Let's pretend. Let's pretend you are a large burly man. You are a large burly man on a mission from God and you have spent the last 30 years "organizing discontent" among your conservative brethren.1 Among the most entrepreneurial of New Right strategists, you have long understood the political profit engendered in populist exploitation of the medical procedure known as abortion. You organize a third political party, christen it with a deceptively secular name, then set your sights on "restor[ing] American jurisprudence to its Biblical premises." Determined to win the confidence of nonconformist American voters, you plan a convention in San Diego in August and invite the likes of Randall Terry and Larry Pratt.
Question: Whom do you see as "the most influential man of the twentieth century?"
Chances are that you are not Howard Phillips. Were you Howard Phillips, however, you would have attended on the 27th of April a commemoration of the 80th birthday of Rousas John Rushdoony, an event appropriately titled "The San Jose Conference of Christian Reconstruction." While addressing a crowd of approximately 300, you would have identified Rushdoony as the aforementioned big man of the century.
In the thrill of tribute-paying, perhaps Phillips was prone to overstatement. But few can challenge the dual paternalist honors ascribed to Rushdoony by his friends and foes alike.
Known as the father of Christian Reconstruction and the father of the home schooling movement, Rushdoony is a most prolific and unabashed proponent of Dominionism, the uncomplicated notion that "God the Creator wants nothing less than the fullest governme nt over all things."
An Armenian immigrant to the United States, Rushdoony presides over Chalcedon (pronounced kal-see-don), a nonprofit organization based in Vallecito, California, and dedicated to the dissemination of Reconstructionist scholarship. In the brief biographical sketch included in his publication Chalcedon Report, Rushdoony is described as a leading theologian and church-state expert. To be exact, he professes "a firm belief in the separation of church and state, but not the separation of the state. ..from God."
For most people on earth, God-fearing and otherwise, understanding the creed of Christian Reconstruction requires a brief vocabulary lesson. According to the Reverend Andrew Sandlin, author of the indispensable A Christian Reconstructionist Primer, Reconstructionists are Calvinists of orthodox ilk. As such, they "hold to historic, orthodox, catholic Christianity and the great Reformed confessions," and believe "God must be pleased and obeyed." They are also presuppositionalists, meaning that they are relieved of the compulsion to prove that God exists. Simply put, "they need repentance, not evidence." They espouse theonomy, or "God's law," which, among other things, "arrest[s] civil evil." Lastly, they are postmillenialists, believing that Ch rist will return to earth after Christians have "advanced Christ's kingdom in time and history."
Reconstructionists have their work cut out for them. They believe that "every area dominated by sin must be 'reconstructed' in terms of the Bible." "Areas" slated for moral regeneration include law, education, science, religion and, of course, the family. To deflect discouragement, Reconstructionist rhetoricians provide cause for optimism. "Time," writes Brian Abshire in the May 1996, edition of Chalcedon Report, "is something that postmillenialists have plenty of. Isn't it worth a little sac rifice now to know that your descendants will live in a Christianized world?"
According to Phillips, Rushdoony's contribution to the radical reformation of law has been his contention that jurisprudence must be "restored to biblical supposition [emphasis added]." Measures that might be employed in pursuit of such a theocratic feat, Phillips suggested, include abolishing the Supreme Court, defunding other courts, and predictably, requiring potential judges to proclaim publicly their stance on abortion. In his speech, "Reflections on 80 Years," Rushdoony offered praise for "counterre volutionary" Justices Scalia and Thomas. Thomas, he explained, favors the text of the Constitution over its interpretation, thereby "scar[ing] the dickens out of the academics."
Reconstructionists may have time, Thomas, and God on their side, but they are short on friends. The problem is that interpreting life through a theonomic lens leads to chronic demonizing of a most pernicious sort. Scientists, for example, are guilty of neglecting morality and "reviv[ing] ancient tyrannies of magic and occultism." Roman Catholics are preachers of a "polluted gospel."2 Premillenialists are "retreators." Environmentalists are "opposed to human life." And Pentecostal preachers are "narcissistic ringmasters."
You may be worried that Christian Reconstructionists are a lonely people. Rest assured that the isolationism of doctrinal purity is part and parcel of the appeal. As Sandlin declared in his address "Preparation for Victory," Christian Reconstruction is the truly Christian civilization. Theologically uncompromising, Rushdoony is revered precisely because he has resisted "vestiges of compromise with alien elements."3 (This phrase is full of racial and nationalist overtones as well as theological ones ).
