard Ahmanson, Jr., the Home Savings bank heir, from Chalcedon’s board of directors in the mid-1990s, worsened the decline. He was a close friend of the Rushdoony family and had bankrolled Chalcedon (along with other conservative causes) during the 1980s and 1990s.
The 1990s marked a decade of change for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation. Even as public awareness of Rushdoony and his ideas have grown, it is important to note that declining public support and contentious factional disputes plague the movement that so many contemporary exposés highlight as a threat to democracy. These exposés, however, are right about one thing: Reconstructionist ideas have never been more widely available.
Where does Christian Reconstruction stand today? This is difficult to answer primarily because of the temptation to look in the wrong place for Rushdoony’s influence. Many popular attacks on Rushdoony overestimate his influence on Bush and the GOP and misread his ideas as a cloaked desire to take over the government by hook or crook.30 But the fitful electoral success of the Christian Right has exacerbated tensions in the movement by dividing those calling for a limited government based on Christian principles and those willing to forgo ideological purity for short-term political gain. With their anti-interventionist, libertarian ethos, those inspired by Christian Reconstructionism tend to fall into the principled camp and a good many see national electoral success as a sign of ideological weakness. Their rigid theological consistency also leaves them reluctant to compromise with Republicans and more moderate evangelicals. As a result, Reconstructionists are as likely to disengage from politics as they are to engage in it.
Rushdoony himself is the model for this antagonistic stance toward national politics. In the 1980s, he became increasingly disgusted with partisan politics and worked to disengage from cooperative political action. While it has been widely reported that Rushdoony served as an original member of the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive right-wing organization cofounded by the evangelical minister and coauthor of the Left Behind novels Tim LaHaye,31 it is less widely known that Rushdoony severed his ties with the group in the late-1980s.32 Rushdoony stopped attending CNP meetings almost as soon as the organization started and ceased paying his membership fee in the late-1980s. He even went so far as to publicly dismiss the organization because of its emphasis on “socializing purposes” over ideologically sound political action.33
Similarly, Rushdoony played an important role in the formation of the Coalition on Revival (COR), an ecumenical organization designed to bridge the gap between Rushdoony’s Reconstructionists and premillenarian evangelicals like LaHaye and Francis Schaeffer. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists famously signed a series of COR Christian World View documents that highlighted points of Christian consensus in their resistance to secular humanism. As with the CNP, Rushdoony stopped working with the group and publicly trashed COR as “an ineffectual group that doesn’t change things.”34
Between Rushdoony’s cool response to national politics and Gary North’s abrasive engagement in doomsday theorizing, Christian Reconstructionism’s direct influence on national trends has been severely limited. Rather than look for Christian Reconstruction’s direct influence on this or that aspect of national policy, it is best to look for its indirect influence on a network of broader, local Christian concerns. At the local level, Rushdoony’s ideas have helped to mobilize any number of movements. In particular, Reconstruction has spurred “reform” movements in church groups both large and small.
One of the most obvious local expressions of Reconstruction’s “reform” impulse can be seen in the Exodus Mandate Project. Exodus Mandate is a ministry organized by Rev. E. Ray Moore, Jr., a former Army chaplain and pastor active in the Southern Baptist Conference (SBC). Exodus seeks to “encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.”35 In his writings, Rev. Moore explicitly acknowledges his debt to Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists.36 Dr. Bruce N. Shortt, one of Moore’s allies in his fight against public education, has been promoted by the Chalcedon Foundation and his book, The Harsh Truth About Public Schools,37 was published by Chalcedon. Since 2004 Moore and Shortt have teamed up with others in the SBC to promote an “exit strategy” from the public schools. The resolution they proposed for the 2007 annual meeting calls for the formation of an alternative K-12 school system to be administered by Christian churches. Echoing Rushdoony’s writings from nearly a half century ago the resolution states, “education is not theologically neutral, and for generations … [children] have been discipled primarily by an anti-Christian government school system.”38 If successful, this small grassroots movement could lead to the departure of millions of children from the public school system throughout the United States.
Even though the Chalcedon Foundation has fallen on hard times since Rushdoony died in February 2001, Reconstructionism is hardly dead. Through the careful, persistent promotion of his theology, Rushdoony managed to spread his ideas far and wide. Arguably, with his passing the intellectual impetus behind Reconstructionism specifically and Dominionism more broadly is on the wane. But the ideas Rushdoony developed laid the foundation for an incredibly vibrant and adaptable theological system that equally motivates conservatives from various religious and political backgrounds to take action in the name of Christ.
Nowhere is Rushdoony’s intellectual influence more evident than in a May 2007 gathering of some 800 socially conservative Protestants for the second annual Worldview Super Conference outside Asheville, North Carolina.39 The conference’s program promised to help prepare this generation of Christians “to capture the future” for Christ. Slickly produced and organized by Gary DeMar, an avowed disciple of Rushdoony and president of the American Vision ministry based in Georgia, the four-day event featured more than a dozen speakers, including Gary North.40 Many of the speakers and participants shared Rushdoony’s contempt for America’s secular society and government. Unlike Rushdoony, however, the participants consistently exhibited their commitment to direct political engagement rather than abstract theological debate.
