Secrets of the extreme religious right: Inside the frightening world of Christian Reconstructionism

The zealots pushing a horrifying vision of "religious freedom" really have in mind a new biblical slavery

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 31, 2015 7:26PM (EDT)

As an unprecedented shift in public opinion brought about the legalization of gay marriage, a vigorous counter-current has been intensifying under the banner of “religious freedom”—an incredibly slippery term.

Perhaps the most radical definition of such freedom comes out of the relatively obscure tradition of Christian Reconstructionism, the subject of a new book by religious studies scholar Julie Ingersoll, "Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism."  As Ingersoll explains, Reconstructionists basically reject the entire framework of secular political thought in which individual rights have meaning, so “freedom” as most Americans understand the term is not the issue at all. Indeed, they argue that such “freedom” is actually slavery—slavery to sin, that is.

Reconstructionists aim to establish a theocracy, though most would no doubt bristle at that description. They do not want to “take over the government” so much as they want to dismantle it. But the end result would be a social order based on biblical law—including all those Old Testament goodies like stoning gay people to death, while at the same time justifying “biblical slavery.”  These extreme views are accurate, Ingersoll explained, but at the same time quite misleading in suggesting that Reconstructionism is a fringe movement with little influence on the culture.

'If someone wants to understand these people, I think the smart thing to do is to take those really inflammatory things, acknowledge that they are there, and set them aside,” Ingersoll advised. “And then look at the stuff that's less inflammatory, but therefore, I think, more important. I think the Christian schooling, homeschooling, creationism, the approach to economics, I think those kinds of things are far more important.

"The fights that we're seeing right now over how religious freedom and constitutionally protected equality for the LGBT community, how those two things fit together—or don't—that fight was presaged by theologian Rousas John Rushdoony in the '60s. He talked about that fight. Not particularly with regard to LGBT, but with regard to the expansion [of rights]—it was civil rights. He didn't say explicitly racially-based civil rights, but that's what he was talking about in the era.”

As Ingersoll's book explains, the influences she just mentioned are quite significant.  But in order to understand them, and how they've succeeded, we need to understand the worldview they come out of.  In the book, Ingersoll explains:

According to Rushdoony, biblical authority is God's authority delegated to humans, who exercise dominion under God's law in three distinct God-ordained institutions: the family, the church, and the civil government. Each of those institutions has carefully delineated and limited responsibilities. When humans decide that those institutions should serve any functions beyond the ones ordained by God, they presume the autonomy and supremacy of human reason and thus violate biblical law.

So, “tyranny” is violating that law, and the God-ordained “separation of powers” behind it, and “freedom” is opposite of “tyranny”—following the law. Understanding where this conception comes from, and where it leads to helps to shed a great deal of light on what Reconstructionists are up to, which in turn helps us begin to see the influence it has  The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christian Reconstruction is the term that many people may not be familiar with this. I'd like to begin by asking you to explain what it is.

This is a term that was given by Rushdoony to talk about this approach to Christian theology that focuses on reconstructing society in a way that overcomes the effects of the Fall. So, for these folks, God created Adam and Eve, put them in the Garden of Eden to have dominion-- and the Fall interrupted that. With the Resurrection, people are restored to their original purpose. So Rushdoony set out a strategy for reconstructing the Kingdom of God as it was intended to be, in the way that he understood it.

As you describe, three of the most significant aspects of Reconstructionists are pre-conceptualism, post-millennialism and theonomy. Could you explain these ideas for us and why they're so significant?

Presuppositionalism comes from [theologian Cornelius] Van Til, and it basically says all knowledge starts with presuppositions. And in Reconstructionist thought, there are only two places you can start. One is you start with the revelation of God in the Bible, or you start with anything else – and “anything else” hangs together for them in the sense that if you don't submit to God's authority, then you are relying on your own reason, your own rationality to adjudicate right and wrong.  "Everything else” gets lumped into that category of humanism, because it is all, in their minds, a failure to submit to God's authority, and to develop knowledge by relying on God's  revelation.

So, presuppositionalism is very important. It leads to the idea that there is no neutrality. You can't have a secular sphere. Secularity is humanism. Secularity says, “Well, I'm not looking to God, to know whether this policy is the best one or not. I'm going to use quantifiable science through measurement, through rationality and maybe debate.”

Post-millennialism and theonomy are related, sometimes in the book I called them corollaries. Christianity is a tradition that posits a trajectory to history that leads to a culmination. Not all religions have that. In Hinduism, time is eternal and it just keeps getting reset. But Christianity has that idea. There's a beginning of time; there's a purpose to history; it has a trajectory – teleology is the theological term for it – and it ends somewhere. And so there's long been Christian disagreement over how it ends.

