An Insider’s View: The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America

In deep-red white America, the white Christian God is king.


Author:Forsetti’s Justice / AlterNet

Emphasis Mine

(N.B.: at the end of the day, belief in a White Christian God is the problem…)

As the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump is being sorted out, a common theme keeps cropping up from all sides: “Democrats failed to understand white, working-class, fly-over America.”

Trump supporters are saying this. Progressive pundits are saying this. Talking heads across all forms of the media are saying this. Even some Democratic leaders are saying this. It doesn’t matter how many people say it, it is complete bullshit. It is an intellectual/linguistic sleight of hand meant to throw attention away from the real problem. The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.

I grew up in rural, Christian, white America. You’d be hard-pressed to find an area in the country that has a higher percentage of Christians or whites. I spent most of the first 24 years of my life deeply embedded in this culture. I religiously (pun intended) attended their Christian services. I worked off and on, on their rural farms. I dated their calico skirted daughters. I camped, hunted, and fished with their sons. I listened to their political rants at the local diner and truck stop. I winced at their racist/bigoted jokes and epithets that were said more out of ignorance than animosity. I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past 30 years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.

In deep-red white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power. The problem isn’t “coastal elites don’t understand rural Americans.” The problem is rural America doesn’t understand itself and will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble. It doesn’t matter how “understanding” you are, how well you listen, what language you use…if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted. I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.

At some point during the discussion, “That’s your education talking,” will be said, derogatorily, as a general dismissal of everything I said. They truly believe this is a legitimate response because to them education is not to be trusted. Education is the enemy of fundamentalism because fundamentalism, by its very nature, is not built on facts. The fundamentalists I grew up around aren’t anti-education. They want their kids to know how to read and write. They are anti-quality, in-depth, broad, specialized education. Learning is only valued up to the certain point. Once it reaches the level where what you learn contradicts doctrine and fundamentalist arguments, it becomes dangerous. I watched a lot of my fellow students who were smart, stop their education the day they graduated high school. For most of the young ladies, getting married and having kids was more important than continuing their learning. For many of the young men, getting a college education was seen as unnecessary and a waste of time. For the few who did go to college, what they learned was still filtered through their fundamentalist belief system. If something they were taught didn’t support a preconception, it would be ignored and forgotten the second it was no longer needed to pass an exam.

Knowing this about their belief system and their view of outside information that doesn’t support it, telling me that the problem is coastal elites not understanding them completely misses the point.

Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood-wearing, cross-burning, lynching racists (though some are). I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.

The religion in which I was raised taught this. Even though they’ve backtracked on some of their more racist declarations, many still believe the original claims. Non-whites are the color they are because of their sins, or at least the sins of their ancestors. Blacks don’t have dark skin because of where they lived and evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If God cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against God’s will. It is really easy to justify treating people differently if they are cursed by God and will never be as good as you no matter what they do because of some predetermined status.

Once you have this view, it is easy to lower the outside group’s standing and acceptable level of treatment. Again, there are varying levels of racism at play in rural, Christian, white America. I know people who are ardent racists. I know a lot more whose racism is much more subtle but nonetheless racist. It wouldn’t take sodium pentothal to get most of these people to admit they believe they are fundamentally better and superior to minorities. They are white supremacists who dress up in white dress shirts, ties, and gingham dresses. They carry a Bible and tell you, “everyone’s a child of God” but forget to mention that some of God’s children are more favored than others and skin tone is the criterion by which we know who is and who isn’t at the top of God’s list of most favored children.

For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God. You aren’t winning a battle of beliefs with these people if you are on one side of the argument and God is on the other. No degree of understanding this is going to suddenly make them less racist, more open to reason and facts. Telling “urban elites” they need to understand rural Americans isn’t going to lead to a damn thing because it misses the causes of the problem.

Because rural, Christian, white Americans will not listen to educated arguments, supported by facts that go against their fundamentalist belief systems from “outsiders,” any change must come from within. Internal change in these systems does happen, but it happens infrequently and it always lags far behind reality. This is why they fear change so much. They aren’t used to it. Of course, it really doesn’t matter whether they like it or not, it, like the evolution and climate change even though they don’t believe it, it is going to happen whether they believe in it or not.

