September 14, 2015
Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015. xiii + 309 pp.
As with many others, I suspect my first exposure to Christian Reconstruction was through an interest in presuppositional apologetics. It was in the pages of a Festschrift for the Dutch-American theologian Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) that I first read of Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001). This led me to Rushdoony's book-length study of Van Til and a head-long fall into the world of theonomy. To this day I maintain a hefty collection of back-issues of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction and the magazine Faith For All of Life and have a goodly number of their books on my shelf. My theonomist of choice was Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995), whose skills at debate were impressive. But I also appreciated Rushdoony and his son-in-law Gary North, largely for their critical--and entertaining--engagement with a wide range of interesting subjects. My self-identification as a theonomist waned after sitting under the teaching of Douglas Vickers, a former economist who had been a friend of Van Til and John Murray (1898-1975), and who writes Reformed theology and apologetics. In his Sunday School class, Vickers' godliness and theological acumen were clear, and I was bewildered when North uncharitably attacked him as a "Keynesian" in the preface of the book, Baptized Inflation (1986). It was then that I realized that the tone of many theonomists was not only off-putting, but sub-Christian. That experience removed my rose-coloured glasses and allowed me to look at the movement with more objectivity, which led to a greater appreciation of their Reformed critics. My interest in Christian Reconstruction has remained over the years, so I was quite expectant when I heard of Michael J. McVicar's work on the subject, first as a doctoral dissertation at Ohio State University, and now as the published monograph under review.
Writings on Christian Reconstruction over the past fifty years have swung between one of two extremes, both within and without Reformed circles. On the one end are those who are violently uncritical, who parrot the movement's talking points as gospel. Strangely, a number of his followers, many of whom could never have met him, refer to him as "Rush," as though he were a lifelong buddy. On the other are those whose criticisms are just as thoughtless who lead readers to fret that theonomists are about to overrun the church or even the world (for a brief survey of such writings by McVicar, see pages 215-216). This is why McVicar's Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism is such an important book. It is a fair summary and analysis of the movement, taking in its remarkable aspects and its faults, without resorting to the triumphalism of the fanboy or the fear-mongering exemplified in the journalistic approaches of Michelle Goldberg or Chris Hedges. McVicar's work lived up to and exceeded my expectations.
McVicar's focus is the life and thought of Reconstruction's founder, R. J. Rushdoony, a man of remarkable industry and insight, and his relationship to American conservatism. A prolific author, Rushdoony wrote on a staggering array of subjects, from Reformed theology to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), from economics to education reform. Yet in spite of the number of words that poured from Rushdoony's pen, it really was not until Christian Reconstruction that a clear and compelling picture of his life was offered for public consumption. Rushdoony was born to Armenian parents who had escaped genocide in the early twentieth century, coming first to New York, where Rushdoony was born in 1916, and then making the trek to California, where the fields were fruitful. Rushdoony's father was a minister whose church catered to the Armenian diaspora in Southern California. A bright student, Rushdoony studied English at the University of California, Berkeley (1938), and pursued divinity studies at the Pacific School of Religion in 1944 towards becoming a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Surprisingly he was originally of the political left, with an early membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. It was through his experience in the 1940s as a missionary to the Paiute and Shoshone at the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada that he began to see problems with socialism, as government handouts seemed to bring with it apathy, degradation and unrest. His missionary experiences, coupled with his discovery of Reformed theology, particularly of the Kuyperian variety, and the apologetic method of Van Til, helped Rushdoony develop a theological and ethical system that he dubbed Christian Reconstruction.
