The Christian Reconstruction Movement in U.S. Politics
Abstract and Keywords
For more than half a century, Rousas John Rushdoony and his followers have articulated and disseminated what they understand to be a biblical worldview, based in aspects of traditional reformed theology and both the Old and New Testaments. This worldview seeks to apply biblical law to every aspect of life and to transform every aspect of culture to establish the Kingdom of God. While some components of their vision are so extreme that Christian Reconstructionists are often dismissed as an irrelevant fringe group, other aspects of their vision have taken root in conservative American Protestantism, especially in the Christian homeschool movement, and therefor influenced American conservatism more broadly. This essay outlines that worldview and points to some of those areas of influence.
As I write this essay, the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment by Rousas John Rushdoony. And in some ways, the movement he built is just now coming into its own. Echoes of Rushdoony’s “biblical worldview” reverberate through aspects of contemporary American conservative Protestantism. Detractors point to Rushdoony’s insistence on the continued relevance of biblical law as he finds it in both the Old and New Testaments, emphasizing some of the most inflammatory examples, such as support for the death penalty for homosexuality and incorrigibility, biblical slavery, and coerced marriage as redress for rape. Liberals and progressives worry about Reconstructionist “dominion theology,” with its theocratic implications for secular society and the separation of church and state. Rushdoony did hold those inflammatory views (and many of his followers still do), but exclusive focus on these points leads us to miss the appeal and larger influence of this movement. Reconstructionists often insist that their goals are not primarily political. The singular focus on their most inflammatory views makes this claim incomprehensible, at best, or duplicitous at worst. A broader engagement with their work, however, helps to make sense of what they mean and clarifies their major goal: the complete transformation of every aspect of culture to bring it under the authority of biblical law, which they understand as speaking to every area of life.
What follows is a description of the framework developed by Rushdoony, promoted by at least two generations of subsequent key thinkers and writers; a discussion of some of the sites of influence in contemporary conservative Protestantism; and an exploration of some of the contours of the appeal of this version of Christianity.
What Makes a Biblical Worldview?
In the middle part of the twentieth century, Cornelius Van Til taught apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, which was founded, along with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, on a commitment to the fullness of the reformed tradition (Calvinism), as that commitment was thought to be waning at Princeton Seminary. Van Til’s focus was known as presuppositionalism, and it was widely influential in the rise of evangelicalism in the latter half of the twentieth century, especially in its politically engaged form known as the religious right. Van Til developed his framework, in large measure, from the traditional reformed theology for which Westminster was known. Perhaps the most widely known figure who promoted this perspective was Francis Schaeffer, though he and Rushdoony worked through the implications of presuppositionalism contemporaneously and it is Rushdoony’s version that concerns us here. Presuppositionalist epistemology rejects the idea that there can be any neutral, objective knowledge about anything. All knowledge, in this view, begins with presuppositions—assumptions that are not testable or provable. As a system of apologetics, presuppositionalism asserts that there are ultimately only two foundations for knowledge: the revealed Word of God; and human reason, (erroneously) thought to be autonomous from God. Reconstructionists label what they see as an effort to untether human reason from the authority of God “humanism.” For presuppositionalists, humanism is a broad category that contains every other religious viewpoint, every ideology, every philosophy, and every scientific theory not rooted in biblical revelation. As Rushdoony wrote in 1958:
Nothing can have meaning in itself or of itself because nothing exists in or of itself … nothing has a valid interpretation apart from God and his creative and redemptive purpose. Thus every attempt of man to interpret his world of itself, or to attempt to interpret it in terms of his autonomous mind and its perceptions, is virtually a deliberate rejection of God and His interpretation. When men reject God they at the same time virtually reject the Creator’s and redeemer’s interpretation and purpose for their lives and for all creation.1
For Reconstructionists all law is religious. As Rushdoony writes, this is “inescapably” so:
Law is in every culture religious in origin. Because law governs man and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it established in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture. Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of law must be, first, a recognition of this religious nature of law. Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society.2
This framework sets up a profound dualism where there can be only two mutually exclusive and ultimately completely incompatible worldviews. There is no neutrality and no space for compromise; one or the other must (will) win.
