When former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul announced a new online curriculum for home-schoolers in April, few political observers were surprised. Paul, a three-time candidate for president with a distinctly libertarian bent, has long been wary, if not hostile, to public schools and other government-sponsored public services.
But what was surprising to many was Paul’s choice of leadership for the project. The man he named as director of curriculum development is Gary North.
North, 71, is not a professional educator. He is a leading theorist of Christian Reconstructionism, a radical movement that denounces democracy, thinks some forms of slavery are OK and wants to impose a draconian version of biblical law that prescribes the death penalty for gays, adulterers, blasphemers, witches and incorrigible children, among others.
Like some of his colleagues in the movement, North advocates stoning as the biblically preferred means of execution. The “implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost,” he said once, and executions become “community projects.”
North’s role in the “Ron Paul Curriculum” is a stark reminder of the ongoing influence of Christian Reconstructionism on American political and religious life. Although the movement’s views may seem outlandish, adherents and camp followers pop up in many unexpected places.
Christian Reconstructionists trace their thinking back through the centuries, but the modern founding of the movement came in the 1960s with the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, a California theologian who coined the term.
Rushdoony, a prolific author and activist, wrote the three-volume, 1800-page Institutes of Biblical Law and dozens of other books and articles, making the case for a strict application of the Old Testament’s legal code on modern society. In 1965, he founded the Chalcedon Foundation, a Vallecito, Calif.-based outfit, to spread his views about how to establish “theonomy,” literally God’s law.
Says the Chalcedon website, “We believe that the whole Word of God must be applied to all of life. It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion.”
Rushdoony promoted a “pre-suppositional” theology that insisted on the pre-supposition that the Bible is true and anything that conflicts with it is inherently wrong. He argued for a rigid patriarchal society where fundamentalist Christian men rule the family, church and community, and dissenters are executed or sent into exile.
Although he dabbled in conservative libertarian political circles for many years, Rushdoony’s views remained largely unknown to the general public until the advent of the Religious Right in early the 1980s.
When Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other ultra-conservative Protestants dived into politics back then, most lacked a well-developed theological basis for their new-found interest. Fundamentalists, evangelicals and others in that camp had generally regarded politics as a worldly enterprise far removed from their central mission of making converts. They wanted to win as many souls as possible before the imminent rapture of Christians to heaven and Jesus’ return to Earth.
Rushdoony’s hyper-Calvinist theology was quite different. He thought Jesus’ return would be hundreds of years in the future, so Christians should “reconstruct” society along biblical lines now.
Rushdoony’s end-times beliefs were rejected by preachers like Robertson and Falwell, but some of his other concepts appealed to the budding Religious Right’s “moral majoritarian” impulse. Rushdoony insisted that the Bible requires Christians to take “dominion” over all aspects of society, including the government. He cited chapter and verse to make the case that politics is a perfectly legitimate venue for Christian activism.
Religious Right leaders drew their inspiration from a wide variety of sources, of course, but Rushdoony’s work was clearly one wellspring. As the late Religious Right strategist Robert Billings once put it, “If it weren’t for [Rushdoony’s] books, none of us would be here.”
Michael McVicar, a scholar who has studied Christian Reconstructionism, says it’s important not to exaggerate Rushdoony’s influence on the Religious Right, but he told Church & State that “it’s indisputable that Reconstructionism had a major influence on some of the theological, institutional and political developments of the last 50 years.”
McVicar, an instructor at Ohio State University who is becoming a religion professor at Florida State University next month, says Christian Reconstructionists prodded evangelicals and fundamentalists to rethink their perception of political and cultural engagement.
“Reconstructionists suggested winning souls for the rapture wasn’t enough,” McVicar says. “They weren’t the only Christians to make such a challenge, but they were important.”
Rushdoony, the religion scholar notes, also played a key role in the American home-schooling movement. A harsh and unrelenting critic of public education, he worked tirelessly to make home-schooling not only legal, but as free as possible from government regulation. He saw Christian home-schooling families as a critically important vanguard in the gradual advance of biblical law.
And that’s where the current Paul/North venture comes into play.
North is Rushdoony’s son-in-law and a key disciple of Christian Reconstructionism’s founder. Although the two had a bitter falling-out in the early 1980s, North remains a devoted proponent of theonomy, and he is perhaps as important as Rushdoony in spreading the dominionist gospel.
However, unlike Rushdoony, whose purist approach and impatience often limited his political impact, North has been not only willing, but enthusiastic, about forming alliances to advance the Reconstructionist agenda.
North has happily worked with non-Christians in the libertarian movement, and he has maintained a warm relationship with Paul. McVicar says the connections date back to the 1970s. North served as a member of Paul’s congressional staff in 1976, and the two ran in similar circles in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Few think Paul, who attends a Southern Baptist church, buys into North’s sketchier religious beliefs, but the two share free-market zealotry and limited-government principles, including a hostility to public schools and church-state separation.
In a 2003 column, Paul wrote, “The notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers.” He also says decisions about school prayer should be made by state and local governments, not the federal courts.
