Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 231 pp.
Rousas John Rushdoony isn’t exactly a household name. And the movement he founded – Christian Reconstruction – probably won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a veteran watcher of the Religious Right.
But the prolific theologian is a name that First Amendment advocates should know. He was a theocrat, in the most literal sense, and although Rushdoony never achieved the public stature he craved, his ideas nevertheless seeped into popular far-right rhetoric, and helped shape the contemporary Religious Right.
Michael McVicar’s new book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Conservatism, is a serious academic treatment of Rushdoony’s life and thought. McVicar, an assistant professor of religion at Florida State University, carefully documents Rushdoony’s interactions with more mainstream evangelicals and fundamentalists and charts the movement he founded from its brief heyday to its current obscurity.
McVicar begins with Rushdoony’s origins.
Born in 1916 to Armenian immigrants, Rushdoony initially belonged to the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). As a young adult, he attended the University of California-Berkeley and the Pacific School of Religion – hardly bastions of conservative thought.
What could loosely be termed his “radicalization” began later, during Rushdoony’s tenure as a missionary on Nevada’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
Duck Valley’s social problems horrified him. Alcoholism, child abuse and teenage sex plagued the reservation and presented a real moral crisis. Some secular observers – including, perhaps, Duck Valley’s residents – might have blamed poverty or even identified that poverty as the natural consequence of centuries of racial discrimination.
But Rushdoony, showing the tendency that would dictate his entire career, sought a doctrinal explanation and settled on a more immediate culprit: the secular state.
If the state owned Duck Valley, he reasoned, the state was to blame for its problems. Secularism had clearly failed. Duck Valley, therefore, needed a religious solution.
McVicar notes that it’s during this time period that Rushdoony discovered the work of Cornelius Van Til, author of The New Modernism and father of a doctrine called “presuppositional apologetics.”
It isn’t necessary or even possible to delve too deeply into Van Til’s theology here, but a Cliff Notes version is helpful: Christians and nonbelievers alike comprehend the world based on certain presuppositions. Christians operate from a correct presupposition; nonbelievers do not, and ne’er the twain shall meet. According to Van Til, nonbelievers are incapable of accurately comprehending reality, and by extension, cannot develop a correct moral framework.
Van Til’s work pulled heavily from Kant, which appealed to the intellectual Rushdoony; so did his Reformed leanings, which Rushdoony shared. Van Til’s epistemology also validated the would-be philosopher’s Duck Valley observations.
But Rushdoony took Van Til’s thought a step further. If nonbelievers couldn’t be truly moral or reasonable, secular laws, based on secular reasoning, were therefore illegitimate. The answer to solving society’s problems – and to solving Duck Valley – lay in the application of biblical law.
It made a certain kind of sense.
By the time Rushdoony left Duck Valley for a pastorate in Santa Cruz, Calif., he’d become convinced that the Christian church should work toward enforcing biblical law He also began building working relationships with activists who sought to make their vision of a Christian America a reality. He contributed articles to Spiritual Mobilization’s libertarian Faith and Freedom magazine, and attempted to start his own journal for Presbyterian ministers who shared his views.
The venture failed, his marriage collapsed and Rushdoony, feeling persecuted by the PCUSA, decamped for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a more conservative denomination. But his views alienated many in the OPC, too, and he soon left ministry entirely to work at the Volker Fund, an ostensibly secular libertarian outfit.
McVicar writes that Rushdoony found some ideological compatriots there. His skepticism of public education, for example, as a tool of state-sponsored secularism was shared by many, and his decision to marry libertarian politics to his religious convictions made him part of a popular trend. (For more information about that, see the July/August review of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God.)
But Rushdoony’s fierce sectarianism doomed him once again. He repeatedly proved incapable of working alongside other Christians, even other Protestants, who didn’t share the extent of his convictions. He was particularly prejudiced against Catholics. His inability to tolerate coalition work eventually cost him his job; the Volker Fund, reorganized as the Center for American Studies, fired Rushdoony for wreaking dogmatic havoc amongst his coworkers.
By then, he’d become a prolific author, and that eventually led to a partnership with a now-defunct group called Women for America and the formation of the Chalcedon Institute. McVicar credits Women for America for providing Rushdoony the platform he needed to develop his vision of a “reconstructed” society that enforced biblical law.
Rushdoony was soon speaking to hundreds of student groups and Bible studies every year, and he later published what passes as the masterwork of his career: The Institutes of Biblical Law, the first of a three-book series that outlined his desired theocracy in exhaustive detail.
Supporters of the separation of church and state frequently call the Religious Right a theocratic movement, and not entirely without reason. But it’s important to draw a distinction between Rushdoony’s pure theocracy, and the softer Dominionism embodied by what we now call the Religious Right. Rushdoony sought to enforce each of the Bible’s precepts, right down to the execution of non-Christians.
“I’m saying that this is what God requires. I’m not saying that everything in the Bible, I like. Some of it rubs me the wrong way. But I’m simply saying, this is what God requires. This is what God says is justice. Therefore, I don’t feel I have a choice,” Rushdoony told Bill Moyers in an interview given near the end of his life.
But despite the extremity of his views, Rushdoony still wielded influence on the creation of the Religious Right. Here, McVicar does readers a great service by carefully examining the extent of that influence.
McVicar cites, as an example, Rushdoony’s working relationship with evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, who’d studied with Van Til, popularized the notion of Christian engagement with the political process through intellectual works like The Christian Manifesto and How Should Then We Live?
Schaeffer and Rushdoony agreed on a key principle: Christians have a divine obligation to occupy and reform the government. Schaeffer likewise believed that Christianity represented a total moral system preferable to the solutions of the secular state.
Unlike Rushdoony, Schaeffer promoted a version of religious pluralism and stopped short of advocating for a true American theocracy. The philosopher would go on to significantly shape the movement we commonly refer to as the Religious Right; Rushdoony, however, once again found himself in intellectual exile, his activities and influence mostly restricted to Reconstruction diehards.
But by the early 1980s, that movement had begun to splinter, thanks in no small part to Rushdoony’s more-famous son-in-law: Gary North.
North is still something of a fixture in the far-right. He’s known primarily for his ties to former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas); North once served on his Capitol Hill staff. His marriage to Rushdoony’s daughter Sharon established him firmly in Reconstructionist circles, but his ties to more mainstream conservative figures granted him extra leverage.
North eventually replaced his father-in-law as the face of the movement, which angered Rushdoony.
Rushdoony died in relative obscurity in 2001. Chalcedon endures, but as a shadow of his original vision. A 2012 article in Berkeley’s alumni magazine notes that the institute relies on a mere handful of staffers and makes its home in a strip mall in a small California town. It hires no lobbyists and produces no white papers; politicians don’t compete for its endorsement.
But as we prepare for another election cycle packed with candidates jockeying for the conservative vote, it’s wise to re-examine Rushdoony’s ideas. They still haunt the contemporary Religious Right, and represent a significant challenge to the wall of separation between church and state.
There are some flaws in McVicar’s treatment of Rushdoony’s life; namely, his account of the theologian’s divorce from his first wife, Arda, is curiously one-sided.
Despite this, Christian Reconstruction is on the whole a fair and rigorous look at a true American theocrat. It’s highly recommended for anyone seeking a detailed background on this little-known, little-understood offshoot of American religious conservatism.