From Worldview to Practice: Sphere Sovereignty
Perhaps Rushdoony’s most important contribution was his move from this epistemological commitment to complete submission to God, in an effort to draw out its implications in terms of what it means to “make every thought captive to,” or to “bring every aspect of life under the Lordship of,” Christ. Rushdoony’s answer was theonomy, which literally means “God’s law.” He started with a principle also rooted in traditional reformed theology, known as the unity of Scripture; that is, both Old and New Testaments remain authoritative, and they are understood as a singular continuous revelation (as opposed to the view of many Christians that the New Testament replaced the Old). Indeed, the conflict Reconstructionists see between evolution and creationism is inevitable, irreconcilable, and rooted in the fundamental nature of reality because there is no disjuncture between the Old and New Testaments. All three persons in the Trinity are thought to be present at the creation in Genesis, according to conflict Reconstructionists, and they claim that the perceived disjuncture between the Old and New Testaments is dependent on humanistic evolutionary thought. Rushdoony claimed that the idea that the Old Testament’s “God of wrath” was replaced by a “God of love” in the New Testament was nothing short of heresy:
It is modern heresy that holds that the law of God has no meaning or any binding force for man today. It is an aspect of humanistic and evolutionary thought on the church, and it posits an evolving, developing god. This “dispensational” god expressed himself in law in an earlier age, then later expressed himself by grace alone, and is now perhaps to express himself in still another way. But this is not the God of Scripture, whose grace and law remain the same in every age, because, He, as the sovereign and absolute lord, changes not.3
So when an “epistemologically self-conscious” Christian wants to learn a biblical worldview, he or she starts with biblical law. Rushdoony’s most important work, The Institutes of Biblical Law, is a commentary on the Ten Commandments, taking each commandment and looking at examples of what he calls “case law” drawn from Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and other books from the Old Testament. Reconstructionists believe that a biblical worldview is a comprehensive system that can produce biblical standards for governing every aspect of life. The interpretive framework for understanding how a biblical worldview is to function is drawn from another traditional reformed notion: sphere sovereignty, though Rushdoony develops his own version of it.
Why do conservative Christians oppose social programs to alleviate poverty when the Bible has so much to say about caring for the poor? Why do many believe that public education is unbiblical? How is it that most government regulation of business is considered unbiblical? When we start with this interpretive framework, we can make sense of what seems like a hodgepodge of political viewpoints strung together. In Reconstructionist sphere sovereignty, God delegated authority over human concerns to three distinct institutions (or “governments,” as they often call them), each having its own authority and each carefully delimited. Those institutions are the family, the church, and the civil government.
For Rushdoony the family is the first institution, ordained by God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it remains the most important one. Property rights inhere in the family so, according to Rushdoony, four of the Ten Commandments deal with the family, its authority, its responsibility, and its rights under God.
The family is responsible for dominion, fulfilling the mandate given to Adam and Eve in the Garden. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”4 Rushdoony writes:
Thus, essential to the function of the family under God, and to the role of the man as the head of the household is the call to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it. This gives to the family a possessive function: to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it clearly involves in the biblical perspective private property. Man must bring to all creation God’s law-order exercising power over creation in the name of God.5
As Reconstructionists understand it, God created the first family in the Garden of Eden and charged them with the exercise of dominion. That charge was thwarted by the fall but, with the resurrection, humans were restored to their original calling.
The family’s charge has two central components, an economic one and an educational one. All property, and therefore all business ventures, are understood as expressions of the family’s exercise of dominion. Families are understood as autonomous economic units (autonomous from other institutions, not from the authority of God’s law). Thus any regulation of, or infringement on, economic activity by the civil government is seen as a tyrannical overreaching of its God-ordained authority.
