Does any of the more mature folks here remember the sci-fi book about
America becoming a country ruled by the religious zealots and
everybody else is tightly controlled and restricted. I remember the
part where people have to undergo the iris scan at the airport and
have the rulers permission to go anywhere. Read it a very long time
ago and can't recall neither the author nor the title.
Anyway, here is what might be in our future (scary stuff):
Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence
by Frederick Clarkson
The Public Eye Magazine, Vol. VIII, No. 1 & 2,
Overview and Roots
The Christian Right has shown impressive resilience and has rebounded
dramatically after a series of embarrassing televangelist scandals of
the late 1980s, the collapse of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and
the failed presidential bid of Pat Robertson. In the 1990s, Christian
Right organizing went to the grassroots and exerted wide influence in
American politics across the country.
There is no doubt that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition gets much
of the credit for this successful strategic shift to the local level.
But another largely overlooked reason for the persistent success of
the Christian Right is a theological shift since the 1960s. The
catalyst for the shift is Christian Reconstructionism--arguably the
driving ideology of the Christian Right in the 1990s.
The significance of the Reconstructionist movement is not its numbers,
but the power of its ideas and their surprisingly rapid acceptance.
Many on the Christian Right are unaware that they hold
Reconstructionist ideas. Because as a theology it is controversial,
even among evangelicals, many who are consciously influenced by it
avoid the label. This furtiveness is not, however, as significant as
the potency of the ideology itself. Generally, Reconstructionism seeks
to replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by
imposing their interpretation of "Biblical Law." Reconstructionism
would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations,
such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools. Women
would be generally relegated to hearth and home. Insufficiently
Christian men would be denied citizenship, perhaps executed. So severe
is this theocracy that it would extend capital punishment beyond such
crimes as kidnapping, rape, and murder to include, among other things,
blasphemy, heresy, adultery, and homosexuality.
Reconstructionism has expanded from the works of a small group of
scholars to inform a wide swath of conservative Christian thought and
action. While many Reconstructionist political positions are commonly
held conservative views, what is significant is that
Reconstructionists have created a comprehensive program, with Biblical
justifications for far right political policies. Many post-World War
II conservative, anticommunist activists were also, if secondarily,
conservative Christians. However, the Reconstructionist movement calls
on conservatives to be Christians first, and to build a church-based
political movement from there.
For much of Reconstructionism's short history it has been an ideology
in search of a constituency. But its influence has grown far beyond
the founders' expectations. As Reconstructionist author Gary North
observes, "We once were shepherds without sheep. No longer."
What is Reconstructionism?
Reconstructionism is a theology that arose out of conservative
Presbyterianism (Reformed and Orthodox), which proposes that
contemporary application of the laws of Old Testament Israel, or
"Biblical Law," is the basis for reconstructing society toward the
Kingdom of God on earth.
Reconstructionism argues that the Bible is to be the governing text
for all areas of life--such as government, education, law, and the
arts, not merely "social" or "moral" issues like pornography,
homosexuality, and abortion. Reconstructionists have formulated a
"Biblical world view" and "Biblical principles" by which to examine
contemporary matters. Reconstructionist theologian David Chilton
succinctly describes this view: "The Christian goal for the world is
the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which
every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus
Christ and the rule of God's law."
More broadly, Reconstructionists believe that there are three main
areas of governance: family government, church government, and civil
government. Under God's covenant, the nuclear family is the basic
unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are
"in submission" to him. In turn, the husband "submits" to Jesus and to
God's laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own
ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to
implement God's laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law,
the implementation of which is called "theonomy."
The Origin of Reconstructionism
The original and defining text of Reconstructionism is Institutes of
Biblical Law, published in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony--an 800-page
explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Biblical "case law" that
derives from them, and their application today. "The only true order,"
writes Rushdoony, "is founded on Biblical Law.
All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order
represents an anti-Christian religion." In brief, he continues, "Every
law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all
law is a form of warfare."
Gary North, Rushdoony's son-in-law, wrote an appendix to Institutes on
the subject of "Christian economics." It is a polemic which serves as
a model for the application of "Biblical Principles."
Rushdoony and a younger theologian, Rev. Greg Bahnsen, were both
students of Cornelius Van Til, a Princeton University theologian.
Although Van Til himself never became a Reconstructionist,
Reconstructionists claim him as the father of their movement.
According to Gary North, Van Til argued that "There is no
philosophical strategy that has ever worked, except this one; to
challenge the lost in terms of the revelation of God in His Bible. .
.by what standard can man know anything truly? By the Bible, and only
by the Bible." This idea that the correct and only way to view reality
is through the lens of a Biblical world view is known as
presuppositionalism. According to Gary North, Van Til stopped short of
proposing what a Biblical society might look like or how to get there.
