Part V: America’s Religious Right – Saints or Subversives?
This is part 5 of a 5-part series.
Part I: The Lure of Christian Nationalism
Part II: Hang Ten and Fight!
Part III: A Deadly Culture of Life
Part IV: Pie in the Sky
Part V: “The Ayatollah of Holy Rollers”
America’s Religious Right – Saints or Subversives?
By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Part V: “The Ayatollah of Holy Rollers”
Tuesday 31 May 2005
Death by stoning for atheists, adulterers, and practicing male homosexuals.
Stoning – or possibly burning at the stake – for atheists, heretics, religious apostates, followers of other religions who proselytize, unmarried females who are unchaste, incorrigible juvenile delinquents, and children who curse or strike their parents.
And, oh yes, death to witches, Satanists, and those who commit blasphemy.
Does this sound like a radical Islamist nightmare, a replay of Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Welcome to the United States of America as Christian Reconstructionists hope to run it. Not as a democracy, which they see as secular heresy. But as a reconstructed Christian nation, complete with biblically sanctioned flogging and slavery.
The Bible rules, OK? And, in its name, a small elect of true believers are now seeking capital-D Dominion over every aspects of our government, laws, education, and personal lives.
An Unlikely Prophet
Reconstructionists have become the extremists to watch, and the key to understanding the current political zing of everyone on the religious right from Sunday-go-to-church Southern Baptists to neo-Nazis in Christian identity militias.
Rev. Rousas J. Rushdoony, founder of the Christian Reconstuctions, who would replace the US Constitution with “Biblical Law.”
The movement and its “Dominion Theology” are relatively new, dating from the publication in 1973 of The Institutes of Biblical Law by the late Rousas John Rushdoony. A man of widely acclaimed brilliance and near-encyclopedic knowledge, Rushdoony claimed to descend from a long line of aristocratic Armenian clerics reaching back to the year 315. He himself was an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, not be confused with the generally liberal Presbyterian Church (USA).
Rev. Rushdoony was no liberal. Though gentle in his personal demeanor, he and his Chalcedon Foundation preached nothing less than a holy war “to demolish every kind of theory, humanistic, evolutionary, idolatrous, or otherwise, and every kind of rampart or opposition to the dominion of God in Christ.”
As early as 1963, Rushdoony wrote a “Christian revisionist” historical account called The Nature of the American System, in which he rejected the separation of church and state. The authors of the Constitution, he wrote, intended “to perpetuate a Christian order.”
He similarly opposed the secular bent of American public schools, becoming an early proponent of Christian home-schooling, which he defended as a First Amendment right of their parents.
Dr. Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law and a major figure among Christian Reconstructionists.
(Photo: NNDB.com) “We must use the doctrine of religious liberty … until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government,” explained his son-in-law Gary North. “Then they will get busy constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
Rushdoony opposed labor unions, women’s equality, and civil rights laws. He favored racial segregation and slavery, which he felt had benefited black people because it introduced them to Christianity. He largely denied the Holocaust. And he made it kosher for Christian leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell openly to despise democracy.
“Supernatural Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies,” wrote Rushdoony, “Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life.”
In the highly divided world of Christian denominations, Rushdoony was – in journalist Marghe Covino’s exquisite phrase – the most unlikely “Ayatollah of Holy Rollers.” Few members of the Assembly of God or other evangelical, Pentecostal, or charismatic churches even know his name, and they are only now becoming comfortable with some of his ideas.
Evangelicals, who provide most of the foot soldiers for the religious right, have long stressed a personal relationship with God and the importance of having a born-again religious experience. Rushdoony, as an Orthodox Presbyterian, focused less on how they felt their inner faith than on how they lived their lives and obeyed “God’s law.”
Evangelicals immerse themselves in the New Testament and some of their mega-churches at times seem almost New Age. Rushdoony was an Old Testament patriarch, following in the more austere tradition of Puritan rule in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Calvin’s theocratic governance of early 16th Century Geneva, and the Mosaic law of the ancient Israelites.
Evangelicals – or at least most of them at present – believe that Christ will return to establish a Millennium of biblical rule, and many take as gospel the End Time stories of the Rapture that the Rev. Tim LaHaye has popularized in his “Left Behind” novels. Rushdoony saw LaHaye’s dispensational prophecies as “cheap grace” and “escapist theology,” preaching instead that Christ would return only after virtuous Christians created “a world order under God’s law.”
Nor are Evangelical leaders rushing to proclaim their adherence to the terrifying Christian theocracy that Rushdoony’s Reconstructionists now seek. Few Americans want to live like Puritans or die at the stake for committing a sin. “Dominion Theology” is not an easy revolution to sell, at least not yet.