The exercise of economic dominion is not an end in itself, but rather, a mechanism for the establishment of what a later Reconstructionist termed “multigenerational family dynasties”; the most important mechanism for the exercise of dominion is the building of biblical families, and the most important aspect of that is the education of children.6 The only biblical form of education under this system is private education in Christian schools and homeschools, under the exclusive authority of the family. Reconstructionists seek total autonomy for Christian schools and homeschools (again, autonomy from other institutions, but under what they see as the authority of God) and the complete privatization of public schools. This is, in some ways, the source of the most enduring influence of the movement, both in terms of growing interest in public school privatization but also in terms of their effort to cultivate a small but committed cadre of Christians imbued with a “biblical worldview.”
The second of the God-ordained spheres of government, the church, is responsible for preaching the Gospel and providing a basic (very limited) social safety net for the needy whose families are unable to provide help. Reconstructionists, because they see the primary message of the Gospel as the restoration of human beings to the calling for which they were created (dominion), understand the preaching of the Gospel as a broader task than other Christians who regard it as primarily proselytizing. For Reconstructionists, preaching the Gospel means lifelong discipleship in perfecting the application of biblical law to every aspect of one’s life. It is the job of the church to train Christians in this way and then hold them accountable for their submission to biblical law in a system of church courts.
Finally, the civil government exists to protect private property and “punish evildoers,” and its influence is strictly limited to these areas. When the civil government engages in tasks assigned to the other institutions, it is considered tyrannical. Furthermore, when it engages in activities not within in its appropriate sphere, and taxes people to do so, that taxation is understood as nothing short of theft.
Rushdoony insists on the term “civil government” as opposed to merely “government” to delineate his view from what he considers the humanistic conflation of various forms of government leading to tyranny.
[O]ringinally the word government was never applied in this country to the state. The word government meant, first of all, the self-government of the Christian man, the basic government in all history. Second, and very closely and inseparably linked with this, government meant the family. Every family is a government; it is man’s first church and first school. And also his first state …. But, tragically, today when we say government we mean the state, the federal government or some other form of civil government.7
It is this strictly limited authority for the civil government that makes Christian Reconstruction, in some ways, compatible with libertarianism, despite the apparent paradox of advocating both limited government and theocracy. It is also this delineation of authority that makes sense of Reconstructionists working for policies in keeping with a theocracy while, at the same time, insisting that they are not primarily political and that they believe in a separation of church and state. For them, that which is political pertains only to the sphere of civil government. Yet the other spheres are in no way understood as secular; all are derived from God-ordained authority delegated to “men,” and all remain subject to God’s ultimate authority.
There has been considerable controversy over the Reconstructionists’ influence as well as their political goals. In 2011 several well-regarded journalists divided over whether “dominionism” was worth taking seriously in a series of heated articles in the Daily Beast, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. A headline that screams “Secrets of the Extreme Religious Right: Inside the Frightening World of Christian Reconstructionism: The Zealots Pushing a Horrifying Vision of “Religious Freedom,” like a recent one from Salon, may generate “clicks,” but they also support the view that these folks are so extreme as to be irrelevant, thus diverting focus from important but less inflammatory ways in which they are having an impact.
Christian Reconstructionists insist that their goals are not essentially political, yet most observers (scholars, reporters, and pundits) focus on the question of whether they seek to establish a biblical theocracy. This framework, that has made its way from the obscure work of Rushdoony to the center of American conservative politics, puts forth a specific understanding of the proper relationship between the state and the larger society that is both dominionist and theocratic.
