In the early 1960s, a small cadre of American Christians began calling for a second Reconstruction, one even more radical than the post-Civil War renovation of Southern society. Their white-bearded patriarch, Rousas John Rushdoony, found very few listeners then. But today, Rushdoony and his compatriots are regular guests on religious television shows, hobnob with a potential candidate for the presidency, testify in dozens of church-state education trials, and gain burgeoning numbers of adherents in the charismatic wing of evangelicalism.
Newsweek has labeled Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation as the think tank of the Religious Right. Last fall, for the first time, major Christian presses released Reconstructionist literature. Crossway copublished with Dominion Press George Grant’s The Dispossessed and Gary North’s Conspiracy. Thomas Nelson copublished (also with Dominion) four titles in the Biblical Blueprint Series, edited by North, and endorsed by Jerry Falwell as “a tool Christians need” for the difficulties “that confront society.”
The late Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto relied on Rushdoony’s social analysis. The younger Schaeffer, Franky V, freely cited Rushdoony in one of his early books, and listed the Chalcedon Report as one of four periodicals all concerned Christians should read. And the prominent conservative attorney and author, John Whitehead, has called Rushdoony one of two major influences on his thought.
More startling than any degree of influence, however, is what Reconstructionists actually propose for society: the abolition of democracy and reinstitution of slavery, for starters. Comments Douglas Chismar, a professor at Ashland Theological Seminary (Ohio), ignoring the Reconstructionists is no longer an option. “They haven’t been taken seriously enough.”
What Reconstruction Is
There are clearly sensational elements to Reconstruction. But it is a serious attempt to provide intellectuals and activists a “biblical” alternative for cultural reform. Although the major Reconstructionist thinkers differ on the details, attention must be paid to the three foundational points underlying all Reconstructionist thought: presuppositional apologetics, theonomy (literally, “God’s law”), and postmillennialism.
• Presuppositional apologetics. Reconstructionists look to retired Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til for their philosophy of truth and reality. Van Til, who is said to be opposed to the Reconstruction agenda, is nonetheless intensely admired by his disciples. They consider his theological contribution one of “Copernican dimensions,” call his thought “life-transforming and world-transforming,” and compare his intellect to Einstein’s.
In Van Til’s view, a person’s faith in ultimate truth is not something subject to historical or scientific investigation (see CT, Dec. 30, 1977, pp. 18–22). We can only approach reality with a presupposed understanding of the wide sweep of truth. What makes all the difference is the presupposition adopted. Christians, of course, turn to the Bible.
Rushdoony displayed his reliance on presuppositional apologetics at a conference last March, saying that without the Bible and God’s law there is no mathematics, science, or law and order. He said it is blasphemous to try to prove there is a God or that the Bible is true. Although isolated facts may be observed by any person, Christian or not, such facts are finally confusing outside a biblical framework. “Without the Bible,” Rushdoony insisted, “every fact from atoms to man is unrelated to all others.” Apart from the Bible, there is “no knowledge at all—only chance and universal death.”
• Theonomy. Theologians as diverse as Helmut Thielicke and Paul Tillich have said Christians should be theonomic—that is, live by God’s law. Yet these theologians did not define God’s universal law as strictly and exactly as that revealed to ancient Israel. Reconstructionists do, taking cues from certain strands of New England Puritanism.
In the magisterial, 619-page explication of Reconstructionist theonomy (Theonomy in Christian Ethics), Greg Bahnsen argues that Old Testament Law applies today in “exhaustive” and “minutial” detail. “Every single stroke of the law must be seen by the Christian as applicable to this very age between the advents of Christ.”
Reformed Christians understand law as a compatible servant of the gospel and look for the enduringly valid, underlying moral purposes of Old Testament Law. But Reconstructionists take this several steps further. While they believe Christ’s coming altered ceremonial law, ending the need for animal sacrifice, they do not see ancient Israel as a unique theocratic state. It is a “blueprint” for the theocracy all nations should be. And that leads to the most controversial feature of Reconstruction.
Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and their peers anticipate a day when Christians will govern, using the Old Testament as their lawbook. True to the letter of Old Testament Law, homosexuals, incorrigible children, adulterers, blasphemers, astrologers, and others will be executed.
• Postmillennialism. Only a little less controversial is the Reconstructionist eschatology, or view of the end times. Reconstructionists believe the church will triumph and claim the “crown rights” of Jesus Christ before the Second Coming. This optimistic eschatology, common to evangelicalism up through much of the nineteenth century, was widely discredited by the horrors of two world wars. Yet the Reconstructionists remain undaunted. In a telephone interview, Rushdoony said, “I hold to postmillennialism not because I look at the world, but because I look at the Bible. And the Bible tells me all things shall be put under Christ’s feet before the end.”
