The Reconstructionist Movement on the New Christian Right
by Anson Shupe
Anson Shupe is chair of the department of sociology and anthropology, Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. He is coauthor with Jeffrey K. Hadden of Televangelism: Power and Politics on God’s Frotier and coeditor of Secularization and Fundamentalism Reconsidered. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 4, 1989, pp. 880-882. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by Anson Shupe is chair of the department of sociology and anthropology, Indiana-Purdue University at Fort permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Just last year at a Republican state convention in Arizona, new Christian rightists managed to pass a floor resolution declaring that the U.S. is "a Christian nation" and that the U.S. Constitution created "a republic based upon the absolute laws of the Bible, not a democracy." Elsewhere, Joseph Morecraft, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church just outside Atlanta, has been trying to convince Georgia’s Republican Party to declare the Bible the source of all civil law. And at the 1988 convention of the Texas Republican Party, Christian delegates helped pass a party platform severely conservative on social and moral issues, amid a debate punctuated, as one journalist put it, with more amens and hallelujahs than a revivalist tent meeting.
All three instances represent sightings of a relatively new creature on the right wing of Christianity: a movement variously known as dominion theology, kingdom theology, theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism. Reconstructionists have been politically active and visible in a variety of states, most recently backing Pat Robertson’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. They have also mobilized at the local level: Pastor Morecraft, an admitted theonomist, received one-third of the vote in his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1986.
Just what is Christian Reconstruction-ism? Actually it is a movement within a movement, a splinter group in the uneasy alliance of charismatics, fundamentalists and miscellaneous evangelicals who make up the Christian right. Like most in that larger movement, Reconstructionists are fed up with what they perceive to be humanistic values eroding politics, public schools and the economy. They are angry at the Supreme Court, big liberal government, and permissive morality with its drugs, venereal diseases and violence.
Christian Reconstructionists are unabashedly postmillennial. They believe the millennium will occur before Christ’s Second Advent. The movement aims at nothing less than total world transformation. Its basic creed can be summarized in six points:
l Christ’s kingdom was ushered in almost 2,000 years ago and will culminate at his Second Coming, a far-off event.
l Meanwhile, every institution of every nation—starting with the U.S.—needs to be reclaimed for Christ from the grip of Satan and his humanist minions.
l The Bible—particularly Mosaic Law—offers a perfect blueprint for the shape such a "reconstructed" society must take. Reconstructionists believe that an absolute God creates consistent ethical principles for all time, not just for one people.
l Christian Reconstructionism is a grassroots movement emphasizing conversion and self-regeneration rather than a top-down revolution imposed by an ecclesiocracy. Thus the transformation will be a majoritarian, nonviolent effort, and will likely require centuries to complete. Followers are prepared for the long haul.
l Politics is one important—but only one—mechanism of reconstructing society. Christians have a duty to engage in and reform the political process. "Christians should be involved in politics even if it is dirty," writes a Reconstructionist author. "Who else has the means to clean up politics?"
l God has entered into a covenant with America and will shower blessings on it only so long as some unknown remnant of Americans honors the covenant by obedience to the Law. Disregard the covenant, and America’s blessings will be given to others as God renders his judgment. As Gary North writes in Liberating Planet Earth, "The United States is only one of several ‘authorized distributors’ of Christianity, and if its people cease to be faithful, this ‘distributorship’ will pass to others entirely."
Reconstructionism’s scope of time and change is vast. A society so reconstructed is not merely amended but rather razed and rebuilt. For example, Reconstructionist books and newsletters reveal that in a Reconstructed America minimum-wage laws and Social Security for younger workers would be eliminated; most old-age security would be covered by personal retirement plans or by care from adult children; and the federal government would play absolutely no part in regulating businesses, public education or welfare. In this brave new world of radical libertarian economics, all inheritance and gift taxes would be abolished, while income taxes would be no more than 10 percent of gross income (and then only until government was shrunk further). Gleaning for the poor on private farms after harvesting would be encouraged. All banks would be required to hold 100 percent reserves, and America would return to a gold and silver standard. Because of biblical injunctions against usury, no loans—including home mortgages—would be given for longer than seven years.
Various social customs would change under the appropriated Law of the ancient Israelites. Strict patriarchy would return to the family, and the practice of indentured servitude would turn prisons into temporary holding places, end unemployment and keep problem teenagers busy. Following Old Testament law, the criminal-justice system would get tougher on homosexuals, blasphemers, career criminals, Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, incorrigibly misbehaving older children and nonbelievers.
Since Reconstructionists maintain that God’s blessings flow to a nation that honors its covenant, they foresee practical benefits to a Reconstructed America. People would enjoy longevity (a foretaste of eternal life), sustained population growth over many generations (Reconstructionists believe that world overpopulation is a myth), and material prosperity under their dominion. To be fair, Reconstructionist authors do not posit a guaranteed cause-and-effect relationship between obedience and prosperity, but it is easy to see in their writings an easy slide into the health-and-wealth gospel.
