R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism
by michael j. mcvicar
north carolina, 326 pages, $34.95
In 1966, the editors of Christianity Today rejected an article that Rousas J. Rushdoony had submitted for publication. The piece, which had been invited by the editors, was meant to introduce him as a new member of the editorial staff. Deeply offended by the rejection, Rushdoony permanently cut himself off from any involvement with the magazine, declaring in a letter to J. Howard Pew, one of its major benefactors, “I cannot work with pygmies.” Rushdoony was wrong in his assessment of Carl Henry and others at the flagship Evangelical magazine. But, as this important book makes clear, Rushdoony was to loom large in his own right as an influence on the nascent religious right.
At various times in the past several decades, Rushdoony’s views have been reported to have influenced Pat Robertson, Ronald Reagan, Michele Bachmann, Francis Schaeffer, John Whitehead, D. James Kennedy, and others. Typically there has been some basis for alleging these links, although in most cases the influence has been of a very general sort, without a consistent endorsement of the details of Rushdoony’s theological perspective.
In his new biography Christian Reconstructionism: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, Michael J. McVicar lays out the ways in which Rushdoony took up some key themes in classic Reformed thought. One influence was Westminster Theological Seminary’s Cornelius Van Til, who insisted that believers and unbelievers operate from two fundamentally different life directions; the fallen mind is guided by presuppositions that are antithetical to biblical teaching. That meant, for Van Til, that believers and unbelievers really do not even operate with the same “facts.” For the believer a tree is created by the triune God of the Scriptures, while unbelievers see that tree from their God-denying point of view. While there can be a seeming agreement between Christian and non-Christian, the accord is only superficial.
This perspective led Rushdoony to develop views about education, spelled out by him in study guides and a curricular plan that were to shape a significant portion of the homeschooling movement. As McVicar notes, “Rushdoony’s impact on the pedagogical and epistemological presuppositions of homeschooling parents is inestimable.” Rushdoony insisted that to “surrender children to the state” by enrolling them in public schools “is to turn them over to the enemy.”
He was not advocating for societal withdrawal. Citing Genesis 1, he argued that we are created to “have dominion” over God’s affairs on earth. The Garden of our first parents was meant to become a City, and we are presently in that phase of God’s providential dealings with the creation wherein collective human life is endangered. Exercising “dominion” in our current context, then, means cultural “reconstruction,” beginning with a complete transformation of family life. Christian parents are obligated to raise up children for citizenship in a Christ-centered Kingdom. And this requires homeschooling as a necessary step toward the required societal reconstruction.
The education of our children, in turn, must be carried out in accordance with a carefully defined plan for the broad patterns of human life. While Van Til’s critique of non-Christian thought served well as a “demolition” job, with his presuppositionalism exposing the deep errors of unredeemed life and thought, Van Til developed no blueprint for reconstruction, a scheme that, as Rushdoony set forth in great detail, required the restoration of the specifics of biblical law on a grand scale. Over the continuing relevance of Old Testament law, Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionists departed from the mainstream Reformed tradition.
Reformed theologians, unlike their Lutheran counterparts, have always emphasized the continuity between Old Testament law and New Testament love. To borrow a Kantian formulation: Love without law is blind; law without love is empty. In spelling out a general theology of law, Reformed thought has typically distinguished three aspects of revealed law in ancient Israel. The moral law, as clearly set forth at Sinai, must continue to guide the believing community today. Much of the ceremonial law, however, has been set aside by the coming of “the great high priest” whose redemptive work is described in the Epistle to the Hebrews. And the civil law, which was designed for an explicitly theocratic social order, is no longer binding in its details.
In his massive multivolume Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony essentially combines the moral and the civil laws, claiming that both continue to be applicable to our collective lives. And so, not only does the condemnation, in Leviticus 18, of same-sex intimacy carry over into the New Testament era, but the prescription of the death penalty for such activity should also be enshrined in law—although most Reconstructionists have insisted that this enshrinement should take effect only after the larger theocratic patterns have been consistently restored.
While McVicar does not go far into these kinds of details in outlining Reconstructionist thought, he does provide considerable drama in narrating the development of various strands of thinking in the movement. For example, Gary North, one of Rushdoony’s most articulate disciples—who also married a Rushdoony daughter—eventually established a rival movement within the Reconstructionist camp. He abandoned his father-in-law’s focus on the family as the basic strategic entity for reconstructing collective life, emphasizing instead the centrality of church communities wherein far-reaching “survivalist” practices were maintained.
Here too, though, the call was not simply to separate from the larger culture in anticipation of the Second Coming. North’s espousal of doomsday scenarios actually stemmed from an optimism about where history is moving. The inevitable dissolution of the secular order would prepare the way for a pervasive bottom-up reconfiguration of the patterns and structures of societal life. Essential to the Reconstructionist scheme was a “postmillennial” eschatology, which envisioned an unfolding historical process that was moving toward the “earthly” manifestation of the full Kingdom of God.