In the November 1998 issue of Reason, Walter Olson told of two of televangelist Jerry Falwell’s associates who wrote an article in which they criticized the Reconstructionists for advocating ideas that even they, as biblical fundamentalists, found “scary.” As an example, the authors mentioned “mandating the death penalty for homosexuals and drunkards.”
Rushdoony dashed off a letter to the editor complaining. Reconstructionists, he wrote, had no intention of putting drunkards to death.
With denials like this, the Reconstuctions “allow everyone else to feel moderate,” Olson concluded. “Almost any anti-abortion stance seems nuanced when compared with Gary North’s advocacy of public execution not just for women who undergo abortions but for those who advised them to do so. And with the Rushdoony faction proposing the actual judicial murder of gays, fewer blink at the position of a Gary Bauer or a Janet Folger, who support laws exposing them to mere imprisonment.”
But the gap between the Biblical “moderates” and Reconstructions is getting shorter every day. As an Evangelical Southern Baptist, Falwell still distances himself from Rushdoony over questions of theology. But, he increasingly talks of Christians exercising dominion over America’s secular institutions.
So does the charismatic Pat Robertson. “”There is no way that government can operate successfully unless led by godly men and women operating under the laws of the God of Jacob,” he wrote in The New World Order.
So do evangelical preachers like James Dobson, Don Wildmon, D. James Kennedy, and Tim LaHaye. Whatever they might believe about the End Times, and no matter how often they deny that they’ve become Reconstructionists, today’s evangelical leaders no longer leave the future to the power of prayer while waiting passively for Christ to return.
“Christian Reconstructionism is a stealth theology, spreading its influence throughout the Religious Right,” explains journalist Frederick Clarkson, who closely follows the field. As he sees it, the Reconstructionists gave evangelicals a new set of ideological tools. These included Rushdoony’s apocalyptic vision of rule by biblical law, his analysis of America as a Christian nation, the prospect of complete control, intellectual self-confidence, and a positive program for political involvement.
All of these the evangelicals had historically lacked, while the Reconstructionists wanted the one thing the evangelicals had – a huge army of followers they could mobilize with their churches, Bible colleges, publishing houses, and broadcasting stations.
“As recently as the early 1990s, most evangelicals viewed Reconstructionists as a band of theological misfits without a following,” says Clarkson. “All that has changed, along with the numbers and character of the Christian Right. The world of evangelicalism and, arguably, American politics generally will not be the same.”
If Clarkson is right, and the evidence suggests that he is, Rushdoony has inspired a major revolution in American religious thought, one that now threatens to provoke a political revolution as well. But before taking to the barricades with Bible in hand, his troops would do well to realize that Rushdoony has smuggled into their kit some very un-Christlike politics.
No surprise to those who track the religious right, Rushdoony enjoyed a long friendship with Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society and the man who accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a knowing Communist agent. Rushdoony took great interest in how the Birchers worked and even mentioned them admiringly in his epic Institutes of Biblical Law. “The key to the John Birch Society’s effectiveness has been a plan of operation which has a strong resemblance to the early church,” he wrote. Rushdoony denied ever becoming a Bircher himself, but not because of any political disagreement. As he told Marghe Covino of the Sacramento News & Review, “Welch always saw things in terms of conspiracy and I always see things in terms of sin.” A witty bon mot, Rushdoony’s response overstated the divergence. He, too, found conspiracies everywhere. But where his friend Welch saw Reds, Rushdoony saw Satan and his modern-day hellhounds, the followers not only of Karl Marx, but also of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, and – of course – the Unitarians.
“All sides of the humanistic spectrum are now, in principle, demonic; communists and conservatives, anarchists and socialists, fascists and republicans,” he explained.
Pushing his rightwing politics, Rushdoony was one of the first members of the secretive Council for National Policy, which the Rev. Tim LaHaye and others started to bring right-wing Christians, other conservative activists, and John Birchers together with wealthy patrons willing to fund them. He also served on the board of Dr. Jay Grimstead’s Coalition on Revival (COR), an umbrella group that attempted to bridge the theological differences of competing sects within an increasing emphasis on dominating secular institutions.
Characteristically, Rushdoony soon found fault with both the Council and Coalition, as he did with most religious and political organizations. But both succeeded in selling his far right politics and theocratic religious ideas to millions of unsuspecting evangelicals, who had once led America’s fight to keep church and state forever separate.
They should have known better, and so should we all. “The purpose of regeneration is that man reconstruct all things in conformity to God’s order, not in terms of man’s desire for peace,” Rushdoony warned in his Institutes of Biblical Law. “This purpose and mission involves law and coercion.”
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.