That is where Reconstructionism begins. While Van Til states that man
is not autonomous and that all rationality is inseparable from faith
in God and the Bible, the Reconstructionists go further and set a
course of world conquest or "dominion," claiming a Biblically
prophesied "inevitable victory."
Reconstructionists also believe that "the Christians" are the "new
chosen people of God," commanded to do what "Adam in Eden and Israel
in Canaan failed to do. . .create the society that God requires."
Further, Jews, once the "chosen people," failed to live up to God's
covenant and therefore are no longer God's chosen. Christians, of the
correct sort, now are.
Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law consciously echoes a major work
of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin's Institutes of the
Christian Religion. In fact, Reconstructionists see themselves as the
theological and political heirs of Calvin. The theocracy Calvin
created in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1500s is one of the political
models Reconstructionists look to, along with Old Testament Israel and
the Calvinist Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Epitomizing the Reconstructionist idea of Biblical "warfare" is the
centrality of capital punishment under Biblical Law. Doctrinal leaders
(notably Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen) call for the death penalty for
a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes
as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for
apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft,
astrology, adultery, "sodomy or homosexuality," incest, striking a
parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women,
"unchastity before marriage."
According to Gary North, women who have abortions should be publicly
executed, "along with those who advised them to abort their children."
Rushdoony concludes: "God's government prevails, and His alternatives
are clear-cut: either men and nations obey His laws, or God invokes
the death penalty against them." Reconstructionists insist that "the
death penalty is the maximum, not necessarily the mandatory penalty."
However, such judgments may depend less on Biblical Principles than on
which faction gains power in the theocratic republic. The potential
for bloodthirsty episodes on the order of the Salem witchcraft trials
or the Spanish Inquisition is inadvertently revealed by
Reconstructionist theologian Rev. Ray Sutton, who claims that the
Reconstructed Biblical theocracies would be "happy" places, to which
people would flock because "capital punishment is one of the best
evangelistic tools of a society."
The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the
stake for example), stoning, hanging, and "the sword." Gary North, the
self-described economist of Reconstructionism, prefers stoning
because, among other things, stones are cheap, plentiful, and
convenient. Punishments for non-capital crimes generally involve
whipping, restitution in the form of indentured servitude, or slavery.
Prisons would likely be only temporary holding tanks, prior to
imposition of the actual sentence.
People who sympathize with Reconstructionism often flee the label
because of the severe and unpopular nature of such views. Even those
who feel it appropriate that they would be the governors of God's
theocracy often waffle on the particulars, like capital punishment for
sinners and nonbelievers. Unflinching advocates, however, insist upon
consistency. Rev. Greg Bahnsen, in his book By This Standard, writes:
"We. . .endorse the justice of God's penal code, if the Bible is to be
the foundation of our Christian political ethic."
Reconstructionism has adopted "covenantalism," the theological
doctrine that Biblical "covenants" exist between God and man, God and
nations, God and families, and that they make up the binding,
incorporating doctrine that makes sense of everything. Specifically,
there is a series of covenant "structures" that make up a Biblical
blueprint for society's institutions. Reconstructionists believe that
God "judges" a whole society according to how it keeps these
covenantal laws, and provides signs of that judgment. This belief can
be seen, for example, in the claim that AIDS is a "sign of God's
Reconstructionist Rev. Ray Sutton writes that "there is no such thing
as a natural disaster. Nature is not neutral. Nothing takes place in
nature by chance. . .Although we may not know the exact sin being
judged," Sutton declares, "what occurs results from God."
Christian Historical Revisionism
Part of the Reconstructionist world view is a revisionist view of
history called "Christian history," which holds that history is
predestined from "creation" until the inevitable arrival of the
Kingdom of God. Christian history is written by means of retroactively
discerning "God's providence."
Most Reconstructionists, for example, argue that the United States is
a "Christian Nation" and that they are the champions and heirs of the
"original intentions of the Founding Fathers." This dual justification
for their views, one religious, the other somehow constitutional, is
the result of a form of historical revisionism that Rushdoony frankly
calls "Christian revisionism."
Christian revisionism is important in understanding the Christian
Right's approach to politics and public policy. If one's political
righteousness and sense of historical continuity are articles of
faith, what appear as facts to everyone else fall before the
compelling evidence of faith. Whatever does not fit neatly into a
"Biblical world view" becomes problematic, perhaps a delusion sent by
The invocations of the Bible and the Founding Fathers are powerful
ingredients for good religious-nationalist demagoguery. However, among
the stark flaws of Reconstructionist history is the way Christian
revisionism distorts historical fact.
For example, by interpreting the framing of the Constitution as if it
were a document inspired by and adhering to a Reconstructionist
version of Biblical Christianity, Reconstructionists make a claim that
denies the existence of Article VI of the Constitution. Most
historians agree that Article VI, which states that public officials
shall be "bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution;
but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any
office or public trust under the United States," was a move toward
disestablishment of churches as official power brokers and the
establishment of the principles of religious pluralism and separation
of church and state.
