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.



Michele Bachmann Was Inspired By My Dad and His Christian Reconstructionist Friends — Here’s Why That’s Terrifying

By Frank Schaeffer, AlterNet
Posted on August 9, 2011,

As presidential candidate Michele Bachmann chews up scenery in the GOP primaries, the mainstream media is finally digging into her extremist beliefs in a serious way. In a profile published earlier this week, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza talked about Bachmann’s radical right-wing influences, which include the most extremist figures in the history of the religious right movement.

One of these was my evangelical leader father, Francis Schaeffer. Bachmann says in the New Yorker article that she got into politics because she watched a film series I directed called “How Should We Then Live,” written by and featuring my dad.

What the New Yorker article doesn’t do is explain why people like Bachmann, Sarah Palin, et al. turned to the hard reactionary anti-government right. I explain this in my book Sex, Mom and God. I think it’s important to understand this. So let me add what the New Yorker left out.

The Back Story

In 1983 I was the leader of a group of protesters who screamed abuse at Justice Harry Blackmun and made him beat a hasty retreat back into a college building at the University of Nebraska after he’d just been awarded an honorary degree. In the early 1980s my daughter Jessica and I—she was 12—drove into Boston several times to picket abortion clinics, including one where a few years later (in 1994) two people were shot dead and five were seriously wounded by “pro-life” activist John Salvi.

Dad agreed to lead several antiabortion demonstrations, too. He said, “We’re telling everyone else to get out there and picket, and some of our people are getting arrested, so we can’t say no to doing what we’re telling others to do.”

That was then. Today I’m on the “other side.”

America has a problem: It’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously. America has a blessing: It’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously. How does this blessing coexist with the curse derived from the same source: the Bible? The answer is that the Bible is a curse or a blessing depending on who is doing the interpreting. Sometimes belief in the Bible leads to building a hospital. Sometimes it leads to justifying perpetual war and empire building. Same book—different interpretation.

If the history of Christianity proves one thing, it’s that you can make the Bible “say” anything. When you hear words like “We want to take back America for God!” the 21st-century expression of such theocratic ideas can be traced back to some of my old friends: the Reconstructionists.

Most Americans have never heard of the Reconstructionists. But they have felt their impact through the Reconstructionists’ profound (if indirect) influence over the wider (and vast) evangelical community.

Take Michele Bachmann. She is a Reconstructionist schooled – literally – by some of that obscure movement’s leading thinkers, including my father.

The evangelicals have shaped the politics of a secular culture that barely understood the religious right, let alone the forces within that movement that gave it its edge. The Americans inhabiting the wider (and more secular) culture just saw the results of Reconstructionism without understanding where those results had come from—for instance, how the hell George W. Bush got elected and then reelected or why Michele Bachmann was into home schooling long before she was into trying to become president in order to turn America into a homophobic theocracy.


If you feel victimized by modernity, then the Reconstructionists have the answer in their version of biblical interpretation. Reconstructionists want to replace the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the Bible.

The Reconstructionist worldview is ultra-Calvinist but, like all Calvinism has its origins in ancient Israel/Palestine, when vengeful and ignorant tribal lore was written down by frightened men (the nastier authors of the Bible) trying to defend their prerogatives to bully women, murder rival tribes, and steal land. (These justifications may have reflected later thinking: origin myths used as propaganda to justify political and military actions after the fact, such as the brutality the Hebrews said God made them inflict on others and/or their position as the Chosen People.)

In its modern American incarnation, which hardened into a 20th-century movement in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s, Reconstructionism was propagated by people like my father and others I knew and worked with closely when I, too, was both a Jesus Victim and a Jesus Predator claiming God’s special favor.

The Leaders

The leaders of the Reconstructionist movement included the late Rousas Rushdoony (Calvinist theologian, father of modern-era Christian Reconstructionism, patron saint to gold-hoarding haters of the Federal Reserve, haters of the US Government and creator of the modern evangelical home school movement), his son-in-law Gary North (an economist and publisher), and David Chilton (Calvinist pastor and author).

No, the Reconstructionists are not about to take over America, the world, or even most American evangelical institutions. Bachmann – for instance – will likely never be president. But their influence has not abated, however a la Tea Party.

The Reconstructionists have been like a drop of radicalizing flavoring added to a bottle of water: They’ve subtly changed the water’s flavor. And even though most evangelicals, let alone the general public, don’t know the names of the leading Reconstructionist thinkers, the world we live in—where a radicalized, angry government-hating religious right has changed the face of American politics and spun off into movements such as the Tea Party—is a direct result of that “flavoring.”

Anyone who wants to understand American politics, not to mention North American religion, had better get acquainted with the Reconstructionists. For instance these folks just held America hostage in the debt crisis, an attempt to – literally – destroy the government’s ability to function at all a manufactured “crisis” in which Bachmann was a leading proponent of scorched-earth, destroy the system “politics.”