Reconstructionists are the eschatological equivalents of geologists: human lifetimes are nearly insignificant periods of time in their schema. The long-term perspective is what matters—200, 500, 2,000 years. There are periods of decline and growth, but in the final analysis, the church is winning over the world, just as a glacier ultimately crawls forward. In fact, Bahnsen believes the church is still in its infancy.
Postmillennialism is important on the practical level because it emboldens its proponents. If D. L.
Moody thought the world was a sinking ship from which souls should be rescued, the Reconstructionists want to commandeer the ship, repair it, and sail it toward their own destination.
What Reconstruction Would Do
That destination is very clear for the Reconstructionists, at least in outline. They have attempted to design their political, economic, and legal agendas by relying solely on the details of Old Testament Law (with New Testament modifications; they are, for instance, not polygamists).
Politically, in Rushdoony’s terms, the Reconstructionists are “Christian libertarians.” As Rushdoony writes in The Institutes of Biblical Law, “The state is limited to a ministry of justice, and free enterprise and individual initiative are given the freedom to develop.”
In the Reconstructed society, there will be no federal government. Nor will there be a democracy, which Reconstructionists regard as a “heresy.” Rushdoony is opposed to pluralism since, “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” (Institutes). In a Reconstructed society, government will be republican, with the Bible as the charter and constitutional document.
Government will occur at the state and local level, and society will center on families. The family will be ordered in a patriarchal fashion. Rushdoony’s Institutes approvingly cite a theologian’s judgment that woman cannot claim “priority or even equality” with man. (Accordingly, Rushdoony is suspicious of any blurring of sexual distinctions, insisting “there is no evidence to support the usual portrayal of Christ and the apostles as long-haired men.”)
Parents will be responsible for the education of their children. Public, or “government,” education robs the family of the right to shape its children by biblical beliefs. It thereby “emasculates” men, detracting from their leadership of the family and rendering “women either fluffy luxuries for men or aggressive competitors to men” (Institutes).
Economically, the Reconstructed society will return to a gold or silver standard. Reconstructionist David Chilton voices the theonomic view on this matter, citing Leviticus 19:35–37 and saying that “ ‘hard money’ is a strict limitation on government’s ability to grow beyond biblical boundaries.” Money not based on a set standard is “counterfeit,” and the inflation resulting from manufacture of currency is “theft.”
Nations that do not follow these and other biblical “blueprints” deservedly suffer economically. Writes Gary North, “The so-called underdeveloped societies are underdeveloped because they are socialist, demonist, and cursed.… The Bible tells us that the citizens of the Third World ought to feel guilty, to fall on their knees and repent from their Godless, rebellious, socialist ways. They should feel guilty because they are guilty, both individually and corporately.”
Reconstructionists also grapple with the Old Testament laws condemning usury. Rushdoony believes interest should be permissible on commercial lending, but with only short-term loans allowed. The Chalcedon Foundation’s Journal of Christian Reconstruction argued in one edition that the 30-year mortgage on a home is an unbiblical practice, citing Deuteronomy 15 and suggesting debts be limited to 6 years.
The Reconstructed society will reinstitute a “biblical” form of slavery (not chattel slavery) to allow impoverished persons to labor away their indebtedness, or criminals to make restitution for damages. Arguing that “even Southern slavery was not as unbiblical as many have charged,” Chilton says the slave should be cared for, educated in civic responsibility, and (if Christian) freed after set periods of time. Inclusive of such boons as “job security,” slavery is to be regarded as among “the most beneficent” of biblical laws.
The Reconstructed society will have no property tax, since such taxes supposedly imply that the state, not God, owns the Earth. Tithing will substitute for income tax, and “tithe agencies” will take over the services currently provided by the welfare state. Such Old Testament practices as gleaning will also assist the poor. In an interview with CT, Rushdoony was happy to note that “gleaning is now reviving in some parts of California.” He reported, “A large tonnage of apples is gleaned in northern California by elderly people, the fruit sold and proceeds used for those who are not able to work in the fields.”
Legally, the Reconstructed society will form and administer law directly from the Old Testament.
As Bahnsen writes in Theonomy, “The follower of Christ should teach that the civil magistrate is yet under moral obligation to enforce the law of God in its social aspect.” The inscripturated law must be held in the highest regard because it is “the transcript of God’s eternal holiness and the permanent standard for human righteousness.”
