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.