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by Chip Berlet - Political Research Associates


The Rutherford Institute

The Politics of the Rutherford Institute

Rutherford's Philosphical and Institutional Roots


The Rutherford Institute

John W. Whitehead, head of the Rutherford Institute, has gone to great lengths to conceal the basic worldview of the group in statements to the mass media. He recently told the New York Times that "Oh, gosh, no," he had no political agenda in representing Paula Jones, and that he had founded the Rutherford Institute by himself. The New York Times reporter described The Rutherford Institute as "a kind of evangelical Christian civil liberties union."19 There is plenty of evidence to challenge each of these claims.

How Rutherford describes itself often depends on the audience. In a fundraising letter signed by Paula Jones seeking tax deductible support for Rutherford "to help with the legal expenses and court costs for my case and the Institute's other important legal cases and educational programs," The Rutherford Institute is described as:

"...a non-profit legal and educational organization that defends, without charge, persons whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated." 20

In a Christian evangelical tract written by Whitehead, the Rutherford Institute is more narrowly described as:

"...a civil liberties organization dedicated to defending religious freedom and the sanctity of human life." 21

Whitehead has written an even narrower description in a promotional brochure:

"When founding The Rutherford Institute, my goal was to create an organization that would defend religious people who were persecuted or oppressed for their beliefs without charging them for such services." 22

From the beginning the Rutherford Institute has pursued a highly-politicized ultra-conservative agenda.

The Politics of the Rutherford Institute

A review of Rutherford Institute newsletters, reports, and direct mail appeals going back seven years shows a long pattern of attacks on liberals in government and President Clinton in particular. Whitehead consistently puts forward an apocalyptic conspiracist vision of devout Christian activists under concerted attack by corrupt and repressive government officials allied with godless and immoral secular humanism.

From time to time the Rutherford magazine carries broad-based articles to buttress its claim that it is just like an American Civil Liberties Union for people of faith. In the September 1996 issue with a cover story on "Politics & Religion: A Recipe for Disaster," there are interviews with mainstream political commentators such as E. J. Dionne, Jr. And Larry Sabato--and even a column by Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But more in keeping with its essential conspiracist worldview is the August 1995 issue "A Nation on the Edge" with an article claiming that the government response following the Oklahoma City bombing "served to underline many Americans' greatest fear" a "strong-armed government moving the country toward a dictatorial state."23 That same issue features a straight-faced interview with militia demagogue Linda Thompson. The interview raises some soft criticisms but overall serves to promote her conspiracist views as at least worthy of consideration.24 While advising against violent dissent, Whitehead, writing in the same issue, clearly indicates dissent is needed against current government practices, and is quick to find blame for government abuses of force:

Sadly, the specter of statist violence is now rearing its ugly head in so-called free nations, including the United States.

Part of the blame for the rise of violence in modern life rests with those who have advocated a valueless secularism. Without the checks and balances of traditional religion and its moral absolutes, the only way to maintain order is by using force. 25

Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, rounds out the issue of Rutherford magazine with a litany of all the reasons he hates government under Clinton and his liberal allies. Claiming that "Liberals have dominated politics in this country for more than sixty years," Weyrich paints a paranoid picture of life in the US where "God-fearing, law-abiding, taxpaying citizens" live under a statist globalist tyranny. He then concludes that a nation with a government that is in opposition to his hard right view of Consitutional and godly laws, "will deserve the hatred of God and its people."26

The Rutherford Institute promotes a Christian fundamentalist version of the secular humanist conspiracy theory and Whitehead's writings clearly reflect a right-wing Christian conspiracist subculture. His 1987 book, The Stealing of America, is a good example of his beliefs.27 According to Whitehead, there is an atheistic secular humanist plan to subvert America into tyranny by diverting it from a society "operated from a set of presuppositions largely derived from the Christian ethic."28 According to Whitehead, "As the memory of the Christian base that once provided a foundation for freedom has faded, the tendency has been toward centralized, authoritarian government."29 Whitehead warns that the "loss of traditional values" and the "rise of cosmic secularism" in the US has created conditions with "ominous parallels to pre-Nazi Germany and the beginning of claims of total ownership by the state."30 He writes that "the secular state will inevitably lead to authoritarian government" and that an "individual in such a society is at the mercy of the elite who control the state."31

Whitehead suggests that the secular state in the US has launched a campaign to "circumscribe" and "persecute" the Christian church. According to Whitehead, "The secularist state recognizes, however, that Christianity cannot be completely eradicated. Therefore the state attempts to restrict the freedom of the church in a number of ways."32 Because of the pervasive nature of this plot, Whitehead urges Christians to engage in acts of resistance to the current immoral secular state through a variety of means, including legislation, litigation, and even civil disobedience.33 Throughout his published works, Whitehead portrays contemporary US society as controlled by evil forces conspiring against faithful Christians.

