Overview and Roots
The Christian Right has shown impressive resilience and has rebounded dramatically after a series of embarrassing televangelist scandals of the late 1980s, the collapse of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and the failed presidential bid of Pat Robertson. In the 1990s, Christian Right organizing went to the grassroots and exerted wide influence in American politics across the country.
There is no doubt that Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition gets much of the credit for this successful strategic shift to the local level. But another largely overlooked reason for the persistent success of the Christian Right is a theological shift since the 1960s. The catalyst for the shift is Christian Reconstructionism–arguably the driving ideology of the Christian Right in the 1990s.
The significance of the Reconstructionist movement is not its numbers, but the power of its ideas and their surprisingly rapid acceptance. Many on the Christian Right are unaware that they hold Reconstructionist ideas. Because as a theology it is controversial, even among evangelicals, many who are consciously influenced by it avoid the label. This furtiveness is not, however, as significant as the potency of the ideology itself. Generally, Reconstructionism seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by imposing their interpretation of “Biblical Law.” Reconstructionism would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations, such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools. Women would be generally relegated to hearth and home. Insufficiently Christian men would be denied citizenship, perhaps executed. So severe is this theocracy that it would extend capital punishment beyond such crimes as kidnapping, rape, and murder to include, among other things, blasphemy, heresy, adultery, and homosexuality.
Reconstructionism has expanded from the works of a small group of scholars to inform a wide swath of conservative Christian thought and action. While many Reconstructionist political positions are commonly held conservative views, what is significant is that Reconstructionists have created a comprehensive program, with Biblical justifications for far right political policies. Many post-World War II conservative, anticommunist activists were also, if secondarily, conservative Christians. However, the Reconstructionist movement calls on conservatives to be Christians first, and to build a church-based political movement from there.
For much of Reconstructionism’s short history it has been an ideology in search of a constituency. But its influence has grown far beyond the founders’ expectations. As Reconstructionist author Gary North observes, “We once were shepherds without sheep. No longer.”
What is Reconstructionism?
Reconstructionism is a theology that arose out of conservative Presbyterianism (Reformed and Orthodox), which proposes that contemporary application of the laws of Old Testament Israel, or “Biblical Law,” is the basis for reconstructing society toward the Kingdom of God on earth.
Reconstructionism argues that the Bible is to be the governing text for all areas of life–such as government, education, law, and the arts, not merely “social” or “moral” issues like pornography, homosexuality, and abortion. Reconstructionists have formulated a “Biblical world view” and “Biblical principles” by which to examine contemporary matters.
Reconstructionist theologian David Chilton succinctly describes this view: “The Christian goal for the world is the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s law.”
More broadly, Reconstructionists believe that there are three main areas of governance: family government, church government, and civil government. Under God’s covenant, the nuclear family is the basic unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are “in submission” to him. In turn, the husband “submits” to Jesus and to God’s laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to implement God’s laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law, the implementation of which is called “theonomy.”
The Origin of Reconstructionism
The original and defining text of Reconstructionism is Institutes of Biblical Law, published in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony–an 800-page explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Biblical “case law” that derives from them, and their application today. “The only true order,” writes Rushdoony, “is founded on Biblical Law. All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion.” In brief, he continues, “Every law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare.”
Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law, wrote an appendix to Institutes on the subject of “Christian economics.” It is a polemic which serves as a model for the application of “Biblical Principles.”
Rushdoony and a younger theologian, Rev. Greg Bahnsen, were both students of Cornelius Van Til, a Princeton University theologian. Although Van Til himself never became a Reconstructionist, Reconstructionists claim him as the father of their movement. According to Gary North, Van Til argued that “There is no philosophical strategy that has ever worked, except this one; to challenge the lost in terms of the revelation of God in His Bible. . .by what standard can man know anything truly? By the Bible, and only by the Bible.” This idea that the correct and only way to view reality is through the lens of a Biblical world view is known as presuppositionalism.
According to Gary North, Van Til stopped short of proposing what a Biblical society might look like or how to get there. That is where Reconstructionism begins. While Van Til states that man is not autonomous and that all rationality is inseparable from faith in God and the Bible, the Reconstructionists go further and set a course of world conquest or “dominion,” claiming a Biblically prophesied “inevitable victory.”
Reconstructionists also believe that “the Christians” are the “new chosen people of God,” commanded to do what “Adam in Eden and Israel in Canaan failed to do. . .create the society that God requires.” Further, Jews, once the “chosen people,” failed to live up to God’s covenant and therefore are no longer God’s chosen. Christians, of the correct sort, now are.
Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law consciously echoes a major work of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In fact, Reconstructionists see themselves as the theological and political heirs of Calvin. The theocracy Calvin created in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1500s is one of the political models Reconstructionists look to, along with Old Testament Israel and the Calvinist Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Epitomizing the Reconstructionist idea of Biblical “warfare” is the centrality of capital punishment under Biblical Law. Doctrinal leaders (notably Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen) call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, “sodomy or homosexuality,” incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, “unchastity before marriage.”
According to Gary North, women who have abortions should be publicly executed, “along with those who advised them to abort their children.” Rushdoony concludes: “God’s government prevails, and His alternatives are clear-cut: either men and nations obey His laws, or God invokes the death penalty against them.” Reconstructionists insist that “the death penalty is the maximum, not necessarily the mandatory penalty.” However, such judgments may depend less on Biblical Principles than on which faction gains power in the theocratic republic. The potential for bloodthirsty episodes on the order of the Salem witchcraft trials or the Spanish Inquisition is inadvertently revealed by Reconstructionist theologian Rev. Ray Sutton, who claims that the Reconstructed Biblical theocracies would be “happy” places, to which people would flock because “capital punishment is one of the best evangelistic tools of a society.”