Rushdoony's proponents believe his antiaccommodationist bent has led to ostracism in both political and theological circles, resulting in a kind of anti-modernist martyrdom that is exploited to reinforce his pariah status. "Who will honor this man?" roared Sandlin proudly. "Not the evangelicals. Not the conservatives."
Reconstructionists are quite comfortable with a theologically-based language of supremacy. They are explicit about their belief that God's benevolence is highly selective. They consider the idea that God is all-loving to be an "abomination," one which has resulted in a "universal weakening of the sense of sin."
"In reality," writes John Lofton in Chalcedon Report, God extends love "only to 'intelligent beings made in his own image.'" Sandlin states succinctly in his Primer that "God elected some people to salvation and passed over (or condemned) all others."
Reconstructionists are likewise open about the supremacy of their nation. In "Why Home Schooling is Important for America," Samuel Blumenfeld writes, "Something in our psyche, in our culture, has set us apart from other nations." Blumenfeld is convinced that immigrants are flocking to America because they're excited about "the religious fervor of millions of individuals...trying indeed to restore America to what it once was...a nation under God...bound by a Constitution based on Biblical principles." When Abshire declares, "Someone's children are going to inherit the future. It is God's will that it be ours," he means that the earth will belong not only to Reconstructionist children, but to American Reconstructionist children.
As the chosen, Reconstructionists naturally bear the burden of propagating their gene pool. Birth control is termed as "intentional barrenness." Chalcedon Report readers are treated to an optimistic birthing equation: If the estimated 150,000 couples of Reformed believers residing in the United States had five children each, presto! "Eight generations, and the entire country would be effectively Christian, and Reformed at that!"
What will become of the rest of us, you ask? Ironically, the answer is a Darwinian one. "Either a person, family, culture, nation come to obedience in Christ, or each will cease to exist."
In the words of Rushdoony himself, dominion is "the rule of justice and morality rather than power." But as much as I try to go with the Reconstructionist flow, I keep reminding myself that the nature of ruling involves the exercise of power, and the act of ruling involves a ruler.
Reconstructionists are quite creative in the ways they talk about power relations between men and women. Consider the phrase, "Dominion comes through service." Serving, of course, takes different forms for men and women. Abshire depicts the lure of the ideal Reconstructionist home: "If your pagan friends see a godly husband, a submissive wife, respectful and obedient children," he writes, "you'd better believe they'll want to know how you do it." Like Promise Keepers, Reconstructionists seem undeniably comfortable with the time-tested patriarchal notion that women serve God by serving their husbands.
Who can blame Reconstructionists for succumbing to the appeal of a scholarship that affirms their status as the elect? In a world full of perplexing pluralisms, Reconstructionist doctrine supplies a lifetime of answers. "Theonomy," instructs Sandlin, "gives Christians their marching orders." By way of his pen, Rushdoony has provided a living framework for public and private order. Above all, the framework is prescriptive, efficient, and simple.
As an example, Reconstructionists are able to dispense with the messy complexity of democracy in favor of biblically-sanctioned authoritarianism. Reformist writer Monte Wilson declares in Chalcedon Report that "democracy in the church is an affront to the Head of the Body, Jesus Christ." His point is that evangelists have gone astray in attempting to check the power of their pastors. Church members, spellbound by today's "egalitarian culture," fail to recognize their pastors as men "sent from God to represent Christ." The moral of the story is that evangelists of all sorts are guilty of insufficient deference.
Just as the reconstructed church is a public site for submission to God's authority, Reconstructionists regard the home as the private site for obedience to God's law. Abshire writes, "We need to see our families as the training ground of dominion."
Home schooling and home churches allow for the literal isolation of Reconstructionist families from sinful realms of secular existence. Home schooled children are freed from the "statist, humanist indoctrination" that public schools are so fond of, allowing for the "reestablishment of the family as a unit under God, equal to the civil government." An added plus is that home schooled children experience a "political awakening" as they come to understand the importance of putting "more God-fearing men into the Congress and state legislatures."
Given that the home is the chosen site for the grassroots theocratic transformation of America, home schooling parents are among the most loyal of Rushdoony's adherents. For this, they are rewarded with praise. Home schoolers are the "quiet revolutionaries," writes one Chalcedon Report contributor, "doing God's work, one family at a time."
Liz Gore is a research associate with the Institute for Study of the Religious Right, based in Los Angeles, California.
1 Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare (1989), p.
2 Rev. Sandlin in his speech "A Comprehensive Faith."
Unless otherwise noted, the material quoted in this article is taken from Chalcedon Report No. 370, May 1996, published by Chalcedon, P.O. Box 158, Vallecito, CA 95251.