Concentric Circles of Influence
Making the case that Christian Reconstruction has been an important influence in shaping the tone and character of contemporary conservatism is a challenging task.8 Quantitative data is impossible to find, and while a few organizations explicitly identify as Reconstructionist, others reject the label even when there are observable ties, shared positions and strategies, and no apparent points of disagreement. It’s helpful to envision the influence of Christian Reconstruction as a series of concentric circles. In the middle are the key thinkers and their followers, starting with Rushdoony and then Gary North (the second most prolific author and Rushdoony’s son-in-law), expanding out to include David Chilton, Greg Bahnsen, James Jordan, Gary DeMar, and Joel McDurmon. Also in this circle would be the many homeschool leaders who identify with Rushdoony’s legacy. These would include Doug Philips, Kevin Swanson, Scott Brown, and others. On the periphery of that circle might be writers who have explicitly identified with the movement at some point, cited the key thinkers in their work, and embraced the various precepts but for one reason or another deny an affiliation (without any articulation of where they now differ.) Attorney Herb Titus is a good example of those on this periphery. Through associations with the law schools at Oral Roberts University and then later Pat Robertson’s Regent University, Titus has rejected the Reconstructionist label. Yet he has associated with Rushdoony and various explicitly Reconstructionist organizations through much of his career. He has been, for example, a frequent speaker at American Vision’s annual worldview conferences.9 He shares the worldview and agenda of the Reconstructionists and, in the context of rejecting the label, he never offers any examples as to where he differs from them.
A second circle in our model might include people who don’t identify as Christian Reconstructionists, and from whom Reconstructionists might seek to distance themselves, but who have clearly embraced aspects of the Reconstructionists’ worldview and promoted that worldview to a broader audience that might be completely unfamiliar with its sources. Homeschool leader Bill Gothard, founder of Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), might be in this circle. Early on, Gothard embraced the Reconstructionist position that the Bible speaks to every area of life. Gary North wrote approvingly of Gothard’s efforts at application, and there are many similarities between Gothard’s work and Christian Reconstruction, yet Gothard’s system is less sophisticated. The homeschoolers who identify with Gothard are generally seen as a distinct group, though there is overlap. The well-known Duggar family, for example, identify with Gothard’s organization but have been involved in Doug Phillips’s Reconstructionist-oriented efforts as well.
In this second circle we might also put those associated with the dominion theology of the Seven Mountains Movement, which is both similar to and distinct from Christian Reconstructionism: those in the Seven Mountains Movement are charismatic (they believe that God continues to give revelation to believers) and largely premillennialist, whereas Reconstuctionists believe that the canon of scripture is closed and embrace postmillennialist eschatology. Both movements say that they seek to transform society “from the bottom up” rather than “from the top down” (and Reconstructionists point to this as a difference between the two), though writers in both camps say things that imply the use of force as well. With cross-fertilization between charismatics and Reconstructionists and the timing and geography of the origins of Seven Mountains, it seems plausible that Rushdoony’s work on dominion was one source, despite the subsequent development as distinct subcultures.
Former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s father is associated with the movement, and there have been close ties between it and former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry. As another example, so-called tea party historian David Barton has ties to the Seven Mountains Movement and embraces Rushdoony’s biblical philosophy of history, the unity of scripture, and sphere sovereignty. He uses Rushdoony’s version of sphere sovereignty to make “biblical” assessments of every policy imaginable, from illegal immigration to net neutrality. He shares these views with the broader Christian right, the homeschool movement, and, with the help of Glenn Beck, the tea party.
Adherents to the political values and strategies of the religious right, homeschoolers, and tea partiers are influenced by Christian Reconstructionism in this way, often without recognizing that influence, and they occupy our third circle. On the periphery of this circle might be homeschoolers who are opposed to Christian Reconstructionism and its influence in the homeschooling movement but who, nevertheless, operate in a world shaped by Rushdoony’s philosophical and legal work, perpetuated and expanded by those working explicitly within Reconstruction.