The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the stake for example), stoning, hanging, and “the sword.” Gary North, the self-described economist of Reconstructionism, prefers stoning because, among other things, stones are cheap, plentiful, and convenient. Punishments for non-capital crimes generally involve whipping, restitution in the form of indentured servitude, or slavery. Prisons would likely be only temporary holding tanks, prior to imposition of the actual sentence.
People who sympathize with Reconstructionism often flee the label because of the severe and unpopular nature of such views. Even those who feel it appropriate that they would be the governors of God’s theocracy often waffle on the particulars, like capital punishment for sinners and nonbelievers. Unflinching advocates, however, insist upon consistency. Rev. Greg Bahnsen, in his book By This Standard, writes: “We. . .endorse the justice of God’s penal code, if the Bible is to be the foundation of our Christian political ethic.”
Reconstructionism has adopted “covenantalism,” the theological doctrine that Biblical “covenants” exist between God and man, God and nations, God and families, and that they make up the binding, incorporating doctrine that makes sense of everything. Specifically, there is a series of covenant “structures” that make up a Biblical blueprint for society’s institutions. Reconstructionists believe that God “judges” a whole society according to how it keeps these covenantal laws, and provides signs of that judgment. This belief can be seen, for example, in the claim that AIDS is a “sign of God’s judgment.”
Reconstructionist Rev. Ray Sutton writes that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Nature is not neutral. Nothing takes place in nature by chance. . .Although we may not know the exact sin being judged,” Sutton declares, “what occurs results from God.”
Christian Historical Revisionism
Part of the Reconstructionist world view is a revisionist view of history called “Christian history,” which holds that history is predestined from “creation” until the inevitable arrival of the Kingdom of God. Christian history is written by means of retroactively discerning “God’s providence.”
Most Reconstructionists, for example, argue that the United States is a “Christian Nation” and that they are the champions and heirs of the “original intentions of the Founding Fathers.” This dual justification for their views, one religious, the other somehow constitutional, is the result of a form of historical revisionism that Rushdoony frankly calls “Christian revisionism.”
Christian revisionism is important in understanding the Christian Right’s approach to politics and public policy. If one’s political righteousness and sense of historical continuity are articles of faith, what appear as facts to everyone else fall before the compelling evidence of faith. Whatever does not fit neatly into a “Biblical world view” becomes problematic, perhaps a delusion sent by Satan.
The invocations of the Bible and the Founding Fathers are powerful ingredients for good religious-nationalist demagoguery. However, among the stark flaws of Reconstructionist history is the way Christian revisionism distorts historical fact.
For example, by interpreting the framing of the Constitution as if it were a document inspired by and adhering to a Reconstructionist version of Biblical Christianity, Reconstructionists make a claim that denies the existence of Article VI of the Constitution. Most historians agree that Article VI, which states that public officials shall be “bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” was a move toward disestablishment of churches as official power brokers and the establishment of the principles of religious pluralism and separation of church and state.
R. J. Rushdoony, in his influential 1963 book, The Nature of the American System, claims that “The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order,” then asks rhetorically: “Why then is there, in the main, an absence of any reference to Christianity in the Constitution?” He argues that the purpose was to protect religion from the federal government and to preserve “states’ rights.”
Once again, however, such a view requires ignoring Article VI. Before 1787, most of the colonies and early states had required pledges of allegiance to Christianity and that one be a Christian of the correct sect to hold office. Part of the struggle toward democracy at the time was the disestablishment of the state churches–the power structures of the local colonial theocracies. Thus the “religious test” was a significant philosophical matter. There was little debate over Article VI, which passed unanimously at the Constitutional Convention.
Most of the states soon followed the federal lead in conforming to it. Reconstructionist author Gary DeMar, in his 1993 book America’s Christian History: The Untold Story, also trips over Article VI. He quotes from colonial and state constitutions to prove they were “Christian” states. And, of course, they generally were, until the framers of the Constitution set disestablishment irrevocably in motion. Yet DeMar tries to explain this away, claiming that Article VI merely banned “government mandated religious tests”–as if there were any other kind at issue. He later asserts that Article VI was a “mistake” on the part of the framers, implying that they did not intend disestablishment.
By contrast, mainstream historian Garry Wills sees no mistake. In his book Under God: Religion and American Politics, he concludes that the framers stitched together ideas from “constitutional monarchies, ancient republics, and modern leagues. . . .but we [the US] invented nothing, except disestablishment. . . . No other government in the history of the world had launched itself without the help of officially recognized gods and their state connected ministers.” Disestablishment was the clear and unambiguous choice of the framers of the Constitution, most of whom were also serious Christians.
Even Gary North (who holds a Ph.D. in History) sees the connection between Article VI and disestablishment and attacks Rushdoony’s version of the “Christian” Constitution. North writes that “In his desire to make the case for Christian America, he [Rushdoony] closed his eyes to the judicial break from Christian America: the ratification of the Constitution.” North says Rushdoony “pretends” that Article VI “does not say what it says, and it does not mean what it has always meant: a legal barrier to Christian theocracy,” leading “directly to the rise of religious pluralism.”
North’s views are the exception on the Christian Right. The falsely nostalgic view of a Christian Constitution, somehow subverted by modernism and the Supreme Court, generally holds sway. Christian historical revisionism is the premise of much Christian Right political and historical literature and is being widely taught and accepted in Christian schools and home schools. It informs the political understanding of the broader Christian Right. The popularization of this perspective is a dangerously polarizing factor in contemporary politics.
