“Libertarian Scaife” and His Religious Right Legacy

Richard Mellon Scaife was the “epitome of a libertarian,” or at least, that’s how he was described in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review following his death on July 4. “Libertarian Scaife” is apparently how he wished to be remembered in the city where many of the landmarks bear his famous family’s name. But Scaife’s redefinition as a libertarian is belied by his decades of funding, including as funder of the architect of the religious and political right alliance and religio-political think tanks.

Richard "Dick" Scaife. Image via Fair.org

Richard “Dick” Scaife. Image via Fair.org

The libertarian portrayal of Scaife in the newspaper that he owned, including quotes from his long-time lawyer describing him as the defender of “free speech, freedom of the press, the separation of church and state, a woman’s right to choose, and other individual liberties,” is in contrast with “Citizen Scaife,” the title of the Columbia Journalism Review’s multi-part 1981 profile. The series portrayed Scaife as a “funding father” of the emerging New Right.

At that time, the foundations Scaife controlled were the leading source of seed money for two dozen New Right organizations, and funding for neoconservative military and intelligence think tanks.

And there is another not-so-libertarian legacy of Scaife’s funding that was not mentioned in most of his obituaries.

“Libertarian Scaife” empowered the Religious Right

He did not do it alone, nor was he the first plutocrat to fund the enlistment of amenable religious leaders as partners to roll back the New Deal, or to make use of John Birch Society-style Christian Nationalism to attack unions and the regulatory system.

Today’s constitutional conservatism is a curious marriage of Ayn Rand-style economics to social conservatism, or even a biblical worldview in which American law is to align with biblical law. The plus for plutocratic funders is that this biblical worldview also portrays the Bible as aligned with free market fundamentalism.

That list covers more than a half century and has included Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew, textile magnate Roger Milliken, and Fred Koch. But few have been better at the behind-the-scenes funding of this partnership than Scaife. The outcome of his actions? An empowered Religious Right, who today prefer the term “constitutional conservative” to describe their wing of the GOP.

The Scaife-controlled foundations—the Sarah Scaife, Allegheny, and Carthage Foundations, run from the 39th floor of the Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh—are at least partially responsible for the consummation of this plutocratic/theocratic partnership. The enigmatic Scaife’s personal activism sometimes conflicted with the unruly offspring of his foundation’s largesse.

The Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Oxford Centre, Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Evidence includes a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, with a letter by Scaife calling for conservatives to oppose efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. His passing is an opportunity to ask why Scaife and other billionaires have helped to empower, whether intentionally or not, this theocratic-minded offspring that will long outlive them.

Richard Viguerie, leading patriarch of the Religious Right, told a Heritage Foundation audience in April that he was more optimistic than ever that “constitutional conservatives” could take over the Republican Party by 2017. Viguerie insisted that their agenda must go beyond rolling back the New Deal and return a pre-Teddy Roosevelt era, and that the enemy was establishment Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor. Viguerie suggested that Sen. Rand Paul (R) be given the vice presidential slot on the 2016 ticket in order to bring libertarians on board—not really much of a concession since Paul has himself rejected the libertarian label in the past for that of “constitutional conservative” (and is described as the standard bearer of that movement by his former aid and ghost writer Jack Hunter, a.k.a. the “Southern Avenger”).

Scaife was not a direct funder of Religious Right institutions that are household names (that was left to families like Prince/DeVos and Coors), but he was a major funder of the late Paul Weyrich, shepherd of the Religious Right into GOP politics, and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Council for National Policy. Described as the “Robespierre of the Right,” for his purges of the insufficiently conservative, Weyrich left the Heritage Foundation and started what would become the Free Congress Foundation (FCF). Scaife, who had supplied the bulk of the seed money for Heritage and served as vice president of the board until his death, also funded Weyrich’s FCF—sometimes to the tune of over a million dollars a year.

This included in 2001, when the FCF published the manifesto “Integration of Theory and Practice,” calling for a new traditionalist movement of conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, and the following.

“Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions.”

In a 2005 CSPAN interview about his career, Weyrich said that he could not have done what he did without the help of Dick Scaife.

Before Scaife paved the way with millions of dollars for conservative infrastructure, the St. Louis Post Dispatch noted, “there was a world where extremist ideas weren’t repackaged as mainstream by outfits like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Judicial Watch, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Cato Institute or the Federalist Society.”

And Scaife did not stop there. He funded the building of new institutions, but also the destroying of old ones. He extended his impact on American religion by funding entities that undermined denominations and marginalized religious leaders not so amenable to rightwing politics.

Church & Scaife

The Scaife foundations funded the institute that published the First Things magazine of leading neoconservative Father Richard John Neuhaus, and the closely allied Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD)—jokingly referred to during the Reagan administration as “the official seminary of the White House.”

A 2004 exposé by the late Methodist pastor Andrew Weaver was titled “Church & Scaife: Secular Conservative Philanthropies Waging Unethical Campaign to Take Over United Methodist Church.”  Weaver described IRD as a pseudo-religious, neo-conservative organization with a goal of undermining the liberal, social and economic justice mission of mainline Protestant denominations.  Christian Century exposed the fact that 89 percent of IRD’s early funding came from three foundations, and the largest block from the Scaife foundations. Infiltration of the Mainline Protestant denominations came in the guise of renewal groups, as described by PRA fellow Frederick Clarkson, also featured in the documentary “Renewal or Ruin.”

The largest single block of funding for think tanks promoting climate change denial has come from Donors Trust, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University, but a close second is the Scaife foundations at over $39 million dollars (well ahead of the funding from the Koch Brothers’ foundations).

Merging plutocratic interests with religion has been key to promoting climate change denial, including in the 2010 DVD series “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a product of the Cornwall Alliance. The 12-part teaching series, used in churches nationwide and featuring major Religious Right leaders, claims that environmentalism is a religion in opposition to Christianity.  Funding is hidden behind Donors Trust, but the Cornwall Alliance is a project of the James Partnership, founded by E. Calvin Beisner, a fellow with several Scaife-funded entities, including the Atlas Economic Research Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and IRD.

The irreligious Scaife’s molding of religion into the image of right-wing politics was not limited to Christianity.  As reported by the Washington Post, Scaife provided the seed money for former Reagan State Department official Elliot Abrams’ 1997 book “Faith or Fear.”  Sponsorship of the book was suggested by the president of the Hudson Institute and reportedly prompted by Scaife’s concern that most American Jews remain politically liberal.

Islam and immigrants provided a different type of target. The Scaife foundations are major funders of anti-immigrant organizations, but are outspent by Colcom, the leading funder of anti-immigrant causes in the U.S. and founded by Scaife’s sister.

Institutionalized Islamophobia was exposed in PRA’s research report Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, and in Fear, Inc. by the Center for American Progress, with the latter citing the Scaife foundations as the largest single source.

The Pennsylvania Plan

Partnership between free market fundamentalism and religion was extended to the state level through a network of Heritage Foundation-style think tanks in all 50 states.  These are linked through the State Policy Network and ALEC, but also work at the state level with a network of about three dozen state Family Policy Councils, loosely affiliated with the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.  This infrastructure is described in The Public Eye articles from 1999 and 2013, including coverage of the “Pennsylvania Plan” model of Don Eberly.  Eberly was founder of both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which work on shared agendas like school privatization.

In a 1989 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Eberly described the need for initiating both free market and religious tanks at the state and local levels.  The Scaife foundations provide funding for both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a similar think tank for the Pittsburgh area.

Scaife’s legacy in Pennsylvania includes an aggressive assault on labor unions.  A PRA report titled “The Well-Funded Anti-Labor Arsenal” tracked $170 million dollars to major anti-union think tanks across the nation over 20 years, where the Scaife foundations provided the largest single block of funding. In 2013, the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath,” a plan described with biblical terminology to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin and Michigan to destroy Pennsylvania’s labor unions.

The Enigmatic Scaife

The libertarian Scaife has been portrayed in obituaries as less zealous in his later years, but the Scaife foundations’ reports show no backing away from right-wing causes, and the efforts to redefine him in his obituaries fail to negate his role as the “funding father” of modern conservatism.  Quoting a column in the St. Louis Post Dispatch,

“Without those early Scaife-paid efforts, there might have been no Fox News, no tea party, no Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz. …Without the Federalist Society, whose members include four justices of the Supreme Court, there would be no corporate personhood decisions like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.”

I would add that without Scaife’s funding, we might not now live in a nation where the interests of a few plutocratic billionaires successfully masquerade as religion.

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The Right Hand of Occupy Wall Street: From Libertarians to Nazis, the Fact and Fiction of Right-Wing Involvement

 The most successful mobilization on the Left in recent years—the Occupy movement—had ambiguously defined enemies and used an organizing model that was easily replicated. These strategies were key elements of its success, but they also enabled a significant level of participation by the Right. Though it is tempting to gloss over or deny that reality, the Left would benefit from beginning to grapple with it.

Occupy Wall Street on Nov. 15, 2011. Protestors were evicted from Zuccotti Park that morning. Photo courtesy of author.

Occupy Wall Street on Nov. 15, 2011. Protestors were evicted from Zuccotti Park that morning. Photo courtesy of author.

**This article appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine.**

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has often been portrayed as the Tea Party’s ideological mirror image: a left-wing response to the global economic crises that began in August 2007. Initiated with a tent city in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in mid-September 2011, spinoff “Occupations” soon spread across the United States and then to cities across the globe. These protests, which targeted the federal government’s cozy relationship with the banking interests that caused the economic collapse, channeled the mounting anger of those most devastated by the economic meltdown, especially debt-ridden students, the unemployed, and people who lost homes in the subprime mortgage crisis.

But this mainstream-media view tends to gloss over the involvement of right-wing and conspiracist groups in Occupy. In the perception of many participants, the Right’s presence was largely limited to a lone homeless man who paraded antisemitic signs around Zuccotti, which became the basis of a right-wing “smear” campaign. More recently, venture capitalists like Tom Perkins have slandered Occupy, absurdly comparing its attack on wealth inequality to the Nazi persecution of Jews.1 Because of this, many progressives plug their ears when they hear about right-wing groups and Occupy. (In this essay, OWS refers to the New York City occupation, while Occupy refers to the movement in general.)