Sara Diamond has discussed the political activism of the Rutherford Institute in Facing the Wrath: Confronting the Right in Dangerous Times.34

According to Diamond:

"Active since 1982, the Rutherford Institute represents a variety of Christian 'civil liberties' litigants, anti-abortion demonstrators, students asked not to read Bibles at public schools, parents whose home school facilities fail to meet government regulations. No doubt, Christians deserve as much legal protection as anyone else. But with much of the ACLJ and Rutherford case load, there's a fine line between defending the interests of clients and stepping on the rights of other people. In a recent commentary sent to Christian radio stations, Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead argues that workplace seminars on gay rights are a form of 'religious discrimination' against employees who are 'told to rid themselves of stereotypes about gays and to accept homosexuality as a valid lifestyle choice.' In an odd assertion of victim status, Whitehead claims Christian military personnel may jeopardize their careers if they 'speak out against homosexuality....The immediate remedy is for the military to exempt religious people from compelled personal acceptance of homosexuality.'

"The Rutherford Institute extends the concept of 'religious discrimination' to its own movie review of Steve Martins's latest comedy. 'Leap of Faith' is a spoof on the classic 'Marjoe' and 'Elmer Gantry' type characters who use flashy tent revivals to bilk a gullible audience. Unable to crack a smile, Rutherford's magazine reviewer charges the film with 'silly humanism' for its presentation of 'religion and everything associated with it, good or bad, as stemming from man,' [sic]." 35

The politics of the Rutherford Institute represent a form of theocratic Christianity that characterizes the hard right of the evangelical world. This worldview assumes that true Christians are battling a vast demonic conspiracy.

Rutherford's Philosphical and Institutional Roots

The most zealous wing of the conspiracist Christian subculture includes some adherents of theocratic philosophies such as dominionism, a religious philosophy that argues that Christian men need to take control of the political system in corrupt secular societies like the US. Dominionism's most zealous form, Christian Reconstructionism, argues that as a Christian nation, the US should enforce Biblical laws.

Reconstructionist leader R.J. Rushdoony is credited with supporting the founding of the Rutherford Institute, which in turn distributes tapes from Rushdoony. Although he claims to have softened his views, Whitehead still seems to follow the basic themes of theocratic dominionism, and there is no major statement by Whitehead refuting his voluminous earlier theocratic writings, which reflect those themes. Whitehead was clearly heavily influenced by Rushdoony.

Fred Clarkson has provided detailed coverage of Whitehead and his ties to dominionism, and on the overlap between conspiracism and dominionism, in his book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. 36

According to Clarkson:

"Many other Christian Right thinkers and activists have also been significantly influenced by Reconstructionism: the late Francis Schaeffer, whose book A Christian Manifesto was an influential call to evangelical political action that sold two millions copies; John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Christian Right legal group, and Michael Farris, 1993 GOP candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia, among others.

"John Whitehead was a student and protégé of both Schaeffer and Rushdoony and credits them as the major influences on this thought.37 The Rutherford Institute, named for 17th century Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford, is an influential Christian Right legal group with chapters throughout the US, and offices in a number of countries. Rutherford, whose book Lex Rex is de rigueur in theocratic circles, defied the King of England by proclaiming that god's laws were higher than those of the King and were to be followed if they conflicted with the king's laws. As he has grown in prominence, Whitehead has sought to disassociate himself from Reconstructionism. However, perhaps he doth protest too much. Whitehead's roots are certainly in Reconstructionism, even if his present beliefs are not. Rushdoony, who wrote the outline for Whitehead's first book (which Whitehead researched in Rushdoony's library),38 introduced Whitehead at a May 1983 conference, calling him a man 'chosen by God,' and that consequently, 'there is something very important in the ministry of John Whitehead.' Rushdoony then spoke of 'our plans, through Rutherford,' which was founded the year before, in 1982, 'to fight the battle against statism and the freedom of Christ's Kingdom.'39 Rushdoony and fellow Chalcedon director and funder Howard Ahmanson were among the seven founding directors of the Rutherford Institute.40