A Movement of Ideas
As a movement primarily of ideas, Reconstructionism has no single denominational or institutional home. Nor is it totally defined by a single charismatic leader, nor even a single text. Rather, it is defined by a small group of scholars who are identified with Reformed or Orthodox Presbyterianism. The movement networks primarily through magazines, conferences, publishing houses, think tanks, and bookstores. As a matter of strategy, it is a self-consciously decentralized and publicity-shy movement.
Reconstructionist leaders seem to have two consistent characteristics: a background in conservative Presbyterianism, and connections to the John Birch Society (JBS).
In 1973, R. J. Rushdoony compared the structure of the JBS to the “early church.” He wrote in Institutes: “The key to the John Birch Society’s effectiveness has been a plan of operation which has a strong resemblance to the early church; have meetings, local ‘lay’ leaders, area supervisors or ‘bishops.'” The JBS connection does not stop there. Most leading Reconstructionists have either been JBS members or have close ties to the organization. Reconstructionist literature can be found in JBS-affiliated American Opinion bookstores.
Indeed, the conspiracist views of Reconstructionist writers (focusing on the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others) are consistent with those of the John Birch Society. A classic statement of the JBS world view, Call It Conspiracy by Larry Abraham, features a prologue and an epilogue by Reconstructionist Gary North. In fact, former JBS chairman Larry McDonald may himself have been a Reconstructionist. Joseph Morecraft has written that “Larry [McDonald] understood that when the authors of the US Constitution spoke of law, they meant the law of God as revealed in the Bible. I have heard him say many times that we must refute humanistic, relativistic law with Biblical Law.”
As opposed to JBS beliefs, however, Reconstructionists emphasize the primacy of Christianity over politics. Gary North, for example, insists that it is the institution of the Church itself to which loyalty and energy are owed, before any other arena of life. Christians are called to Christianity first and foremost, and Christianization should extend to all areas of life. This emphasis on Christianity has political implications because, in the 1990s, it is likely that the JBS world view is persuasive to more people when packaged as a Biblical world view.
A Generation of Reconstructionists
Reconstructionism’s decentralist ideas have led to the creation of a network of churches, across a number of denominations, all building for the Kingdom. One Reconstructionist pastor writes that the leadership of the movement is passing to hundreds of small local churches that are “starting to grow, both numerically and theologically. Their people are being trained in the Reconstruction army. And at least in Presbyterian circles. . .we’re Baptizing and catechizing a whole generation of Gary Norths, R. J. Rushdoonys and David Chiltons.”
North writes that this percolation of ideas, actions, and institutions is largely untraceable. “No historian,” he says, “will ever be able to go back and identify in terms of the primary source documents, [what happened] because we can’t possibly do it.” Part of the reason for this is that Reconstructionism cloaks its identity, as well as its activities, understanding the degree of opposition it provokes. For example, Gary North was caught donating Reconstructionist books (mostly his own) to university libraries under the pretense of being an anonymous alumnus. What might seem a small matter of shameless self-promotion–getting one’s books into libraries to influence American intellectual life by hook or by crook–is actually part of the larger strategy of covert influence and legitimation.
Similarly, while claiming to be reformers, not revolutionaries, Reconstructionists recognize that the harsh theocracy they advocate is revolutionary indeed. Gary North warns against a “premature revolutionary situation,” saying that the public must begin to accept “the judicially binding case laws of the Old Testament before we attempt to tear down judicial institutions that still rely on natural law or public virtue. (I have in mind the US Constitution.)” Thus, radical ideas must be gently and often indirectly infused into their target constituencies and society at large. The vague claim that God and Jesus want Christians to govern society is certainly more appealing than the bloodthirsty notion of justice as “vengeance” advocated by some of the Reconstructionists. The claim that they do not seek to impose a theocracy from the top down–waiting for a time when a majority will have converted and thus want to live under Biblical Law–is consistent with Reconstructionists’ decentralist and anti-state populism, which they often pass off as a form of libertarianism. Even so, there is an inevitable point when the “majority” would impose its will. North bluntly says that one of his first actions would be to “remove legal access to the franchise and to civil offices from those who refuse to become communicant members of Trinitarian churches.” Quick to condemn democracy as the idea that the law is whatever the majority says it is, North et al. would be quick to cynically utilize a similar “majority” for a permanent theocratic solution.
The Timing of the Kingdom
One of the variations within Reconstructionism is the matter of the timing of the Kingdom, as defined by when Christians take power. For example, Rev. Everette Sileven of Louisville, Nebraska thinks the Kingdom is overdue. (Rev. Sileven is best known for his battle with the state in the mid-1980s, when he refused to certify the teachers in his private Christian school as required by state law.) In 1987, Sileven predicted the crumbling of the economy, democracy, the judicial system, and the IRS before 1992. From this crisis, he believed, the Kingdom would emerge.
Rev. David Chilton has a longer-term vision. He believes the Kingdom may not begin for 36,000 years. Most Reconstructionists, however, would argue for the Kingdom breaking out within a few generations, possibly even the next.
A general outline of what the reconstructed “Kingdom,” or confederation of Biblical theocracies, would look like emerges from the large body of Reconstructionist literature. This society would feature a minimal national government, whose main function would be defense by the armed forces. No social services would be provided outside the church, which would be responsible for “health, education, and welfare.” A radically unfettered capitalism (except in so far as it clashed with Biblical Law) would prevail. Society would return to the gold or silver standard or abolish paper money altogether. The public schools would be abolished. Government functions, including taxes, would be primarily at the county level. Women would be relegated primarily to the home and home schools, and would be banned from government.