Today, the public activism advocated at DeMar’s Worldview conference and local reform movements like Moore’s Exodus Mandate all attest to the enduring reach of Rushdoony’s theological mission. His ideas aren’t going anywhere just yet. The Chalcedon Foundation, under the leadership of Rushdoony’s son, Mark, continues to publish its founder’s manuscripts. Meanwhile, Gary North continues to warn of the impending collapse of America’s secular system. But most importantly, all three volumes of Rushdoony’s magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, remain in print; Christian colleges and home schooling programs regularly assign Rushdoony’s surveys of American history; bloggers write in his honor. In truly libertarian fashion, Rushdoony’s ideas have spread far and wide across the Internet and via a diffuse network of right-wing interest groups to create a wide array of Reconstructionist-inspired groups. The decentralized, bottom-up model of social organization Rushdoony championed will all but assure his continued influence for decades to come.
American History, Rushdoony Style
It is hardly radical to assert the United States is a Christian nation; historians, social critics, and religious leaders have made this claim for centuries. But in response to the threat of communism and the social changes following World War II, the insistence that the United States is essentially Christian took on new urgency and Rushdoony joined the chorus offering his own interpretation of history.
First, he argued that the New England colonies were Protestant feudal states that resisted any and all attempts to unify governmental authority into a centralized bureaucracy. Second, the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect this feudal order and the American Revolution was actually counter-revolution against the European nation-state. Finally, he argued that a conspiracy of Unitarians and socialists united to unify America into a monolithic government. They realized their goal with the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Since the time of Lincoln, the forces of an elite urbanized bureaucracy have been slowly rolling back the rural, feudal Christian character that the Constitution was designed to protect.
Variations of Rushdoony’s revisionist project have caught on with supporters as varied as Pat Robertson, Otto Scott, and numerous Christian home schoolers who seek a comprehensive theological framework for understanding American history.41
Michael McVicar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. His dissertation on the life and ministry of R.J. Rushdoony focuses on his relationship to religion and politics in contemporary American society. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unsual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).
2. Ibid., 258-259.
3. Ibid., 264.
4. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), 425.
5. This, of course, is a matter of perspective. Many evangelicals embraced the Social Gospel because of its implication for individual salvation. In fact, as historian R. Lawrence Moore has argued, the Social Gospel was perfectly compatible with the individualistic nature of capitalistic consumption and acquisition and was hardly “socialistic” in any meaningful sense. Moore’s measured historical perspective, however, is unlikely to change the minds of the more vociferous critics of Social Gospel. See Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 204-237.
6. It should be noted that the Social Gospel was far from dominant in American Protestantism. From the ideas of Dwight Moody to the public ministry of Billy Sunday, clergymen spent as much time defending the benefits of capitalism as they did critiquing its excesses.
7. For a concise summary of Fifield’s appeal to the Eighth Commandment see Brian Doherty, Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2007). For an in-depth discussion of Spiritual Mobilization see Eckard V. Toy, Jr., “Spiritual Mobilization: The Failure of an Ultraconservative Ideal in the 1950s,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 61 (April 1970): 77–86.
8. The Christian’s Political Responsibility quoted in Doherty, Radicals For Capitalism, 271.
9. Eckard V. Toy, “Faith and Freedom, 1949-1960,” in The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America, Ronald Lora and William Henry Longton eds. (Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1999), 161.
10. Opitz eventually summarized his ideas in a book by the same name: Edmund A. Opitz, The Libertarian Theology of Freedom (Tampa, Fl: Hallberg Publishing Corporation, 1999).
11. Edmund A. Opitz, “The Libertarian Theology of Freedom,” in The Libertarian Theology of Freedom (Tampa, Fl: Hallberg Publishing Corporation, 1999), 136.
12. Ibid., 138.
13. Rothbard contributed to Faith and Freedom under a pseudonym because he was already well known as a radical of questionable religious commitment. In 1956 he was actually fired by Faith and Freedom‘s editors after readers complained about his radicalism.
14. Mark Rousas Rushdoony, “A Biographical Sketch of my Father,” in A Comphrensive Faith: An International Festschrift for Rousas John Rushdoony, Andrew Sandlin ed. (San Jose, Ca: Friends of Chalcedon, 1996), 21-22.
15. For Rushdoony’s interest in the magazine, see Gary North, “Ed Opitz, R.I.P.,” LewRockwell.com (22 February 2006 [cited 31 May 2007]); available from http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north439.html.
