Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism – Michael McVicar

Christian Reconstructionism has long functioned as a bogeyman in electoral politics. Politicians identified with the New Christian Right are routinely tarred by accusations of proto-theonomy, the belief that the government should enforce Old Testament civil and moral laws. Fear is an effective means of getting out the vote, so around every election season you’ll find a profusion of essays, even entire books, suggesting that a vote for [insert conservative politician] is the first step towards laws punishing homosexuality, witchcraft, and even childish rebellion with stoning. The slippery slope towards Christian Reconstructionism functions for the Left as accusations of incipient socialism do for the Right.

Apologists for Christian Reconstructionism typically respond by saying that this common depiction of their movement is skewed. Yes, they believe that in an ideal society these sins would be punishable by the civil authorities, but the advent of that society is many generations removed from the present. By that point in time, society will have already been remade voluntarily by Christian families and thus homosexuality and other sins will be much rarer than they are today. Government sanctions would hardly even be necessary. (I’m not sure that this line of Reconstructionist reasoning has ever reassured anybody anywhere who wasn’t already a convinced Reconstructionist.) In any case, the apologist avers, it’s unfair to fixate on one small, controversial part of Reconstructionist ideology while ignoring the broader intellectual framework.

Michael McVicar’s book, the first critical history of Christian Reconstructionism, digs deeper into the ideology of the movement than either the shallow criticisms of previous books or the self-congratulatory work produced by Reconstructionists themselves. McVicar had unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal papers and thus was able to reconstruct the theologian’s intellectual evolution in his own words. The portrait of Rushdoony that emerges is of a theological lone-wolf who patched together a system of thought by borrowing from a surprising variety of sources.

From his mentor at UC Berkeley, German expat Ernst Kantorowicz, Rushdoony imbibed a romantic nostalgia for early modern European Christendom. As McVicar puts it, he was compelled by the “ways in which abstract theological conceptions of God and man had concretized into the political infrastructure of the medieval and modern worlds.” Rushdoony wanted to bring that missing sense of religious enchantment back to American politics. Not long after his time at Berkeley, Rushdoony chanced upon the work of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, a theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, had created a system of Christian apologetics known as presuppositionalism. Van Til argued that epistemology is always grounded in presuppositions about the nature of the universe. In short, a belief in God so drastically alters a Christian’s approach to learning the truth that an uncrossable chasm opens up between theology and secular philosophy. By combining Kantorowicz’s political theology and Van Til’s system, Rushdoony created a critique of State progressivism. He believed that the government’s efforts to solve social ills without reference to God were not only doomed to failure but actively harmful.

Rushdoony’s first ministry was as a missionary pastor to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Rushdoony believed the social disorder on the reservation was the result of the heavy hand of a State that had divorced itself from God’s law. As Rushdoony griped, “[The state] is the giver of all things, the course of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water….The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away, and blessed is the name of the government each Memorial Day.” In the face of widespread drunkenness and gambling on the reservation, Rushdoony’s messages of individual salvation seemed insufficient. The reservation, and American society more broadly, needed a full-orbed reconstruction along Biblical lines.

While on the reservation, Rushdoony encountered the third major ideological strand that composed Christian Reconstructionism. Rushdoony had grown dissatisfied with premillennial eschatology, the belief that society would sink into ever greater depravity until the second coming of Christ to earth. Rushdoony rejected premillennialism’s pessimistic outlook in favor of postmillennialism, the belief that Christians would actively usher in the kingdom of God. Christ would return once a truly Christian society had pervaded every corner of the globe. The telos of history, according to one postmillennial scholar found in Rushdoony’s personal library, “is nothing less than a Christianized world.”

These three major components of Rushdoony’s thought–Kantorowicz, Van Til, postmillennialism–were all borrowed from other sources, but he gave them his own spin by adding a novel scriptural hermeneutic. Traditionally, Reformed theologians had distinguished between three kinds of Old Testament law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled by the first coming of Christ and the civil laws ceased to apply after the transition from theocratic Israel to the New Testament Church. Only the moral commandments remained fully binding for Christians.

Rushdoony rejected this division between “two tables” of the law as excessively facile. He believed that the division between civil and moral law had been read into scripture rather than pulled from the text itself. Furthermore, even ceremonial law, while technically superseded by the new covenant in Christ, remained instructive as a series of principles that should inform proper Christian living today. Rushdoony’s opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, applied these Old Testament laws and principles to modern American society in mind-numbing detail. For example, the OT prohibition on mixing linen and wool threads when weaving clothes and harnessing oxes and donkeys together while plowing (Deutoronomy 22:11) elicited a lengthy discussion on the dangers of genetic hybridization, bestiality, interracial marriages, and the wanton use of the pesticide DDT.

Indeed, that odd list of issues is evocative of the idiosyncratic nature of Reconstructionism. Rushdoony attempted to harmonize three discrete streams of thought and the rough edges show through. For example, Rushdoony believed that America was headed to hell in a handbasket. (Gary North later pinned his hopes on Y2K.) That’s a grand narrative usually associated with premillennialism. Yet once America had been debased Christian Reconstructionists, organized around patriarchal family units, would rebuild a Kingdom society brick by brick. Rushdoony wedded the pessimistic assumptions prevalent on the Right during the New Deal and early Cold War with an optimistic future view of the Kingdom associated with postmillennialism. Similarly, Rushdoony’s distrust of heavy government intervention from his days on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation led him to advocate for a radically decentralized, shrunken State. And yet his hermeneutic also led him to conclude that the Bible commanded a massive extension of civil authority to protect and advance the institution of the church and Biblical morals. It’s the natural outcome of an ideological project that mingled the fears of mid-20th century conservative political culture, the political theology of a German romantic historian, and the theology of two Dutch Reformed intellectuals.