Indeed, Joseph Morecraft states that the existence of women civil magistrates “is a sign of God’s judgment on a culture.” Those qualified to vote or hold office would be limited to males from Biblically correct churches. Democratic values would be replaced by intolerance of many things. R. J. Rushdoony, Reconstructionism’s leading proponent, writes that: “In the name of toleration [in contemporary society] the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions.” He also advocates various forms of discrimination in the service of antiunionism: “an employer has a property right to prefer whom he will in terms of color, creed, race, or national origin.”
The Significance of Reconstructionism
The leaders of Reconstructionism see themselves as playing a critical role in the history of the church (and of the world). They envision themselves salvaging Christianity from modern fundamentalism as well as theological liberalism. Because they are both conservative movement activists and conservative Christians seeking to pick up where the Puritans left off, they have constructed a theology that would provide the ideological direction and underpinning for a new kind of conservatism. It is, as well, a formidable theology designed to take on all comers. In order to wage a battle for God’s dominion over all aspects of society, they needed a comprehensive analysis, game plan, and justification. This is what Reconstructionism provides to a wide range of evangelical and other would-be conservative Christians. New Right activist Howard Phillips believes that Reconstructionism, as expressed by Rushdoony and North, has “provided [evangelical Christian] leaders with the intellectual self confidence” to become politically active, whereas many previously were not. Many conservatives apparently felt that they had no positive program and had been left in the role of reactionaries, just saying no to modernism and liberalism. Reconstructionism offers a platform that encompasses the religious and the political.
Many Christian Right thinkers and activists have been profoundly influenced by Reconstructionism. Among others: the late Francis Schaeffer, whose book A Christian Manifesto was an influential call to evangelical political action that sold two million copies, and John Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute (a Christian Right legal action group).
Francis Schaeffer is widely credited with providing the impetus for Protestant evangelical political action against abortion. For example, Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, says: “You have to read Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto if you want to understand Operation Rescue.” Schaeffer, a longtime leader in Rev. Carl McIntire’s splinter denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church, was a reader of Reconstructionist literature but has been reluctant to acknowledge its influence. Indeed, Schaeffer and his followers specifically rejected the modern application of Old Testament law.
The Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead was a student of both Schaeffer and Rushdoony, and credits them as the two major influences on his thought. The Rutherford Institute is an influential conservative legal advocacy group which has gained considerable legitimacy. Given this legitimacy, it is not surprising that Whitehead goes to great lengths to deny that he is a Reconstructionist. However, perhaps he doth protest too much. Rushdoony, introducing Whitehead at a Reconstructionist conference, called him a man “chosen by God.” Consequently, he said, “There is something very important. . .at work in the ministry of John Whitehead.” Rushdoony then spoke of “our plans, through Rutherford, to fight the battle against statism and the freedom of Christ’s Kingdom.” The Rutherford Institute was founded as a legal project of R. J. Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation, with Rushdoony and fellow Chalcedon director Howard Ahmanson on its original board of directors. Whitehead credits Rushdoony with providing the outline for his first book, which he researched in Rushdoony’s library.
Coalition on Revival
Whether it is acknowledged or not, Reconstructionism has profoundly influenced the Christian Right. Perhaps its most important role within the Christian Right can be traced to the formation in 1982 of the Coalition on Revival (COR), an umbrella organization which has brokered a series of theological compromises among differing, competing conservative evangelical leaders. These compromises have had a Reconstructionist orientation, thus increasing the reach and influence of Reconstructionism.
Founded and headed by Dr. Jay Grimstead, COR has sought in this way to create a transdenominational theology–a process that has involved hundreds of evangelical scholars, pastors, and activists, and the creation of a series of theological statements epitomized by the “Manifesto of the Christian Church.” The COR leadership has significantly overlapped with the Christian Right, and has included: John Whitehead, Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, televangelists Tim LaHaye and D. James Kennedy, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, Houston GOP activist Steven Hotze, Rev. Glen Cole of Sacramento, CA, 1993 Virginia GOP Lt. Governor candidate Michael Farris, lobbyist Robert Dugan of the National Association of Evangelicals, former US Congressmen Bill Dannemeyer (R-CA) and Mark Siljander (R-MI), as well as such leading Reconstructionists as R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Joseph Morecraft, David Chilton, Gary DeMar of American Vision, and Rus Walton of the Plymouth Rock Foundation.
A major focus of COR has been to reconcile the two main evangelical eschatologies (end-times theologies). Most evangelicals in this century have been pre-millennialists–that is, Christians who generally believe that it is not possible to reform this world until Jesus returns (the Second Coming), which will be followed by a 1,000year rule of Jesus and the Christians. The other-worldly orientation of pre-millennialism has tended to keep the majority of evangelicals on the political sidelines.
A minority of evangelicals are post-millennialists, believing that it is necessary to build the Kingdom of God in the here and now, before the return of Jesus is possible. Thus, for postmillennialists, Jesus will return when the world has become perfectly Christian, the return crowning 1,000 years of Christian rule. This eschatology urges political involvement and action by evangelicals, who must play a critical role in establishing Christian rule. COR has sought to establish a “non-quarreling policy” on matters of eschatology, and has emphasized building the Kingdom of God in so far as it is possible until Jesus returns. This neatly urges political involvement and action, without anyone having to say how much can actually be accomplished. It reconciles the difference over eschatology that has divided evangelicals, and opens the door to political involvement and action without requiring either of the two sides to abandon its eschatology.