Bahnsen lists 15 crimes that deserve capital punishment in the Reconstructed society. These include not only murder and rape, but sodomy, Sabbath breaking, apostasy, witchcraft, blasphemy, and incorrigibility in children. Following the list he writes, “Christians do well at this point to adjust their attitudes so as to coincide with those of their Heavenly Father.”
In a telephone interview, Bahnsen protested that the Reconstructionist view on capital crimes is often misconstrued. Incorrigible children, for instance, are not impetuous five-year-olds who refuse to go to bed on time. “The Law deals with someone who is drunken and a glutton, the 18-year-old who repeatedly gets drunk and beats up his mother and father,” Bahnsen said. And those to be executed for homosexual practice must be engaged in “outward acts” with at least two witnesses. (The two witnesses might be two lines of confirmatory evidence and not literal observers.)
The Reconstructed society will have no prisons—the modern prison system, in Rushdoony’s estimation, is “an important aspect of the defilement of our times” (Institutes). Under biblical law, “men either died as criminals or made restitution.” Career criminals will be executed and occasional lawbreakers will pay for the damages of their actions, possibly as slaves.
How do Reconstructionists believe such bold political, economic, and legal changes will occur? They disavow violent revolution. Rushdoony said Christians will take over gradually, sphere by sphere: education, the arts, communication, law, and so on. “Too many churchmen have no sense of time, no sense of history,” he said. “They expect everything to be accomplished overnight.”
Bahnsen expects gradual change indeed, suggesting his children and probably his grandchildren will not see the Reconstructed society. He too is impatient with critics or sympathizers who believe Reconstruction will be sudden, downplaying the harsher effects of implementing Levitical law by saying nearly everyone will be a Reconstructionist Christian by the time it is put into effect. He denies the possibility that “blood will run in the streets of San Francisco tomorrow.”
Joseph Kickasola, now teaching at CBN University, wrote in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, “We do not believe in revolution or in massive and rapid social change.… What is important is bottom-up-ism, grassroots—transforming, moral and spiritual change. This will require the salvation of souls and world mission, as well as legislative reform, for we cannot allow our social base and religious liberty to deteriorate in the meantime.”
Armed with a comprehensive strategy for the betterment of the Republic, Reconstructionists are having an effect in several areas. Their distaste for “statist” schools is shared by fundamentalist private-and home-schoolers. Rushdoony—frequently in court as an expert witness on behalf of church-affiliated schools—has become especially well known in their circles. Anti-income tax organizations such as the New York Patriots also appreciate Reconstruction’s “Christian libertarianism,” and reprint articles by Rushdoony and associate Otto Scott in their newsletters.
Ecclesiastically, the Reconstructionists have some appeal with independent Baptist churches, and more within small denominations with fundamentalist and Reformed roots. Although Morton Smith, stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church in America, recently said Reconstruction “is not really a major item bothering the church,” the denomination saw enough fuss over Reconstruction that it issued a statement on the subject in 1978. While not endorsing it, the general assembly then decided the Reconstructionist position was not heretical.
The most significant ecclesiastical effect may be among charismatics. Rushdoony believes as many as 20 million charismatics worldwide are part of the Reconstruction movement. This is so, he thinks, because one cannot be a consistent charismatic, insisting on the continuing exercise of miraculous gifts, and remain dispensational.
In the introduction to Backward, Christian Soldiers, Gary North reported that the controversial charismatic campus ministry Maranatha is “forthrightly proclaiming the ‘crown rights of King Jesus’ ” and boldly challenging humanism. In addition, Rushdoony praises the ministry of author and evangelist Bob Mumford, and served as a contributing editor to the now defunct charismatic magazine New Wine. Last October’s theme edition of New Wine, “The Church at War,” evidenced militant Reconstruction motifs.
Yet Reconstruction’s effect is not most distinct in education, tax resistance, or churches. The perceived deterioration of America’s social base and religious liberty is a fear common to Reconstructionists and the wider New Religious Right. And that shared fear is probably the point of Reconstruction’s most powerful influence.
At precisely the time fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals re-entered the political arena, the Reconstructionists pumped out a body of seemingly sophisticated political philosophy. This philosophy is appealing religiously (Rushdoony and his peers are strict inerrantists) and politically (theologian Clark Pinnock criticizes Reconstructionists as “the liberation theologians of the Right”). As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics in Public Policy Center comments, the Reconstructionist system “provides an immediate alternative” for religious and political conservatives “who aren’t going to take it anymore.”
Some Reconstructionists, in fact, will take credit for the rise of the Religious Right. Gary North, writing in the debut issue of Christianity and Civilization, claimed that when Rushdoony’s “fusion of theology and conservative social and political concerns finally became available, the fundamentalists could then develop the intellectual leadership needed to actualize their movement.”