Much of the rest of McVicar’s book is an interesting account of Rushdoony’s mostly failed attempts to work with conservative think tanks. Because of his Van Til-ian presuppositionalism, he kept pushing broadly-based conservative groups to adopt stricter policies on employing Catholics and agnostics. Rushdoony’s disciples, including his son-in-law Gary North, spread his ideas to a wider audience by being willing to view non-Reformed conservatives as co-belligerents in the fight for a Christianized America. They also connected Christian Reconstructionism to the survivalist movement, which turned out to be a very profitable source of income for North in particular. It wasn’t long before Rushdoony, North, and other Reconstructionists started squabbling over who represented the future of the movement. (North even insinuated that his father-in-law had gone insane for living in godless California.)

If I have one critique of McVicar’s book, it’s that I think he exaggerates the influence of formal Reconstructionist thought on the broader New Christian Right. In his final chapter, he argues that everyone from Francis Schaeffer to Pat Robertson borrowed ideas from Rushdoony. I suspect McVicar gets this from Rushdoony himself, who frequently grumbled about people stealing his ideas without giving him credit. Yet while the language of “dominion” certainly bounced about in Right-wing discourse, I’m not sure that McVicar gives strong evidence that those ideas necessarily came from Christian Reconstructionism. New Christian Right intellectuals were more likely to cite Abraham Kuyper or Cornelius Van Til than Rousas Rushdoony. I’ve embedded a Google Ngram for “Abraham Kuyper,” “Rousas Rushdoony,” and Cornelius Van Til. It’s hardly scientific, but it’s suggestive as to their relative weight on conservative Christian political theology.

Take the example of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s books, How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto, were hugely influential among evangelicals interested in cultural engagement during the 1970s and 1980. McVicar credits Rushdoony with a “distant, complex influence on the genesis of Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto” and recounts one of Rushdoony’s journal entries: “Read Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto, another book using some of my material…with no mention of me…Not faith but timidity is the mark of too many Christians today, including able men like Francis.” Yet while Rushdoony may have felt that Schaeffer borrowed his ideas, it seems just as likely that Schaeffer merely pulled from the same streams as Rushdoony had. Schaeffer attended Westminster Theological Seminary and had taken classes from Cornelius Van Til. He certainly borrowed Van Til’s ideas, but I’m not sure McVicar gives any direct evidence that Schaeffer borrowed from, or even read, anything by Rushdoony. A visit to Schaeffer’s archives might have shed light on the matter, but in this and other instances, McVicar is too willing to take Rushdoony’s assertions at face value.

I’ll close with a personal comment. (That’s the advantage of writing a review for your own website!) As a Reformed Christian myself, I found the sections of McVicar’s book that touched on Rushdoony’s hermeneutic of Scripture deeply disturbing. Oddly enough, I do agree with Rushdoony on one point, that the traditional division between “two tables” of Old Testament law is facile. It’s just not that neat and tidy when you get down into the weeds. However, I push that observation to exactly the opposite conclusion. I agree with David Dorsey’s view in “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise.” The New Testament authors say that the entire Old Testament law code is fulfilled in Christ and is thus voided for the New Testament believer. While pieces of the Old Testament law are restated and even expanded upon in the new covenant, the Mosaic law code is no longer binding upon the life of the Christian. Period. The OT law does have value inasmuch as it tells us something about the character of the God who wrote it, but it should not be fodder for endless speculation on how to apply OT law to NT life. That feels more like something learnt sitting at the seat of Gameliel than at the foot of the Cross.

And it’s worth noting where Rushdoony’s hermeneutical logic led him. McVicar includes the following anecdote. At one of Rushdoony’s Bible studies, a student asked him, What would happen to a Hindu in a reconstructed America? Rushdoony, bouncing a child on his knee, responded, “As long as he didn’t practice his faith, the Hindu would be fine.” The student pushed again. And what if said Hindu did practice his faith? Well then, Rushdoony replied, “He’d be guilty of violating the laws of the state.” And? “And be subject to capital punishment.” Rushdoony pushed his vision of a postmillennial Christendom enforcing Old Testament law to its logical extreme.

One thought on “Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism – Michael McVicar

  1. I used to be a Reconstructionist in my younger years. Their biggest and deepest failure is the failure to understand virtue ethics alongside rule ethics. (Jesus taught no new ethic, but He was about, among other things, the democratization of virtue.) Also, quite early I realized I believed the state had no business in the first 3 1/2 commandments (2 1/2 for Lutherans and Catholics) but that the others were the basis of civil law. (And the latter don’t differ that much from other ethical systems.) It puts me in the position of believing that it is not intrinsically wrong for the state to legislate on private sexual behavior (though we don’t have to push that one) but it is intrinsically wrong to have (outside of voluntary clubs) prayer in publishing c school. Prayer FOR public school, yes!

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