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The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism

  • Molly Worthen

Extract

According to the town criers of liberal American journalism, readers must wake up and do something. Hide your children—there is a movement afoot among conservative Christians to take over our country and give America a theocratic makeover. A slew of magazine articles and books—with apocalyptic titles such as American Theocracy and The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us1— announced conservative Christians' backward views on social and political issues, insidious webs of government influence, and intentions to return America to its supposedly Christian roots. Most of these authors devoted at least a few pages to an obscure religious movement and a man with a curious name: Christian reconstructionism and R. J. Rushdoony.

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1 Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006); James Rudin, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us (New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2006). See also Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: Norton, 2006), and Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

2 John Sugg, “A Nation Under God,” Mother Jones, December/January 2006, http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2005/12/a_nation_under_god.html, and Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come, 64–65.

3 Sugg, “A Nation Under God.”

4 Richard John Neuhaus, “Why Wait for the Kingdom? The Theonomist Temptation,” First Things, 3 (May 1990), 13–21.

5 See, for example, H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism (Multnomah, Ore.: Multnomah, 1988); Hal Lindsey, The Road to Holocaust (New York: Bantam, 1989). Bruce Barron's Heaven On Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992) is the most responsible of these books, though it is still far from a scholarly and serious approach. See also the review of reconstructionist writer Greg Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J.: Craig, 1977) by Presbyterian theologian of the Old Testament Meredith Kline: “Comments on an Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal (Westminster Theological Seminary: Fall 1978), vol. XLI, no. 1.

6 Hanna Rosin, “What's Up with the Christian Right? The Peculiar Morphing of American Evangelicalism,” Slate (Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive), 3 November 2006, http://www.slate.com/id/2152890/.

7 Once, when asked what would happen to a practicing Hindu under a Christian reconstructionist regime, Rushdoony replied, “He'd be guilty of violating the laws of the state … and be subject to capital punishment” (John Whitehead, Slaying Dragons: The Truth Behind the Man Who Defended Paula Jones [Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1999], 144).

8 Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, and What It Isn't (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 81–82.

9 All biographical details, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from a eulogy delivered by Rushdoony's son: Mark R. Rushdoony, “The Vision of R. J. Rushdoony,” text of a talk given 16 September 2005 at Chalcedon's 40th Anniversary Conference in Cumming, Ga., http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=185.

10 Premillennial dispensationalism is a school of theology that teaches biblical history as a series of administrations—called dispensations—and predicts that Christ will return to initiate a thousand-year reign of the saints. Because premillennialists think that only Christ can initiate the Kingdom of God, they often believe that world civilization will steadily disintegrate until then—and that it is not the role of Christians to “polish brass on a sinking ship.” Born in the religious ferment of Britain and Ireland in the 1820s, dispensationalism came to the United States via a British member of the Plymouth Brethren named John Nelson Darby, who made a series of missionary trips to America in the 1860s and 1870s.

11 Mark Rushdoony, interview with the author, 1 November 2006.

12 Herbert C. Cornuelle, “Mr. Anonymous”: The Story of William Volker (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1951), 208–212.

13 “The Ministry of Chalcedon,” Chalcedon Foundation, 2005, http://www.chalcedon.edu/ministry.php.

14 Rushdoony's regular “Chalcedon Reports” refer to his work outside Vallecito, though in vague terms. For example, he begins his second report, published 31 October 1965, by writing, “During this past month, in the course of my travels, I spent several hours visiting with an outstanding conservative leader, a man who is a major force in one of our most notable anti-communist organizations”: (“Chalcedon Report No. 2,” 31 October 1965, in Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, Calif.: Ross House, 1991], 546.)

15 See chapters 2 and 3 of Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).

16 Mark Rushdoony, 1 November 2006.

17 Ibid.

18 Gary North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996), xviii.

19 For example, Gary DeMar quotes Benjamin Warfield on Revelation 19: “What we have here, in effect, is a picture of the whole period between the first and second advents, seen from the point of view of heaven. It is the period of advancing victory of the Son of God over the world” (Benjamin Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 647–648; quoted in DeMar and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity (Fort Worth, Texas: Dominion, 1988), 260, see also DeMar's fuzzy use of Charles Hodge: “before the second coming of Christ there is to be a time of great and long continued prosperity” Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986 [1871–3]), 858; quoted in Reduction, 259).