Certainly, Occupy was always a largely left-leaning event. But right-wing participation has been the norm rather than the exception within recent left-wing U.S. movements—including the antiglobalization, antiwar, environmental, and animal rights movements—and Occupy was no exception.2 Right-wing groups inserted their narrative about the Federal Reserve into the movement’s visible politics; used Occupy’s open-ended structure to disseminate conspiracy theories (antisemitic and otherwise) and White nationalism; promoted unfettered capitalism; and gained experience, skills, and political confidence as organizers in a mass movement that, on the whole, allowed their participation.

Ideally, none of these things should have happened. Advocates for social justice need to assess the motivations, extent, and substance of right-wing participation in Occupy—just as has been done with past movements. Despite the painful feelings it might evoke, it is time for this process to start.

The problem of finance capital and ambiguous enemies

The original call for OWS from Adbusters magazine said the demonstrators themselves would decide on the “one demand” of the occupation, but this never materialized. Instead, the eminently populist slogan “We are the 99%” became their rallying cry. The one percent—often assumed to be those whose household incomes were over $500,000—was obviously associated with “Wall Street,” the focus of the demonstration.3 But many people with that kind of income were not associated with Wall Street at all. And, in any case, what exactly was Wall Street: the New York Stock Exchange? Banks? Bankers? Global corporations? The Federal Reserve? And who were the one percent: Crony capitalists specifically? Capitalists generally? The rich? Political elites? The Bilderberg Group? The Rothschild family? Jews? Or—as one popular conspiracy theorist had it—our reptilian overlords?

Particularly at the beginning, Occupy embraced everyone, just as a number of organizers intended.4 If the goal was to unite “the 99%” against a tiny elite, after all, didn’t that require a Left-Right alliance? Many on the Right openly called for such an alliance, though the agenda they proposed usually offered little that the Left could get behind.

But in addition to this general, populist appeal for uniting the people against the elites, there was one specific piece of common ground. While few right-wing actors see capitalism as a system to be abolished, many are harsh critics of finance capital, especially in its international form. This critique unites antisemites, who believe that Jews run Wall Street; libertarian “free marketers,” who see the Federal Reserve as their enemy; and advocates of “producerist” narratives, who want “productive national capital” (such as manufacturing and agriculture) to be cleaved from “international finance capital” (the global banking system and free-trade agreements).

Finance has become a larger part of the U.S. economy, and increasingly international, in the last few decades. As an industry, it produces comparatively few jobs, and it functions globally as one of the pillars of neoliberalism, exacerbating economic inequality. While economic downturns are an intrinsic feature of capitalism itself, it was the largely unregulated behavior of banks that caused the most recent crisis. Occupy was just one of many global demonstrations against austerity economics that have been populist in approach and politically amorphous, and, especially in Europe, these have a particular appeal to the Far Right.

In Occupy the most common demand of the various right-wing and conspiracy groups—especially those who openly called for Left-Right unity—was for the abolition of the Federal Reserve. Whether this is an issue actually shared by the Left, or just an attempt to get the Left to support right-wing policies, is another question.

The initial controversy over antisemitism

The Right’s participation was far from limited to a handful of antisemites, but it is nonetheless true that Occupy’s attacks on finance capital attracted many of them, since such attacks were easily integrated into their fantasies of Jews controlling the banking industry. (Rather than explicitly naming Jews as the villain, antisemites often instead demonize a subgroup that they identify as Jewish, such as Zionists, international bankers, neoconservatives, “the Frankfurt School”—or Wall Street.)

Adbusters, the magazine that initially sparked OWS, has an especially troublesome past. Its editor and co-founder, Kalle Lasn, published an article in 2004 criticizing neoconservatives by invoking numerous antisemitic narratives. The article included a list of prominent neoconservatives with marks next to the Jewish names. Responding to widespread criticism, Lasn denied that he was antisemitic but showed no understanding of why the narrative of the article was offensive. More recently, the magazine has published articles by antisemitic writer and musician Gilad Atzmon.5 This certainly raises the question of whether Adbusters’s choice of Wall Street as a target may have been shaped by narratives influenced by antisemitism.

Some mainstream right-wing media attempted to discredit OWS as being primarily antisemitic from the outset. The catalyst was an October 2011 article in Commentary by Abe Greenwald. Relying on two antisemitic videos from Zuccotti—one of a homeless man who appeared daily with antisemitic signs, and the other of a random participant—Greenwald claimed that OWS “protesters are literally boasting of their Nazi credentials” and that the “point of Occupy Wall Street is to scapegoat fellow Americans. And wherever political scapegoating takes place, anti-Semitism is sure to follow.” In mid-October, the Emergency Committee for Israel released a broadcast ad implying that the OWS demonstrations were overwhelmingly antisemitic, and demanding that President Obama repudiate the incidents. Its evidence consisted entirely of the two videos.6

All of this created such a media uproar that more mainstream groups weighed in. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman said that there was “no evidence that these anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are representative of the larger movement or that they are gaining traction with other participants.”7

Journalist Jonathan Chait summarized the situation by writing that the “ratio of outraged published reports or commentaries about anti-Semites at OWS to actual anti-Semites at OWS is probably about ten to one.” Despite this, the Zuccotti General Assembly (GA) never passed a resolution specifically condemning antisemitism in its own ranks. (The GAs were the directly democratic gatherings where everyone could speak, and where OWS decisions were made.) In November 2011, the GA did pass a resolution condemning antisemitism in the abstract, though it involved an incident unconnected to Occupy.8

The result was that many Occupy protestors on the Left felt that they were being unfairly “smeared” as antisemites by the mainstream Right in an attempt to discredit the movement as a whole, and, furthermore, that these claims were without merit.9 This fear of subversion created an atmosphere of denial and a general consensus that there was no involvement in Occupy by those further to the Right than Ron Paul.

Right-wing and conspiracist participation in Occupy was nonetheless real, and it involved more than 20 groups, prominent figures, and media outlets. These included Ron Paul supporters, Alex Jones, Oath Keepers, David Icke, We Are Change, Tea Party members, National-Anarchists, Attack the System, the Pacifica Forum, American Free Press, LaRouchites, Counter-Currents, the American Freedom Party, American Front, David Duke, the American Nazi Party, White Revolution, and others. (A detailed account of their participation is available separately in my essay, “Twenty on the Right in Occupy.”)10 Their involvement included attending planning meetings, taking part in the encampments, making appeals directed to the Occupiers, and co-opting online resources. They fell into four overlapping categories: anti-Federal Reserve activists, conspiracy theorists, antisemites, and White nationalists/neo Nazis.

The “End the Fed!” factor and the conspiracy theorists

As Occupy Wall Street burgeoned, Ron Paul was campaigning for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Although there was no obvious mechanism organizing their participation, Paulists were at the OWS planning meetings, and they remained a fixture in the movement and appeared at almost all Occupations, though they were usually a small but vocal minority. (Paul himself made only guarded pro-Occupy comments.)

David Duke, an elder statesman of the U.S. White nationalist movement, made a video titled “Occupy Zionist Wall Street.” Writing on a popular White nationalist web forum, he declared, “Occupy is an opportunity…Grab this opportunity!” 

One of Paul’s central goals is to abolish the Federal Reserve (commonly known as “the Fed”), and he has popularized the slogan “End the Fed!” He believes that it fosters “crony capitalism”—big business working hand-in-hand with the federal government—and facilitates foreign wars. Abolishing the Fed will, he believes, both reduce U.S. militarism and make the federal social safety net impossible to sustain. In Paul’s utopian free market, the old, sick, and disabled would be left to suffer and die unless their families or others volunteered to help. Paul also opposes abortion and Social Security, and he has a long history of accepting support from and dialoguing with White nationalists.11

The ambiguity of Occupy attracted a substantial number of Paul’s supporters, who in turn attracted a fair amount of media coverage for themselves. They gained general traction within Occupy because of their objection to the Federal Reserve’s bailout of the major banks after the financial collapse, and sometimes focused on its role in the subprime mortgage crisis. Counterintuitively for many, the lesson of the crisis for Paulists was the need for less—not more—federal involvement in the banking system.

Many others who wanted to abolish the Federal Reserve also became involved in Occupy; most supported Paul’s candidacy. Alex Jones, one of the most popular U.S. conspiracy theorists (although not a consistent supporter of Occupy), attempted to crash the movement by calling for a national event on Oct. 6, 2011, to “Occupy the Fed.” Jones said that, contrary to media portrayals of Occupy as left-leaning, “The people on the ground … understand the Federal Reserve is the central organization empowering this world government system. This is a revolt against banker occupation.”12

At the same time, the Oath Keepers organization, in concert with Jones and others, concocted a national push to insert “End the Fed!” rhetoric into Occupy under a call to “Occupy the Occupation!” (Oath Keepers, which holds armed marches, recruits current and former military and law enforcement employees who swear to “uphold the Constitution,” and is driven by conspiracies about the coming One World Government.) It also helped establish an encampment in Occupy Los Angeles and attempted to recruit there.13

Another Fed critic was David Icke, known for his metaconspiracy theory that the global elite are descendants of reptilian aliens who seek to enslave humanity—a story that weaves in classic antisemitic narratives. His “Essential Knowledge For A Wall Street Protestor” video, which promotes anti-Federal Reserve and related economic conspiracies, has about 350,000 views. He also made an hour-long “ad-lib documentary” in Zuccotti Park just after the encampment was evicted by authorities.14 Icke’s followers were active in both U.S. and U.K. Occupations.

Other conspiracists who worked in Occupy include We Are Change (WAC), an international 9/11 “Truther” group. Luke Rudkowski, the group’s founder, is a prolific video blogger and is well-known for his paparazzi-style interviews. On site at OWS from the first day, he did extensive video coverage at Zuccotti Park and is also featured in David Icke’s videos.

Members of WAC New York City, a splinter faction, were also active in OWS, including Danny Panzella, a Tea Party activist who ran for state office in 2010. Even before OWS, Panzella organized demonstrations against the downtown Manhattan Federal Reserve, and he worked hard to refocus Occupy on an “End the Fed!” agenda. He appeared on the Fox News show Freedom Watch, in one of a number of the show’s broadcasts that encouraged libertarians to attend Occupy events.15 Other members of the group who worked with OWS included Craig FitzGerald, a “National-Anarchist” who promotes Holocaust denial and endorses White separatism.