While COR is not an overtly Reconstructionist organization, much of COR doctrine is clearly Reconstructionist in orientation. Among other things, COR calls for exercising Christian dominion over 17 “spheres” of life–including government, education, and economics. COR chief Jay Grimstead has been hard-pressed, in the face of controversy, to explain the role of Reconstructionism in COR, but in a letter to COR members he gave it his best shot: “COR’s goals, leadership and documents overlap so much with those of Christian Reconstruction that in the eyes of our enemies we. . .are a monolithic Reconstructionist movement. The fine technical distinctions we make between ourselves,” he explains, “are meaningless to these enemies of Christ. To them, anyone who wants to rebuild our society upon Biblical Principles. . .is a Reconstructionist. So we must simply live with the Reconstructionist label, and be grateful to be in the company of brilliant scholars like. . .Gary North, and R. J. Rushdoony.”
Grimstead can’t help acknowledging the significance of Reconstructionism to the Christian Right: “These men were rethinking the church’s mission to the world and how to apply a Christian worldview to every area of life and thought 10 to 20 years before most of the rest of us had yet awakened from our slumbers. We owe them a debt of gratitude for pioneering the way into Biblical world changing, even if we can’t accept everything they teach.”
Grimstead’s fig leafs notwithstanding, a number of COR Steering Committee members have had to drop out because even mere association with Reconstructionism was too hotly controversial. One evangelical critic observes, however, that those who signed the COR documents or “covenants” had to be “willing to die in the attempt to establish a theonomic political state. This statement makes the COR Manifesto Covenant more than just a covenant; it is a blood covenant, sworn on the life of the signers.”
A key, if not exclusively Reconstructionist, doctrine uniting many evangelicals is the “dominion mandate,” also called the “cultural mandate.” This concept derives from the Book of Genesis and God’s direction to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over it. While much of Reconstructionism, as one observer put it, “dies the death of a thousand qualifications,” the commitment to dominion is the theological principle that serves as the uniting force of Christian Right extremism, while people debate the particulars.
Christian Reconstructionism is a stealth theology, spreading its influence throughout the Religious Right. Its analysis of America as a Christian nation and the security of complete control implied in the concept of dominion is understandably appealing to many conservative Christians. Its apocalyptic vision of rule by Biblical Law is a mandate for political involvement. Organizations such as COR and the Rutherford Institute provide political guidance and act as vehicles for growing political aspirations.
No Longer Without Sheep
Reconstructionism had been of interest to few outside the evangelical community until the early 1990s, when its political significance began to emerge. At the same time that the Coalition on Revival provided a catalyst (and a cover) for the discussion, dissemination, and acceptance of Reconstructionist doctrine, these ideas have percolated up through a wide swath of American Protestantism. Nowhere, however, is Reconstructionism (sometimes known as dominionism) having a more dramatic impact than in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Pentecostalists, best known for speaking in tongues and practicing faith healing and prophesy–known as “gifts of the spirit”–include televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts. Among well-known charismatics are Pat Robertson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Historically, Pentecostals have been apolitical for the most part. However, since 1980 much of Pentecostalism has begun to adopt aspects of Reconstructionist or dominion theology. This is not an accident.
Reconstructionists have sought to graft their theology onto the experientially oriented, and often theologically amorphous, Pentecostal and charismatic religious traditions. Following a 1987 Reconstructionist/ Pentecostal theological meeting, Joseph Morecraft exclaimed: “God is blending Presbyterian theology with charismatic zeal into a force that cannot be stopped!”
Gary North claims that “the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to transform them.” North describes the “three major legs of the Reconstructionist movement” as “the Presbyterian oriented educators, the Baptist school headmasters and pastors, and the charismatic telecommunications system.”
What this means is that hundreds of thousands of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, as well as many fundamentalist Baptists, have moved out of the apolitical camp. Many have thrown themselves into political work–not merely as voters, but as ideologically driven activists, bringing a reconstructed “Biblical world view” to bear on their area of activism.
This is probably the lasting contribution of Reconstructionism. Whether it is Operation Rescue activists called to anti-abortion work because of Francis Schaeffer’s books, or Pentecostals who responded to the politicizing ministry and electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson during the 1970s and 1980s, the politicization of Pentecostalism is one of the major stories of modern American politics.
Indeed, Robertson has been pivotal in this process, mobilizing Pentecostals and charismatics into politics through his books, TV programs, Regent University, the 1988 presidential campaign, and his political organizations–first the Freedom Council in the 1980s and then the Christian Coalition.
Gary North and others see opportunities for Reconstructionism to build its influence through an activist response to crises in established institutions, from the public schools to democracy itself. This “decentralist” activism is not necessarily independent or “grassroots.” Political brushfires are “a fundamental tool of resistance” observes North, “but it takes a combination of centralized strategy, and local mobilization and execution.” This is precisely what we are beginning to see clearly in the contemporary politics of the Christian Right. From the lawsuits brought by the Rutherford Institute and the American Center for Law and Justice to stealth takeovers of school boards, the effort is to subvert the normal functioning of society in order to make room for the growth of theocratic evangelicalism.
North sees a special role for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) TV satellite, as the epitome of the political effectiveness of televangelists. He appreciates CBN’s ability to magnify local battles, and communicate them to a national audience. “Without a means of publicizing a crisis,” writes North, “few pastors would take a stand.” Thus, North sees CBN as a key component in increasing the impact of decentralized “brushfire wars” in which the battles over abortion, pornography, zoning for Christian schools, etc., happen in many places at once to strain the system.