20 Indeed, Charles Hodge seems to specifically reject the reconstructionist notion of dominion: “We find in the scriptures frequent assurances that the Church is to extend from sea to sea, from the rising to the setting sun; that all nations and people are to flow unto it. These promises the Jews referred to as their theocracy … Judaizing Christians interpret these same predictions as securing the universal prevalence of the theocratic church, with its pope or prelates. In opposition to both, the Redeemer said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’: (Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity, from Contributions to the Princeton Review [New York: Scribner's Sons, 1878], 31). Gary North is the only reconstructionist writer who senses the limitations of the Princeton theologians for his case and attacks them outright for faulty apologetics (Crossed Fingers, 174ff.).

21 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith: A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1977), 298.

22 North and DeMar, Christian Reconstruction, xii.

23 Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 3.

24 See, for example, Rushdoony, “Hard Money and Society in the Bible,” in Hans F. Sennholz, Gold Is Money (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975); Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, 539, 590–593; see also Gary North, “Isaiah's Critique of Inflation,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 7:10–30 (1980), 31–39; North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis. An Economic Commentary on the Bible, Vol. 1 (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987 [1982]), 92, 93; and an appendix by North in Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 799–824.

25 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976 [1944]), 72.

26 Even Calvin and the New England Puritans operated from the assumption of natural law.

27 Quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 263–264. Homoousios is Greek for “of the same substance.”

28 Monism is the doctrine that only one principle of being exists; that humanity and the divine, spirit and matter are all one.

29 Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), 78–79.

30 George Huntston Williams, “Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century,” Church History 20:3 (September 1951), 6.

31 Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 85.

32 Ibid., 81–82.

33 Rushdoony, By What Standard? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958), 82.

34 Ibid., 72.

35 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Santayana (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1953), 33.

36 Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis and Education (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), 2.

37 Ibid., 14.

38 Richard M. Weaver, “Up from Liberalism,” Modern Age 3:1 (Winter 1958–1959), 29, quoted in George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 53.

39 Ibid., 15.

40 Dominion theology—a broad category that includes Christian reconstructionists as well as “soft dominionists” who advocate Christian influence over society by more peaceful and politically correct means—derives from Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, 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” (King James Version).

41 Jeffrey Ventrella, interview with the author, 27 November 2006.

42 R. Scott Appleby, “Keeping Them Out of the Hands of the State: Two Critiques of Christian Schools,” American Journal of Education 98:1 (November 1989), 64.

43 Dewey drew hatred from diverse corners of American conservatism: Russell Kirk wrote that “every radicalism since 1789 found its place in John Dewey's system; and this destructive intellectual compound became prodigiously popular, in short order, among that distraught crowd of the semi-educated and among people of more serious pretensions who found themselves lost in a withered world that Darwin and Faraday had severed from its roots” (Kirk, Conservative Mind, 365).

44 Susan D. Rose, Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan: Evangelical Schooling in America (New York: Routledge, 1988), 35.

45 Texas Educ. Agency v. Leeper, No. 2-87-216-CV, Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth, 843 S.W. 2nd 41, decided 27 November 1991. Accessed at LexisNexis Academic, http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/document?_m=9b32f25b86cc1b9164a8a898fa52d1a6&_docnum=1&wchp=dGLbVzW-zSkVb&_md5=06f072562f8fede4668e50dc4f9824c5, 2006.

46 See, for example, Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, Teaching the Trivium (Muscatine, Iowa: Trivium Pursuit, 2001), 30, 39.

47 Intellectual Schizophrenia, xii–xiii.

48 Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920),” in John Witte, Jr., and Frank S. Alexander, eds., The Teachings of Modern Christianity: On Law, Politics, and Human Nature (New York: Columbia, 2006), 1:28–327.

49 Quoted in Wolterstorff, 2:310.

50 Ibid., 2:236.

51 David O. Moberg, “Religion and Society in the Netherlands and in America,” American Quarterly 13:2, part 1 (Summer 1961), 173–175.

52 Ibid., 174.

53 J. Gresham Machen, in John W. Robbins, ed., Education, Christianity, and the State (Jefferson, Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1987), 52.

54 Nisbet, Conservatism, 5.

55 Nash described the argument of Weaver and others who shared Rushdoony's view: “Liberalism, with its cult of the suspended judgment, was flabby and confused; it had too long allowed itself to be seduced, even raped, by totalitarian ideologies. In its relativist, bend-over-backward, secular, scientistic, pragmatic way, it was—said a rising chorus of critics—undermining a civilization in which it no longer believed” (Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, 39).