Antisemites, White nationalists, and neo-Nazis

Attack the System—which promotes an alliance of racial separatists, theocrats, and Leftists against what it sees as an increasingly globalized, centralized, liberal “system”—also courted Occupy. The organization produced a video—“Power to the Neighborhoods (A Message to ‘Occupy Wall Street’)”—that called for Left-Right unity, offering a left-wing critique of contemporary problems while offering a classic right-wing solution: complete local control.16

Online, antisemites have continued to be connected to Occupy projects. The most popular is an imposter Facebook page that mimics the “real” main one—and posts blatantly antisemitic content. It has attracted nearly 650,000 followers. (By contrast, the page affiliated with the organization that arose from the Zuccotti encampment has fewer than 500,000 followers.) It is unclear who the secretive administrators of the imposter site are, or why it became so popular. Attempts to remove it have so far been unsuccessful.17

One of the Far Right’s most enthusiastic Occupy champions was the American Free Press, an antisemitic weekly newspaper that is heir to Willis Carto’s media empire. It promoted Occupy even before the initial action, and for months it printed numerous articles supporting the movement, including firsthand reporting from various Occupations.18

Lyndon LaRouche’s Far Right sect was initially involved in OWS. It has long pushed for restoring Glass-Steagall, a New Deal-era act that limited the kinds of investments that banks could make, which was repealed in the late 1990s. Many believe that it would have prevented the housing crisis had it remained in effect. During Occupy, two bills were in Congressional committee that would have restored its provisions, and it was a priority for many Occupy protestors on the Left, as well. LaRouche’s followers were active in the OWS planning meetings, where Glass-Steagall’s restoration was one of six initial proposals for the never-realized “one demand.”19 LaRouche’s organization even claimed credit for making its reinstatement “a leading demand of the movement.”20 Staff at Counter-Currents, a leading U.S. publisher of intellectual fascism and White nationalism, claimed to have attended the San Francisco and Oakland occupations, and they described the events as a valuable experience:

Given that the protestors are overwhelmingly White, Occupy Wall Street does provide opportunities for White Nationalists. There is nothing to prevent us from getting our ideas into the mix. However, there is no reason to think that our ideas will make any headway given the basic nature of the protests [that is, Occupy’s General Assembly format]. A far more promising angle is for us to ponder how to frame an open-source protest movement that would serve our purposes rather than the establishment’s.21

The most prominent figure on the Far Right to endorse Occupy was David Duke, a former Republican state representative from Louisiana and an elder statesman of the U.S. White nationalist movement. In a video from October 2011, “Occupy Zionist Wall Street,” Duke denounced the “Zionist thieves at the Federal Reserve” and “the most powerful criminal bank in the world, the Zionist Goldman Sachs, run by that vulture-nosed bottom feeder, Lloyd Blankfein.” The video has received more than 100,000 views to date. Duke later wrote on the White supremacist web forum Stormfront that “OWS is an opportunity. … Grab this opportunity!”22

White nationalists also participated in some of the movement’s less high-profile iterations, such as Occupy Indianapolis (OI). Matt Parrott of Hoosier Nation—the local branch of the White nationalist American Third Position Party, now called the American Freedom Party—attended OI, and made a video interviewing participants. He wrote: “Our experience was peaceful and positive, affirming my suspicion that the majority of the Occupy Indianapolis attendees were fed up with the same corporate and federal abuses the majority of the Tea Party protesters are fed up with.”23 His colleague “Tristania” posted a comment on Stormfront saying that “it was a very good opportunity for outreach” and that “it’s about cherry picking people from those audiences and recruiting them to our side.”24

Parrott posted his video on the OI Facebook page, which the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement (HARM) took issue with. Although the video was removed, HARM eventually split from OI, claiming that it had “become a safe place for conspiracy-theories, antisemitism, racism, anti-worker sentiment, pro-sweatshop propaganda, and religious intolerance.” Other OI activists contacted HARM to complain of racial harassment at the Occupation itself.25 (A representative from the OI Facebook page denied that the administrators were racists or antisemites, and said that because of splits in OI, the Facebook page had no connection to the physical occupation by the time of the racial incidents.)

American Nazi Party leader Rocky J. Suhayda wrote that Occupy was tailor-made for Nazis and other White nationalists, since the “vast majority” of Wall Street bankers were Jewish. He urged his fellow activists to join the protests with “flyers EXPLAINING the ‘JEW BANKER’ influence”—but warned them not to wear anything hinting that they were Nazis.26 Other neo-Nazis also became involved, such as Billy Roper, who wrote that Occupy represented people who were tired of the rich, the media, the banking industry and the Federal Reserve, and that among Occupiers, “More and more people are willing to name the Jew.”27

LaRouche Choral Group (web) A performance by the LaRouche choral group. Lyndon LaRouche is a longtime leading figure of the U.S. Far Right. The photo was taken on Sept. 17, 2011—the first day of Occupy Wall Street. Photo courtesy of Tyko Kihlstedt .

 

Occupy highlights the extraordinary challenge facing popular mobilizations: how to create a strong movement that is open to “everyone” without becoming a forum for right-wing protest?

National Socialist Movement member J.T. Ready came to Occupy Phoenix with his vigilante U.S. Border Guard, armed with AR-15 rifles, claiming that they were demonstrating their support for the Second Amendment. In Seattle, several neo-Nazis came into the Occupy camp at night, prompting antifascists to kick them out and then set up a self-defense patrol. But in both cities, antifascists tangled with liberal Occupiers, who claimed that—as part of “the 99%”—the neo-Nazis had a right to stay.28

Why did they participate?

It is a mistake to view these right-wing groups and people as “infiltrating” Occupy, since in some cases they supported and helped organize it even before it started. Others were simply participating in a demonstration that loudly proclaimed that it was open to everyone and refused to define even its most basic concepts or demands.

Yet some on the Right did view their work as intentional co-optation. This is an intrinsic problem with the “franchise activism” model, or the practice of setting up a name and format that anyone can adopt and act under. While it allows for ease of replication and flexibility in action—one of Occupy’s great strengths—it also allows a variety of political visions to be pursued under its banner. For example, almost no mechanisms are available to deem the “imposter” Facebook page as illegitimate in relation to the “real” one.

In addition, for decades, elements of the Far Right have been trying to concoct a strategy for a decentralized White nationalist movement.29 One group tried to think up how it could set up a White nationalist version of Occupy, while another praised the open organizational structure as a boon for spreading its ideas.30

The point it is not so much that the Left was significantly damaged by the Right’s presence in Occupy—though its presence did open the movement up to attacks in the mainstream media, which wasted the time and effort of organizers while turning off potential supporters. The deeper problem is that right-wing groups benefited from the Left’s willingness to give them a stage to speak from and an audience to recruit from.

What is to be done?

Many Leftists argue that mass organizing should occur in a Popular Front style, with the critique of capitalism as a system being the core politic and specific, popular grievances merely the focus of mobilizations—egregious examples to rally people around but not the actual cause. This organizing style requires either an ideologically cohesive coalition or a specific group behind the mobilization, controlling the messaging and serving as a gatekeeper against right-wing participation.

After the August 2007 crisis, however, the traditional U.S. Left was unable to lead a popular protest movement in this format, and it took OWS nearly four years to get off the ground using digital-age organizing, self-selected organizers, and ambiguous politics. It is unlikely that organizing along the former model would have ever succeeded, or that mainstream liberal pundits, who were instrumental in popularizing OWS, would have supported a more traditional, centrally organized leftist mobilization. The ambiguity of OWS politics, which let people hang their own hats on it, made Occupy possible—but also became a double-edged sword, since what helped the Left also enabled the Right.

As a result, the involvement of right-wing groups in Occupy raises questions about the dilemma of creating a movement that is open to “everyone” but must exclude certain elements if it is to avoid becoming a forum for right-wing populist protest. The basic format of the demonstrations—a populist attack on finance capital with ambiguous formulations—harmonized quite well with the political vocabulary and framework of the Right and conspiracy theorists.

Successful mass protest movements around the globe have been leaderless and decentralized in recent years. With its critique of finance capital and financial elites, the Right will continue to try to profit politically from them.

Are there any practical steps, then, that activists on the Left can take to minimize participation by the Right?

The administrators at the OccupyWallSt.org forum, the main online location of internal discussions, took one small step after they were deluged by conspiracy theorists and Far Right propagandists. In October 2011, they banned anyone who posted about Icke, LaRouche, Duke, or Jones.31

A more proactive first step would be to endorse an anti-oppression platform at the very start, such as the one created at Occupy Boston. Unlike the relatively vague statement from Zuccotti, Boston’s statement explicitly named the types of oppression that it opposed, including White supremacy, patriarchy, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Arab sentiment, Islamophobia, and anti-Jewish sentiment.32

A member of the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement pointed out that if such a platform had been in place in Occupy Indianapolis, when racist sentiments were expressed towards people of color, there would have been an existing agreement to point to—and a basis for asking the larger group to intervene—rather than relying on nonexistent cooperation from the majority of the largely White participants. The HARM member also said that if racists had been confronted and expelled from the physical occupation, they likely would not have posted a positive video of their experience, felt welcome to continue to participate in the group’s social media, or written about their warm reception.33 Not taking a proactive stance against antisemitism at Zuccotti led to significant bad press and much time and energy invested—often by Jewish participants—in putting out fires.

In truth, even if such measures are enacted, right-wing involvement in popular demonstrations that have traditionally been the province of the Left is likely to continue. The mass-based left-wing parties and unions in the West are rapidly losing their remaining influence as state communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe; Keynesianism and social democracy are in eclipse; and neo-liberalism illuminates the world with its triumphant calamity. The countries that remain in opposition are a handful of creaking authoritarian regimes and religious theocracies in the Middle East and Asia, along with a few left-leaning democracies in Latin America that, at least for activists in the West, have not generated the same inspiration that past revolutionary governments did.

On the ground, most successful mass protest movements of the last decade and a half in the West, North Africa, and the Middle East have been leaderless and decentralized. They have also had vaguer and vaguer goals. The Right—with its criticisms of finance capital and financial elites—will continue to try to profit politically from economic crises. In the last few years, fascists have been able to do this in Greece, Bulgaria, and, most recently, Ukraine—where they have been the most prominent faction in the weeks of street-fighting in Kiev.

Advocates for social justice would do well to have a plan to deal with them.


 

Endnotes

1 Tom Perkins, “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?,” Wall Street Journal (letters), Jan. 24, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304549504579316913982034286.

2 See, for example, Chip Berlet, “Right Woos Left,” originally Dec. 20, 1990 (revised with corrections), www.publiceye.org/rightwoo/rwooz9.html.The anti-globalization movement is analyzed in Anti-Fascist Forum, ed., My Enemy’s Enemy, 3rd ed. (Kersplebedeb, 2003).

