By Max Lindh
From the very beginning, Christianity has had a strong political potential to it. Indeed, had it not been for that the Romans recognized as much, they never would have crucified Christ. Over the centuries, people of all stripes have gone to the Bible to find support for their particular political philosophies and in turn allowed themselves to be influenced by its words. Popes used Christianity to argue for not just the spiritual, but also the secular supremacy of the Holy See. Kings read in the pages of the Bible irrefutable evidence that they were anointed and granted with certain Divine Rights. Radical German peasants found in Luther’s translation of the book a scathing criticism of the privileges of the nobles. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans felt that they were doing God’s work when they brought down the English monarchy and established the republican Commonwealth.
In our day too, Christianity continues to make its presence known. In Germany, Italy, and the low countries, Christian democracy has a long and proud history, and in Britain, in some circles, there are yet those who like to boast that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx. All of that is of course in the mainstream, and proponents of Christian democracy or Christian socialism seldom find it particularly difficult to separate the spiritual sphere from the secular sphere. Oh, they are proud to say that their views, philosophies, and ideals are informed and guided by Christianity, but that is not to say that they wish to tear down the sacred wall of separation of Church and State and establish a theocracy under God such as they understand Him. To be your brother’s keeper is something you do in the secular sphere, and it is hoped that people will see the merit in that on its own, independent of what particular tendencies have inclined one to do it.
But then of course, there are the fringes, and that is where things get properly interesting. This week in this series, the time has come for us to look into Christian Reconstructionism which makes no secret of its desire to establish theocracy (or as its proponents prefer to term it, establish theonomy), and which despite its relative oddness has managed to have influence felt in mainline society.
The ideology of Christian Reconstructionism in its modern form can essentially be traced back to one intellectual father in particular, Rousas John Rushdoony (affectionately named “Rush” by his followers), the son of two Armenian immigrants who had fled to the United States in the early 20th century following the Ottoman government’s genocide of their fellow countrymen. According to Rushdoony, he came from a long line of clergymen, a member of his family had always been a priest or a preacher since the early fourth century, which would conincide with St. Gregory the Illuminator persuading King Tiridates III of Armenia to embrace the Christian faith. However, by the time the Rushdoony clan arrived in America, they seem to have left behind the traditional Armenian Apostolic Church and instead embraced conservative Calvinist Presbyterianism. Rushdoony’s father, Yegheazar Khachig, was a preacher himself, and in the 20s and 30s, he helped to found and pastor a variety of Presbyterian churches in the United States with an outreach mainly to fellow Armenian immigrants. Young Rousas John wished to follow in his father’s footsteps, went to seminary, and in 1944 was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
According to Julie Ingersoll, a scholar of religion and one of the foremost experts on the Christian Reconstructionist movement, it is instructive to look at the particular Calvinist philosophy espoused by Rushdoony to understand why the movement he started were to take the particular form it took.
Calvinism has long emphasized the Sovereignty of God, and while this fundamentally is something that all Christians believe in, Calvinists generally tend to take it to places other Christians will not go. Not just does God have power over all creation, he constantly exercises power over all creation, and were he not to exercise that power, that would be an abrogation of his authority, a denial of his sovereignty. Everything that happens happens precisely the way it happens because God has willed it to happen precisely in that way. Thence cometh Predestination: God exercises his sovereignty over who is to be saved and who is not to be saved. Indeed, the 19th century English Calvinist Baptist Charles Spurgeon took the doctrine of sovereignty so far as to even begin vaxing philosophical about how God had from the beginning of Time itself decreed the trajectory of every particular speck of dust in the air in the room in which he was sitting.
Second, there is the particular school of apologetics of Presuppositionalism, mainly associated with the early 20th century Dutch-American theologian Cornelius Van Til. Van Til argued that there could be no neutral ground in a meeting between a believer and unbeliever, as both would approach a debate with different sets of presuppositions, and that was where the debate had to be. Rather than to start with premises that both parties could agree upon, and from thereon try to conceive of arguments for and against the existence of God, one ought to examine in detail the foundations of these presuppositions and as to whether or not they were properly grounded. Van Til felt that the only way one could escape an infinite regress to justify one’s presuppositions, or the very least legitimately cut it off at some point, was if one grounded them in the infallible Word of God, that is, the Protestant version of the Bible.