56 Intellectual Schizophrenia, 9.

57 Ibid., 50.

58 “In religious toleration, the state is paramount, and, in every sphere, its powers are totalitarian. The state is the sovereign or lord, the supreme religious entity and power … The state reserves the power to license and tolerate one or more religions upon its own conditions and subject to state controls, regulation, and supervision … The early church refused licensure, because it meant the lordship of Caesar over Christ and His church”: (Rushdoony, “Religious Liberty versus Religious Toleration,” in Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, Calif.: Ross House, 1991], 147.)

59 Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia, 88.

60 Ibid., 109.

61 Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1970), 19–20.

62 Ibid., 186.

63 Ibid., 80–81. Kirk on this point: “Humanitarianism, usurping the place of the Church, endeavors to ignore the existence of Sin and to erect sympathy into a social theory leaving individual responsibility out of account. Sympathy and justice are confounded” (Conservative Mind, 383).

64 Ibid., 94.

65 Ibid., 157.

66 Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (London: Penguin, 1986 [1790]), 183.

67 Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity, 143.

68 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), Book IV, ch. XX, vol. II, 1485–1521.

69 Ibid., Book III, ch. XXV, vol. II, 995.

70 Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987).

71 Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity, 266.

72 Ibid., 269.

73 With the arguable exception of the Mormons' nineteenth-century Great Basin Kingdom.

74 Lawrence Henry Gibson, “The Criminal Codes of Connecticut,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 6:2 (July 1915) 182.

75 Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, 56.

76 Kirk, Conservative Mind, 113.

77 Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: Craig, 1973), 4. The idea of sanctification by law is not original to Rushdoony; it has a long history in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.

78 Ibid., 93.

79 There is some suggestion here of the old doctrine of dominion and grace, propounded by John Wyclif, the fourteenth-century father of Lollardy, that heretical English foretaste of the Reformation. In his treatise De Civili Dominio (1376), Wyclif argued against the right of any sinner to hold property. He intended to justify the confiscation of church property by the Crown, though his doctrine had radical implications if taken in conjunction with the stain of original sin on all individuals. By no means did Rushdoony argue this—but his position on the uses of law and Wyclif's position on property both potentially deny to the unsaved rights considered common to humanity.

80 Rushdoony, Institutes, 99.

81 Ibid., 102.

82 Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 345.

83 Rushdoony, Institutes, 57.

84 Nisbet, 35.

85 Ibid., 18.

86 Kirk, Conservative Mind, 199.

87 The seminal book on the parallels between God's covenant with Israel (as expressed at Sinai, with David, etc.) in the Old Testament and suzerain treaties of the ancient Near East is G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Bible Colloquium, 1955).

88 Rushdoony, “The Cathars,” in Roots of Reconstruction, 285.

89 Rushdoony, Institutes, 60–61.

90 Ibid., 225.

91 Ibid., 76.

92 Ibid., 174.

93 Ibid., 228.

94 Rushdoony, “The Meaning of Theocracy,” in Roots of Reconstruction, 63.

95 Rushdoony, Institutes, 639.

96 John Whitehead, interview with the author, 27 October 2006.

97 Whitehead's organization is named for seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford, who defied the king by proclaiming that God's laws were higher than those of the crown.

98 John Whitehead, 27 October 2006.

99 Mark Rushdoony, 1 November 2006.

100 Chris Ortiz, email to the author, 25 October 2006.

101 Ibid.

102 Gary North, email to the author, 30 October 2006.

103 For example: “I do not believe in zombies, but whenever I examine the philosophy of political pluralism, I wonder if my prejudice can be supported. ‘It never sleeps it walks, it crashes into things, yet it's brain-dead. Nothing has stopped it in eighteen hundred years. Unchained, it has now gone berserk!’ There are only two ways to stop a zombie in the movies: smash its skull or decapitate it” (Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism [Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989], xxiii).

104 North collaborated with other reconstructionist writers in the 1980s to produce the Biblical Blueprints Series, short paperbacks devoted to outlining the application of biblical law to everything from family life to foreign policy. The first few volumes were published by Thomas Nelson, a small Christian press. After Thomas Nelson lost interest, North published the rest under one of his personal imprints, Dominion Press.