3 The figure is from Phil Izzo, “What Percent Are You?,” Oct. 19, 2011, Wall Street Journal blogs, http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/10/19/what-percent-are-you/.

4 On Aug. 12, 2011, Adbusters’s Micah White said they should “reach out to the Tea Party, too. This is a moment for all of America.” In OWS planning meetings, Alexa O’Brien, the U.S. Day of Rage organizer, said, “We need to appeal to the right as well as the left.” Quoted in Nathan Schneider, Thank You, Anarchy (University of California Press, 2013), 15, 4.

5 Kalle Lasn, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?,” Adbusters, Mar./Apr. 2004, http://radicalarchives.org/2011/10/20/lasn-adbusters-helps-you-find-the-jews/; Jeff Sommer, “The War Against Too Much of Everything,” New York Times, Dec. 22, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/business/adbusters-war-against-too-much-of-everything.html; on Atzmon, see Michael Moynihan, “Busted,” Tablet, Dec. 6, 2011, www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/85379/busted. One fascist publishing house, Arktos, even bragged that Adbusters excerpted one of its books (Pentti Linkola’s Can Life Prevail?) alongside ads promoting the forthcoming OWS action; see Adbusters #95, May/June 2011, www.adbusters.org/magazine/95.

6 Abe Greenwald, “Occupy Wall Street Has an Anti-Semitism Problem,” Commentary, Oct. 11, 2011, www.commentarymagazine.com/2011/10/11/occupy-wall-street-has-an-anti-semitism-problem/; Emergency Committee for Israel, “Hate at Occupy Wall Street,” Oct. 13, 2011, www.committeeforisrael.com/hate_at_occupy_wall_street.

7 “ADL Calls On ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Organizers To Condemn Anti-Semitic Remarks Made At Rallies” (press release), Oct. 17, 2011, http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/6138_12.html.

8 Jonathan Chait, “Anti-Semites! With Signs!,” New York, Oct. 18, 2011, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2011/10/anti-semites_with_signs.html; “OWS Official Statement Against Anti-Semitism,” Nov. 13, 2011, http://interoccupy.net/occupyjudaism/ows-official-statement-against-anti-semitism.

9 “A Statement Against Smears” (press release), Nov. 1, 2011, http://jewishleadersagainstsmears.wordpress.com/.

10 Spencer Sunshine, “20 on the Right in Occupy,” www.politicalresearch.org/20-on-the-right-in-occupy.

11 Rachel Tabachnick and Frank L. Cocozzelli, “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right,” The Public Eye (Fall 2013), 2–8, www.politicalresearch.org/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right.

12 “The Revolution Against the Federal Reserve Starts Now,” Oct. 6, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0AJy4pJUE8.

13 Members of End the Fed, Oath Keepers, and We Are Change started a “Liberty Encampment” at Occupy LA and called for others to join them. See “End the Fed at Occupy Los Angeles,” Oct. 9, 2011, http://occupythefednow.com/2011/10/09/end-the-fed-at-occupy-los-angeles;” “OATH KEEPERS (and Volunteers From Other Liberty Orgs) To Occupy The Occupation!,” Oct. 5, 2011, http://oathkeepers.org/oath/2011/10/05/oath-keepers-and-the-wayseers-to-occupy-the-occupation.

14 “David Icke – Essential Knowledge For A Wall Street Protestor,” Oct. 21, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV9A2IGShuk; “David Icke’s ‘ad lib’ documentary at Occupy Wall Street,” Jan. 6, 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=99nvx3m2fbQ.

15 “Danny Panzella on Freedom Watch w/ Judge Napolitano,” Oct. 4, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=20_NRdXTD4k.

16 “Power to the Neighborhoods (A Message to ‘Occupy Wall Street’),” Oct. 21, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FwpQiyF94U.

17 The “real” Facebook page is “OccupyWallSt” and the “imposter” page is “OccupyWallSt1.”

18 Dave Gahary promoted the upcoming demonstration in “‘Nautilus’ & the Chance for a U.S. Revolution,” American Free Press, Sep. 19/26, 2011. Pro-Occupy articles ran in the paper on a weekly basis until after Zuccotti was evacuated. See, for example, Michael Collins Piper’s cover story: “Left–Right Unite: Wall Street, Federal Reserve, Big Media Targeted,” American Free Press,  Oct. 31, 2011, which features a photo of a staff member burning “Federal Reserve notes” (i.e., U.S. currency) at a Washington, D.C., Occupy event.

19 “Diane Sare Reports from ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Rally,” Aug. 4, 2011, http://larouchepac.com/node/18979; Schneider, Thank You, Anarchy, 5, 16.

20 “‘Occupy Wall Street’ Mass-Strike Process Embracing Glass-Steagall” (press release), Executive Intelligence Review, Oct. 7, 2011, www.larouchepub.com/pr/2011/111007occupy_wall_st.html.

21 Greg Johnson, “Occupy Wall Street: Big Money & No Ideas,” Oct. 11, 2011, www.counter-currents.com/2011/10/counter-currents-matching-grant-updateoccupy-wall-street-big-money-no-ideas/.

22 “Occupy Zionist Wall Street by David Duke,” Oct. 20, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKy22KsxX9k; David Duke, forum post #60, Nov. 2, 2011, www.stormfront.org/forum/t842071-6/.

23 Matt Parrott, “Occupy Indianapolis Roundup,” Oct. 14, 2011, www.counter-currents.com/2011/10/video-from-the-front-lines-occupy-indianapolis-roundup/, .

24 Tristania, “Experiences at Occupy Indianapolis,” Oct. 11, 2011, www.stormfront.org/forum/t837879/#post9639571; and “Re: Experiences at Indianapolis,” Oct. 14, 2011, www.stormfront.org/forum/t837879-3/#post9646591.

25 “HARM Withdraws Support for Occupy Indianapolis,” Jan. 19, 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20120124170722/http://indianaantifa.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/harm-withdraws-support-for-occupy-indianapolis/; personal communication with “Telly,” a founding member of HARM.

26 “ANP Report for Oct. 16, 2011,” http://anp14.com/news/archives.php?report_date=2011-10-16.

27 Billy Roper, “Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue!,” Oct. 12, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20111231041640/http://Whiterevolution.com/?p=2930.

28 “Occupy Phoenix with AR-15’s,” Oct. 20, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkM7cdMgcEc; “Capital Hell Commune,” Oct. 30, 2011, http://pugetsoundanarchists.org/node/1052. Regarding liberal protestors defending the right of neo-Nazis to remain, see “Occupy Seattle General Assembly,” Occupy Seattle, Nov. 6, 2011, http://occupyseattle.org/?p=376; and “The National Socialist Movement scum show up armed to counter protest #occupyphoenix,” Fires Never Extinguished, Oct. 15, 2011, http://firesneverextinguished.blogspot.com/2011/10/national-socialist-movement-scum-show.html.

29 For example, see Spencer Sunshine, “Rebranding Fascism: National-Anarchists,” The Public Eye (Winter 2008) 1, 12–19, www.politicalresearch.org/rebranding-fascism-national-anarchists. One source reported that Louis Beam, the legendary White nationalist advocate of “leaderless resistance,” had endorsed Occupy. See Alexander Mezentsev’s comment (#10), Nov. 5, 2011, www.counter-currents.com/2011/10/leader-ful-resistance-the-predicament-of-the-right-today/.

30 These are Counter-Currents and a local national-anarchist group. See Sunshine, “20 on the Right in Occupy.”

31 OccupyForum, Oct. 30, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20111031181619/http://occupywallst.org/forum/moderating-policies-will-be-reposted-somewhere-pro/.

32 “Internal Solidarity Statement,” Oct. 4, 2011, www.occupyboston.org/2011/10/04/internal-solidarity-statement.

33 Author interview with “Telly,”  Nov. 2013.

PRA’s Rachel Tabachnick Exposes Ron Paul’s Paleoconservative Agenda in AlterNet

PRA research fellow Rachel Tabachnick is featured heavily in the latest article on AlterNet.com, discussing her report exposing Ron Paul’s involvement in creating and pushing the movement for nullification.

Check out the snippet below, and don’t miss the full article here.

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The battle for the heart and soul of the GOP is more than social conservatives parrying with establishment Republicans. It is a pantomime that has many actors performing on a number of stages, but with only one clown: libertarians.

Libertarians are a funny bunch. By funny I mean ignorant not only of basic economics but also the ride they’ve been taken on by the Christian Right and the neo-Confederates within the Republican Party.

Nullification is the common cause that drives this anti-establishment triumvirate. Nullification of the federal government is now the weapon of choice for theocrats, libertarians and white supremacists. Since 2010, state legislatures have put forward nearly 200 bills challenging federal laws its sponsors deem unconstitutional. Typically, laws the nullifiers believe challenge “religious liberty,” the Affordable Care Act and gun control.

Recently, Kansas signed into law the Second Amendment Protection Act, which prohibits the enforcement of federal laws regulating guns manufactured and used within the state. Missouri put forward a bill that would have allowed for the arrest of federal agents enforcing gun laws. Similar bills have been introduced in 37 other states.

Of course, the ACA has been a high-priority target for the nullification movement with more than 20 bills introduced in state legislatures to nullify the president’s healthcare law. The Hobby Lobby, with the backing of the right, is attempting to nullify the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate in the Supreme Court. A favorable ruling will mean privately owned businesses are free to discriminate against gays, women and anyone else on the basis of religious liberty.

A report published by Political Research Associates says, “The nullification movement’s ideology is rooted in reverence for states’ rights and a theocratic and neo-Confederate interpretation of U.S. history. And Ron Paul, who is often portrayed as a libertarian, is the engine behind the movement.”

The John Birch Society’s Anti-Civil Rights Campaign of the 1960s, and Its Relevance Today

Founded in 1958, the John Birch Society (JBS) fiercely opposed the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and 1970s.  Decades later, the rise of the Tea Party and the ongoing “Ron Paul Revolution” have helped the JBS make a comeback as it attracts young people by re-branding itself as “libertarian.” The organization is a significant force behind promoting the nullification of federal laws, as described in the most recent issue of The Public Eye.  The JBS has also helped provide fodder for accusations that President Obama, considered by most Democrats to have governed as a centrist, is a Marxist.