16. It is often wrongly reported that Rushdoony was a “student” of Van Til. While it is certainly true that Rushdoony was the most prolific popularizer of Van Til’s ideas, it is important to note that Rushdoony did not attend Westminster Theological Seminary where Van Til taught. In fact, Rushdoony never formally studied under Van Til, a fact that might explain their ultimate divergence on the concept of theonomy. Van Til publicly rejected much of Rushdoony’s work and never adopted the Reconstructionist paradigm, even though their relationship remained friendly.
17. R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Vallecito, Ca: Ross House Books, 1995), 25.
18. Ibid., 30.
19. Ibid., 24.
20. Ibid., 55.
21. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 30.
22. R. J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis, and Education (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961), 100.
23. Gary North, “It All Began With Fred Schwarz,” LewRockwell.com (16 December 2002 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north145.html.
24. Rob Boston, “Apocalypse Now,” Church & State (March 1999), 8-12 and Declan McCullagh, “There’s Something about Gary,” Wired (7 January 1999 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/1999/01/17193.
25. Gary North, “Confessions of a Washington Reject,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 5, no. 1 (Summer 1978): 73-86.
26. Gary North ed., Tactics of Christian Resistance: Christianity and Civilization 3 (Summer 1993).
27. For instance, see Gary North, Government by Emergency (Ft. Worth, Tx: American Bureau of Economic Research, 1983). In this book North predicts that a major national emergency will allow the federal government to expand its power through unconstitutional means. The Bush administration’s response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks has provided North with several “see, I told you so” moments.
28. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1977).
29. Gary North, “Rumor #213: Rushdoony Has Gone Unitarian,” undated Institute for Christian Economics Position Paper [cited 1 June 2007]; available from http://s155777461.onlinehome.us/docs/a_pdfs/newslet/position/9408.PDF.
30. Most notably, Mark Crispin Miller told an interviewer, “What’s most significant here, and yet gets almost zero coverage in our media, is the fact that Bush is very closely tied to the Christian Reconstructionist movement. The links between this White House and that movement are many and tight” (“Talking with Mark Crispin Miller, Author of Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order,” Buzzflash.com (23 July 2004 [cited 25 June 2007]); available from http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/04/07/int04037.html. Miller fully develops this argument in Cruel and Unsual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).
Stephenie Hendricks makes a similar point, arguing, “[Rushdoony-inspired Dominionists] believe George W. Bush is divinely leading us into [Armageddon]” (“Stephenie Hendricks Reminds the Fundamentalists: ‘Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit,'” Buzzflash.com [11 April 2006 (cited 25 June 2007)]; available from http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/06/04/int06011.html; see also her Divine Destruction: Wise use, Dominion Theology and the Making of American Environmental Policy (Hoboken, N. J.: Melville House, 2005) for a fuller explication of her interpretation of Bush and the Reconstructionists.
31. Russ Bellant, The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism, 2nd ed. (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 36-37.
32. Rushdoony’s name appears on CNP membership lists through the 1990s, but he adamantly insisted he stopped paying CNP’s membership fees. He implied someone secretly paid it for him against his wishes.
33. Marghe Covino, “Grace Under Pressure: The World According to Rev. R. J. Rushdoony,” Sacramento News and Review 6, no. 28 (20 October 1994): 19.
35. “Christian Children Need Christian Education,” The Exodus Mandate Project (cited 1 June 2007); available from http://www.exodusmandate.org.
36. The preface to E. Ray Moore, Let My Children Go: Why Parents Must RemoveTheir Children From Public Schools NOW (Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2002) is available from http://www2.whidbey.net/jmboyes/LMCG-I.htm.
37. Bruce N. Shortt, The Harsh Truth About Public Schools (Vallecito, Ca: Chalcedon Foundation, 2004).
38. Bob Unruh, “Christians Need Exodus from ‘Pharoah’s System,'” WorldNetDaily.com (5 May 2007 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=55556.
39. Jeremy Leaming, “Fringe Festival: Christian Reconstructionists Hope To Move Out Of The Margins And Take Dominion In America – And They Have Some Powerful Friends,” Church & State (July/August 2007 [cited 19 July 2007]); available from http://www.au.org/site/News2?abbr=cs_&page=NewsArticle&id=9212.
40. A promotional trailer for the conference is available from http://www.americanvision.org/WVSC/default.asp.
41. Three recent articles have offered excellent explorations of Rushdoony’s historical revisionism. For a careful analysis of Rushdoony’s reassessment of Southern history see Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Haque, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32, no. 3 (2002): 254-283. For slightly less academic reviews of his historiography, see Jeff Sharlet, “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History,” Harper’s Magazine (December 2006), 33-43 and Frederick Clarkson, “Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters,” The Public Eye magazine (Spring 2007); available from http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v21n2/history.html.
Photograph of tomb of Pope Julius II, by Michelangelo Buonarotti, inside the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), Rome, Italy, by xopherlance, November 4, 2005. http://www.flickriver.com/photos/ninedragons/1245983741/