One of the earliest versions is called premillennialism, and it says that Jesus will return before there's the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The dominant view that you see among conservative Protestants is a version of premillennialism, but it dates only to the 19th century. We can get into the weeds on that, but it's called dispensationaliam. It's the view of Hal Lindsay, and any movie that you see about the rapture, and Armageddon, and all that stuff. So it takes all those things that seem like prophecy in the Bible, it puts them off in the future, and expects the world to get worse and worse until Jesus returns.

Then there's amillennialism, the view that most Catholics have: “Oh yeah, the Bible talks about the Kingdom of God, but that's in heaven. It's not an earthly thing.” But the one that's relevant to these folks, is perhaps one that the Puritans had, but this one says the kingdom of God was established at the Resurrection. Adam and Eve left the garden and they couldn't exercise dominion that God had created them for, until the Resurrection. That, in the view of Reconstructionists, restored humanity to its original purpose: to build the Kingdom of God on earth. And that is post-millennialism.

There is a second coming, but Jesus will return after Christians have filled the whole earth with good news, with the gospel. For a lot of contemporary Christians, preaching the gospel means going out and saying, "Jesus died for your sins," and people say the sinner's prayer, and then they're Christians  Reconstructionists are really critical of that idea. They think it starts there, perhaps, but that evangelism for them is really about teaching people to bring all of their lives under the Lordship of Christ, to make every aspect of life infused with the authority of the Bible. And that's theonomy. The way in which they establish the Kingdom of God, as post-millennialists, is through the application of biblical law, or theonomy.

That explains very well how post-millennialism and theonomy fit together. One thing that emerges in your book is how different their concept of freedom is from what's commonly assumed in America today, and how the opposite of freedom is defined so differently as well –  majority rule, and democracy as tyranny. This has emerged particularly in the rhetoric of “religious freedom” against gay marriage. So where does this concept of freedom come from and? And what does it entail?

That's a good one. Some of it, at least philosophically or theologically, goes right back to that division between submission to the authority of God--and claiming authority for our own rationality. It goes right back there. So, for these Christians, the way they understand it, the only true freedom is freedom in submission to God. The thing that we might think of as freedom is actually conceived of as bondage to sin. And in some ways, if you say "Where does that come from," it says that in the New Testament, right? That's what Paul says. Paul is working with all of those inversions: to live is to suffer, and to die is gain. And the leaders are the servants. He inverts all kinds of categories in that way.

You also see some of this in the discussions about slavery. And there's a good bit about that in the book. To me, this is one of the more interesting developments over the last decade. Because, on the one hand, you do have this real minimization of the horrors of slavery, and the wrongness of slavery. You have people talking about, “It wasn't so bad,” and “These are actually Christian families” and “People were well treated,” and “They were better treated than they were in Africa,” you get all that kind of stuff. So actual, literal slavery gets a little whitewashed, if you pardon the word, while being required by the federal government to fill out a tax form is considered involuntary servitude and slavery, and that's appalling! I don't feel like going out tax forms any more than anyone else, but I don't really think of it as actual slavery. But they talk about it that way.

By this definition, “freedom” ultimately has nothing at all to do with individual rights, or with the individual, period. And that suggests a completely different way of seeing the world, which brings me to my next question.  In contrast to terms like “fundamentalism” and “modernism” you suggest a more profound grasp of what's going on with Christian Reconstructionist them can be gotten via the terms of “maximalist” versus “minimalist.” Can you explain what this distinction is and how it helps us understand what's going on?

I'm really glad you highlight that, actually. That division, that categorization, comes from Bruce Lincoln, a scholar of religion at the University of Chicago. Part of the problem with that fundamentalism/modernism division is it denies that fundamentalism is essentially modern. I mean, it's really, really modern. When you look at how they're fighting the battle between creationism and evolution, they turned creationism into science. It's really, really modern. Now, they are opposed to secular types of modernity, but they are not really opposed to modernity. And in many ways the crises of modernity are what give rise to the specific answers they offer. Plus, I think that that division, the meaning of those terms, changes from one context to the next. So I think they are really difficult words to use, at least with any scholarly accuracy. In everyday discourse it might work OK, particularly if you're in a conversation with people who sort of share some understandings and assumptions. But then all of a sudden you have people who are trying to talk about fundamentalism as a global phenomenon, and that's really problematic. I think.