Reconstructionism and the Christian Right
Reconstructionism has played an important role in shaping the contemporary Christian Right, as indicated by the number of Christian Right leaders involved in COR. Reconstructionism’s influence is also pronounced in another major hub of the Christian Right: the multifaceted organization of Pat Robertson. Although it denies a Reconstructionist orientation, the Robertson organization is doing exactly what Gary North describes. Robertson’s Christian Coalition, for instance, follows a clearly decentralist political plan, directed and encouraged by highly centralized media, educational, and political units.
The Christian Coalition, forged from Robertson’s mailing lists and his 1988 presidential campaign, has become the largest and most politically significant formation within the Religious Right. Its comprehensive, locally focused efforts to take over the Republican Party “from the bottom up” and to run “stealth candidates” for local offices have been widely reported and discussed.
Robertson himself seems to lack the long-term vision of Reconstructionist thinkers, but he is clearly driven by a short-term militant “dominion” mandate–the mandate that Christians “Christianize” the country’s social and political institutions. He offers a fevered vision of power and “spiritual warfare,” perhaps even physical conflict with the forces of Satan in the near future. “The world is going to be ours,” he once confided, “but not without a battle, [not] without bloodshed.” At a 1994 Christian Coalition national strategy conference, Robertson railed against “Satanic forces,” declaring: “We are not coming up against just human beings to beat them in elections. We’re going to be coming up against spiritual warfare. And if we’re not aware of what we’re fighting, we will lose.” No longer the exclusive revolutionary vision of Christian Reconstructionist extremists, dominionism has achieved virtual hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism. Historian Garry Wills sees dominionist doctrine not only in those “thorough and consistent dominionists, the followers of Rousas John Rushdoony, who are called Christian Reconstructionists,” but also clearly present in Pat Robertson’s book The Secret Kingdom.
Robertson works not only dominionism, but Old Testament Biblical law into his books. In The New World Order, Robertson writes that “there is no way that government can operate successfully unless led by godly men and women operating under the laws of the God of Jacob.” Impatient with Robertson’s public equivocations, Reconstructionist author Gary DeMar describes Robertson as an “operational Reconstructionist.” Reconstructionist influences are also evident at Robertson’s Regent University. For example, the longtime Dean of the Law School, Herb Titus, though not himself a Reconstructionist, has used Rushdoony’s book in his introductory Law course. Texts by North and Rushdoony have been used for years in the School of Public Policy, where Reconstructionist Joseph Kickasola teaches. The library has extensive holdings of Reconstructionist literature and tapes.
Regent University board chair Dee Jepson is a longtime COR Steering Committee member. She was an active advocate for the school’s change of name from Christian Broadcast Network University to Regent University, arguing that “Regent” better reflected its mission. Robertson explained that a “regent” is one who governs in the absence of a sovereign and that Regent U. trains students to rule, until Jesus, the absent sovereign, returns. Robertson says Regent U. is “a kingdom institution” for grooming “God’s representatives on the face of the earth.”
Dee Jepson, in addition to her membership on the COR Steering Committee, is married to former Senator Roger Jepson (R-Iowa), who signed a fundraising letter for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation in 1982.
The Conspiracy Factor
One aspect of Reconstructionism’s appeal to the Christian Right is that it provides a unifying framework for conspiracy theories. Gary North explains that: “There is one conspiracy, Satan’s, and ultimately it must fail. Satan’s supernatural conspiracy is the conspiracy; all other visible conspiracies are merely outworkings of this supernatural conspiracy.” Pat Robertson makes a similar argument in his book The New World Order, which all new members of Robertson’s Christian Coalition receive.
R. J. Rushdoony states that “The view of history as conspiracy. . .is a basic aspect of the perspective of orthodox Christianity.” A conspiratorial view of history is a consistent ingredient of Christian Right ideology in the United States, and is often used to explain the failure of conservative Christian denominations with millennial ambitions to achieve or sustain political power. The blame for this is most often assigned to the Masons, particularly an 18th-century Masonic group called the Illuminati, and, ultimately, to Satan.
Panicked Congregationalist clergy, faced with disestablishment of state churches (and thus their political power) in the 18th and 19th centuries, fanned the flames of anti-Masonic hatred with conspiracy theories. Pat Robertson claims Masonic conspiracies are out to destroy Christianity and thwart Christian rule. Throughout The New World Order Robertson refers to freemasonry as a Satanic conspiracy, along with the New Age movement. The distortion of reality that can follow from such views is well represented by Robertson’s assertion that former Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush are unwitting agents of Satan because they supported international groups of nations such as the United Nations.
Another example of Christian Right conspiracy theory is the writing of Dr. Stanley Monteith, a California activist who is a member of the Christian Coalition and the Coalition on Revival. He is a leading antigay spokesperson for the Christian Right. In his book, AIDS, The Unnecessary Epidemic: America Under Siege, Monteith argues that AIDS is the result of a conspiracy of gays, humanists, and other “sinister forces which work behind the scenes attempting to destroy our society.”
Monteith’s book is published by a self-described Reconstructionist, Dalmar D. Dennis (who is also a member of the National Council of the John Birch Society). Monteith’s actions underscore his words. At a conference of the anti-abortion group Human Life International, Dr. Monteith, who insists he is not anti-Semitic, shared a literature table with a purveyor of crude anti-Semitic books, as well as books claiming to expose the Masonic conspiracy.