"Prior to the founding of Rutherford, Rushdoony steered cases to Whitehead--including the 1979 case of Rev. Charles McIlhenny who was sued for firing his church organist because the organist was gay. McIlhenny reports not only that 'our theological compatibility made for a good working relations,' but that Whitehead's courtroom victory 'helped to nudge him closer to founding the Rutherford Institute.'41

"Whitehead also has a long train of dominion-oriented political statements. He says, 'The challenge of the Christian attorney...is to be a vocal, dynamic spokesman for the true legal profession--the one with Christ at its center--and to stop at nothing less than reclaiming the whole system.' He also said that the public education system, including universities, 'must be reinstilled with Christian theism.' If there is no hope of such reforms, he said, 'then Christians must remove their financial support from the system.'42 Whitehead also wrote a long favorable forward to Gary DeMar's 1987 book Ruler of the Nations (published as part of the Gary North's Biblical Blueprints Series), in which Whitehead endorses the Reconstructionist view of 'three types of government established by God--the family, the church, and civil government...under the ultimate authority of God.'43

"Nevertheless, Rutherford attorney Alexis I. Crow insisted to Skipp Porteous of the Institute for First Amendment Studies that 'John Whitehead is not a Reconstructionist and he never has been.'"44

Whitehead's views are certainly consistent with the views of his mentor, Francis A. Schaeffer. In the acknowledgments to The Stealing of America, Whitehead explains that "Francis A. Schaeffer's advice and teachings on the essential priorities are reflected in the following pages. Dr. Schaeffer stands as one of the great philosophers of our times." Francis Schaeffer is considered to have provided the intellectual groundwork for dominion theology. According to an article by Skipp Porteous in The Freedom Writer:45

"Schaeffer contended that `modern-day courts issue laws which are contrary to God's law.' And Whitehead believes, according to an article by Martin Mawyer published in the May 1983 issue of the Moral Majority Report, `that courts must place themselves under the authority of God's law.'

Mawyer's article explains, `The Institute states that "all of civil affairs and government, including law, should be based upon principles found in the Bible."' That statement is a simplified definition of Christian Reconstruction, an important movement within evangelical Christianity.

The Stealing of America is dedicated to Francis A. Schaeffer's son, Franky Schaeffer. Franky has also written of the need to confront sinful secular society and has produced films on the subject. In fact he produced a film version of Whitehead's book The Second American Revoution.46 The video depicts a surreal debate between proponents of Christian and secular interpretations of the Constitution, with the debaters standing knee-deep in fog as historic figures appear and explain what they really meant when they wrote essays that influenced or interpreted the Constitution. The premise is that liberal secular humanists have conspired to launch a second revolution to overturn the first, and that true patriots will join in the second revolution to fight against the liberals.

The underlying theme of dominionism is that the US is a Christian nation; a theme that for some suggests implicit anti-Semitism, and causes concern for many who support religious pluralism and separation of church and state. One evangelical Christian tract by Whitehead, distributed by Rutherford, contains a patronizing treatment of early Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah because they "underestimated God's Love." This implies a type of theological superiority called Christian triumphalism, a tendency that many Christian evangelicals now find distasteful and inappropriate.47 Triumphalism is common in dominionist circles.

One group that has helped elevate dominionism within the religious right political movement is the Coalition on Revival (COR). Militant antiabortion activist Randall Terry writes for COR's magazine, Crosswinds, and has signed their "Manifesto for the Christian Church," which proclaims that America should "function as a Christian nation" and that the "world will not know how to live or which direction to go without the Church's Biblical influence on its theories, laws, actions, and institutions." 48 The call includes a pledge to oppose "social moral evils" such as:

"Abortion on demand, infanticide, and euthanasia...Adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality...sexual entertainment...State usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties...Statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth...Atheism, moral relativism, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in the public schools...[and] Communism/Marxism, fascism, Nazism and the one-world government of the New Age Movement."49

As Clarkson points out, Christian dominionism often overlaps with conspiracism due to the widespread belief that liberals are wittingly or unwittingly undermining the country as part of a demonic plot.

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