Yet another way to think about tracing the subtle influence of Rushdoony’s early work is to isolate aspects that find expression in contemporary discourse. In each of these examples, Christian Reconstructionists are part of a broader coalition of influences that make up American conservatism. They are not solely responsible for these ideas, yet politically engaged conservative religion is a core aspect of American conservatism. Reconstructionists have developed and perpetuated certain styles of conservative religion, which have pushed beyond the boundaries of their narrow world to have a broader influence in shaping how conservative religious Americans understand the application of their faith to aspects of culture and politics.
In the 1950s, while most Americans thought of our nation’s public schools as the crucible of democracy, Rushdoony was developing a fundamental critique of public education rooted in presuppositionalism and sphere sovereignty. That critique was published in one of his earliest books The Messianic Character of American Education (1963). For Rushdoony, public education is irretrievably unbiblical. Certainly widely held concerns over desegregation, sexual license, and secularization were important to many Americans in that era. And while Rushdoony shared these concerns (see the section “The South Rising”), even if those issues could have been resolved, for Rushdoony education promoted and controlled by the civil government usurps the authority of the family. The strategy with regard to education, beginning with Rushdoony but promoted still by his followers, is twofold: secure independence for Christian education from any oversight or regulation by the state; and do all that is possible to undermine, privatize, and dismantle public education.
In the early years Rushdoony was a strong advocate for the Christian School Movement, promoting the establishment of Christian schools and working to challenge legal oversight and restrictions. Rushdoony served as an expert witness in numerous court cases in which he argued that the right of families to make educational decisions for their children without any regulation, accreditation, or oversight from the civil government was a matter of basic religious freedom.
Within a few short decades the Christian Homeschool Movement was flourishing, homeschooling was on the rise, and organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) were continuing Rushdoony’s efforts to secure legal autonomy for Christian education. This is an example of the way in which broad swaths of conservative Protestants are influenced by Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists in ways they may not recognize. While clearly all homeschoolers are not Christian Reconstructionists (indeed, many work in opposition to them), the Christian theological justification that undergirds their efforts and the legal context in which they exist are deeply indebted to Rushdoony and his followers.
The relative success at securing legal autonomy has been a point of criticism as homeschoolers have reached adulthood. Some have been critical of the quality of home education they received, and others point to the vulnerability of homeschooled children to abuse, since, by virtue of the autonomy granted to homeschool families, they might have very little contact with anyone outside their tight-knit circle. While the Chalcedon Foundation is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the homeschool world is being racked by scandals and allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse that have brought about resignations and legal battles in at least two of the most prominent homeschool ministries. In 2014 Doug Phillips resigned from Vision Forum Ministries admidst a scandal in which he admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a young woman; he was alleged to have nurtured that relationship beginning when she was under age. A lawsuit was filed and Phillips settled out of court in 2015. In 2014 an internal investigation, initiated after more than thirty women claimed they had been sexually assaulted as teen workers at his ministry’s headquarters, found that Bill Gothard had acted inappropriately and he resigned. Lawsuits against him are pending as of this writing.
Rushdoony and those who followed him have, for fifty years, pushed to privatize public education as a steppingstone to its dismantling; encouraged opponents of public education to run for local school boards as “stealth candidates”; worked to cut funding for public schools and to channel public funds to private schools (or quasi-public schools) through voucher plans and charter schools; and have fought to undermine public employee unions, especially teachers’ unions. While their push to privatize public education is finding some success, it is true that Reconstructionists are just one small influence in that effort and that they have some powerful partners. But it is also true that the central critique of public schools within the conservative Christian world—that they are essentially humanistic—comes from Rushdoony and has been disseminated in that world for more than half a century by people, institutions, and organizations that derived the critique from him.
