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.