But what Lincoln says – and it's still entangled with modernity – he says that in the modern period, we've compartmentalized life. And so, instead of having religion infuse every aspect of our lives, for the most part people who look at the world with modernist eyes think of parts of life as being religious or spiritual, and parts of life being scientific, and parts of it being rational.

So we might be really different persons at work than we are in our families, or that we might be in our churches or at our schools. And each of these realms has its own sets of rules, and we have our own understanding of our diverse identities within the spaces, And so people who are comfortable moving in that way, and who see most of life as secular, and then set off a specific sphere in which religion remains salient, if you divide life up into all these spheres that have their own sources of authority, and rules and functions and ethics, your own identity varies between them. Then religion is off on its own, and it's supreme in its own sphere, but it doesn't infuse all of the others.

For Lincoln, that is minimalist. Religion has its own sphere, but its influence is limited, it's minimal with regard to all of the others. We, in the modern world, don't necessarily think of work, for example, as religious. And this is part of what's underneath the debate over where to draw the line in the wake of the Supreme Court's marriage decision. If we're going to have religious exemptions that allow people to even violate discrimination laws on the basis of  religion conviction,  we're going to have to say where the line is -- what counts as religion. For those of who us are minimalists, we say, “Oh, that's easy, it's church. OK, well maybe it's Christian schools.” But then you get these broader categories, where you've got hospitals that have historic roots in religious traditions, but now use all kinds of public funds. Are they religious? Are they secular? A minimalist will say those are going to be secular, but a maximalist says no; everything is essentially religious for a maximalist. So I think that framework is much more effective for thinking through these conflicts than trying to think in terms of fundamentalism.

One more point on that. You see the culmination of this in the Hobby Lobby case. For all intents and purposes for most of us in America, this is a secular matter; there may be a religious overlay to it. But for them it's not [secular]; it's calling; it's deeply infused with religion. But I don't think they're just saying that for the purpose of making a legal case to do something they want to do. I actually don't think that. I think they really see religion as infusing all of life, or at least it ought to be infusing all of life. They see themselves as seeking to infuse all of life with religion.

With all the above under our belt, we're now in a position to ask about why the impact of Reconstructionism has not been widely recognized, when it is arguably one of the most coherent responses on behalf of maximalism.  So, why is it?

Well, there's a bunch of reasons. Some people don't want to be identified with Reconstructionists but another reason is that the influence is unrecognized is because so much of what's been written about them – and there are real substantial exceptions, but up until recently so much of what was written was “Rushdoony advocates stoning of homosexuals.” So yeah, he did do that, but if all you're going to do is take those really far out crazy things and just focus on those you're going to miss the real influence. Because culturally we're moving, thankfully, in the other direction on LGBT rights. But when you look at the Reconstructionist's world much more broadly, you see places where the influence is deep and profound. And it's not so far out that it will never happen.

Reconstructionists have been arguing since the '60s for the replacement of public education, with at first Christian schools, and then home schools, for the privatization of public education, the dismantling of public education. They believe that public education is unbiblical and they want it to go away. They've been writing this since the '60s. And I don't just mean they wrote in the '60s and left it there. They've been writing it consistently over and over and over again, through those decades. I think that's a place where they are having a pretty powerful impact.

When Rushdoony started writing there wasn't a Christian school movement, there wasn't a home-school movement. When those things got started parents run afoul of truancy laws in states that said your kids have to be in school – and then, of course, what counts as a school –  Rushdoony was the expert witness in many of those cases that secured the right of parents to choose the education of their children based on their religion, and in many places, with almost complete autonomy from the state.

So Christian schools and home schools in many places are not regulated, they are not under any kind of supervision. He [Rushdoony] argued that that was a First Amendment fundamental freedom, for parents to be able to teach their children apart from any influence of the federal government, or from state government -- from civil government. I think you see them having attained a level of success with regard to that goal.

I think you also see in in the way in which the divide over evolution and creationism is greater now than it was 50 years ago. You would expect science over time to win out over creation mythology, and maybe it will, over time. But the fact that the American public has gone in the other direction with regard to that, I think that's a result of a particular version of creationism that has overtaken all the others. That version is not only rooted in presuppositionalism,  it was also initiated and popularized through a set of books that started with "The Genesis Flood" that was going to be published by Moody Press. When Moody bailed on the book, Rushdoony got it published through his publisher. So I'm not saying he's responsible for it, it's not all him. But he is a figure that was integral in that transformation in ways I don't think gets written about, because people write about him wanting to execute homosexuals or any number of other extreme things.