Another example of Rushdoony’s work that finds expression in contemporary discourse is the reframing of religious freedom and conflict over what exactly is, and should be, protected. Presuppositionalism lends itself to a completely uncompromising worldview that sees itself as inevitably and irretrievably (or, in Rushdoony’s phrasing, “inescapably”) incompatible with modern secular society. This is especially true in conflicts over the nature and meaning of religious freedom. In 2004 Massachusetts was the only state that recognized same-sex marriage. In just a decade, thirty-six states (plus Washington, DC) did so, such that 70 percent of Americans were living where there was marriage equality when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage equality was protected by the Constitution. In those eleven years we saw increasingly vociferous assertions that marriage equality would come at the “expense of religious freedom.” This assertion was puzzling to many who understand the protections for “religious freedom” in a framework shaped by the Enlightenment, that is, pertaining to individuals and their relatively private beliefs.10
But Reconstructionists have not understood “religion” in this way. Every aspect of life is religious and is to be lived in obedience to biblical law. Secular society is not religiously neutral; it is understood in this perspective as constitutive of a rival (false) religion. As early as 1963, Rushdoony framed the conflict between secularism and Christianity over religious liberty in exactly the way it is framed by conservative Christians in the wake of Obergefell.
The following quote might have come, in 2015, from Mike Huckabee defending Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, claiming that she was doing so on the authority of God and her religious freedom rights; but instead, it comes from Rushdoony in 1965. In The Nature of the American System, in the chapter titled, “Attack on Religious Liberty,” Rushdoony predicts:
First the state is secularized in the name of freedom…. The word tyrant, from the Greek tyranos, means a secular ruler, one who rules without the sanction of religious law…. Instead of a higher law, the tyrant sees his mandate in the will of the people…. Tyranny is thus inevitably in conflict with religion because it cannot tolerate a law which denied that the people are the source of law, which asserts that there is a divine order which stands in judgment over the human order.11
Rushdoony goes on in anticipation of a conflict between “the church” and social policy, leading to the revocation of tax exemptions. He writes: “In the second stage of the attack, the prerogatives and liberty of the church are attacked, in an indirect and disguised fashion, so that gradually its very right to exist is denied … certainly a central thrust of this attack is to remove tax exemption from the churches.”12 In his view, taxation makes the church subject to the state, which the “true church” can never be, thus it ceases to exist.
Since the 1960s Reconstructionists have continued to promote this understanding of religious freedom. Critics point out, incredulously, that its logic would nullify claims to religious freedom by anyone holding alternative religious views, suggesting that the apparent contradiction challenges this understanding of religious freedom.
Some twenty years after Rushdoony wrote, Gary North (Rushdoony’s son-in-law and once heir-apparent to the movement’s leadership) made the Reconstructionists’ understanding of the implications of this understanding of freedom more explicit when he wrote:
So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government…. Then they will get busy constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.13
For many opponents of marriage equality, there can be no religious neutrality. A civil society permitting practices that some Christians oppose essentially violates the religious liberty of those Christians and is construed as a threat to the very existence of the church. This has become the new default understanding of the notion of religious liberty within many conservative Christian circles.
Biblical Philosophy of History and Postmillennialism
Another important component of a Reconstructionist biblical worldview is a “biblical philosophy of history.” For Rushdoony, the study of history is not a “secular” subject but rather a theological one in which the purpose is discerning God’s plan. The appeal of Christian Reconstruction, to those who become its followers, is at least in some measure this theology of history and a comprehensive narrative where every detail is meaningful in that it constitutes God’s revelation of himself. Reconstructionists come to see every aspect their day-to-day lives as infused with sacred purpose—as worship in the way that the Puritans did. Rushdoony’s goal was to teach a small group of highly committed believers to bring every aspect of their lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and thereby to shape history or, rather, to play a part in God’s shaping of history.