While many Americans have been puzzled by the use of the term “anti-colonialist” within the context of such accusations, author Claire Conner has helped illuminate the historical and rhetorical linkages among the JBS, opposition to civil rights, anti-Communism, and accusations of anti-colonialism. Her recent book, Wrapped in the Flag, is an autobiographical account of growing up as the daughter of two of the organization’s earliest and most dedicated members. (See an interview with Conner by Theo Anderson, editor of The Public Eye.) Conner’s descriptions of the JBS’ opposition to the Civil Rights Movement are further supported by many primary sources, including the JBS’ own media campaigns. Examples include pamphlets republished as advertisements in newspapers in the mid-1960s, in which the Civil Rights Movement is described as a communist conspiracy to form a “Negro Soviet Republic,” as well as a pamphlet written by a member of the JBS National Council most famously known as the father of the Koch brothers. Both publications are described below:

“What’s Wrong with Civil Rights?”

The first example of the JBS campaign to oppose the Civil Rights Movement is an advertisement in the October 31, 1965 issue of the Palm Beach Post titled, “The John Birch Society Asks: What’s Wrong With Civil Rights?

The half-page advertisement begins with the statement that nothing is wrong with civil rights, just with the Civil Rights Movement.  According to the JBS, it constituted a communist plot to build a “Negro Soviet Republic” in the United States.  The “average American Negro,” according to the JBS in 1965, “has complete freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom to run his own life as he pleases.”  Moreover, “The pursuit of happiness enjoyed by the average American Negro has been far superior to that of any race or any people among at least ninety percent of the earth’s population.”jbs civil rights ad copy 2

The ad continues, “So what is all the complaining about?”  The problem, according to the JBS, is that communist agitators are beginning to see the results from “patiently building up to this present stage for more than forty years.”  The reader is informed that this Soviet strategy in the U.S. is a continuation of anti-colonialism fermented by communists in Africa and Asia and conducted by those who have no interest in civil rights.  According to the John Birch Society, both the push for civil rights in the U.S. and anti-colonialist activism in Africa and Asia are a communist plot to destroy all that is good and holy—namely, capitalism.

The advertisement then seeks to expose the “big-lie” of anti-colonialism: “Its specific core of falsehood has been that the colonial peoples of Asia and Africa wanted and deserved their ‘independence’ from the nations of Europe which were oppressing and exploiting them. Actually, by 1926, the French in Indochina or Algeria, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Belgian in the Congo, and other ‘imperialistic’ powers, were giving their colonial subjects a very enlightened and benevolent rule.”

The next step in this communist plot, as stated in the ad, is the formation of a “Negro Soviet Republic” in the U.S. that would include the major cities of the South. JBS claimed this to be the real intent of American civil rights leaders. The ad continues,  “A careful study quickly reveals that every part of the civil rights program has been designed, and in is being carried forward, as a step in the Communist strategy for these purposes. And the current leaders of the nationwide civil rights campaign have such extensive records of affiliating with Communists of Communists, of being guided, trained, and supported by Communists, and of themselves supporting Communists agents and causes, as to make their real purposes as obvious a sunrise to anybody who will simply use honestly the intelligence that God gave him.”

The JBS authors close by stating that “American Negroes as a whole” did not plan this or want this and and “are no bigger dupes in yielding to the propaganda and coercion of the comaymps among them, than are the white people in the United States in swallowing the portions of that propaganda which are labeled idealism.  “Comaymps” was JBS shorthand for communist sympathizers.

Across the bottom of the half-page ad is marketing of other JBS pamplets and books through American Opinion publishing, including It’s Very Simple and New York: Communist Terror in the Streets, both by Alan Stang.  Stang published many works  through the John Birch Society’s American Media, and also wrote widely on Christian Reconstructionism.  Stang was a contributor to the Gary North-edited The Theology of Christian Resistance, one of many examples of the overlap between the JBS and theocratic Christian Reconstructionism.

Stang passed away in 2009 and was eulogized in the pages of the JBS’ New American magazine.  Yet other 1960s-era JBS leaders are again leading the charge in a contemporary state’s rights projects: nullification.  Leaders who were involved with the organization in the 1960s include its current president, John McManus. McManus was the surprise guest speaker at the Ron Paul Rally for the Republic, the counter-rally to the Republican National Convention in 200.  In his remarks, he told the audience, “If you like Ron Paul, you’re going to love the John Birch Society.”

A Businessman Looks at Communism

Published by the Farmville Herald (VA) in 1963, A Businessman Looks at Communism was written by Fred Koch and provides an account of his work in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The pamphlet provided support for JBS’ claim to insider knowledge of the communist agenda.Fred Koch's pamphlet copy

Page sixteen of the pamphlet sums up Koch’s attitude about labor unions. “Labor Unions have long been a Communist goal,” Koch asserts. “The effort is frequently made to have the worker do as little as possible for the money he receives. This practice alone can destroy our country.”

On page 25, Koch explains his fear of the Civil Rights Movement: “You may be sure the Communists are fishing furiously in the troubled waters of integration on both sides. The Communists are not interested in the aspirations of the negro except as a means to stir up racial hatred … The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”

Koch continues, “I have been told by the ex-Communists that the Communist Party has been influential in changing the relief laws of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, and Chicago to make it attractive for rural Southern Negroes and Puerto Ricans to come to those cities.  In the first place, the Communist Party intends to use the votes of these people to swing the balance in these populous states; secondly, when the Party is ready to take over these cities it will use the colored people by getting a vicious race war started.”

This 1963 pamphlet was celebrated in the pages of The New American magazine in 2010, in an article titled, “Fred Koch: Oil Man Against Communism,” and closing with these words about Koch: “He would probably be dismayed, however, that the United States is still enmeshed in the United Nations, and that she has traveled very far down the road to socialist serfdom. He would no doubt perceive the irony that, despite the demise of the Bolsheviks, their program for America, as a wispy little revolutionary explained it to him so long ago, is still very much in force.”

This and other JBS media provide a window into the underlying foundations of the worldview that has spread throughout the Tea Party Movement and much of the Right.

Thanks to Claire Conner for pointing out Fred Koch’s 1963 pamphlet. For more coverage and analysis on the JBS and the resurgence of nullification ideology, see PRA’s profile on the John Birch Society and “Nullification, Neo-Confederates and the Revenge of the Old Right,” by Rachel Tabachnick and Frank Cocozzelli.

The Libertarian Theocrats: The Long, Strange History of R.J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism

PE-Fall-2007.pdf - Adobe Acrobat Pro

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


In their struggle to understand George W. Bush, some liberal intellectuals have looked to the writings of Rousas John Rushdoony, the Armenian-American minister whose championing of a theocratic America influenced some of the nooks and crannies of the Christian Right during its rise to prominence. For example Mark Crispin Miller, in his frontal assault on George W. Bush’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,1 charges that Bush not only acted unconstitutionally, but in his religious imagery echoed the infiltration of Rushdoony’s ideas into his Administration (and the Republican Party at large). Miller interprets Rushdoony’s theology as a call for Christians to take “dominion” over all aspects of the federal government and replace it with a theocracy.2 “With their eyes on the future, those [Rushdoony followers] at work on forging an all-Christian USA are overjoyed that Bush is president, for they correctly see the regime’s imposition on the people as itself a signal victory for their movement.”3

But a spokesman for the think tank Rushdoony founded told me Miller is wrong (Rushdoony himself died in 2001). Registering disgust, Chris Ortiz of the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California, explained that Christian Reconstructionists, as they call themselves, think the war in Iraq is both immoral and ungodly. Not only are a good many stridently critical of the Bush administration, Ortiz said, he agreed with Miller’s indictment of Bush, which he heard during a recent radio interview. At best, some Reconstructionists might see Bush as a well-intentioned fool, Ortiz told me. Many see him as a manipulative politician who snowballed the American people into supporting his disastrous presidency.

Those casually familiar with Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction may find Ortiz’s comments befuddling since a recent spat of popular books like Miller’s Cruel and Unusual have argued the exact opposite, identifying Rushdoony and his followers as allies of the Bush administration. Ortiz surely wants to distance himself from a failing president, but his remarks also reveal a Reconstructionist distaste for the hard, government-centered politics that brought Christian conservatives into the corridors of Beltway power.

Since the movement’s emergence in the mid-1960s, Christian Reconstruction has always been a little different from other factions of American conservatism. Not surprisingly, the movement wins attention for Rushdoony’s call for the eventual end of democracy in favor of a Christian theocracy, and his insistence that a “godly order” would enforce the death penalty for homosexuals and those who worship false idols.4 But Christian Reconstructionists insist that they have always been uncomfortable with authoritarian institutions of political power because, unlike Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Rushdoony wedded his rigid theological perspective with a libertarian perspective that looked outside the boundaries of popular conservatism for answers to the problems facing the United States.

“Christian Libertarians”

At first glance, the phrase “Christian libertarian” seems a contradiction, especially when one applies it to Dominionists – as the full range of those calling for a Christian nation are called – and Christian Reconstructionists. It is true that today a secular – and in some cases rabidly atheistic – tendency dominates libertarianism. But this has not always been the case.

During the 1930s, a wide variety of business, intellectual, and religious leaders banded together to attack Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Those who emphasized the sovereignty of the individual citizen, resistance to a centralized bureaucracy, and the benefits of unfettered free market capitalism eventually coalesced into the libertarian movement that we know today. For a brief period into the 1940s, these anti-New Deal forces formed an alliance with Protestant religious leaders determined to resist “socialistic” tendencies within the church.5 While this cooperation was short-lived, it had a profound impact on the contemporary Christian Right.

The chief target of these economically conservative evangelical clergymen was the Social Gospel, a wide-ranging theological and social movement rooted in the late 19th century whose champions sought to fight poverty and improve the conditions of America’s poorest using the government to regulate market forces. The Social Gospelers pulled together across denominational lines to advocate for a heightened awareness of labor conditions in the country. But the movement had a theological side; its clergy tended to emphasize the corporate, collective nature of salvation. Moreover, many were willing to embrace evolutionary theory as a means of explaining human origins. Such a naturalistic perspective led to a willingness to see human beings as the product of their material and social environment.

Like many in the Progressive Era, the reform-minded period before World War I, the Social Gospelers believed that legislation and government regulation could change Americans for the better by changing the social environment in which they lived. By focusing attention on the social context that drives individuals to sin, the social gospel seemed to downplay the individual, embodied experience of salvation that American evangelicals have traditionally sought.6 Not surprisingly, many prosperous American churchgoers found the emphasis on economic justice over the saving of souls to be yet another expression of the “socialistic” threat to the American way of life.