Reconstructionism, also called Theonomism, seeks to reconstruct “our fallen society.” Its worldview is best represented by the publications of the Chalcedon Foundation (which has been classified as an antigay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center).

Kill the Gays

According to the Chalcedon Foundation Web site, the mission of the movement is to apply “the whole Word of God” to all aspects of human life: “It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion. We must live by His Word, not our own.”

Until Rushdoony, founder and late president of the Chalcedon Foundation, began writing in the 1960s, most American fundamentalists (including my parents) didn’t try to apply biblical laws about capital punishment for homosexuality to the United States. Even the most conservative evangelicals said they were “New Testament Christians.” In other words, they believed that after the coming of Jesus, the harsher bits of the Bible had been (at least to some extent) transformed by the “New Covenant” of Jesus’ “Law of Love.”

By contrast, the leaders of Reconstructionism believed that Old Testament teachings—on everything from capital punishment for gays to the virtues of child-beating—were still valid because they were the inerrant Word and Will of God and therefore should be enforced. Not only that, they said that biblical law should be imposed even on nonbelievers. This theology was the American version of the attempt in some Muslim countries to impose Shariah (Islamic law) on all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It was my old friend, the short, stocky, bearded Armenian American Rousas Rushdoony who in 1973 most thoroughly laid out the far right/religious right agenda in his book The Institutes of Biblical Law. Rushdoony changed the definition of salvation from the accepted evangelical idea that it applies to individuals to the claim that salvation is really about politics. With this redefinition, Rushdoony contradicted the usual reading of Jesus’ words by most Christians to mean that Jesus had not come to this earth to be a political leader: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

According to Rushdoony, all nations on earth should be obedient to the ancient Jewish/Christian version of “God’s Law,” so that the world will experience “God’s blessings.” Biblical salvation will then turn back the consequences of the Fall, and we’ll be on our way to the New Eden. To achieve this “turning back,” coercion must be used by the faithful to stop evildoers, who are, by definition, anyone not obeying all of God’s Laws as defined by the Calvinist and Reconstructionist interpretation of the Bible.

Once Christians are in charge, according to Gary North, rather than turning the other cheek to our enemy, we “should either bust him in the chops or haul him before the magistrate, and possibly both.” North adds, “It is only in a period of civil impotence that Christians are under the rule to ‘resist not evil.’”

How far would the Reconstructionists go? North, writes, “The question eventually must be raised: Is it a criminal offence to take the name of the Lord in vain? When people curse their parents, it unquestionably is a capital crime (Exodus. 21:17). The son or daughter is under the lawful jurisdiction of the family. The integrity of the family must be maintained by the threat of death. Clearly, cursing God (blasphemy) is a comparable crime, and is therefore a capital crime (Leviticus. 24:16).”

How might a Reconstructionist version of the Sermon on the Mount read, inclusive of Reconstructionist “inside” theological/political code words like “Law-Word”? Maybe something like this:

Blessed are those who exercise dominion over the earth: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who deport the immigrants: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who agree that the significance of Jesus Christ as the ‘faithful and true witness’ is that He not only witnesses against those who are at war against God, but He also executes them: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His Law-Word: for they shall be filled. Blessed are those who say that those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God must be denied citizenship: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the Calvinist Christians who are the only lawful heirs to the Kingdom: for they shall see God. Blessed are those who know that turning the other cheek is a temporary bribe paid to evil secular rulers: for they shall be called sons of God if they bust their enemies in the chops. Blessed are those who have taken an eye for an eye: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are ye when ye know that the battle for My sake is between the Christian Reconstruction Movement and everyone else. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven. For so we are to make Bible-obeying disciples of anybody who gets in our way, and kill those who resist.

The Movement to ‘Take Back America For God’

I remember first meeting Rushdoony at his home in Vallecito, California, in the late 1970s. (That was where I also met Gary North for the first time.) I was accompanied by Jim Buchfuehrer, who had produced the antiabortion documentary series of films with me that featured my father and Dr. C. Everett Koop. (Koop would become Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general.)

The movie series and book project later got Michele Bachamnn to become an ardent clinic picketer. Whatever Happened to the Human Race? was Koop’s and my brainchild. He had seen my dad’s and my first film series—How Should We Then Live? (the series I directed and that Bachmann says got her into politics and that the New Yorker article describes in detail) —and Koop wanted to team up to expand on the last episodes, in which Dad had denounced the “imperial court” for “stripping the unborn” of their right to life.

The impact of the two film series, as well as their companion books, was to give the evangelical community a frame of reference through which to understand the “secularization of American culture” and to point to the “human life issue” as the watershed between a “Christian society” and a utilitarian, relativistic “post-Christian” future. This has become Bachmann’s agenda, and also the agenda of Fox News as they blast her views over America.