It is in these two foundational beliefs, that God can, does, and should exercise his authority in all spheres of human affairs, and that there can be no neutral ground—which renders the very idea of a secular society beyond the religious beliefs or otherwise of its inhabitants a ridiculous pipedream—that Christian Reconstructionism plants its roots.
The ideology grew slowly. Rushdoony had already from the start had a right-wing bent to him, having been a subscriber to the anti-New Deal magazine Faith and Freedom, and was very distrustful of what he considered the creeping influence of secularism from the State. In particular, he was deeply suspicious of the American public school system, which he saw as mere centres for the indoctrination of children into atheist and leftist beliefs, and so as the homeschool movement started, he became one its most passionate defenders. A voracious reader said to read six books a week, Rushdoony devoted himself to a committed study of America history, which he regarded through the lens of his particular ideology.
He did not subscribe for one single second that American Republic had been founded primarily upon Enlightenment ideas. Rather, he strenuously argued that the United States had been a Christian nation from the start, and that the ideas upon which it was founded were those in particular that could be found in the Calvinist Reformation. Like Murray Rothbard, Rushdoony grew to take a particular liking to the Old Confederacy and the Lost Cause, though seeing it through a far more apocalyptic lens. He would have agreed with Rothbard that the Civil War had not, at the end of the day, been about slavery, but whereas Rothbard had tried to ground his argument in abstract notions of central government and the rights of devolved assemblies in a federated union, Rushdoony went straight for the big guns: the American Civil War had been a religious conflict first and foremost, between the modernist, humanist North, and the orthodox, traditional, patriarchial South, that had valiantly fought to defend Christian civilization.
Through his works of history, he was soon to have influence on more mainstream, though still staunchly conservative, Christian thinkers, such as the circle that surrounded Francis Schaeffer, that soon began taking a serious interest in Rushdoony’s ideas. Soon enough, he stretched beyond history, in 1965 founding the Chalcedon Foundation, an educational foundation, which argued that Christians had a mandate and an obligation to seize control, dominion of the cultural sphere of life, as indeed they had in all other spheres of life. Finally, in 1973, he published his magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, whose title was clearly meant to invoke his hero John Calvin’s own The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In it, Rushdoony argues that orthodox, conservative (Calvinist) Christians are to seize control of the government. Democracy must be done away with, as its emphasis on the will of the people is to seek to diminish the sovereignty of God, who should be our one and only king. In Rushdoony’s view, the balance of voteshares that had been found in the early American Republic was something better to aim for. Still, Rushdoony was no more a believer in monarchy than Oliver Cromwell had been, pointing out that in the Books of Samuel, God only reluctantly gives the Israelites a King, which he warns will lead them astray, and that they should have trusted in the wisdom of the Judges.
When it came to civil law, Rushdoony copied the Mosaic Law from the Old Testament in its entirety. It was after all, in Rushdoony’s eyes, the only blueprint for how to build a society that had ever been endorsed by God himself, and so it should form the foundation. Adultery, homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy, all these crimes should bear the capital punishment, and what better way to execute these executions than through stoning in public, as God had once decreed? Gary North, a son-in-law of Rushdoony, would later defend the practice of stoning in particular on the grounds of what he considered to be its egalitarianism in that everyone could throw a stone, and its social merits in it being a public event that ordinary citizens took part of, they themselves administering the law.
This was tough stuff. Old Cornelius Van Til, still alive, felt the need to publicly state his distaste for the views of Rushdoony, and that he would not want to be associated with this advocacy of the implementation of Mosaic Law in modern times. Francis Schaeffer too felt the need to distance himself from some of the more extreme aspects of the ideology. Reporters interviewing Rushdoony were amazed to find that he seemed to support even the most tasteless of Biblical punishments. To his credit, Rushdoony would admit that there were aspects of Biblical Law that “tickled him the wrong way”, but if that was what God was commanding man to do, he felt himself by conscience bound to trust in the wisdom of the Lord over his own human sensibilities.
