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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Review of Christian Reconstruction - by Michael J. Vicar

Christian Reconstruction
R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism
Michael J. McVicar
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4696-2274-3; pbk; 308pp; £30.95 

Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was the founder of Christian Reconstruction, Theonomy or Dominionism as it has been variously designated. He has been described as ‘political heretic’ (Rodney Clapp),  'a man every bit as potentially murderous as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or anyone else you may want to name amongst the annals of evil' (BCSE ) and as ‘founder of the Christian homeschooling movement and an intellectual catalyst of the Christian Right’ (Christianity Today 2 April 2001: 25). 

The school of thought that he founded has been described as ‘a dangerous secret society intent on turning the United States into a theocracy’ and as the ‘think tank of the religious right’! As McVicar asserts Rushdoony is an ‘enigma — at once intellectually deep and emotionally distant, a complex mix of hubris and humility’. In this well researched and written book McVicar helps us to understand Rushdoony the man and Christian Reconstructionism the ‘movement’ a little better.

McVicar looks at the influences on Rushdoony by taking a biographical and chronological approach.  It was as a missionary on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada that he began to see what he saw as the overreach of the government. This shaped his view of the need for limited or minimal government. In March 1946 he came across Cornelius Van Til’s The New Modernism. This seemingly caused a paradigm shift in his thinking and he adopted Van Til’s presuppositionalist approach. Van Til gave him the tools to critique the role of the state and to develop his Christian approach to the state. 

In 1952 he took up the pastorate of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Cruz. This was not an easy time for him or his family. His wife had a breakdown and sued for divorce. Rushdoony had custody of the their three youngest children. McVicar’s chapter 2 entitled ‘The anti-everything agenda’ tells of Rushdoony’s association with several right wing Christian organisations, these included Spiritual Mobilisation, William Volker Charities Fund and the Centre for American Studies (CAS). It during this time that Rushdoony came across Albert J. Nock’s idea of the remnant. Rushdoony ‘developed an explicitly religious notion of the Remnant’ (p 61). Rushdoony’s approach was separation rather than connection this didn’t help to win many friends. He was eventually fired from the CAS.

Chapter 3, ‘A Christian renaissance’ describes the beginnings of Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism. It started  when Gary North introduced Rushdoony to the women associated with the Betsy Ross Book Shop. The Chalcedon Foundation was started in 1965. The plan was to develop a Christian College but that never materialised, however the task of Christian reconstruction and Christian dominion had begun.

The main factors that contributed to the Chalcedon project were presuppositionalism, post-millennialism, and  the need to return to biblical law which entailed a reduction in the reach of the state and the central role of the family. Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty was utilised, but it was a truncated version of it. The only spheres Rushdoony recognised were the church, the state and the family. Missing from the influences McVicar cites is Robert L. Dabney. Dabney’s view of the American civil war was taken up and developed by Rushdoony and incorporated into his 'Christian' America view of history. 

Rushdoony’s tussle with Christianity Today is well told in chapter 4. Here again Rushdoony’s separatist approach made him few friends. In 1969 Rushdoony began his lectures on what came to be his seminal work The Institutes of Biblical Law. Gary North later said of the book  ‘I recognized early that this book would launch a movement’ (Christian Reconstruction 12(2), March/April 1988). In it Rushdoony posited that the biblical law was still binding and provided the ‘structuring blueprint for all aspects of life’ ( p 129). As McVicar notes:
‘Through the law, the reconstructed Christian male - or “dominion man,’ as Rushdoony called him — could “take dominion” over the plate and “reconstruct” all of life in Christ’s image.’
The exclusive language is deliberate - Rushdoony and the Reconstructionist approach is very patriarchal. Women were to be a ‘helpmeet’ to the men. For Rushdoony the family was ‘the most important institution in society’. It was during this time that Gary North and Greg L. Bahsen became more involved with Rushdoony.

North married one of Rushdoony’s daughters and has described himself as one of the co-founders of Christian Reconstruction (Christian Reconstruction March/April 1988). Both North and Bahnsen were popularisers of Rushdoony’s views. Bahnsen lectured at RTS Jackson and his students included Kenneth Gentry, James B. Jordan, David Chilton and Gary DeMar, a group McVicar called the ‘hard core of the second and third generation of Reconstructionists’ (p160). Bashen’s theonomic views weren’t appreciated by at at RTS and he was fired from his post. The catalyst for the firing was the publication of his Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

North, Bahnsen and several of Bahnsen’s students went to Tyler, Texas. There they became involved with Westminster Presbyterian Church pastored by Ray Sutton. They developed their own form of Reconstructionism which McVicar aptly describes as ‘a complex mix of Rushdoony-style Reconstructionism, paramilitary survivalism, and an aggressive theological polemics’ (p 182).

They fell out with Rushdoony over the nature of the church. For Rushdoony the key institution is the family, for the Tyler Group it was the church. And they developed very strict measures of church discipline. Sutton is now a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church, unfortunately the story of this radical change is untold.

McVicar’s book received a warm review on the Chalcedon website  — this is testimony to McVicar’s even handedness; McVicar even had articles on Rushdoony published in Chalcedon’s Faith and Life magazine:
2008. Working with pygmies: R. J. Rushdoony, Christianity Today, and the making of an American theologian’. Faith for All of Life (Jul/Aug): 14-18,32. [
2008. ’“First Owyhee, then the world”: The early ministry of R. J. Rushdoony’. Faith for All of Life (Nov/Dec) 18-22, 33. []
Comparisons have to be made with Julie Ingersol’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Unlike McVicar, Ingersoll was once an insider; she was married to a key Reconstructionist. McVicar had direct access to Rushdoony’s library (of over 40,000 volumes!) and papers. Ingersoll concentrates more on the legacy of Rushdoony as seen in Christian education, creationism, biblical economics, the religious right and the revision of Christian American history. She is also more empirically based than McVicar. For McVicar Rushdoony is main focus, for Ingersoll he is the background. 

For a good introduction to Rushdoony the man the best staring point is McVicar, for the on-going legacy then Ingersoll. The books complement each other.

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