105 North and DeMar, Christian Reconstruction, xxi.

106 Ibid., 117–120.

107 North, Tools of Dominion, 44–45.

108 Greg Bahnsen, No Other Standard (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 21. Mark Rushdoony emphasized that his father did not keep kosher, as the laws of kashrut are the result of rabbinic accretions surrounding the biblical text; he interpreted the dietary laws of the Pentateuch for himself. John Whitehead recalled that Rushdoony's dietary quirks were sometimes a social inconvenience: “One time he came over for dinner, and I went into the kitchen and said, ‘What's on, my darling?’ and my wife said, ‘Ham.’ I said, ‘Oh no!’ because Rushdoony didn't eat pork. So she quickly threw in a roast. Then once at a political event, they were serving oysters on the half shell. I grabbed one and was sliding it into my mouth, and he looked at me like I was eating feces. I swallowed it quick”: (Whitehead to the author, 30 October 2006).

109 Ibid.

110 Jeffrey Ventrella, interview with the author, 27 November 2006.

111 Quoted in Reduction of Christianity, ix.

112 North, Christian Reconstruction, xvi.

113 North, Political Polytheism, 15. The towns he names are sites of major evangelical colleges and publishing houses.

114 Ibid., 54.

115 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963), 3–144.

116 Bahnsen, in Gary DeMar, The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction (Fort Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1988), xiv. Bahnsen is often held up by reconstructionists as the movement's foremost scholar, and informed readers may wonder why I have given him short shrift here. I believe his reputation is ill deserved. In some sense it is difficult to compare Bahnsen with Rushdoony: Rushdoony's works consist of theology as social criticism, while Bahnsen occupied most of his time with biblical exegesis. Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), considered his masterpiece, is almost entirely exegetical in nature. Exegesis is of no small significance in a movement that, during its heyday in the 1990s, published more pages debating the meaning of key Bible verses than anything else. But the motivating ideas of Christian reconstructionism, the principles that caught on among Rushdoony's disciples and homeschoolers around the country, are only superficially present in Bahnsen's works. Those who argue for Bahnsen's superiority imply that by snowing critics with proof texts, he somehow brought new respectability to the movement—but the current reputation of reconstructionism proves that he failed at that task. Rushdoony, there is no doubt, was the founder of the movement and the superior mind.

117 More recently, Randall Terry reentered the public eye as spokesman for the parents of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who became the focus of national controversy in 2005 when her husband petitioned to remove her feeding tube.

118 Whitehead, 27 October 2006.

119 Mark Rushdoony, 1 November 2006.

120 Whitehead, 27 October 2006.

121 William Martin, With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), 259.

122 Quoted in ibid., 268.

123 See, for example, “TV Preacher Pat Robertson Expands on ‘Gay Days’ Comments,” Common Dreams Newswire, 24 June 1998; Laura Parker, “Fate, Flight, Plywood, and Prayer,” USA Today, 7 September 2003; Steven G. Vegh, “Pat Robertson, A Prophet to His Believers,” Virginian-Pilot, 13 January 2006.

124 Titus's reconstructionist sermons are available at www.sermonaudio.com. See in particular “The Bible—The Law of All Nations,” April 22–23, 2005.

125 Whitehead, 30 October 2006.

126 Randall Balmer, Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Boston: Beacon, 1999), 52.

127 Peter Slevin, “Bringing the Church to the Courtroom: Christian Group Becomes Force in Major Legal Battles,” Washington Post, 10 July 2006. Available through LexisNexis: http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/document?_m=f26251f54712fb4286f6b6aabd946e6f&_docnum=1&wchp=dGLbVtb-zSkVb&_md5=6fe7e17859a6494cc194163f9e38d285.

128 Ventrella, 27 November 2006.

129 Ibid.

130 Ibid.

131 “About American Vision,” http://www.americanvision.org/aboutus.asp, 2006.

132 John Sugg, “A Nation Under God.”

133 See, for example, George Grant's King's Meadow Study Center (www.kingsmeadow.com); Grant contributed to Gary North's Biblical Blueprints Series; see also my article on New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, which was founded by a Christian reconstructionist and features several ex-reconstructionists on the faculty (Molly Worthen, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” New York Times Magazine, 30 September 2007, 84–87).

134 North, Tools of Dominion, 15.

135 Robert M. Bowman, “The New Puritanism: A Preliminary Assessment of Reconstructionism,” Christian Research Journal 10:3 (Winter/Spring 1988), 27.

136 Ventrella, 27 November 2006.

137 North, Tools of Dominion, 51.

138 Bahnsen, No Other Standard, 178.

139 Ibid., 183.

140 Ibid., 192.

141 Ibid., 62–63.

Molly Worthen is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Yale University.

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