Another major problem with closed-off, fundamentalist belief systems is they are very susceptible to propaganda. All belief systems are to some extent, but fundamentalist systems even more so because there are no checks and balances. If bad information gets in, it doesn’t get out and because there are no internal mechanisms to guard against it, it usually ends up very damaging to the whole. A closed-off belief system is like your spinal fluid—it is great as long as nothing infectious gets into it. If bacteria gets into your spinal fluid, it causes unbelievable damage because there are no white blood cells in it whose job is to fend off invaders and protect the system. This is why things like meningitis are so horrible. Without the protective services of white blood cells in the spinal column, meningitis spreads like wildfire once it’s in and does significant damage in a very short period of time. Once inside the closed-off spinal system, bacteria are free to destroy whatever they want.

The very same is true with closed-off belief systems. Without built-in protective functions like critical analysis, self-reflection, openness to counter-evidence, willingness to re-evaluate any and all beliefs, etc., bad information in a closed-off system ends up doing massive damage in short period of time. What has happened to too many fundamentalist belief systems is damaging information has been allowed in from people who have been granted “expert status.” If someone is allowed into a closed-off system and their information is deemed acceptable, anything they say will readily be accepted and become gospel.

Rural, Christian, white Americans have let in anti-intellectual, anti-science, bigoted, racists into their system as experts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, any of the blonde Stepford Wives on Fox, every evangelical preacher on television because they tell them what they want to hear and because they sell themselves as being “one of them.” The truth is none of these people give a rat’s ass about rural, Christian, white Americans except how can they exploit them for attention and money. None of them have anything in common with the people who have let them into their belief systems with the exception they are white and they “speak the same language” of white superiority, God’s will must be obeyed, and how, even though they are the Chosen Ones, they are the ones being screwed by all the people and groups they believe they are superior to.

Gays being allowed to marry are a threat. Blacks protesting the killing of their unarmed friends and family are a threat. Hispanics doing the cheap labor on their farms are somehow viewed a threat. The black president is a threat. Two billion Muslims are a threat. The Chinese are a threat. Women wanting to be autonomous are a threat. The college educated are a threat. Godless scientists are a threat. Everyone who isn’t just like them has been sold to them as a threat and they’ve bought it hook, line, and grifting sinker. Since there are no self-regulating mechanisms in their belief systems, these threats only grow over time. Since facts and reality don’t matter, nothing you say to them will alter their beliefs. “President Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood who hates white Americans and is going to take away their guns.” I feel ridiculous even writing this, it is so absurd, but it is gospel across large swaths of rural America. Are rural, Christian, white Americans scared? You’re damn right they are. Are their fears rational and justified? Hell no. The problem isn’t understanding their fears. The problem is how to assuage fears based on lies in closed-off fundamentalist belief systems that don’t have the necessary tools for properly evaluating the fears.

I don’t have a good answer to this question. When a child has an irrational fear, you can deal with it because they trust you and are open to possibilities. When someone doesn’t trust you and isn’t open to anything not already accepted as true in their belief system, there really isn’t much, if anything you can do. This is why I think the whole, “Democrats have to understand and find common ground with rural America,” is misguided and a complete waste of time. When a 3,000-year-old book that was written by uneducated, pre-scientific people, subject to translation innumerable times, edited with political and economic pressures from popes and kings, is given higher intellectual authority than facts arrived at from a rigorous, self-critical, constantly re-evaluating system that can and does correct mistakes, no amount of understanding, no amount of respect, no amount of evidence is going to change their minds, assuage their fears.

Do you know what does change the beliefs of fundamentalists, sometimes? When something becomes personal. Many a fundamentalist has changed his mind about the LGBT community once his loved ones started coming out of the closet. Many have not. But those who did, did so because their personal experience came in direct conflict with what they believe. My own father is a good example of this. For years I had long, sometimes heated discussions with him about gay rights. Being the good religious fundamentalist he is, he could not even entertain the possibility he was wrong. The Church said it was wrong, so therefore it was wrong. No questions asked. No analysis needed. This changed when one of his adored stepchildren came out of the closet. He didn’t do a complete 180. He has a view that tries to accept gay rights while at the same time viewing being gay as a mortal sin because his need to have his belief system be right outweighs everything else.

This isn’t uncommon. Deeply held beliefs are usually only altered, replaced under catastrophic circumstances that are personal. This belief system alteration works both ways. I know die-hard, open-minded progressives who became ardent fundamentalists due to a traumatic event in their lives.

A really good example of this is the comedian Dennis Miller. I’ve seen Miller in concert four different times during the 1990s. His humor was complex, riddled with references, and leaned pretty left on almost all issues. Then 9/11 happened. For whatever reasons, the trauma of 9/11 caused a seismic shift in Miller’s belief system. Now he is a mainstay on conservative talk radio. His humor was replaced with anger and frustration. 9/11 changed his belief system because it was a catastrophic event that was personal to him.