Another area where Reconstructionists have been influential has been the revival of neo-Confederate ideology, and related views on race and slavery. What can you tell us about that?

There was a time that I would put Rushdoony's Southern Presbyterianism, and views on racism and slavery, there was a time I would have put that in the same category as the category of executing gays and lesbians [things too extreme to focus on]. I have, over the course of writing the book, come to see the prevalent influence of neo-Confederates, Southern Presbyterianism, Southern Christianity, Southern ideology. You know, part of that comes from me being a Yankee from Maine, living in the South all these years – but the persistence of those perspectives I think also goes back not exclusively to Rushdoony, obviously, those ideas predate Rushdoony. They exist in all kinds of pockets in American culture.

But one of the pockets is the pocket where Rushdoony brought [19th century pro-Confederate theologian Robert Lewis] Dabney back into the theological discourse among conservative reformed Christians. And I see that as the place [forming] this nexus with the Tea Party. You have to know a lot about Reconstructionism, and you have to know a good bit about Southern history, in order for that to ring off a bell, right?

If you don't know Rushdoony, when you read stuff about 'oh legitimation of slavery,' or let's talk about equality this is really interesting.

Again, I'm a New Englander. So, I used to hear people talk about conservatives being opposed to equality; I just thought that was kind of liberal rhetoric, that liberals say things about conservatives, conservatives say things about liberals, that are just ideologically driven. So, liberals will say that conservatives are opposed to equality, but it never occurred to me that that was actually just a description; I thought that that was just an ideological charge, and that conservatives would answer back, “Well, yes, we do [believe in equality], we mean something different by it.”

But actually, if you read Rushdoony carefully, there's an argument there that dates right back to Dabney and the pre-Civil War stuff, that equality itself is not a value. That people aren't equal. That people are different; that God ordained some of that difference. That's Calvinism; that's predestination. So people exist in the place in society where God has put them. And the idea that equality just on its own is a value, is really challenged by this particular worldview.  That goes right back to pre-Civil War thinking, and I see it all around me in Southern culture.

So there are ways in which Rushdoony is so far afield from any kind of public discourse that he can be written off as just an extreme fringe person. There are other ways in which he is right in the center of a lot of what's going on that you wouldn't know unless you read him more deeply than people have largely read him.

The influence of neo-Confederate thought connects with the Tea Party, and another thing that also plays into that is Gary North's work on biblical economics. So I wonder if you might speak to that as well?

Sure. Again, I think this is another huge area of influence. No one ever writes about Reconstructionism and economics. They just don't write about it. They write about family, they write about gender, they write about schools. But there's not much about economics except for another book that is out now by Michael McVicar. He's done an intellectual history of Rushdoony as his dissertation, now published. It's very good, and in the process of writing it, he wrote a couple of articles here and there, and there was one called "Libertarian Theocrats." It's good, it was really good. [Available here.]

So, for Reconstructionists a lot comes down to property and therefore economics is crucial. And in sphere sovereignty (that division of authority into family church and civil government) all economic activity is a function of the family. And you're right, [others] like David Chilton did some work on economics, but Gary North has had a role to play for a really long time, you know—the early ties to Ron Paul [on his congressional staff in 1976] and libertarian economics.

I've heard North say, “Rothbard and those guys [Austrian School theorists associated with the Mises Institute] they really get biblical economics, they don't understand that it comes from the Bible. So they fall down in humanism. But the economic framework that they advocate is the biblical economic framework." So for North it's because this is a function of family, and family authority is autonomous from the civil government'. This pairs very nicely with a libertarian view of economics that says the government should stay out of economic choices and economic decisions.

I think that Reconstructionists have also been broadly influential [in the rise of libertarianism and the Tea Party]. I don't think that  – the “Tea Party” that has a Chief Minister of Economics who went to ask about biblical law and imported that into the party, it's much more fluid than that.

It's a broad tendency…

Tea Partiers from the beginning were always wanting to say, “We're all about taxes. We're all about taxes.” But I get Tea Party emails on a daily basis and they've all been about gay marriage lately, not about taxes, right? So even though they say that [about taxes], one of the core groups that makes up this thing called the Tea Party is a group of conservative Christians. There are a lot of Tea Partiers who vary a lot ideologically from those I'm talking about here. But, for the conservative Christians who have climbed onto the Tea Party, the framework set forth by the Reconstructionists and promoted by Gary North.... the arguments that he made in the 1980s [in the book "Honest Money," described in my book] are almost word for word what you hear Tea Partiers saying today. He's been making these arguments on his website Tea Party Economist. I also think what's important with regard to the Tea Party, though, is the network of websites and email lists that Brandon Valleroni built, [connected to American Vision, another Reconstructionist organization described in the book].