Paul has repeatedly demanded that the federal government discontinue all involvement with public education. But his views may go further than that. He signed an affirmation sponsored by the Alliance for the Separation of School & State that said, “I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education.”
That sweeping profession would seem to call for closing the public school system entirely. He has since claimed that isn’t his intention, but if it were, it certainly wouldn’t bother North, who has denounced public schools in the strongest terms.
For the moment, both men seem inclined to put aside any differences to focus on selling the Ron Paul Curriculum to the broadest possible audience. North seems to have made the pragmatic decision to downplay his radical Christian Reconstructionist worldview in exchange for the national soapbox the Paul curriculum gives him.
Said McVicar, “It’s worth noting that North, in his home-schooling work for Paul, only appeals to a broad Christian worldview, not a narrow Reconstructionist one. Although North might prefer a theocracy and a more aggressive theocratic project, Paul’s curriculum is nonetheless one waypoint on the long post-millennial march of Christian Reconstruction.”
Promotional materials for the Ron Paul Curriculum say it will “teach the Biblical principle of self-government and personal responsibility, which is also the foundation for a free market economy.”
That’s a rather broad-based platform with a fairly wide appeal, especially in conservative Christian circles.
Observes McVicar, “Many libertarians in the U.S. share a generic Christian worldview – and these would include Ron and Rand Paul – that North explicitly appeals to in his online writings, newsletters, and public lectures. It’s true that ‘theocracy’ would make many libertarians nervous (or angry) and there are many anti-Reconstructionist libertarians out there, but libertarianism is a big tent. Paul is a master at massaging these differences to build a robust coalition around generically libertarian ideas.”
Regardless of the success of the Paul/North project, the endeavor is a stark reminder of the inroads of Christian Reconstructionist thought. And it’s particularly fitting that the target is the home-schooling community where theonomists have had some of their greatest successes.
The National Center for Education Statistics says the number of children schooled at home increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007. Some estimate the number today at as much as two million. The Center says 36 percent of home-schooling families – the largest single bloc – cite religious or moral reasons for their decision to remove their children from public schools.
The growth came despite significant obstacles. According to Education Week, home schooling was illegal in 30 states in 1980. The newsweekly says it was not until 1993 that all 50 states made the practice lawful.
Rushdoony and his allies pushed hard to make the change, testifying in courts and pressing legislatures.
Says McVicar, “Reconstructionists were at the forefront of the home-schooling revolution. They helped carve out the legal and social space for non-public education. Again, they weren’t alone in this. Rushdoony worked with the Amish, Catholics, hippies and Scientologists to secure this right. But that’s a massive and significant influence.”
Rushdoony’s “ultimate goal was to break up state control of education via home-schooling and other alternative educational models,” McVicar adds. “Such an education would slowly, from generation to generation, undermine the state as more and more parents pull their children from public schools. Ultimately, this process would, Rushdoony believed, undermine a totalitarian state order. It wouldn’t totally destroy the state – he wasn’t an anarchist – but would shrink it to its proper size. North shares this basic project.”
McVicar said he believes Christian Reconstructionists have exercised their greatest influence indirectly.
“The real influence,” he told Church & State, “is at the local level and in diffuse, complex cultural forms: Home-schooling conventions, preparedness expos, hard-money gold dealers, online libertarian chat groups such as Free Republic, etc. People have been influenced by Reconstructionism’s pre-suppositional worldview even when they reject theocracy.
“Many conservatives read Rushdoony-lite ideas in the popular historical revisionism of David Barton,” McVicar continued. “Every ad for Goldline on the Glenn Beck Show is a tangential nod to North’s ideas. Every home-schooler – liberal or conservative – has Rushdoony to thank for decades of expert testimony. There are seminaries and colleges across the U.S. with faculty influenced by Reconstructionism.”
Examples of Reconstructionist sway abound.
Spin-off organizations such as the Georgia-based American Vision and the Texas-based Vision Forum preach a Reconstructionist religious-political worldview, while “mainstream” Religious Right organizations harbor dominionist ideas, books and personnel.
For example, Roger Schultz, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, has published frequent articles in the Chalcedon Foundation’s monthly magazine and granted interviews for its website.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based group founded by radio and TV preachers, has sponsored Reconstructionist speakers at its Blackstone Legal Fellowship program for law students. ADF’s senior vice president of strategic training (and coordinator of the Blackstone program) is Jeffery J. Ventrella, who has published several articles in The Chalcedon Report.
Even the late Charles Colson, one of the most prominent Religious Right spokesmen, ventured into Reconstructionist rhetoric. Although he heatedly denied being a theonomist, Colson told a Southern Baptist pastors conference in June 2007 that Christians’ purpose in life is “to take command and dominion over every aspect of life, whether it’s music, science, law, politics, communities, families – to bring Christianity to bear in every single area of life.”
Concludes McVicar, “In short, the movement’s influence is real, and growing. It’s influenced politics and the way all Americans think about the limits of religion in the public sphere. That’s an immense influence even if it’s difficult to find any self-identifying, card-carrying elected Reconstructionists.”