The catastrophe of the Great Depression along with the progressive remedies by FDR helped create a generation of Democrats from previously die-hard Republicans. People who had, up until that point, deeply believed the government couldn’t help the economy only the free market could change their minds when the brutal reality of the Great Depression affected them directly, personally.

I thought the financial crisis in 2008 would have a similar, though lesser, impact on many Republicans. It didn’t. The systems that were put in place after the Great Recession to deal with economic crises, the quick, smart response by Congress and the administration helped make what could have been a catastrophic event into merely a really bad one. People suffered, but they didn’t suffer enough to where they were open to questioning their deeply held beliefs. Because this questioning didn’t take place, the Great Recession didn’t lead to any meaningful political shift away from poorly regulated markets, supply side economics, or how to respond to a financial crisis. This is why, even though rural Christian white Americans were hit hard by the Great Recession, they not only didn’t blame the political party they’ve aligned themselves with for years, they rewarded them two years later by voting them into a record number of state legislatures and taking over the U.S. House.

Of course, it didn’t help matters there were scapegoats available they could direct their fears, anger, and white supremacy towards. A significant number of rural Americans believe President Obama was in charge when the financial crisis started. An even higher number believe the mortgage crisis was the result of the government forcing banks to give loans to unqualified minorities. It doesn’t matter how untrue both of these are, they are gospel in rural America. Why reevaluate your beliefs and voting patterns when scapegoats are available?

How do you make climate change personal to someone who believes only God can alter the weather? How do you make racial equality personal to someone who believes whites are naturally superior to non-whites? How do you make gender equality personal to someone who believes women are supposed to be subservient to men by God’s command? How do you get someone to view minorities as not threatening personal to people who don’t live around and never interact with them? How do you make personal the fact massive tax cuts and cutting back government hurts their economic situation when they’ve voted for these for decades? I don’t think you can without some catastrophic events. And maybe not even then. The Civil War was pretty damn catastrophic yet a large swath of the South believed and still believes they were right, had the moral high ground. They were/are also mostly Christian fundamentalists who believe they are superior because of the color of their skin and the religion they profess to follow. There is a pattern here for anyone willing to connect the dots.

“Rural, white America needs to be better understood,” is not one of the dots. “Rural, white America needs to be better understood,” is a dodge, meant to avoid the real problems because talking about the real problems is viewed as “too upsetting,” “too mean,” “too arrogant,” “too elite,” “too snobbish.” Pointing out Aunt Bee’s views of Mexicans, blacks, gays…is bigoted isn’t the thing one does in polite society. Too bad more people don’t think the same about the views Aunt Bee has. It’s the classic, “You’re a racist for calling me a racist,” ploy. Or, as it is more commonly known, “I know you are but what am I?”

I do think rational arguments are needed, even if they go mostly ignored and ridiculed. I believe in treating people with the respect they’ve earned but the key point here is “earned.” I’ll gladly sit down with Aunt Bee and have a nice, polite conversation about her beliefs about “the gays,” “the blacks,” “illegals,”…and do so without calling her a bigot or a racist. But, this doesn’t mean she isn’t a bigot and a racist and if I’m asked to describe her beliefs these are the only words that honestly fit. No one with cancer wants to be told they have cancer, but just because no one uses the word, “cancer,” it doesn’t mean they don’t have it. Just because the media, pundits on all sides, some Democratic leaders don’t want to call the actions of many rural, Christian, white Americans, “racist/bigoted” doesn’t make them not so.

Avoiding the obvious only prolongs getting the necessary treatment. America has always had a race problem. It was built on racism and bigotry. This didn’t miraculously go away in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It didn’t go away with the election of Barack Obama. If anything, these events pulled back the curtain exposing the dark, racist underbelly of America that white America likes to pretend doesn’t exist because we are the reason it exists. From the white nationalists to the white, suburban soccer moms who voted for Donald Trump, to the far left progressives who didn’t vote at all, racism exists and has once again been legitimized and normalized by white America.

The honest truths that rural, Christian, white Americans don’t want to accept and until they do nothing is going to change, are:

-Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.

Immigrants haven’t taken their jobs. If all immigrants, legal or otherwise, were removed from the U.S., our economy would come to a screeching halt and prices on food would soar.

Immigrants are not responsible for companies moving their plants overseas. Almost exclusively white business owners are the ones responsible because they care more about their share holders who are also mostly white than they do American workers.