For Rushdoony, Reconstruction was a paradigm that sought to bring every aspect of life under Christ's Lordship, built on a theonomic ethic which subsumed reality under the law-word of Christ in scripture. At its founding, Reconstruction proved attractive to many caught in the burgeoning of American conservatism. Among this group of anti-statists conspiracy theories abounded, large sums of money were exchanged to fund think tanks, opposing factions developed, and at the center was Rushdoony, whose otherworldly look, whether in native headdress, or Saruman-esque white beard, adds to the film-noir veneer of the time. Aesthetically, Rushdoony's world of Southern California religion and politics had the ambiance of a Roman Polanski film. It was a world of ex-hippies turned lawyers, and secretive billionaires, together striving to bring about grandiose political change. And there was Rushdoony, moving easily between bas bleu lectures hosted by conservative housewives in Southern California, and lawyers in courtrooms fiercely defending homeschoolers. At his height he took his outlook to the upper echelons of American politics, including visits to the White House. When reading Christian Reconstruction one can almost hear the music of Jerry Goldsmith playing in the background.
Beyond mere aesthetics, what makes McVicar's story so compelling is the range of source material he had at his disposal. This was largely provided by the access he was given to the archival material hidden away at the Chalcedon Foundation, the Vallecito, California, think tank founded by Rushdoony in 1965 and currently managed by his son Mark. McVicar took "thousands of digital images" of Rushdoony's papers and manuscripts (p.xi). This trove of primary source material, along with his close and careful interpretation, and accessible prose, results in an admirable presentation. McVicar also gives readers an exceptional look into the intersection of post-war evangelical religion and conservative politics. Rushdoony had important relations with institutions such as Christianity Today, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the controversial Volker Fund and John Birch Society. Rushdoony was involved at some level in almost every major movement of evangelicalism and conservatism, and so McVicar's research has made an important contribution to studies of both.
Though the book is primarily a social history, McVicar has a clear grasp of the basic elements of Rushdoony's thought. Theonomy has been a controversial view within American evangelicalism so its basic elements have been muddied and misunderstood. Though brief, McVicar highlights Rushdoony's "anti-humanist" political thought, the role of the Mosaic Law in society and how it would apply in case-laws such as those requiring the death penalty, the kingdom of God and postmillennial eschatology. McVicar uses well the key sources of Rushdoony's thought, primarily his magnum opus, the Institutes of Biblical Law (1973). In spite of this, one wishes that McVicar had set Rushdoony more clearly in the flow of Reformed political thought, especially as Reconstructionists saw themselves as drawing faithfully from traditional Puritan theology. An important question that is not answered is, Does Christian Reconstruction succeed as an inheritor of this earlier political theology? The subject is hinted at in Rushdoony's involvement with the John W. Whitehead's Rutherford Institute, but is not developed in any detail. There is a great need for a study of late twentieth-century political theology, and this could have been a way to give such a discussion some impetus.
Most helpfully, McVicar highlights a key element of Rushdoony's thought that set him apart from the later theonomic accretions of Bahnsen and North. As part of what he called Dominion Theology, Rushdoony cultivated within church and society the "dominion man," who ruled over the family, the primary governmental institution. Picking up on Abraham Kuyper's (1837-1920) "sphere sovereignty," Rushdoony located the family alongside the church and civil government, giving it pride of place in this three-fold governmental structure. For him, the Garden of Eden pictures the family as the first government, with man as its head. Rushdoony's emphasis on family was distinctly male-focused, with women serving as the helper to the dominion man who was busy enacting the cultural mandate outlined in Genesis 1:26-28. Though women played an important role in Rushdoony's early political career--especially the housewives to whom he lectured--they were regarded, according to McVicar, as "a derivative instrument of dominion" (p.133). He quotes Rushdoony as saying "a man's life is his work, not his wife" (p.134). One sees examples of this hinted at in Rushdoony's own broken family. It is probably in his treatment of Rushdoony and patriarchy that McVicar shows himself most balanced, and Rushdoony most human. Rushdoony had been divorced, but commendably no salacious details of this episode are provided. Like the lack of discussion of Rushdoony and the Reformed tradition, however, there is little engagement with Rushdoony's views on the family in relation to theological questions pertaining to the nature of the church. Theologically, one of Rushdoony's biggest failings was his neglect of a biblical ecclesiology. He saw the function of the church merely as a "preservative cultural force" (p.134). His lack of an adequate ecclesiology is especially surprising when one remembers that he was a Presbyterian minister. It would have been helpful if McVicar had pit Rushdoony against Reformed ecclesiological developments.