What about gender? In the book you said that the patriarchal currents that Reconstuctionists are part of came about in response to Biblical feminism, they should be seen as a reaction.  So could you talk a bit about Biblical feminism and then about the patriarchal response to that, which Reconstructionists are part of?

That's a very broad category and a broad discussion in American conservative Protestantism, American religion, even. When it comes to patriarchal Christianity, I think most people assume, like the Christian Reconstructionists, that's what the Bible teaches. It's actually not as clear as it might seem. The earliest example of what I would call biblical feminism that I know of goes all the way back to the 1600s. There was a Quaker woman, Margaret Fell, who wrote a treatise on women speaking ["Women Speaking Justified"].

But by the '60s and '70s, there was a whole spectrum of feminist viewpoints, and I mean spectrum. I chose that word carefully, because there were biblical feminists who were really very conservative on every other aspect, and there were biblical feminists that even in the '70s were already fighting for LGBT rights. In fact you've got a split between two factions of biblical feminist groups in the 1980s: the Christians for Biblical Equality and the Evangelical Women's Caucus (which became the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus) EEWC. These women have argued this for 50 years now, as long as Rushdoony had been writing. I said these women but I really shouldn't have, because they actually aren't all women; there are male theologians, too.  This happened even in places like Fuller Seminary, which is a relatively conservative institution, founded as a fundamentalist institution.

As an example [of this reasoning], there's this [disputed] passage [on women's submission]. The line right before “all women should submit to their husbands,” says, “all Christians should submit to one another in Christ.” So it starts out saying everybody should submit. Then it says that husbands ought to love their wives, and no one thinks that wives should not also love their husbands. It explicitly says that everyone should submit but somehow the idea that men should submit to their wives in marriage gets thrown out the window. Biblical feminists do that with every part of the texts used to limit women's position.

Again, the earliest instance of this [form of critical reading] is back in the 1600s, but it became a really prominent viewpoint in the '60s and '70s, when it made its way subtly out into the church world [leading to] much more subtle understandings than you might have had in the 1950s, more subtle than the Reconstructionists might have had. So when somebody says, “But the Bible says...” it's not always that clear. That's what they have been taught, but they forget that that's an interpretation.

In the early 1990s there was a backlash in the most conservative wing of an evangelical fundamentalism. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood put out "Recovering  Biblical Manhood and Womanhood," by Grudem and Piper. That book argued that women were to be in submission to men, not just in marriage and the family, but in every aspect of society. They said it was unbiblical for women to be in positions of authority in the work world where they had authority over men, so there was a substantial backlash against this biblical feminism. I think that the Christian Reconstructionists/patriarchal/ biblical manhood/Quiverfull movement are all intersecting; they seem to me various names for different kinds of the same thing.

Reconstructionists claim that they're not political, and as you explain that's true in a narrow sense, yet at the same time it's misleading if not downright false from a broader perspective. Can you explain?

When they say they're not political, they are relying on that three-part division… And for them "politics" means [relating to] the civil government. Battles over policy disagreement (or things that you and I might consider to be political) [are not considered political] if they don't have to do with the civil government. So you've got a Baptist church committee voting whether to hire a woman pastor. That would seem to me a political choice: whether a woman should have that kind of position. For Reconstructionists that's not political, that's ecclesiastical.

They are using a very narrow definition of politics. And I'm a little bit more inclined, with someone like Bourdieu, to see the political implications in all kinds of decisions.  My definition of politics is far broader than that of the Reconstructionists. And I think they did a couple of things with that. On one level, theologically, they actually mean that that's what politics is.

I think they also use it to mollify their opponents.

You hear them saying, "what we do isn't political, it's not top-down, it's from the bottom up, it's not to be imposed." But they stop there. They don't then go on to really explain how it might work, if it's not imposed. I write about this in the book, they say this [theonomy] will only come about in a society that would be overwhelmingly Christian. Well, even overwhelmingly Christian is not unanimously Christian. Then it's still going to be imposed on some people. They don't really talk about that very much.

So, to some extent they use this definition of politics to divert criticism. And I see some people get confused – "Oh, OK, they're not political"  –  thinking that that means they're somehow not seeking to reshape every aspect of our world. And the fact that they say they're not political does not come anywhere close to saying they're not seeking to reshape our world, because they are.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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