The Wrath of Morecraft
If the Christian Right ever came to power, it’s anyone’s guess what would actually occur. But it may be instructive to examine what has happened as theocratically informed factions advance locally. In Cobb County, Georgia, for example, where the powerful County Commission is controlled by the Christian Right, homosexuality has been banned, arts funding cut off, and abortion services through the county public employee health plan banned. These actions by the Cobb County Commission made national news in 1993. Rev. Joseph Morecraft, whose very energetic and politically active Reconstructionist Chalcedon Presbyterian Church draws most members from Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County seat, provided a clear Reconstructionist view of these events. Asked at the time where he saw Biblical law advancing, he cited “the county where I live,” where “they passed a law. . .that homosexuals are not welcome in that county, because homosexuality was against the community standards. The next week,” he continued, “they voted on whether or not they should use tax money of the county to support art–immoral, pornographic art, so they make the announcement, not only are we not going to use tax monies in this county to sponsor pornographic art, we’re not going to use tax money to sponsor any art, because that’s not the role of civil government. And last week,” he concluded, “[they voted] that no tax money in Cobb County will be spent on abortions.”
Such views pale before Morecraft’s deeper views of life and government. In his book, and especially when speaking at the 1993 Biblical World View and Christian Education Conference, Morecraft discussed with relish the police power of the state. His belief in the persecution of nonbelievers and those who are insufficiently orthodox is crystal clear. Morecraft described democracy as “mob rule,” and stated that the purpose of “civil government” is to “terrorize evil doers. . . to be an avenger!” he shouted, “To bring down the wrath of God to bear on all those who practice evil!”
“And how do you terrorize an evil doer?” he asked. “You enforce Biblical law!” The purpose of government, he said, is “to protect the church of Jesus Christ,” and, “Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol!” “There ain’t no such thing” as religious pluralism, he declared. Further, “There has never been such a condition in the history of mankind. There is no such place now. There never will be.” Transcendent Acts
Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Reconstructionist movement has been the forging of an ideological pole (and an accompanying political strategy) in American politics, a pole by which the Christian Right will continue to measure itself. Some embrace it completely; others reject it. As recently as the early 1990s, most evangelicals viewed Reconstructionists as a band of theological misfits without a following. All that has changed, along with the numbers and character of the Christian Right. The world of evangelicalism and, arguably, American politics generally will not be the same.
Among those Reconstructionists who have already moved into positions of significant power and influence are two directors of R. J. Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation; philanthropist Howard Ahmanson and political consultant Wayne C. Johnson, epitomize the political strategy of the new Christian Right.
Heir to a large fortune, Howard Ahmanson is an important California power broker who has said, “My purpose is total integration of Biblical law into our lives.” He bankrolls Christian Right groups and political campaigns, largely through an unincorporated entity called the Fieldstead Company, which has, for example, been a major contributor to Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation. Fieldstead has also co-published, with Crossway Books, a series of Reconstructionist-oriented books called Turning Point: Christian Worldview Series, which is widely available in Christian bookstores.
Ahmanson and his wife have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting California political candidates, as well as supporting the 1993 California school voucher initiative and the 1992 voucher initiative in Colorado. He has also teamed up with a small group of conservative businessmen, notably Rob Hurtt of Container Supply Corporation, to form a series of political action committees. The direct donations from these PACs and the personal contributions of Ahmanson and Hurtt, coupled with those of other PACs to which the group substantially contributed, amounted to nearly $3 million to 19 right-wing candidates for the California State Senate and various other conservative causes in 1992. A dozen candidates backed by the Christian Right won. Ahmanson himself is a member of the GOP state central committee, along with many other Christian Rightists, who have gained power by systematically taking over California GOP county committees.
A political operative named Wayne Johnson, who had been an architect of California’s 1990 term limits initiative, managed the campaigns of several Ahmanson-backed candidates in 1992. The practical impact of term limits is to remove the advantage of incumbency (both Democratic and Republican) which the extreme Christian Right is prepared to exploit, having created a disciplined voting bloc and the resources to finance candidates.
At a Reconstructionist conference in 1983, Johnson outlined an early version of the strategy we see operating in California today. According to Johnson, the principal factor in determining victory in California state legislative races is incumbency, by a factor of 35 to 1. The legislature at the time was dominated by Democrats (and Republicans unacceptable to conservatives). The key for the Christian Right was to be able to: 1) remove or minimize the advantage of incumbency, and 2) create a disciplined voting bloc from which to run candidates in Republican primaries, where voter turn out was low and scarce resources could be put to maximum effect. Since the early 1990s, Christian Rightists have been able to do both. Thanks to Ahmanson, Hurtt, and others, they also now have the financing to be competitive. Since the mid-1970s, the extreme Christian Right, under the tutelage of then-State Senator H. L Richardson, targeted open seats and would finance only challengers, not incumbents. By 1983, they were able to increase the number of what Johnson called “reasonably decent guys” in the legislature from four to 27. At the Third Annual Northwest Conference for Reconstruction in 1983, Johnson stated that he believed they may achieve “political hegemony … in this generation.” In 1994, they were not far from that goal. Rob Hurtt won a 1993 open seat by election for State Senate. In 1994, State Senator Hurtt was also the chairman of the Republican campaign committee for the State Legislature, an important power brokering role for a freshman State Senator. The GOP, led by conservative Christians, was only four seats away from majority control in 1994.
A Whole Generation of Gary Norths
Still, it is in the next generation that most Reconstructionists hope to seize the future. “All long-term social change,” declares Gary North, “comes from the successful efforts of one or another struggling organizations to capture the minds of a hard core of future leaders, as well as the respect of a wider population.” The key to this, they believe, lies with the Christian school and the home schooling movement, both deeply influenced by Reconstructionism.