Yet it would be a distortion to categorize the Religious Right as a passel of converted Reconstructionists. In fact, few of those who have relied on Reconstructionist literature buy the entire philosophy. Many are premillennialists and balk at Reconstruction eschatology; and obviously many avoid the radical Reconstructionist version of theonomy.
In Bahnsen’s words, “The people who contact me are looking for somebody who wants to support the Christian school movement over against government intervention, or they’re looking for an argument why homosexual rights should not be written into the law.” Such people are attracted to the Reconstructionst articulation on a particular issue. Like Herbert Schlossberg, author of the critically acclaimed Idols for Destruction, they appreciate certain aspects of the Reconstructionist system and close their eyes to the rest. (Says Schlossberg, “The real contribution of the theonomists is in economics. I don’t read that much theology.”)
The most interesting Reconstructionist political ties are to television evangelists Pat Robertson and D. James Kennedy.
Rushdoony and North have appeared a number of times on Robertson’s “700 Club,” but the relation to Reconstruction extends beyond the television show. As mentioned earlier, professing Reconstructionist Joseph Kickasola teaches in CBN University’s School of Public Policy. More remarkably, the dean of the Schools of Law and Public Policy is Herbert Titus. Fifteen years ago Titus was a “left-wing atheist” law professor at the Unversity of Oregon. Tired and disillusioned, he began attending a small Orthodox Presbyterian church in Eugene, Oregon. One of the elders of the church was Gary North’s father, and Titus was nurtured in his fledgling faith by Reconstructionists.
Titus is now premillennial and looks to the Adamic and Noahic covenants, not the Mosaic, for guidance as to universal law. He disagrees with the execution of homosexuals and implementation of other Levitical laws, but continues to have a “great respect” for the Reconstructionists. (In turn, Reconstructionists cite Robertson’s creation of a television network and CBN University as a model of effective Christian organization.) Titus said the school has used six or seven Rushdoony and North titles for textbooks.
Asked about his own convictions, presidential contender Robertson said he has not embraced Reconstruction. “The Lord intends his people to exercise dominion in his name,” Robertson said. Consequently, “I admire many of these [Reconstruction] teachings because they are in line with Scripture. But others I cannot accept because they do not correspond with the biblical view of the sinful nature of mankind or the necessity of the second coming of Christ.” Robertson said he is premillennial and does not “expect some kind of reconstructed utopia here on earth.”
Rushdoony and North have also been repeat guests on the “D. James Kennedy” television program, which often calls America to return to its Christian base. In an interview with CT, Kennedy said he obviously does not agree with every single contention of every guest. Kennedy denied that he is “a theonomist as such.” It would be “impractical” for every nation to go theonomic. But would that be desirable? “Well, I think it would be presumptuous for me or anyone else to disagree with God, don’t you?” Kennedy replied.
Some practicing politicians have been very close to the Reconstructionists. One was Georgia Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald, a member of the Moral Majority and former president of the John Birch Society. McDonald, who was killed on the ill-fated Korean Air Lines Flight 007, teamed with Rushdoony and Bahnsen to present seminars on Christian political involvement.
McDonald developed ties with the Chalcedon Presbyterian Church (a suburban Atlanta body) and with its Reconstructionist pastor, Joseph Morecraft. In turn, Morecraft was an unsuccessful Republican nominee for a congressional seat last fall, pulling 33 percent of the vote in his district.
Some evangelical theologians praise Reconstructionists for their stauch affirmation of biblical authority. John Frame, professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary’s California campus, has commented approvingly on the “considerable breadth and depth” of Rushdoony’s knowledge of Scripture. Evangelicals may also appreciate the Reconstructionist call away from a largely privatistic faith to one that is socially creative and responsible.
At the same time, there is clearly much cause for concern and disagreement. One is Reconstruction’s sometimes breathtaking and scathing arrogance.
North evidences a glee for polemical bloodshed, writing that Bahnsen’s clash with a critic resulted in an outcome no more favorable for the critic than if Bambi had met with Godzilla. Under these conditions, North claims, the numbers of opponents to Reconstruction are “thinning even more rapidly than their hair.” Rushdoony is free of italicized and capitalized venom, but he still finds the audacity to accuse no less than John Calvin of “silly, trifling reasoning” and “heretical nonsense.”
This invulnerable confidence is bolstered by the Reconstructionists’ theonomic conviction that the Old Testament laws, more or less as they stand, can be transferred to the present-day situation. The Reconstructionists are frequently criticized for not adequately appreciating the historical and cultural distance between nomadic, agricultural Israel and modern technological America. Most biblical interpreters would compare this hermeneutical gap to the Grand Canyon; the Reconstructionists treat it like a crack in the sidewalk.