As radical as the Reconstruction vision is, most liberal and mainstream Christians are unaware of Christian Reconstructionism unless they keep their fingers close to the pulse of evangelicalism. And even among evangelicals many would not recognize the movement’s name, though most likely they have heard terms like "dominion" thrown around. But many others will be familiar with the hundred-plus Reconstructionist books written by Gary North, Gary DeMar, David Chilton, Greg Bahnsen and others available in Christian bookstores across America.
The Reconstructionist movement began in the 1960s under the influence of Cornelius Van Til, the Dutch-American Calvinist philosopher now retired from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. North refers to Van Til as the "patron philosopher" of Christian Reconstructionism. (Van Til himself has always denied that he is a Reconstructionist.)
However, the movement gained no intellectual foothold until the 1973 publication of Rousas John Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, a 900-page two-volume tome expounding the implications of the Bible for every sphere of life. Rushdoony (of Armenian heritage) studied at the University of California at Berkeley during the 1940s where he was influenced by the great medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz. He received his doctorate in educational philosophy and subsequently developed rather grandiose expectations about his contributions to Christian theology. An avowed Calvinist (though he reportedly considers Calvin a minor intellect), Rushdoony transparently patterned the title of his seminal work after Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Rushdoony, now in his 70s, has written more than 30 books on such topics as education, law and population while serving as director of the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California. He has influenced a generation of Reconstructionist authors now entering middle age, such as North, his son-in-law and president of the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas, and DeMar, president of American Vision in Atlanta. There are currently five think-tank ministries for Christian Reconstructionism in Texas, Georgia and California. Along with Dominion Press in Fort Worth, Texas, they churn out newsletters, special reports and monographs that spell out the details of the biblical outline of society.
Needless to say, Christian Reconstructionism upsets many premillennialist and dispensationalist Christians with its eschatology. The movement assumes an optimistic reading of history more characteristic of 19th-century Christianity. One common idea among its promoters, for example, is that of social sanctification or "the leavening influences on the entire culture" spilling over from personal regeneration along Reconstructionist lines. Reconstructionists leave little doubt that they are consciously imitating the Puritans of the early 17th century in establishing "a city on a hill" and calling on the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 5:14; 28:18) for justification.
Many premillennialists condemn this notion. In March the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, responding in large part to the spread of Reconstructionism, denounced postmillennialism as heresy. Evangelical speaker Dave Hunt, coauthor of the evangelical potboiler The Seduction of Christianity, has even tried to link the movement to New Age phenomena. For their part, Reconstructionists accuse the premillennialists of "leaving the battlefield" and abandoning society to the humanists.
Mainline Christians who follow the movement are no less disturbed. Not only would Reconstructionists roll back painfully won civil and political reforms, but religious liberty itself would be at risk. Rushdoony, for example, sees no place in a Reconstructed society for the panoply of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’is, humanists, atheists and non- Reconstructionist Christians that make up American religious pluralism. Were it to be otherwise, he maintains, "in the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal and the adherents of other religions." The Reconstructionist call is not for a republic neutral toward religion. The First Amendment’s establishment clause would be an early casualty.
Rushdoony has made the rather absurd claim that there are currently 20 million Reconstructionists in America. More cautious, North estimates that between 25,000 and 40,000 names are on subscription lists for various movement materials. But the spread of Christian Reconstructionism is not limited to mailing lists, the shelves of religious bookstores or small discussion sessions in evangelical churches. There is reason to suspect that Christian Reconstructionists influenced Pat Robertson to consider throwing off the fatalism of his former premillennialism and run for president. At Robertson’s CBN University, Joseph Kickasola, a faculty member in the School of Public Policy, and Herbert Titus, dean of its School of Law, are both Reconstructionist writers. Robertson’s best-selling 1982 book The Secret Kingdom, written after the first Washington for Jesus rally and while he was beginning seriously to consider running for public office, could qualify as a primer on dominion theology.
However, a major tactical problem of Christian Reconstructionism is the quality of its intellectual fruits. Rushdoony’s prose is ponderous; probably even most Reconstructionists have never read Institutes of Biblical Law. North’s Biblical Blueprint series is easy to read, but North, DeMar and other writers are often redundant, and they dance around the specifics of actualizing Reconstruction by appealing to simplistic Manichaean thinking. Assertions such as "The humanists have brainwashed Christians when it comes to the Biblical meaning of theocracy" or "Men will be ruled by God, or else they will be ruled by men who imitate God" (from the foreward to DeMar’s Ruler of the Nations) remind one of the caricatures of the good-guy Christians versus bad-guy secular humanists found in pop-evangelical books such as Tim LaHaye’s Battle for the Mind.
Christian Reconstructionism offers a formula for reinstituting moral authority and control in a society supposedly faced with chaos and lawlessness. Therein doubtlessly lies part of its appeal. And the history of American religion demonstrates that a segment of Christianity has always wished to equate America with the epicenter of the millennium. But increasing numbers of evangelical as well as liberal Christians realize that the price required to build Reconstructionism’s "city on a hill" is too high: it would mean the scrapping of their own hard-won religious and civil freedoms.
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