Rushdoony, Reconstructionism, and all that
Amy Gardner in the Washington Post is covering the Nevada Senate campaign, and offers this little nugget in the Reid vs. Angle race:
Most recently, Reid claims to have uncovered information that links Angle to an obscure political movement called Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that government should rule according to biblical law. [link]
I am surprised how common this tactic is: candidate X has religious right ties, so candidate Y accuses him or her of wanting to institute a theocracy, including slavery, levirate marriage, and death by stoning for adultery and disobedience. I think Gardner estimates the influence of Reconstructionists correctly. Joseph L. Conn at Americans United takes the usual tack on this issue by focusing on the author behind Reconstructionism, Rousas John Rushdoony:
However, Rushdoony’s overarching philosophy – that secular democracy is evil and that God’s law should prevail in today’s America – became the theological and intellectual framework for early Religious Right activists.
When fundamentalists flocked into politics in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they had few theorists to turn to. They had always believed politics was worldly, and true Christians should focus on converting souls, not running the government. Rushdoony insisted that God wanted them to take over society and crush the infidels (literally). [link]
This is a pretty good description of the tension between fundamentalists and evangelicals, politically, but I’ve never seen any evidence that Rushdoony was more than a fringe figure. The idea that he was important, had lots of influence, etc. is a recurring refrain among people who talk about Reconstructionism, but as best I can tell their story consists of one of two things:
- a bunch of anecdotes knitted together
- a claim that Rushdoony influenced Francis Schaeffer, who in turn influenced Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority/Christian Coalition cadre
Both of these surface in Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah; see e.g. the interview with Blumenthal at Harpers, where Blumenthal states but doesn’t substantiate
Rushdoony is also important because of his influence on Francis Schaeffer.
This is something I see repeatedly (see e.g. here), but I don’t ever recall reading a quotation of Rushdoony by Schaeffer. When I was at Liberty we still held Schaeffer in high regard, and the rainbow-striped five-volume Complete Works was kind of a secret handshake when visiting someone’s house for years after I left, but I’d never heard of Rushdoony until Time Magazine name-checked him in an article about Howard Ahmanson, Jr (another supposedly influential Evangelical I’d never heard of).
And no, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a copy of Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law in the wild. Maybe I just don’t travel in the right circles.