The temptation, when critiquing Rushdoony, is to see him as a fringe leader who attracted the most radical and bizarre of followers. While Rushdoony did amass a grassroots following, he also engaged with some of the biggest names in evangelicalism and politics. Due to his relationship with the Pew Charitable Trust, a major financial backer of evangelical enterprises, Rushdoony was asked to contribute to Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine. However, due to his unwillingness to cooperate with those he deemed compromisers, he became critical of its editors Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) and J. Marcellus Kik (1903-1965), the latter whom Rushdoony nearly replaced. Whatever the particulars of his views and the way he expressed them, it is a testimony to Rushdoony's dedication to his principles that he turned down significant amounts of money from J. Howard Pew (1882-1971) because, speaking of Henry, he would not "work with pygmies" (p.121).
It is also surprising to find that from early on Rushdoony had academic potential. Though he wrote on a breathtaking range of issues, his analysis was often shallow, and at times plainly wrong (note, for example, his views on the holocaust). In spite of this, while a student at Berkeley, he studied under the renowned German-Jewish intellectual Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz (1895-1963). With his professor, Rushdoony wrote a book on Cromwellian-era politics that they submitted to the University of Chicago Press. Sadly, it was accepted but not published due to paper restrictions imposed by the Second World War (p.29). One wishes that Rushdoony had continued his studies as it would have made him a better writer with more directed research capabilities. Also during his time at Berkeley he befriended George Hunston Williams (1914-2000), another of Kantorowicz's students, who went on to become a leading historian of Protestantism at Harvard.
One of the sections that I found most interesting was the relationship Rushdoony had to the second wave of theonomic leaders like Bahnsen and North. The backstory to Bahnsen's time as a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS, was fraught with controversy, largely over Bahnsen's book Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1984). However, as McVicar makes clear, Bahnsen's treatment of fellow faculty and students was just as important in the breakdown of his relations with the school and his eventual removal from it. This, with the split between Rushdoony and his son-in-law North, and the forming of a Reconstructionist group in Tyler, TX, was fascinating. A bombastic personality, North did see the ecclesiological problems in Rushdoony's thought and offered a corrective that turned into a high ecclesiology developed by David Chilton (1951-1997) and James B. Jordan (183-187). This Texas-based group also devolved, some forging alliances with the charismatic movement, and others going off into Episcopalianism. Though North got into trouble due to financial mismanagement, he remains a voice on the periphery, writing curricula for Ron Paul, the former Texas Congressman and presidential hopeful.
In the final chapter McVicar traces the influence of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction today. Though it was never a centralized movement, it has continued to exert influence through its literary legacy. One of the most significant was Vision Forum, led by the recently discredited Douglas Phillips. Due to Rushdoony's indefatigable legal defense of their movement, his books continue to be read by homeschoolers. In relation to education, it is curious that McVicar did not link Rushdoony's work on Christian education to the classical Christian school movement developed by Douglas Wilson in Moscow, ID, probably the greatest post-Reconstruction success. Another theonomic organization, American Vision in Atlanta, GA, also gets scant mention.
McVicar's book is exemplary for its depth of analysis, setting its subject in his cultural context, with deft handling of the religious and political ethos of post-war America. It should be of great interest to those who, like I once did, got into Reconstruction through various avenues. Christian Reconstruction reveals the genius of Rushdoony, yet should warn the would-be theonomist of adhering to the movement wholeheartedly. It also serves as a rebuke to those whose hand-wringing over the theonomic overthrow of the church or society--the true nature of Rushdoony's influence is both more and less than the fear-mongers realize, and as a failed movement, there is ultimately not much to fear. Students of American evangelicalism are also given an important look into the era with a book that has uniquely filled a gaping void. It will remain the standard socio-historical interpretation of Rushdoony for many years to come.
Ian Hugh Clary (PhD, University of the Free State) is a Research and Teaching Assistant and Fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He is a co-editor of a forthcoming book on revival in the Reformed tradition and serves at West Toronto Baptist Church, Toronto, Ontario