McVicar is an impressively trustworthy guide to all of this, with two exceptions. On the subject of Evangelical eschatological perspectives he fails to attend to some important nuances. He sees the postmillennialism of the Reconstructionists as primarily pitted against the dispensationalist variety of premillennialism, which sees the Kingdom of God as beginning after Christ’s second coming. In doing so he not only ignores the strong “amillennial” rejection of both views in favor of the idea that Christ’s reign is spiritual, which motivated much Reformed opposition to Reconstructionism. He also fails to acknowledge the existence of a form of premillennialism that refrains from an elaborate dispensationalist scheme that sequences the end-times. This leads McVicar to commit a bit of a howler when he maintains that during Rushdoony’s career “dispensational premillennialism dominated” both Dallas Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary. (Dallas Seminary has long been the major center for dispensationalist theology, while Fuller faculty have produced extensive critiques of that perspective.)
A larger concern is McVicar’s portrayal of Abraham Kuyper’s influence on Reconstructionist thought. He rightly sees how Van Til’s adoption of the Dutch theologian’s notion of “the antithesis,” a radical over-against-ness between a consistently secularist perspective and a robust biblical worldview, influenced Rushdoony. What McVicar fails to acknowledge, however, is that Kuyper held that idea in tension with his theology of common grace, about which Van Til expressed serious misgivings. For Kuyper, God continues to work in the midst of rebellious humanity, not only restraining the full impulses of human sinfulness but working to cultivate in the hearts and minds of unbelievers expressions of our created love for truth, beauty, and goodness.
For a reader familiar with Kuyper’s thought, it is a bit jarring, then, to find McVicar insisting that on the question of what can be accomplished under sinful conditions, “Rushdoony rejected Kuyper’s pessimism.” McVicar is certainly right in seeing that Kuyper would have spurned the Reconstructionist program for reestablishing a global theocratic empire prior to the eschaton. But that was precisely because Kuyper (who served a term as Dutch prime minister) had more confidence in the capacity for Christians, in partnership with people of other belief systems, to make at least modest gains in pursuing the cause of collective righteousness. Here Kuyper was following the lead of John Calvin, who insisted in his Institutes that to disallow that the fallen human mind, however corrupted by our sinfulness, can still be “clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts” is “to dishonor the Spirit of God.”
The ancient theocracy that Rushdoony, North, and others have wanted to reestablish for our own time was effectively brought to an end when the Israelites were carried off into their Babylonian exile. It is interesting to note that those ancients received no divine mandate to “reconstruct” in that new setting the theocracy that they had left behind. Rather, they were told to build houses there, plant gardens, and marry off their sons and daughters, so that they could “multiply” there as a people. With no temple to worship in, and no godly laws to structure their lives, they were nonetheless ordered to pray for the city in which they were called to abide for a while, seeking its shalom, so that in that city’s shalom they would realize their own shalom (Jeremiah 29: 4–7).
Strictly speaking, of course, the exiled Israelites were not abandoning theocracy as such. The rule of God over all things was still a clearly recognized reality for them—and so it is for us whenever we proclaim that “the Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1). Divine worship takes place in a throne room. When we gather in worship to pledge our fealty to the one true and righteous King, whether in Babylon or Wichita or Pyongyang, we proclaim our theocratic citizenship, even when our neighbors do not acknowledge the reality of that cosmic empire.
But I do not find attractive the idea of a world shaped by the Reconstructionist program. As a Calvinist, I appreciate much of the “demolition” job that Cornelius Van Til did on secularist thought. But I also happen to admire that he stopped short of offering the kind of rebuilding “blueprint” that Rushdoony desired. Assuredly, Christ came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. But the desire to revive a societal pattern wherein divine law is seen as threatening capital punishment for persons engaged in same-sex relations, or the stoning of persistently unruly teenagers, does not seem to comport with the abundant life that a genuinely “fulfilled” law is meant to foster.
It is sometimes said in a review of a well-written and insightful account of an important person’s life that it is the biography the subject deserves. That can be said of this fine book, but I say it with a sense of sadness. It is the chronicle of a brilliant thinker who, as the author observes at one point, increasingly displayed no “ability to cooperate with anyone who disagreed with his interpretation of Scripture, no matter how minor or insignificant the distinction.”
The irony is that while Rushdoony was so uncompromising in defending the details of his rather elaborate system of thought, his influence has been primarily on people and groups for whom those theoretical details are not very important. Reports in the popular media about the influence of “dominionist theology” on, say, Michele Bachmann or Pat Robertson are typically confused on key points about Reconstructionist thought—but it is unlikely that Bachmann or Robertson themselves would know how to set the theological record straight. Nor is the homeschooling movement—admittedly drawing much of its inspiration from the broad themes of Rushdoony’s Van Tilian critique of secular thought—presently turning out a generation of students who have any clue about the theological differences that caused the split between Rushdoony’s and North’s respective Reconstructionist programs.
McVicar nicely sums up the current impact of the Reconstructionist project when he notes that Rushdoony’s influence endures in the American Evangelical movement only “in complex and subterranean ways.” We can certainly credit him with recognizing the need for Christians to nurture a distinct form of life in a secular society. Unfortunately, Rushdoony’s vision did not encourage or even allow for prudence to guide us in discerning the shape of our Christian distinctiveness. As a result, what has bubbled up to the Evangelical surface from his influence has been characterized by much political and intellectual ineptness. Reflecting on the story set forth in this book could be a good start toward a very different “reconstruction” project.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.