The Institute for First Amendment Studies receives many calls concerning a number of Religious Right organizations. Near the top of the list is the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based Christian legal organization that promotes the Christian Right agenda through the courts. The following report offers some pertinent and basic information about this influential organization.
Samuel Rutherford, a 17th-century Scottish minister, is best known for his defiance of the King. Rutherford proclaimed that, as kings were not divine, kings' laws were not above God's laws. He urged his followers to disobey any royal decrees that failed to follow God's laws.
In 1982, attorney John W. Whitehead, writer/filmmaker Franky Schaeffer, and other "concerned Christians" formed a new organization to act as "the legal arm of Christian civil liberties in this country." They named it the Rutherford Institute after Samuel Rutherford.
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.
From the beginning, the Rutherford Institute has taken a militant position. "We need to be very aggressive, not passive," Whitehead said in a 1983 interview. "Take the initiative. Sue rather than waiting to be sued. That's where we've been weak. We've always been on the defensive. We need to frame the issue and pick the court. The institute, if necessary, will charge that government is violating religious freedoms rather than the church waiting for the government to charge it with violating the law.
Franky Schaeffer, son of the late theologian Francis Schaeffer, wrote Bad News for Modern Man: An Agenda for Christian Activism, a guide for radical Christians. As a writer and filmmaker, Franky Schaeffer (he now prefers Frank) played an important role in the development of the Religious Right.
A vocal opponent of abortion, he wrote: "Every church should be involved in the prolife movement. Abortion clinics must be picketed nonstop. Doctors who wish to murder the innocent must be harassed and driven from our communities." In 1990, in a move toward religious purity, Schaeffer joined the Greek Orthodox Church. Today, his role as a Christian Right activist has diminished.
On the other hand, John Whitehead's 1982 book, The Second American Revolution, which sold well over 100,000 copies, helped establish the Rutherford Institute as a leading far-right organization.
The Second American Revolution contains numerous references to a former Presbyterian minister named Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony. A prolific writer, Rushdoony is known as "the father of Christian Reconstruction." He heads an organization called Chalcedon.
According to Rushdoony's brochure, "The Ministry of Chalcedon," "Chalcedon was instrumental in establishing the Rutherford Institute, the purpose of which is to aid lawyers in the defense of religious liberties." In fact, Rushdoony served as a board member of the Rutherford Institute, and is listed as a speaker at Rutherford conferences.
In a discussion on Christian Reconstructionism, Dr. Jay Grimstead, president of the Coalition on Revival (COR) said, "We believe that God has given the Bible as a rule book for all society, Christian and non-Christian alike. I concur with most of the Reconstructionist matters; and I am trying to help rebuild society on the Word of God, and loosely, that would be a Reconstructionist orientation in anybody's book."
In the views of Christian Reconstructionists, every aspect of society, including law, medicine, education, the media, and the arts and entertainment, should be based upon the Reconstructionists' interpretation of the Bible. Strict interpretation includes swift justice for sinners, including the death penalty for abortionists, "unrepentant" homosexuals, and, according to Rushdoony, even "incorrigible sons."
Alexis I. Crow, an attorney with the Rutherford Institute, told us "John Whitehead is not a Reconstructionist and he never has been." While Whitehead may not be a Reconstructionist, he is apparently Reconstructionist-influenced, or Reconstructionist-oriented. Besides his affiliation with Rushdoony and references to Rushdoony's writings in The Second American Revolution, in the same book Whitehead declares his own Reconstructionist-like beliefs.
Like Reconstructionists, Whitehead sees the mission of the Christian church as one of domination. "The church," Whitehead writes, "has a mandate from the Creator to be a dominant influence on the whole culture."
Currently, the Republican Party is fighting for its soul; it is trying to ward off domination by religious extremists. Back in 1982 Whitehead addressed this very issue. "Getting involved in local politics will eventually mean Christians running for office. This will include attending and eventually TAKING CONTROL [emphasis added] of party conventions where grass-roots decisions are made."
Christian Reconstructionists want to take control of America's legal and educational system. Whitehead concurs. "The challenge of the Christian attorney," he writes, "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."
On education, Whitehead says, "[T]he public education system, which includes the entire educational structure up through the university level, must be reinstilled with Christian theism." He adds, "If there is little hope of revamping public education — and this is more than a probability — then Christians must remove their financial support from the system."
Rushdoony's influence is apparent in Whitehead's book. When asked if there has been a parting of the ways between Whitehead and Rushdoony, Crow failed to respond.
There is some confusion about the history of John Whitehead's relationship with COR. A 1986 brochure on COR's "Continental Congress on the Christian World View III," a Fourth of July weekend conference held in Washington, lists Whitehead as a speaker and Steering Committee member. The topic of his talk at the conference was called "Priorities for the Eighties." His photo is included in the brochure.
Nevertheless, Alexis Crow of Rutherford claims that Whitehead is not, nor ever has been a member of COR, or of COR's Steering Committee. To clear up the matter we called Jay Grimstead, COR's president. "As far as I know," he said, "John was a member in the early years; maybe for a couple of years. At one time, several dispensationalists withdrew. About that time, John's office called and asked that he be taken off." Grimstead added, "I thought he was on then , when we made the brochure."
"The Rutherford Institute is an organization that defends the rights of ALL religious persons," according to Crow, "regardless of denomination or creed and, as such, has defended, among others, Christians, Jews, atheists, Santerians, Native Americans, and Hare Krishna."
Her statement is a bewildering one. Many people, such as Unitarian Universalists and people of other liberal religions, feel that there are circumstances where it is their religious duty to have an abortion. How many times has the Rutherford Institute defended religious people who opt for their legal right to have an abortion?
Other religious people, such as many members of the Metropolitan Community Church, are gay Christians. They believe God has made them homosexual, and accept that as a gift from God, just as others celebrate their heterosexuality. How many times has the Rutherford Institute defended the rights of gays and lesbians?
Does the Rutherford Institute really defend the rights of all religious people, or do they seek special privileges for Christians — such as helping Christians discriminate against gays in housing or employment?
Operating on an annual budget of $8 million, the Rutherford Institute and its team of aggressive lawyers may soon show up in your neighborhood. With about 230 active cases, the institute can be commended for taking on some cases involving true religious liberty. However, it is clear that the organization pursues the agenda originally outlined by John Whitehead and Franky Schaeffer. "We must influence all areas of life including law and politics," Whitehead stated. "We can leave nothing untouched by the Bible."