The Reconstructionists are also a distinct minority in their conviction that Israel was not the only nation God intended to be a theocracy. In a paper criticizing Bahnsen’s Theonomy, Columbia (S.C.) Graduate School theologian Paul Fowler states the commonly accepted interpretation that “God set Israel apart to be a model of righteousness in an unrighteous world, and numerous judicial laws were given to keep her pure as a nation.” Israel was divinely elected and given a special vocation; her theocratic relationship to God was unique, for one time and one nation.
Reconstruction’s presuppositional apologetic causes Rushdoony and company to lean all the harder on specific biblical laws. As Westminster’s Frame has written, “One suspects at times that although to Rushdoony Scripture is not a ‘textbook of physics or biology’ it is indeed a textbook of statecraft in the sense that it includes all the statutes that will ever be needed for any sort of culture.”
Reconstructionists are not predisposed to trust the common grace or general revelation said, from Augustine onward, to be available to all humanity. As Messiah College political scientist Dean Curry points out, if one believes there is no reliable general revelation, one cannot believe there may be a reasonably just non-Christian government. The logical next step is to work for a theocracy.
In fact, however, the biblical “blueprints” are not as transparently obvious as the Reconstructionists would have them. There is considerable disagreement about the application of many laws within Reconstructionist circles. North suggests the instructions of the Sermon on the Mount were intended for a “captive” people, and that when Christians come to dominate a culture they no longer need turn the other cheek to the aggressor but may “bust him in the chops.” This is not an interpretation convincing to every Reconstructionist. Rushdoony holds to kosher dietary laws, but Bahnsen considers that unconvincing exegesis.
Should illegitimate children and eunuchs be denied the rights of full citizenship? Should grooms resume the payment of dowries to their bride’s father? Should Christians allow the use of lie detectors, or should they oppose them, as Rushdoony does, on the basis of biblical hedges against self-incrimination?
The point is that there are hundreds of such details to be sorted out and applied to the contemporary situation. Reconstruction does not actually provide the clear, simple, uncontestably “biblical” solutions to ethical questions that it pretends to, and that are so attractive to many conservative Christians. Reconstructed society would appear to require a second encyclopedic Talmud, and to foster hordes of “scribes” with competing judgments, in a society of people who are locked on the law’s fine points rather than living by its spirit.
Bahnsen argues this will not be the case because the citizens of a Reconstructed society will be the descendants of generations of persons nurtured in the study of, and submission to, biblical law. That, of course, is potentially convincing only on the condition that one adopts Bahnsen’s optimistic postmillennial eschatology.
This side of that eschaton, the proposal of a theocracy that would, among other things, impose the death penalty on practicing homosexuals, rashly ups the ante in the already tense church-state poker game. In a recent telephone interview, Everett Sileven, a Reconstructionist pastor in Louisville, Nebraska, said he expects Reconstruction to occur in his lifetime.
Sileven expects the economy to crumble before 1992, soon to be followed by democracy, the judicial system, and the Internal Revenue Service. He wants to be considerate of such offenders as homosexuals: “We can give them six months to stop, offer them help from clinics and churches.” And if they don’t stop—the death penalty.
Both Bahnsen and Rushdoony lament such talk. Bahnsen, in addition, insists that there will be no violent indiscretions because the wider society will never allow it. It is ironic, then, that he relies on un-Reconstructed, godless society to curb the potential abuses of the incipient Reconstructed society.
He also points out that every idea is liable to abuse. But such potentially dangerous ideas require equal caution in their deployment. As the Chalcedon Foundation is fond of repeating, “Ideas have consequences,” and it is not exactly plausible that caution and chastened self-confidence are strong suits in Reconstruction circles.
In the end, for all their bravery and ingenuity in putting forth such alien and socially unacceptable ideas, we are left to wonder if the Reconstructionists’ proposal does what they so badly want it to do. Does it really restore and convey the world-transforming fullness of biblical Christianity?
Reconstructionists never make the mistake of saying the law can justify, but they do make it practically the sole means of sanctification. As Westminster’s Frame notes, Rushdoony in his Institutes nowhere suggests that “the love-ethic of Scripture requires godly emotions, a renewed conscience, a renewed sensitivity to the concerns of others.”
Is God really nothing more than the abstract, impersonal dispenser of equally abstract and impersonal laws? And is the objective of the Christian church, and its hope for the world, to concentrate on the Law itself—or to come to know the Lawgiver?
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.