By the time the films had been viewed by millions of American evangelicals, Dad had become the leader of those evangelicals who took a “stand” on the “life issues.” And the films made the Reconstructionists believe that perhaps in Francis Schaeffer and his up-and-coming son they might have found new allies. So I began to get messages that Rushdoony urgently wanted to meet me.

Hating America to ‘Save’ It

When we talked, Rushdoony talked about “secular America” as if it were an enemy state, not our country. He talked about how “we” should all use cash, never credit cards, since cards would make it “easy for the government to track us.” Rushdoony spoke passionately about the virtues of gold, how very soon the conflict between the Soviet Union and America would lead to war. Rushdoony also noted that Vallecito was “well located to survive the next war” given “the prevailing wind directions” and its water supply.

The message of Rushdoony’s work is best summed up in one of his innumerable Chalcedon Foundation position papers, “The Increase of His Government and Peace.” He writes, “The ultimate and absolute government of all things shall belong to Christ.” In his book Thy Kingdom Come—using words that are similar to those the leaders of al Qaida would use decades later in reference to “true Islam”—Rushdoony argues that democracy and Christianity are incompatible: “Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” he writes. “One [biblical] faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state.Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”

The impact of Reconstructionism (often under other names) has grown even though Rushdoony has largely been forgotten even in evangelical circles, let alone the wider world. He made the evangelical world more susceptible to being politicized—and manipulated by some very smart people like Bachmann.

Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell who once had nothing to do with politics per se were influenced by the Reconstructionists. That in turn moved the whole evangelical movement to the right and then into the political arena, where it became “normal” for evangelical leaders to jump head first into politics with little-to-no regard for the separation of church and state.

Extremists For Jesus

Without the work of the Reconstructionists, the next generation of religious activists (trying to use the courts, politics, and/or civil disobedience to impose their narrow theology on the majority of Americans) may have been relegated to some lonely street corner where they could gather to howl at the moon. Instead, the 21st century’s theocrats (though they’d never so identify themselves) enjoyed the backing of Fox News, were tolerated at places like Princeton University, and could be found running many evangelical organizations. And now in Bachmann they have their champion: a full fledged Reconstructionist radical.

From Puritans To Government Haters

The Puritans’ theology of government was formed in the context of an embrace of all Christians’ duty to demand the “public good.” This was exemplified by such unquestioned well-established concepts as the “king’s highway,” a common road system protected by the crown (government) and a common law that applied to all. One’s common duty to others was accepted as the essential message of Christian civilization. Public spaces were defended by government in the early New England settlements, just as they had been in England.

What’s so curious is that in this religion-inflicted country of ours, the same evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and others like George and Bachmann who had been running around post-Roe insisting that America had a “Christian foundation” and demanding a “return to our heritage” and/or more recently trashing health care reform as “communist” ignored the fact that one great contribution of Christianity was a commitment to strong central government. For instance, this included church support for state-funded, or state-church-funded, charities, including hospitals, as early as the fourth century.

Government was seen as part of God’s plan for creating social justice and defending the common good. Christians were once culture-forming and culture-embracing people. Even the humanism preached by the supposedly “anti-Christian” Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century was, in fact, a Deist/Christian “heresy,” with a value system espousing human dignity borrowed wholesale from the Sermon on the Mount.

In the scorched-earth post-Roe era of the “health care reform debates” of 2009 and beyond, evangelicals seemed to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals (and everything else) should be run by corporations for profit, just because corporations weren’t the evil government. The right even decided that it was “normal” for the state to hand over its age-old public and patriotic duties to private companies—even for military operations (“contractors”), prisons, health care, public transport, and all the rest.

The religious right/far right et al. favored private “facts,” too. They claimed that global warming wasn’t real. They asserted this because scientists (those same agents of Satan who insisted that evolution was real) were the ones who said human actions were changing the climate. Worse, the government said so, too!

“Global warming is a left-wing plot to take away our freedom!”

“Amtrak must make a profit!”

Even the word “infrastructure” lost its respectability when government had a hand in maintaining roads, bridges and trains.

In denial of the West’s civic-minded, government-supporting heritage, evangelicals (and the rest of the right) wound up defending private oil companies but not God’s creation, private cars instead of public transport, private insurance conglomerates rather than government care of individuals. The price for the religious right’s wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ’s reputation was tied to a cynical political party “owned” by billionaires. It only remained for a far right Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that unlimited corporate money could pour into political campaigns—anonymously—in a way that clearly favored corporate America and the superwealthy, who were now the only entities served by the Republican Party.

The evangelical rubes who are Bachmann’s foot soldiers never realized that the logic of their “stand” against government had played into the hands of people who never cared about human lives beyond the fact that people could be sold products. By the 21st century, Ma and Pa No-name were still out in the rain holding an “Abortion is Murder!” sign in Peoria and/or standing in line all night in some godforsaken mall in Kansas City to buy a book by Sarah Palin and have it signed. But it was the denizens of the corner offices at Goldman Sachs, the News Corporation, Exxon, and Halliburton who were laughing.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back.”

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