Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism
Michael J. McVicar
The University of North Carolina Press, 2015
326 pp., 42.5
We expect scholarly works of history to be level-headed and even-handed because, of course, that is what scholarship is for. But we then give the game away if we act too surprised when works of scholarship actually turn out that way—despite easy opportunities not to. The Christian Reconstruction movement was a genuine hot rock just a few decades ago, and so it is somewhat surprising to see anybody discuss it, even today, without their oven mitts on. But that is what Michael McVicar manages to do.
McVicar is a careful writer, and not in anyone's corner. He is certainly not writing as an apologist for the Reconstructionist project, but neither is he functioning as a partisan for Reconstruction's many critics. At the same time, he clearly grasps what everyone was maintaining—recons and their critics both—and gives them all their due. The unvarnished views of his Reconstructionist subjects do leave him obviously aghast in a few places, but he recovers nicely and doesn't really let it affect his overall analysis. And, at the same time, he is clearly sympathetic to Rousas Rushdoony as a man, and he goes out of his way to place the radicalism of the Reconstructionists in context. A partisan Reconstructionist might object that this sounds too much like an anthropologist being scientifically dispassionate about the cannibal's dinner, but more is going on than that:
Rushdoony and the Reconstructionist project he cultivated cut to the very heart of a brutal century dominated by the technocult of the modern state and a global autophagic capitalist order. If his vision of the world is disturbing, it is because it grew from cultural soil fertilized with the rotting offal of modernity: three world wars (two hot, one cold); industrialized genocide; mass revolutions; the rise of omnipresent governmental and corporate surveillance systems; corrupt political regimes; skyrocketing domestic crime; and corporate piracy. Rushdoony's political theology spoke to all of these issues and offered prescriptive, often nauseatingly violent responses to deal with a century that was, in so many ways, an unmitigated disaster for a significant portion of humanity.
In short, battlefield surgeons often suggest hard solutions, but we should never forget that they are making their triage decisions under pretty grim conditions. McVicar does acknowledge that the Reconstructionists were hardliners, giving unflinching and sometimes brutal solutions to the problems posed by modernity. But at the same time, he also understands the brutal nature of the problems they were trying to address. This separates him from many critics of Reconstruction, for whom the modern world represents baseline normality. The 20th century was a century of enormous progress, but one also filled with enormities. The Reconstructionists saw that, at any rate, and McVicar gives them their due.
One of the bracing attractions of the Reconstructionists was their commitment to the dictum that he who says A must say B. If you get him onto the subject of Third World debt and the World Bank (which isn't hard), N. T. Wright can sound just like a theonomist. Three cheers for the Jubilee and debt forgiveness. Call it smiley face theonomy. But then if you were to ask him about "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," he would go hot-footing it back to the 21st century, where we have hot and cold running water, antibiotics, and liberal democracy. The Reconstructionists were made of sterner stuff than that, and so some of them were willing to debate whether firing squads could be used in lieu of stoning, for what were bullets but very small stones thrown at high rates of speed?
McVicar shows how Rushdoony became a controversial figure, even as his influence was growing remarkably. Hence his arguments and insights were frequently used but rarely cited. One of the themes that comes up often in McVicar's book is how often Rush (as he was called) was cited and applied by respectable conservatives, without attribution. His insights were needed in the battle, but to cite them as coming from Rush would simply make the battle more complicated by giving the enemy material for a counterattack. "You're quoting Rushdoony?"
Another reason this happened was because Rushdoony was so pithy and so memorable that a number of his insights took on a life of their own. Take his "inescapable concept"—not whether, but which. It is not whether we will impose morality, but rather which morality we will impose. It is not whether we will have a theocracy, but rather which god will be the god of that theocracy. You learn something like this and it is not long before the letters to the editor are writing themselves.
For one who could rarely be named, Rushdoony was remarkably well-placed and influential. This is one of the real surprises of McVicar's book, and it comes out in two areas. First, Rushdoony was a real player in the world of right-wing politics. In the postwar world, when the nascent conservative movement was finding its identity, an awful lot was up for grabs. This was the era when the John Birch Society was forming (and Rush had connections there), when William Buckley was founding National Review, and when the Volker Fund (later "merging" with the Hoover Institution) was funding the work of intellectuals in revolt against the liberal order. The details of Rushdoony's activity here are really fascinating.
Second, Rushdoony was a very real presence—just offstage, but still there—in the development and rise of the evangelical movement. In the early years, Rushdoony wrote for Christianity Today, and he had the ear of one of CT's big donors. He and Francis Schaeffer, despite disagreements, had many fruitful interactions over many years. Rushdoony was interested in pulling the whole evangelical movement to the right, and into a more self-conscious form of high-octane Calvinism.
So in both these arenas, Rushdoony was a significant player, but from both of them he was forced into exile. He established the Chalcedon Foundation in California, and from that place began providing the ungarbled answers that many Christians were longing for. He became enormously influential in homeschooling circles as he began traveling the country to provide expert testimony on behalf of parents who were in trouble with the law for providing a truly Christian education for their kids. Though in exile, Rushdoony and his colleagues (North, Chilton, Jordan, Bahnsen, et al.) began dominating the conversation of the entire conservative Christian world, and they were able to do this through a torrent of publications. Richard Weaver, one of Rush's adversaries, was right. Ideas do have consequences.
I was once in conversation with Greg Bahnsen and mentioned to him why I did not self-identify—that's how we say it these days, right?—as a Reconstructionist. Having heard my reasons, Bahnsen made a distinction that I have since found descriptive and helpful. He said there is a difference between a movement and a school of thought. A movement is more disciplined and defined, with set boundaries, and requires a leader. A school of thought can be bound together by nothing more than a loose set of similar assumptions. When we say that Spinoza and Leibniz were both rationalists, we do not mean that they put out a newsletter together.
Nicholas Wolterstorff once noted that there are three distinct currents in the Reformed river. First we have the pietists, to whom personal conversion and the resultant personal devotion are everything. Then there are the doctrinalists, to whom precise and absolute doctrinal conformity to the Canons of Not Trent are everything. The third group is the Kuyperian, which believes that every aspect of life needs to be brought under the functional authority of the lordship of Jesus Christ. This third group encompasses the first two, but the first two don't necessarily encompass anything else. And so it is in this sense that we can say—and perhaps thanks to Rushdoony—that we are all Kuyperians now.
When I have been asked if I am a theonomist, my reply is usually something like, "Oh, no … I hate God's law." This should reveal, of course, that all Christians need to acknowledge that God's authority in this world is absolute, and that Christians should all live the way He wants. The debate after that point is hermeneutical and exegetical, not theological. So perhaps Rushdoony's legacy in death is similar to what it was when he was alive—a significant presence, but not found anywhere in the footnotes.
Douglas Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a faculty member at New Saint Andrews College. He is the author recently of a new verse rendering of Beowulf (Canon Press).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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