While the social gospel lost much of its impulse during the economic boom following the war, popular interest in the movement reignited during the Great Depression of the 1930s. To resist this renewed influence – and defend capitalism – the alliance between business and religious leaders sought to reemphasize individual spiritual regeneration and to downplay the effects of social constraints on individual choices.

In 1935, Rev. James Fifield of Chicago formed Mobilization for Spiritual Ideals to address these concerns. Popularly known as Spiritual Mobilization, Fifield’s operation earned the fiscal support of such right-wing philanthropists as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, Jasper Crane of DuPont, and B.E. Hutchinson of Chrysler. Facing the daunting task of resisting nearly five decades of entrenched liberal Protestant teaching and the harsh reality of the Depression, Fifield recruited preachers and laymen eager to resist the massive redistribution of wealth envisioned by President Roosevelt. His appeal was simplistic but effective. American clergymen needed to start preaching the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” In this, the shortest commandment, Fifield and his followers believed they had found the biblical basis for private property and a limit to the government’s ability to redistribute wealth, tax, and otherwise impede commerce.7

As libertarianism evolved into a more mainstream movement, it forced most of its religious defenders to the side.

In order to undermine government-sponsored economic redistribution, the ministers and laymen Fifield hired focused on the spiritual causes of poverty rather than the social concerns of the Social Gospelers. The New Deal and the conflicts with the Nazis and Soviets were manifestations of humankind’s rejection of God’s divinity for that of a centralized bureaucracy. An all-powerful bureaucracy, they warned, usurped the “Christian principle of love” with the “collectivist principle of compulsion.”8 Beginning in 1949, the Christ-centered free market ideals of Spiritual Mobilization reached nearly fifty thousand pastors and ministers via the organization’s publication, Faith and Freedom.9 With the rhetorical flare of such libertarian luminaries as the Congregationalist minister Edmund A. Opitz, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and the anarchist Murray Rothbard, Faith and Freedom moved many clergymen to embrace its anti-tax, non-interventionist, anti-statist economic model.

In his Faith and Freedom articles, Opitz formulated a systematic theology in support of capitalism, merging economic responsibility with individual salvation to form a “libertarian theology of freedom.”10 In assessing the threat of communism and fascism, Opitz argued that the solution was not collective political action. Instead, he noted that the “crisis is in man himself, in each individual regardless of his occupation, education, or nationality.”11 Jesus’ Good News was that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” making every man’s salvation an internalized, personal matter. In Opitz’s reading, Jesus’ gospel becomes the basis for a radical individualism that “was the foundation upon which this [American] republic was established.”12

By the mid-1950s, prominent secular libertarian organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI) began to supplant Spiritual Mobilization’s influence in libertarian circles. In fact, many of Faith and Freedom’s regular contributors like Opitz and Rothbard13 left Spiritual Mobilization and began writing for FEE’s publication, The Freeman. Further, Ayn Rand’s atheistic Objectivism pulled many libertarians away from the Christian ideals of Spiritual Mobilization.

While secular libertarianism triumphed, the remnants of its Christian heritage persisted among a small cadre of thinkers and activists who were reluctant to completely jettison Christ from the economy. Spiritual Mobilization helped a generation of theologically and economically conservative clergy find an alternative to the Social Gospel, New Deal, and communism that resonated with their traditional values, pro-business sympathies, and Christian faith. Faith and Freedom encouraged clergymen to see government as a problem, not a solution. The solution wasn’t to take over the government; it was to replace it with something radically different.

The Libertarian Theology of R. J. Rushdoony

Among the many ministers who read Faith and Freedom was a young Presbyterian pastor living in Santa Cruz, California, named R. J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony was attracted to Faith and Freedom’s consistent warnings of the dangers of a centralized governmental bureaucracy. Born in New York City in 1916 to survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Rushdoony knew the dangers of centralized power all too well. Just a year before his birth in the States, Rushdoony’s older brother Rousas George died during the Ottoman Siege of Van, becoming one of 1.5 million Armenians eventually killed byTurkish forces.14 Rushdoony’s father Y. K. Rushdoony secured his family’s escape first to Russia and eventually to New York City.

Beyond the dangers of governmental violence, Rushdoony was also particularly attracted to Faith and Freedom’s articles on public education.15 Like many conservative clergymen, Rushdoony saw public schools as hotbeds for collectivist indoctrination and anti-Christian pluralism. Faith and Freedom suggested that it was just to resist compulsory public education, but Rushdoony found the publication’s writers to be inadequate theologians. Therefore, during the 1950s Rushdoony set about to provide a systematic theological justification for Christians to reject public education and embrace locally organized, independent Christian schools. Deploying a unique blend of libertarianism with the most rigorous Calvinistic theology he could muster, Rushdoony delivered a series of lectures on Christian education. When Rushdoony collected the lectures into a single volume, Intellectual Schizophrenia, Edmund Optiz wrote an enthusiastic foreword and helped to secure Rushdoony’s position as a rising star in the Christian libertarian movement.

It is important to understand Rushdoony’s critique of public education, because it is a microcosm of his broader theological project. As a theologian Rushdoony saw human beings as primarily religious creatures bound to God, not as rational autonomous thinkers. While this may seem an esoteric theological point, it isn’t. All of Rushdoony’s influence on the Christian Right stems from this single, essential fact. Many critics of Christian Reconstructionism assume that Rushdoony’s unique contribution to the Christian Right was his focus on theocracy. In fact, Rushdoony’s primary innovation was his single-minded effort to popularize a pre-Enlightenment, medieval view of a God-centered world. By de-emphasizing humanity’s ability to reason independently of God, Rushdoony attacked the assumptions most of us uncritically accept.

Following the lead of the Reformed theologians Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til,16 Rushdoony argued that all human knowledge is invalid if it is not rooted in the Bible. In his first book, By What Standard, published in 1958, Rushdoony summarized the ideas of Van Til and Dooyeweerd. Van Til, a Reformed Presbyterian teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, offered a radical critique of all human knowledge, arguing that it emerges from one’s theological presumptions (e.g. there is one God, many gods, or no god). For Christians, that means a three-in-one Christian God is the source of reliable human knowledge.

The implications of Van Til’s thought are far reaching. As Rushdoony explains, mankind’s first sin was an ethical fact with consequences for the nature of knowledge: when Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation to “be as gods, knowing good from evil,” she asserted her own intellectual autonomy over that of God’s.17 Mankind’s “fall” into sin was precipitated by a desire to reason independently from God’s authority.18 Rushdoony extended Van Til’s ideas to their logical end to argue that all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is “stolen” from “Christian-theistic” sources.19

In Rushdoony’s thought, knowledge becomes a matter of disputed sovereignty. Every thought that does not begin with God and the Bible is rebellious: “Man seeks to think creatively rather than think God’s thoughts after Him. Evil is the result of man’s rebellion against God…. Man’s fall was his attempt to become the original interpreter rather than the re-interpreter, to be the ultimate instead of the proximate source of knowledge.”20 Accordingly, humanity’s pretence to independent knowledge becomes a matter of rebellion against God’s Kingdom because “any attempt to know and control the future outside of God is to set up another god in contempt of the LORD.”21 Rushdoony made thinking an explicitly religious activity, a shift in focus with political implications: thinking becomes a matter of kingship, power, rebellion, and, in the final analysis, warfare. Either human thought recognizes God’s sovereignty, or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground, no compromise. It is a war between those who, like Rushdoony, think God’s thoughts after Him and those who do not.

If thinking and education are a matter of God’s disputed sovereignty, then Rushdoony believed that Christians who turned their children over to public schools were in open rebellion against God. In Rushdoony’s view, court orders forcing public schools to cease prayer and bible readings actually removed the only possible foundation for viable knowledge. Following such earlier Presbyterian luminaries as A.A. Hodge (1823-1886) and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), Rushdoony’s solution was to remove one’s children from public schools and to educate them in an explicitly Christian environment. Such an action brings both child and parent into accord with the “fundamental task of Christian education,” which, Rushdoony summarized, is to exercise dominion, “subduing the earth agriculturally, scientifically, culturally, artistically, in every way asserting the crown rights of King Jesus in every realm of life.”22

Many popular attacks on Rushdoony overestimate his influence on Bush and the GOP and misread his ideas as a cloaked desire to take over the government by hook or crook.

In many of the Faith and Freedom articles published during the 1940s and 1950s, Rushdoony saw a reservoir of popular discontent with compulsory public education and he hoped to develop it as an explicitly Christian resistance to the authority of centralized political structures. In this sense, Rushdoony was a shepherd in search of a flock and the libertarians looked more promising than alternatives. When Edmund Opitz helped secure Rushdoony a position with a small but influential libertarian organization known as the Volker Fund in 1962, Rushdoony moved to exert his unique brand of Calvinist-inspired libertarianism on the organization. He began writing a host of position papers that attacked public education, reinterpreted American history in starkly Christian terms (see box), and advocated for the regeneration of America along explicitly Christian lines. After some internal wrangling, the Fund fired Rushdoony in 1963, but the separation was gentle, giving Rushdoony the necessary resources to write two more books.

Rushdoony’s dismissal from the Fund reflected many of the secularizing changes in American libertarianism of that time. As libertarianism evolved into a more mainstream movement, it forced most of its religious defenders to the side. Rushdoony was but one casualty in this process. By the time he left the Fund, however, he had secured enough experience as a grant writer and public lecturer to set his own course. In 1965, he founded the Chalcedon Foundation, an educational organization that he used to popularize his call for a “Christian Reconstruction” of American society. In the process of forming Chalcedon, Rushdoony decided to mentor an ambitious college student who shared his passion for libertarian economics and Christianity. Their relationship would prove one of the most fascinating – and volatile – in the history of the Christian Right.

“Scary” Gary

Dominionist theology generally and Christian Reconstruction specifically would not be what they are today without Gary North. When he first met Rushdoony in 1962, the two grew so close that North eventfully married Rushdoony’s daughter, Sharon, in the early 1970s. As Rushdoony’s son-in-law, North proved to be a prolific and able popularizer of Rushdoony’s complex theological ideas. North demonstrated a willingness to reach out across sectarian boundaries in order to engage folks who were not quite as Christian as Rushdoony might have preferred, and directly engaged politically active conservatives, something Rushdoony largely avoided unless he could maintain strict control over their theological allegiances. As a result of his popular appeal and tireless advocacy of the Reconstructionist world-view, one could argue that North did more than any other Reconstructionist short of Rushdoony to reconstruct the world for Christendom.