No one is coming for their guns. All that has been proposed during the entire Obama administration is having better background checks.

Gay people getting married is not a threat to their freedom to believe in whatever white God you want to. No one is going to make their church marry gays, make gays your pastor, accept gays for membership.

Women having access to birth control doesn’t affect their life either, especially women who they complain about being teenage, single mothers.

-Blacks are not “lazy moochers living off their hard earned tax dollars” anymore than many of your fellow rural neighbors. People in need are people in need. People who can’t find jobs because of their circumstances, a changing economy, outsourcing overseas, etc. belong to all races.

They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.

-They get the largest share of Food Stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

-They complain about globalization but line up like everyone else to get the latest Apple product. They have no problem buying foreign-made guns, scopes, and hunting equipment. They don’t think twice about driving trucks whose engine was made in Canada, tires made in Japan, radio made in Korea, computer parts made in Malaysia.

-They use illicit drugs as much as any other group. But, when other people do it is a “moral failing” and they should be severely punished, legally. When they do it, it is a “health crisis” that needs sympathy and attention.

-When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.

-They are quick to judge minorities for being “welfare moochers” but don’t think twice about cashing their welfare check every month.

-They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.

-They complain about “the little man being run out of business” then turn around and shop at big box stores.

-They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.

Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their representatives and senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.

All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.

What I understand is that rural, Christian, white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; don’t trust people outside their tribe; have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades; are unwilling to understand their own situations; and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties will get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. They are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. Their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians. They are the problem with progress and always will be, because their belief systems are constructed against it.

The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by coastal elites. The problem is a lack of understanding of why rural, Christian, white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural, Christian, white America.


Secrets Of the Extreme Religious Right: Inside the Frightening World Of Christian Reconstructionism

Be very afraid.

Source: Salon via AlterNet

Author: Paul Rosenberg

Emphasis Mine

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 Rushdoony in the ’60s. He talked about that fight. Not particularly with regard to LGBT, but with regard to the expansion—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 the focus that he had was to set about 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, this comes from [theologian Cornelius] Van Til, and it basically says all knowledge starts with presuppositions. And those presuppositions – in Reconstructionist thought, there’s only two fundamental thoughts you can start with. 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. For Reconstructionist, that goes right back to the Garden of Eden and eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, and trying to know good and evil for themselves, and for them to label that is humanism. So “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.” So it becomes really important for that reason. And that is areally important category for these people.

Post-millennialism and theonomy are kind of related, sometimes in the book I called them corollaries. So post-millennialism – Christianity is a tradition that posits there is a trajectory to history that leads to a culmination. Not all religions have that. In Hindoism, 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 version the premillennialist, but it dates only to the 19th century. We can get into the weeds on that, but it’s 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 passive 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 there’s some debate over this—but this one says the kingdom of God was established at the Resurrection. Going back to that earlier thing about Genesis, so Adam and Eve left the garden and they couldn’t exercise dominion that God had created them for, and that went on for a while, until the Resurrection, that, in the view of Reconstructionists, restored humanity to its original purpose. And so that purpose is 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. And for them, what it means is… for a lot of contemporary Christians, like 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  But 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, to make every aspect of life infused with the authority, wisdom, but a lot of the Bible. And that’s the autonomy. The way in which they establish the kingdom of God, as expected, to 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 that, 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 this freedom is actually conceived of as bondage to sin.. And in some ways, if you say were 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. Where actually being required by the federal government to fill out a tax form is considered involuntary servitude and slavery, and that’s appalling! So the other kinds of slavery are minimized, and their significance, and things with seem like – 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 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 their fighting the battle between creationism and evolution, they turned creationism into science. They’re 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 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 okay, 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 does, Lincoln says – and it’s still entangled with modernity – but he says that in modern period, we’ve compartmentalized life. And so, instead of having religion infuse every aspect of out 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 severe specific sphere in which religion remains salient, as I was just saying, if you divide life in up into all these spears 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 its 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. So 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. So, if we’re going to have marriage 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 of what counts as religion. For those of us are minimalists, we say, “Oh, that’s easy, it’s church. Okay, 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. It’s calling, it’s deeply infused with religion. But I don’t think it’s there 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 it as infusing all of life, or at least as 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 of the people don’t like to be identified with Reconstructionist but another reason is that the influence is unrecognized is because so much of what’s been written about them – and there’s 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 there that these things will never happen.