God’s shaping of history is understood in Christian Reconstructionism in terms of the eschatological category of postmillennialism. Most conservative American Protestants are premillennial, that is they expect the world to get worse and worse until a great cataclysm (or battle) leads to the return of Jesus ushering in the Kingdom of God (thus Jesus’ return is premillennial). Christian Reconstructionists are postmillennial, meaning they believe the Kingdom of God was established at the resurrection and that, through faithful submission of Christians to biblical law, and the exercise of dominion, the Kingdom will be progressively realized in history. Postmillennialists believe that Jesus’ Second Coming will occur at the culmination of the millennium. They understand this as a lengthy process that could take “generations,” and while they sometimes speculate on how this might happen, they do not present specific “end-times” scenarios.
One of the more prolific Christian Reconstructionist speculators on how the Kingdom of God could expand rapidly in times of turmoil has been Gary North. Originally a premillennialist and still a conspiracy theorist with survivalist tendencies, North’s speculations mesh nicely with the more widely held premillennialism. North has repeatedly predicted societal collapses, which he expects will set the stage for properly prepared Christians to take dominion. North relies heavily on the notion of the “faithful remnant” that Rushdoony adapted from Albert Jay Nock.14
Certainly not unique to this version of Christianity, an emphasis on martyrdom and persecution are reinforced here by presuppositionalism and remnant postmillennialism. The dualism of presuppositionalism helps create a world in which one’s opponents are not just people with whom one disagrees but proponents of the forces of evil: power-hungry liars and deceivers, bound for eternal damnation but capable of wreaking havoc in the meantime. The remnant-focused postmillennialism anticipates a cosmic conflict between those forces of evil and the faithful people of God. In some substantial measure the evidence that one is on the side of righteousness is that he or she is faced with persecution. This accounts for some of the highly charged rhetoric and emotionally charged anger of some contemporary conservatives. The claim of persecution becomes not just a description of an experience but a theological necessity. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
The South Rising?
Anyone paying attention will note the overlap between the strongly religious “red states” and the Old South. This is not coincidence, and Reconstructionists have had a role to play in preservation and resurgence of the values of the Confederacy. In addition to traditional reformed theologians, Rushdoony relied on a theological system and worldview promoted by R. L. Dabney, a Southern Presbyterian who was the architect of important aspects of Southern religion, defending not only slavery but also a broad view of civilization that was perceived of as the biblical model. Rushdoony promoted Dabney’s argument that the U.S. Civil War was a fight to defend a Christian, patriarchal, agrarian culture against the decaying humanism of Northern Unitarianism and industrialism. Underlying this was a deep critique of egalitarianism as undesirable, unworkable, and unbiblical. He taught Dabney’s work to his followers and helped ensure that it was republished. Rushdoony also wrote approvingly of slavery apologist and vice president of the Confederacy Alexander H. Stephens.15 Rushdoony agreed with Stephens that the cause of the Civil War was “not slavery but Centralism,” which remains a common argument in today’s far right that is easily disputed by the various states’ secessionist resolutions themselves. Rushdoony cites Stephens’s views on slavery and equality:
The “cornerstone” of Constitutionalism for Stephens was not equality but a general “principle” of subordination of the inferior to the superior.” This slavery upheld…. Stephens did not see slavery as an economic fact so much as a social fact, not so much one of capital and labor as one of superior and inferior…. not equality but justice should govern the political or moral order and should be the controlling principle.16
Importantly, Rushdoony integrated the Southern apologists’ values in his development of what he considered a biblical worldview: a society that rejects democratic principles, including the notion that governmental authority derives from the consent of the governed, and that is opposed to the values of egalitarianism, pluralism, and tolerance. Instead, these thinkers envisioned a radically decentralized society in which families headed by patriarchs were, with few exceptions, autonomous from institutional control. An example given by Rushdoony is the case of a young couple caught in fornication. Decisions about how to address the crime are, in this view, left entirely to the young woman’s father, who can compel a marriage or opt for demanding what is effectively a dowry. This serves as an example of how a misplaced focus on Reconstructionists’ extreme positions can lead us to miss more subtle examples of influence. It seems unlikely that this nineteenth-century, Southern family model would be reestablished and brought to bear in rape cases. Yet the homeschool abuse scandals discussed above are exacerbated by the persistence of these views of family autonomy. This is partly why, for example, in the homeschool scandal that brought down the “family values” focused TV reality show 19 Kids and Counting, the Duggar parents believed it was appropriate to keep information about their son’s sexual abuse of his sisters and other minors within their family. The Duggars’ primary homeschooling network was the scandal-ridden IBLP. While not explicitly Reconstructionist, IBLP has longstanding ties to the Reconstructionist movement and shares many aspects of the Reconstructionists’ biblical worldview. Moreover, the Duggars themselves were ministry partners with another scandal-ridden homeschooling ministry that was explicitly Christian Reconstructionist, Vision Forum, which had named Michelle Duggar Mother of the Year in 2010.