Beginning in 1963 Rushdoony helped North secure a series of jobs working for the Volker Fund and the Foundation for Economic Education. So by the time North went to work for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation in 1973, he was a bona fide veteran of the American libertarian movement. He had worked for two of its most important organizations and maintained friendly relationships with men like Opitz, among many others. Rushdoony brought him to Chalcedon to research the relationship between biblical law and laissez-faire economics. North threw himself into a project that he has yet to finish. Since 1977 he has spent a minimum of ten hours a week, fifty weeks a year writing a commentary on biblical economics.23

This nineteen volume (and counting) series documents North’s assessment of the relationship between Rushdoony-style “theonomy” (or God-rooted law) and the prescriptions for economic behavior North believed he found in the Bible. A complex mix of Austrian economic theory, Van Til-inspired ethics, and acrid prose, North’s study of biblical economics laid the foundation for a series of failed predictions regarding the imminent collapse of the federal government. Most notoriously, North predicted that the Y2K computer glitch would lead to the total collapse of the global economy, leaving Christians in the United States to pick up the pieces.24 North’s pessimism, unrelenting literary output, and hardboiled rhetoric eventually earned him the nickname “Scary Gary.”

“Scary’s” track record of failed predictions belies a neglected aspect of his theology. North, unlike Rushdoony, believes that the eternal human social institution is the Christian church. In the event of the catastrophic collapse of such transient institutions as the federal government, churches will step into the void left by its implosion. While this view of the emergent, decentralized church is consistent with North’s unique fusion of libertarianism and postmillenarian eschatology, it is sharply at odds with Rushdoony’s view. Rushdoony envisioned the church and family as two separate, exclusive spheres. For Rushdoony the family is the primary social unit while the church represents a limited ecclesiastical organization of believers in Christ. Conversely, North believed men owed their allegiances to a church first and the family second.

In theory, men will  submit to God’s law voluntarily, leaving no place for a ruling body of theocratic clerics.  Of course, in practice, things are much more complicated.

Like all aspects of Reconstructionist theology, these two perspectives have real-world consequences. When translated into theology, North’s focus on the future role of the church led him to embrace a more active political agenda. Long before North and Rushdoony publicly parted ways, North had already aggressively sought out political influence. In 1976 he worked in Washington, D.C. as a staffer for Texas Representative Ron Paul. After Paul’s defeat, North wrote a testy screed warning Christians that Washington was a cesspool that can’t be changed overnight.25 He turned his back on national politics and began developing practical tactics for churches to deploy at the grassroots level.26 Unlike Rushdoony who focused most of his attention on ideas, North explicitly worked to pull together disparate church groups, most notably reaching out to charismatic and Pentecostal congregations in the South in an effort to fuse Reconstructionism’s grassroots activism with committed congregations. When American society collapses under the combined weight of massive foreign debt, military overstretch, and internal decadence, North hopes to have a network of churches ready to step into the breech. In preparation, he has written book after book aimed at educating Christians on how to live debt free, avoid electronic surveillance, and develop the skills necessary for surviving economic collapse.27 In short, North’s version of Reconstructionism blazed a path for the militia and Christian survivalist groups of the 1990s to follow.

For all their tension, North and Rushdoony did agree on one point: the Kingdom of God would emerge over time. They disagreed on the conditions of this emergence. Rushdoony’s perspective was patient. He argued that over the course of thousands of years God’s grace would regenerate enough people so that a Kingdom of reconstructed men would willingly submit to the strictures of God’s law. North on the other hand constantly warned of impending disaster. At the moment of cataclysmic collapse, Godly men could suddenly step forward and rule. God’s law was therefore a blueprint for reestablishing social order following the collapse of the current secular system. Both men agreed that the invisible hand of God’s grace and not the top-down imposition of authority would guide the process. In theory, men will submit to God’s law voluntarily, leaving no place for a ruling body of theocratic clerics.

Of course, in practice, things are much more complicated.

A Movement in Decline?

In 1981, North and Rushdoony had a very public falling out and the two never spoke again. This dispute led to a deep rift in the Reconstructionist camp. North initially founded his Institute for Christian Economics (ICE) as a complement to Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation, but following their split North moved his operations to Tyler, Texas, and used ICE to popularize a dissident brand of Reconstructionism and spread its ideas to an ever wider audience. Interestingly, the rift between Rushdoony and North was arguably good for the movement because it led to a vital upsurge in competing publications.

While the short terms gains of the Rushdoony/North split temporarily reinvigorated the movement, a series of three critical setbacks in the 1990s weakened Christian Reconstruction. First, two of the movement’s most promising young theologians, Greg Bahnsen and David Chilton, died suddenly in 1995 and 1997 respectively. Bahnsen in particular had been an important rising star in the movement. His major theological work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics,28 was widely read and reviewed. Further, Bahnsen was a capable teacher who brought a level of intellectual respectability to Rushdoony’s ideas that few other Reconstructionists have managed. Second, as I noted above, Gary North managed to alienate himself from practically everyone inside and outside of the movement because of his overconfident tone and failed predications of looming societal collapse.

Third and most importantly, Rushdoony ceased to be the driving intellectual and fundraising force of the movement. Most mainstream accounts since the 1990s portray Rushdoony as a stern patriarch ruling over an influential theological fiefdom. The image painted by movement insiders and financial documents suggests this popular conception is partly an illusion. Nowhere is this more obvious then Rushdoony’s inability to control the content published in his long running newsletter, The Chalcedon Report. In the mid-1990s, The Chalcedon Report ran several articles by Unitarian authors leading some loyal Reconstructionists to wonder if the rock-ribbed Trinitarian crusader had become a mealy-mouthed Unitarian rejecting the mystery of god’s three-inone nature. He hadn’t, of course, but he had lost enough control of the operation of Chalcedon that such rumors could circulate with some legitimacy. In 1994 North offered a harsh assessment of Rushdoony’s failure to handle this theological meltdown. He shockingly revealed that Rushdoony “was not really in charge” of The Chalcedon Report, observing, “In recent years, as [Rushdoony] has grown older… and increasingly deaf, he has tended to hand over much of Chalcedon’s operations to inexperienced people without any theological training.”29

This image of a declining movement is also supported by the deterioration of financial support for the Chalcedon Foundation. As a tax exempt 501(c) (3) religious charity, Chalcedon’s tax returns are a matter of public record. A cursory survey suggests that gifts to the organization peaked just before Rushdoony’s death in 2001 and haven’t recovered since. Before 2001, the Foundation’s assets never totaled much more than $1 million and they remained largely stagnant during the 1990s. The departure of Howard Ahmanson, Jr., the Home Savings bank heir, from Chalcedon’s board of directors in the mid-1990s, worsened the decline. He was a close friend of the Rushdoony family and had bankrolled Chalcedon (along with other conservative causes) during the 1980s and 1990s.

The 1990s marked a decade of change for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation. Even as public awareness of Rushdoony and his ideas have grown, it is important to note that declining public support and contentious factional disputes plague the movement that so many contemporary exposés highlight as a threat to democracy. These exposés, however, are right about one thing: Reconstructionist ideas have never been more widely available.

Reconstruction Today

Where does Christian Reconstruction stand today? This is difficult to answer primarily because of the temptation to look in the wrong place for Rushdoony’s influence. Many popular attacks on Rushdoony overestimate his influence on Bush and the GOP and misread his ideas as a cloaked desire to take over the government by hook or crook.30 But the fitful electoral success of the Christian Right has exacerbated tensions in the movement by dividing those calling for a limited government based on Christian principles and those willing to forgo ideological purity for short-term political gain. With their anti-interventionist, libertarian ethos, those inspired by Christian Reconstructionism tend to fall into the principled camp and a good many see national electoral success as a sign of ideological weakness. Their rigid theological consistency also leaves them reluctant to compromise with Republicans and more moderate evangelicals. As a result, Reconstructionists are as likely to disengage from politics as they are to engage in it.

Rushdoony himself is the model for this antagonistic stance toward national politics. In the 1980s, he became increasingly disgusted with partisan politics and worked to disengage from cooperative political action. While it has been widely reported that Rushdoony served as an original member of the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive right-wing organization cofounded by the evangelical minister and coauthor of the Left Behind novels Tim LaHaye,31 it is less widely known that Rushdoony severed his ties with the group in the late-1980s.32 Rushdoony stopped attending CNP meetings almost as soon as the organization started and ceased paying his membership fee in the late-1980s. He even went so far as to publicly dismiss the organization because of its emphasis on “socializing purposes” over ideologically sound political action.33

Similarly, Rushdoony played an important role in the formation of the Coalition on Revival (COR), an ecumenical organization designed to bridge the gap between Rushdoony’s Reconstructionists and premillenarian evangelicals like LaHaye and Francis Schaeffer. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists famously signed a series of COR Christian World View documents that highlighted points of Christian consensus in their resistance to secular humanism. As with the CNP, Rushdoony stopped working with the group and publicly trashed COR as “an ineffectual group that doesn’t change things.”34

Between Rushdoony’s cool response to national politics and Gary North’s abrasive engagement in doomsday theorizing, Christian Reconstructionism’s direct influence on national trends has been severely limited. Rather than look for Christian Reconstruction’s direct influence on this or that aspect of national policy, it is best to look for its indirect influence on a network of broader, local Christian concerns. At the local level, Rushdoony’s ideas have helped to mobilize any number of movements. In particular, Reconstruction has spurred “reform” movements in church groups both large and small.

One of the most obvious local expressions of Reconstruction’s “reform” impulse can be seen in the Exodus Mandate Project. Exodus Mandate is a ministry organized by Rev. E. Ray Moore, Jr., a former Army chaplain and pastor active in the Southern Baptist Conference (SBC). Exodus seeks to “encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.”35 In his writings, Rev. Moore explicitly acknowledges his debt to Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists.36 Dr. Bruce N. Shortt, one of Moore’s allies in his fight against public education, has been promoted by the Chalcedon Foundation and his book, The Harsh Truth About Public Schools,37 was published by Chalcedon. Since 2004 Moore and Shortt have teamed up with others in the SBC to promote an “exit strategy” from the public schools. The resolution they proposed for the 2007 annual meeting calls for the formation of an alternative K-12 school system to be administered by Christian churches. Echoing Rushdoony’s writings from nearly a half century ago the resolution states, “education is not theologically neutral, and for generations … [children] have been discipled primarily by an anti-Christian government school system.”38 If successful, this small grassroots movement could lead to the departure of millions of children from the public school system throughout the United States.