Reconstructionists have been arguing since the ’60s for the replacement of public education, with at first Christian schools, and then homeschools, for the privatization of public education, the dismantleing of public education, they believe that public education is unbiblical, and they want it to go away, and they’ve been writing this since the ’60s. And I don’t just mean they wrote the 60s left it there. They’ve been writing it consistently over and over and over again, through those decades, and I think that 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 homeschool movement, and when those things got started, and parents run afoul of truancy laws in states that said your kids have to be in school – and then, of course, it says well, 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 that based on their religion, and in many places, with almost complete autonomy from the state.

So Christian schools and homeschools 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 influernce of the federal government, or from state government, from civil government. And I think you see them having attained a level of success with regard to that goal, and I think the influence that permeating society.

I think 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 particular version of creationism that has overtaken all the others, and that version is not only rooted in presuppostionalism,  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, and when Moody bailed on the book, Rushdoony got it published trhough 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, all that stuff. 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 slavey, there was a time I would have put that in the same category as the category of executing gays and lesbians. I have, over the course writing the book, come to see the prevalent influence of 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 were 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 the got a 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 quality, 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, 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, and the law, that God ordained some of that difference. That’s Calvinism; that’s predestination. So people exist in the place in society were God has put them. And the idea that equality just on its own is a value, is really challenged by this particular worldview.  And 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 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 that guy, who is that his book is out now, McVicer, he’s done an intellectual history of Rushdoony, as his dissertation, and 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”, and it’s good, it was really good. [Available here.]

So, for Reconstructionists a whole a lot of everything comes down to property, and therefore economics is crucial. And for Reconstructionist, in that sphere sovereignty, that division of authority into family church and civil government, all economic activity is a function of the family. And so economics becomes a really important discipline for them—I mean like an academic discipline, the study of economics, it’s really important. And you’re right, 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.

North, I’ve heard him say, “Rothbard and those guys they really get biblical economics, they don’t understand that it comes from the Bible. So they fall down in humanism.” is how he says it. 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’. And so that pairs very nicely with a libertarian view of economics that says the government should stay out of the economic choices, and economic decisions.

I think that they have also been broadly influential there, and obviously I don’t think that  – the Tea Party isn’t even a thing, right? it’s a catchphrase, but it’s not some “Tea Party” that has a Chief Minister of Economics that went to ask about biblical law and imported that into the party, it’s much more fluid than that.

It’s a broad tendency…

Oh, it really is. And, you know the 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, 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 are opposed to creationism and, you know,  atheists, and others 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 the book] are almost word for word what you hear Tea Partiers saying today. He’s been making these arguments, and I thinking that people read his Tea Party economy website. I also think it’s important with regard to the Tea Party, though, is the network of websites and email lists that Brandon Valeronie 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 femiism 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. Actually 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 are 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 like 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, really for 50 years now, as long as Rushdoony had been writing, and I said these women but I really shouldn’t have, because they actually aren’t all women, there are male theologians, too,  and arguing these things in places like Fuller Seminary, which is a relatively conservative institution, founded as a fundamentalist institution.

An example, there’s this passage, the line right before “all women should submit to their husbands,” it says “all Christians should submit to one another in Christ.” So it’s starts out saying everybody should submit… But then it says that husbands ought to love their wives, and no one thinks that that means that the reverse is not true, that wives should not also love their husbands, when it explicitly says that everyone should submit. So somehow the idea that men should submit to their wives in marriage gets thrown out the window. And these biblical feminists do that with every part of the texts that are used to demote women’s position.

Again, the earliest instance of this 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 and there were much more subtle understandings then 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 been taught, but they forget that that’s an interpretation.

But right about 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 that book Recovering  Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Grudem and Piper were the authors of that, and that book argued that women were to be in submission to men, not just in marriage and the family, but in every aspect in society. So 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, they’re all sort of intersecting; they seem to me various names for different kinds of the same thing, although there are lots of people who argue they are subtly different.

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 the civil government, so any battle over policy disagreement or things that you and I might consider to be political, if they don’t have to do with the civil government, Reconstructionists say they are not political. So you 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.

So 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.  So 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, I think theologically, they actually mean that that’s what the political things are. I think they also use it to mollify their opponents.

You hear them saying this person or that person have misconstrued what we do, and advocated, and what we do isn’t political, it’s not top-down, it’s from the bottom up, it’s not to be imposed, right? But they stop there. They don’t then go on to really explain how it might work, if it’s not imposed. And I write about in the book, they say this 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. And 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, okay, they’re not political”  –  and they think 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.


Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area. He runs the site Merge Left, a community of progressive thinkers free to submit their own content.