Unsurprisingly, Reconstructionists seek to abolish public schools, which they see as a critical component in the promotion of a secular world view. It is this secular world view with which they declare themselves to be at war. “Until the vast majority of Christians pull their children out of the public schools,” writes Gary North, “there will be no possibility of creating a theocratic republic.”
Among the top Reconstructionists in education politics is Robert Thoburn of Fairfax Christian School in Fairfax, Virginia. Thoburn advocates that Christians run for school board, while keeping their own children out of public schools. “Your goal” (once on the board), he declares, “must be to sink the ship.” While not every conservative Christian who runs for school board shares this goal, those who do will, as Thoburn advises, probably keep it to themselves. Thoburn’s book, The Children Trap, is a widely used sourcebook for Christian Right attacks on public education.
Joseph Morecraft, who also runs a school, said in 1987: “I believe the children in the Christian schools of America are the Army that is going to take the future. Right now. . .the Christian Reconstruction movement is made up of a few preachers, teachers, writers, scholars, publishing houses, editors of magazines, and it’s growing quickly. But I expect a massive acceleration of this movement in about 25 or 30 years, when those kids that are now in Christian schools have graduated and taken their places in American society, and moved into places of influence and power.”
Similarly, the Christian “home schooling” movement is part of the longterm revolutionary strategy of Reconstructionism. One of the principal home schooling curricula is provided by Reconstructionist Paul Lindstrom of Christian Liberty Academy (CLA) in Arlington Heights, Illinois. CLA claims that it serves about 20,000 families. Its 1994 curriculum included a book on “Biblical Economics” by Gary North. Home schooling advocate Christopher Klicka, who has been deeply influenced by R. J. Rushdoony, writes: “Sending our children to the public school violates nearly every Biblical principle. . . .It is tantamount to sending our children to be trained by the enemy.” He claims that the public schools are Satan’s choice. Klicka also advocates religious selfsegregation and advises Christians not to affiliate with non-Christian home schoolers in any way. “The differences I am talking about,” declares Klicka, “have resulted in wars and martyrdom in the not too distant past.” According to Klicka, who is an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, “as an organization, and as individuals, we are committed to promote the cause of Christ and His Kingdom.”
Estimates of the number of home schooling families vary enormously. Conservatively, there are certainly over 100,000. Klicka estimates that 85-90 percent of home schoolers are doing so “based on their religious convictions.” “In effect,” he concludes, “these families are operating religious schools in their homes.” A fringe movement no longer, Christian home schoolers are being actively recruited by the archconservative Hillsdale College.
A Covert Kingdom
Much has been made of the “stealth tactics” practiced by the Christian Right. Whereas the Moral Majority, led by Jerry Falwell, was overt about its Christian agenda, many contemporary Christian Rightists have lowered their religious profile or gone under cover. In fact, these tactics have been refined for years by the Reconstructionist movement, as Robert Thoburn’s education strategy suggests. Gary North proposed stealth tactics more than a decade ago in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction (1981), urging “infiltration” of government to help “smooth the transition to Christian political leadership. . . .Christians must begin to organize politically within the present party structure, and they must begin to infiltrate the existing institutional order.” Similar stealth tactics have epitomized the resurgence of the Christian Right, as groups like Citizens for Excellence in Education and the Christian Coalition have quietly backed candidates who generally avoided running as overtly “Christian” candidates. The Christian Coalition actually proposed something similar to Gary North’s notion of “infiltration” when its 1992 “County Action Plan” for Pennsylvania advised that “You should never mention the name Christian Coalition in Republican circles.” The goal, apparently, is to facilitate becoming “directly involved in the local Republican Central Committee so that you are an insider. This way,” continues the manual, “you can get a copy of the local committee rules and a feel for who is in the current Republican Committee.” The next step is to recruit conservative Christians to occupy vacant party posts or to run against moderates who “put the Republican Party ahead of principle.”
Antonio Rivera, a New York Christian Coalition political advisor, suggested similar ideas at a 1992 Christian Coalition meeting. While urging that Coalition members seek to place themselves in influential positions, he advised that “You keep your personal views to yourself until the Christian community is ready to rise up, and then wow! They’re gonna be devastated!” Some leaders have now publicly renounced “stealth” tactics.
Central to the Christian Right’s strategy is to exploit the national pattern of low voter participation by turning out their constituents in a strategically disciplined fashion and in greater proportion than the rest of the population. An important vehicle for achieving this goal is the ideology of Christian Reconstructionism or its stripped-down root, dominionism, which at once deepens the political motivation of their constituency and widens that constituency by systematically mobilizing a network of churches, many of which were politically uninvolved until the early 1990s.
Much has been written about the success of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in accomplishing these goals. But it could be argued that the Christian Coalition would not have been possible without Reconstructionism, and that Operation Rescue would not have been possible without the Reconstructionist-influenced philosoper Francis Schaeffer. In the 1970s, Pat Robertson was an apolitical charismatic televangelist, and Randall Terry a would-be rock n’ roll star.
Christian Reconstructionism’s ultimate moment may or may not arrive; however it has had tremendous influence as a catalyst for an historic shift in American religion and politics. Christian colleges and bookstores are full of Reconstructionist material. The proliferation of this material and influence is likely to continue. Christian Reconstructionism is largely an underground, underestimated movement of ideas, the rippling surface of which is the political movement known as the Christian Right.