Conclusion

Even though the Chalcedon Foundation has fallen on hard times since Rushdoony died in February 2001, Reconstructionism is hardly dead. Through the careful, persistent promotion of his theology, Rushdoony managed to spread his ideas far and wide. Arguably, with his passing the intellectual impetus behind Reconstructionism specifically and Dominionism more broadly is on the wane. But the ideas Rushdoony developed laid the foundation for an incredibly vibrant and adaptable theological system that equally motivates conservatives from various religious and political backgrounds to take action in the name of Christ.

Nowhere is Rushdoony’s intellectual influence more evident than in a May 2007 gathering of some 800 socially conservative Protestants for the second annual Worldview Super Conference outside Asheville, North Carolina.39 The conference’s program promised to help prepare this generation of Christians “to capture the future” for Christ. Slickly produced and organized by Gary DeMar, an avowed disciple of Rushdoony and president of the American Vision ministry based in Georgia, the four-day event featured more than a dozen speakers, including Gary North.40 Many of the speakers and participants shared Rushdoony’s contempt for America’s secular society and government. Unlike Rushdoony, however, the participants consistently exhibited their commitment to direct political engagement rather than abstract theological debate.

Today, the public activism advocated at DeMar’s Worldview conference and local reform movements like Moore’s Exodus Mandate all attest to the enduring reach of Rushdoony’s theological mission. His ideas aren’t going anywhere just yet. The Chalcedon Foundation, under the leadership of Rushdoony’s son, Mark, continues to publish its founder’s manuscripts. Meanwhile, Gary North continues to warn of the impending collapse of America’s secular system. But most importantly, all three volumes of Rushdoony’s magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, remain in print; Christian colleges and home schooling programs regularly assign Rushdoony’s surveys of American history; bloggers write in his honor. In truly libertarian fashion, Rushdoony’s ideas have spread far and wide across the Internet and via a diffuse network of right-wing interest groups to create a wide array of Reconstructionist-inspired groups. The decentralized, bottom-up model of social organization Rushdoony championed will all but assure his continued influence for decades to come.

American History, Rushdoony Style

It is hardly radical to assert the United States is a Christian nation; historians, social critics, and religious leaders have made this claim for centuries. But in response to the threat of communism and the social changes following World War II, the insistence that the United States is essentially Christian took on new urgency and Rushdoony joined the chorus offering his own interpretation of history.

First, he argued that the New England colonies were Protestant feudal states that resisted any and all attempts to unify governmental authority into a centralized bureaucracy. Second, the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect this feudal order and the American Revolution was actually counter-revolution against the European nation-state. Finally, he argued that a conspiracy of Unitarians and socialists united to unify America into a monolithic government. They realized their goal with the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Since the time of Lincoln, the forces of an elite urbanized bureaucracy have been slowly rolling back the rural, feudal Christian character that the Constitution was designed to protect.

Variations of Rushdoony’s revisionist project have caught on with supporters as varied as Pat Robertson, Otto Scott, and numerous Christian home schoolers who seek a comprehensive theological framework for understanding American history.41

 


End Notes

1 Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unsual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

2 Ibid., 258-259.

3 Ibid., 264.

4 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), 425.

5 This, of course, is a matter of perspective. Many evangelicals embraced the Social Gospel because of its implication for individual salvation. In fact, as historian R. Lawrence Moore has argued, the Social Gospel was perfectly compatible with the individualistic nature of capitalistic consumption and acquisition and was hardly “socialistic” in any meaningful sense. Moore’s measured historical perspective, however, is unlikely to change the minds of the more vociferous critics of Social Gospel. See Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 204-237.

6 It should be noted that the Social Gospel was far from dominant in American Protestantism. From the ideas of Dwight Moody to the public ministry of Billy Sunday, clergymen spent as much time defending the benefits of capitalism as they did critiquing its excesses.

7 For a concise summary of Fifield’s appeal to the Eighth Commandment see Brian Doherty, Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2007). For an in-depth discussion of Spiritual Mobilization see Eckard V. Toy, Jr., “Spiritual Mobilization: The Failure of an Ultraconservative Ideal in the 1950s,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 61 (April 1970): 77–86.

8 The Christian’s Political Responsibility quoted in Doherty, Radicals For Capitalism, 271.

9 Eckard V. Toy, “Faith and Freedom, 1949-1960,” in The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America, Ronald Lora and William Henry Longton eds. (Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1999), 161.

10 Opitz eventually summarized his ideas in a book by the same name: Edmund A. Opitz, The Libertarian Theology of Freedom (Tampa, Fl: Hallberg Publishing Corporation, 1999).

11 Edmund A. Opitz, “The Libertarian Theology of Freedom,” in The Libertarian Theology of Freedom (Tampa, Fl: Hallberg Publishing Corporation, 1999), 136.

12 Ibid., 138.

13 Rothbard contributed to Faith and Freedom under a pseudonym because he was already well known as a radical of questionable religious commitment. In 1956 he was actually fired by Faith and Freedom’s editors after readers complained about his radicalism.

14 Mark Rousas Rushdoony, “A Biographical Sketch of my Father,” in A Comphrensive Faith: An International Festschrift for Rousas John Rushdoony, Andrew Sandlin ed. (San Jose, Ca: Friends of Chalcedon, 1996), 21-22.

15 For Rushdoony’s interest in the magazine, see Gary North, “Ed Opitz, R.I.P.,” LewRockwell.com (22 February 2006 [cited 31 May 2007]); available from http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north439.html.

16 It is often wrongly reported that Rushdoony was a “student” of Van Til. While it is certainly true that Rushdoony was the most prolific popularizer of Van Til’s ideas, it is important to note that Rushdoony did not attend Westminster Theological Seminary where Van Til taught. In fact, Rushdoony never formally studied under Van Til, a fact that might explain their ultimate divergence on the concept of theonomy. Van Til publicly rejected much of Rushdoony’s work and never adopted the Reconstructionist paradigm, even though their relationship remained friendly.

17 R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Vallecito, Ca: Ross House Books, 1995), 25.

18 Ibid., 30.

19 Ibid., 24.

20 Ibid., 55.

21 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 30.

22 R. J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis, and Education (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961), 100.

23 Gary North, “It All Began With Fred Schwarz,” LewRockwell.com (16 December 2002 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north145.html.

24 Rob Boston, “Apocalypse Now,” Church & State (March 1999), 8-12 and Declan McCullagh, “There’s Something about Gary,” Wired (7 January 1999 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/1999/01/17193.

25 Gary North, “Confessions of a Washington Reject,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 5, no. 1 (Summer 1978): 73-86.

26 Gary North ed., Tactics of Christian Resistance: Christianity and Civilization 3 (Summer 1993).

27 For instance, see Gary North, Government by Emergency (Ft. Worth, Tx: American Bureau of Economic Research, 1983). In this book North predicts that a major national emergency will allow the federal government to expand its power through unconstitutional means. The Bush administration’s response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks has provided North with several “see, I told you so” moments.

28 Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1977).

29 Gary North, “Rumor #213: Rushdoony Has Gone Unitarian,” undated Institute for Christian Economics Position Paper [cited 1 June 2007]; available from http://s155777461.onlinehome.us/docs/a_pdfs/newslet/position/9408.PDF.

30 Most notably, Mark Crispin Miller told an interviewer, “What’s most significant here, and yet gets almost zero coverage in our media, is the fact that Bush is very closely tied to the Christian Reconstructionist movement. The links between this White House and that movement are many and tight” (“Talking with Mark Crispin Miller, Author of Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order,” Buzzflash.com (23 July 2004 [cited 25 June 2007]); available from http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/04/07/int04037.html. Miller fully develops this argument in Cruel and Unsual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

Stephenie Hendricks makes a similar point, arguing, “[Rushdoony-inspired Dominionists] believe George W. Bush is divinely leading us into [Armageddon]” (“Stephenie Hendricks Reminds the Fundamentalists: ‘Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit,'” Buzzflash.com [11 April 2006 (cited 25 June 2007)]; available from http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/06/04/int06011.html; see also her Divine Destruction: Wise use, Dominion Theology and the Making of American Environmental Policy (Hoboken, N. J.: Melville House, 2005) for a fuller explication of her interpretation of Bush and the Reconstructionists.

31 Russ Bellant, The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism, 2nd ed. (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 36-37.

32 Rushdoony’s name appears on CNP membership lists through the 1990s, but he adamantly insisted he stopped paying CNP’s membership fees. He implied someone secretly paid it for him against his wishes.

33 Marghe Covino, “Grace Under Pressure: The World According to Rev. R. J. Rushdoony,” Sacramento News and Review 6, no. 28 (20 October 1994): 19.

34 Ibid.

35 “Christian Children Need Christian Education,” The Exodus Mandate Project (cited 1 June 2007); available from http://www.exodusmandate.org.

36 The preface to E. Ray Moore, Let My Children Go: Why Parents Must RemoveTheir Children From Public Schools NOW (Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2002) is available from http://www2.whidbey.net/jmboyes/LMCG-I.htm.

37 Bruce N. Shortt, The Harsh Truth About Public Schools (Vallecito, Ca: Chalcedon Foundation, 2004).

38 Bob Unruh, “Christians Need Exodus from ‘Pharoah’s System,'” WorldNetDaily.com (5 May 2007 [cited 1 June 2007]); available from http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=55556.

39 Jeremy Leaming, “Fringe Festival: Christian Reconstructionists Hope To Move Out Of The Margins And Take Dominion In America – And They Have Some Powerful Friends,” Church & State (July/August 2007 [cited 19 July 2007]); available from http://www.au.org/site/News2?abbr=cs_&page=NewsArticle&id=9212.

40 A promotional trailer for the conference is available from http://www.americanvision.org/WVSC/default.asp.

41 Three recent articles have offered excellent explorations of Rushdoony’s historical revisionism. For a careful analysis of Rushdoony’s reassessment of Southern history see Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Haque, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32, no. 3 (2002): 254-283. For slightly less academic reviews of his historiography, see Jeff Sharlet, “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History,” Harper’s Magazine (December 2006), 33-43 and Frederick Clarkson, “Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters,” The Public Eye magazine (Spring 2007); available from http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v21n2/history.html.