Interestingly, Rushdoony combined his conservative Calvinist social views with as laissez-faire capitalism as it came, regarding Ludwig von Mises as an intellectual mentor of his, much like the lapsed Jew Murray Rothbard and the staunch atheist Ayn Rand.
In the years to come, Rushdoony would find support for his ideas in the endorsement of prominent figures on the Religious Right. Both televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would warmly recommend his works, and though Francis Schaeffer might have distanced himself from some of the more extreme views of Rushdoony’s, he nonetheless seized upon the idea there being an imperative of Christians to in one form or another take control of society and the state and reshape it in an unashamedly Christian fashion, as opposed to a secular, and thereby a false neutral, institution. Through Jerry Falwell in particular, a Southern Baptist who was very much in favour ecumenicalism in as far as it could be used to as a tool to bring about conservative economic and social change, these ideas would find themselves incorporated in branches of Christianity more removed from Calvinism.
The idea of Christian domination over the machinery of the state, and that America had been founded on strictly Christian principles turned out to dovetail neatly with conservative Mormonism, a branch of Christianity that already held that the United States had been formed in direct fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and that the Constitution was a divinely inspired document. Though Cleon Skousen may have developed his views in parallel, one needs only read his own magnum opus The Five Thousand Years Leap to see that there was much room for cooperation and coalition building of the sort that Jerry Falwell was so fond of.
Rushdoony died in 2001, and though there are very few people who yet believe in Christian Reconstructionism in as literal a sense as Rushdoony did, they nevertheless do exist. There is the aforementioned Gary North for one, who not just still advocates the application of Mosaic Law, stoning and everything, but has also followed his father-in-law in his embrace of libertarian economics, being a fellow of the Von Mises Institute founded by Murray Rothbard. Curiously, Gary North has taken a particular interest in the ideology of Social Credit, and proudly dubs himself the singular foremost authority on its theories in modern times.
Taking a more soft approach to Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism are people like David Barton, who through his foundation Wallbuilders argues in proper Rushdoony spirit that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and who has written several works attempting to make this case, for which he has received praise from major figures in the Republican Party, such as Mike Huckabee. One can only marvel at David Barton’s particular genius as an exegete of the Bible, in particular, he argues that the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is to be read as a divine injuction against the progressive income tax.
And Christian Reconstructionism has been felt in electoral politics as well. Michele Bachmann, the 2012 Republican Presidential hopeful, was a strong admirer of Francis Schaeffer, and studied the works of Rushdoony himself while at law school at Oral Roberts University. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ presidential campaign in 2016, strongly influenced as it was by David Barton, struck a particular Dominionist chord to it. There was no lack of references to divine guidance, God’s plan, and exortations for faithful Christians to get out and vote for Ted Cruz, who some members of his campaign team frankly stated they felt had been ordained by God to be President.
Well, God works in mysterious ways, in particular if you adhere to the Calvinist philosophy that indeed everything has been precisely determined by him. Rather than the ever faithful Ted Cruz, He picked reality TV star and two-time divorcee Donald Trump to be the candidate of the GOP, “God’s Own Party”, as some would have it, and for him to go on to win the Presidency. During the years since 2016, the influence of the Religious Right in the Republican Party curiously enough seems to be diminishing as a direct consequence of the ascendancy of the Bad Orange Man, and with it of course, the influence of the Michele Bachmanns and the David Bartons. Within the right, a Culture War itself seems to be taking place, between the old Religious Right and the new Alt-Right, which in a very short time has won victory after victory.
But had it not been for Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, who knows where the Republican flights of fancy might have taken refuge? Perhaps they would have gone in a more Huckabee-esque/Cruzian direction, and thereby allowed Christian Reconstructionism to take a greater role in American life through the influence of the Religious Right?