A Movement Coming of Age?
At the beginning of this essay I observed that, at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Chalcedon Foundation, the movement has, in some sense, come of age.
We’ve seen a well-established and wide-reaching Christian education movement, which includes Christian schools, homeschools, and large numbers of Americans who have come to embrace a presuppositionally inflected young earth creationism. We see a growing critique aimed at undermining a commitment to a religiously neutral public sphere in favor of a view of religious freedom that cannot coexist with various freedoms, religious and otherwise, with which it does not agree. And we see a resurgence in popularity of the values of the Confederacy, expressed as states’ rights and “small government” but characterized by the aggressive and defiant dualism that puts one group of Americans irreconcilably in opposition to others.
One measure of the influence of a movement would be the numbers of people who are “members.” The thing is, for the most part there is no membership in this movement. There are some churches around the country that explicitly identify as Reconstructionist, but another form of influence is much harder to measure. There are thousands of churches affiliated with the Reconstructionist Family Integrated Church Movement, many of which would not identify as Reconstructionist. But the National Center for Family Integrated Churches promotes an extensive program of publications and conferences. And when the leaders of non-Reconstructionist member churches are in conversation with more thoroughgoing Reconstructionists who lead that organization, when they join a movement shaped by that worldview, it is likely that notions of presuppositionalism, theonomy, and sphere sovereignty play a role in how members of those congregations understand their Christian faith.
People are rarely clear on their intellectual ancestors. There have long been fringe voices on the far right that espouse conspiracies, celebrate the Old South, and elevate the traditional American values of individualism and self-sufficiency into a heated hatred for, and suspicion of, “the government.” But the network of Reconstructionist groups, their publications, and their conferences have been at the nexus of libertarian, patriot, neoconfederate, and extreme gun rights groups as they have found expression in the tea party. They have moved from being on the fringes to being a key constituency of the Republican Party, for the time being at least. Christian Reconstructionism is not the sole source for that development, but the agenda of those who are now part of that key constituency has been developed, nurtured, and promoted by Christian Reconstructionists for over half a century.
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(1) Rushdoony, By What Standard? (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, 1983 ), 11.
(2) Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company 1983  4 (italics in the original).
(4) Genesis, 1:28 KJV.
(6) Doug Phillips; the ministry he built on the framework established by Rushdoony is explore in Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 140ff.
(7) Rushdoony, Law and Liberty, Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977, 59 (italics in the original).
(8) I have made this argument in different ways in several publications, including Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
(9) American Vision, in addition to the Chalcedon Foundation, is one of the most important explicitly Reconstructionist organizations. Its two main staff members are Gary DeMar, a longtime Reconstructionist author, and Joel McDurmon, who is both one of the more prominent up-and-coming Reconstructionist authors and father to Rushdoony’s grandchildren.
(10) For an exploration of this framing of religious liberty and the problems it creates, see Winnifred Fallers Sullivan et al., eds., The Politics of Religious Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
(11) Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System,Nutley NJ: The Craig Press, 1965, 45.
(13) North, Christianity and Civilization: The Failure of American Baptist Culture, Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School, 1982, 25.
(14) See Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).