R. J. Rushdoony, in his influential 1963 book, The Nature of the
American System, claims that "The Constitution was designed to
perpetuate a Christian order," then asks rhetorically: "Why then is
there, in the main, an absence of any reference to Christianity in the
Constitution?" He argues that the purpose was to protect religion from
the federal government and to preserve "states' rights."
Once again, however, such a view requires ignoring Article VI. Before
1787, most of the colonies and early states had required pledges of
allegiance to Christianity and that one be a Christian of the correct
sect to hold office. Part of the struggle toward democracy at the time
was the disestablishment of the state churches--the power structures
of the local colonial theocracies. Thus the "religious test" was a
significant philosophical matter. There was little debate over Article
VI, which passed unanimously at the Constitutional Convention.
Most of the states soon followed the federal lead in conforming to it.
Reconstructionist author Gary DeMar, in his 1993 book America's
Christian History: The Untold Story, also trips over Article VI. He
quotes from colonial and state constitutions to prove they were
"Christian" states. And, of course, they generally were, until the
framers of the Constitution set disestablishment irrevocably in
motion. Yet DeMar tries to explain this away, claiming that Article VI
merely banned "government mandated religious tests"--as if there were
any other kind at issue. He later asserts that Article VI was a
"mistake" on the part of the framers, implying that they did not
By contrast, mainstream historian Garry Wills sees no mistake. In his
book Under God: Religion and American Politics, he concludes that the
framers stitched together ideas from "constitutional monarchies,
ancient republics, and modern leagues. . . .but we [the US] invented
nothing, except disestablishment. . . . No other government in the
history of the world had launched itself without the help of
officially recognized gods and their state connected ministers."
Disestablishment was the clear and unambiguous choice of the framers
of the Constitution, most of whom were also serious Christians.
Even Gary North (who holds a Ph.D. in History) sees the connection
between Article VI and disestablishment and attacks Rushdoony's
version of the "Christian" Constitution. North writes that "In his
desire to make the case for Christian America, he [Rushdoony] closed
his eyes to the judicial break from Christian America: the
ratification of the Constitution." North says Rushdoony "pretends"
that Article VI "does not say what it says, and it does not mean what
it has always meant: a legal barrier to Christian theocracy," leading
"directly to the rise of religious pluralism."
North's views are the exception on the Christian Right. The falsely
nostalgic view of a Christian Constitution, somehow subverted by
modernism and the Supreme Court, generally holds sway. Christian
historical revisionism is the premise of much Christian Right
political and historical literature and is being widely taught and
accepted in Christian schools and home schools. It informs the
political understanding of the broader Christian Right. The
popularization of this perspective is a dangerously polarizing factor
in contemporary politics.
A Movement of Ideas
As a movement primarily of ideas, Reconstructionism has no single
denominational or institutional home. Nor is it totally defined by a
single charismatic leader, nor even a single text. Rather, it is
defined by a small group of scholars who are identified with Reformed
or Orthodox Presbyterianism. The movement networks primarily through
magazines, conferences, publishing houses, think tanks, and
bookstores. As a matter of strategy, it is a self-consciously
decentralized and publicity-shy movement.
Reconstructionist leaders seem to have two consistent characteristics:
a background in conservative Presbyterianism, and connections to the
John Birch Society (JBS).
In 1973, R. J. Rushdoony compared the structure of the JBS to the
"early church." He wrote in Institutes: "The key to the John Birch
Society's effectiveness has been a plan of operation which has a
strong resemblance to the early church; have meetings, local `lay'
leaders, area supervisors or `bishops.'"
The JBS connection does not stop there. Most leading
Reconstructionists have either been JBS members or have close ties to
the organization. Reconstructionist literature can be found in
JBS-affiliated American Opinion bookstores.
Indeed, the conspiracist views of Reconstructionist writers (focusing
on the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, among
others) are consistent with those of the John Birch Society. A classic
statement of the JBS world view, Call It Conspiracy by Larry Abraham,
features a prologue and an epilogue by Reconstructionist Gary North.
In fact, former JBS chairman Larry McDonald may himself have been a
Morecraft has written that "Larry [McDonald] understood that when the
authors of the US Constitution spoke of law, they meant the law of God
as revealed in the Bible. I have heard him say many times that we must
refute humanistic, relativistic law with Biblical Law."
As opposed to JBS beliefs, however, Reconstructionists emphasize the
primacy of Christianity over politics. Gary North, for example,
insists that it is the institution of the Church itself to which
loyalty and energy are owed, before any other arena of life.
Christians are called to Christianity first and foremost, and
Christianization should extend to all areas of life. This emphasis on
Christianity has political implications because, in the 1990s, it is
likely that the JBS world view is persuasive to more people when
packaged as a Biblical world view.
A Generation of Reconstructionists
Reconstructionism's decentralist ideas have led to the creation of a
network of churches, across a number of denominations, all building
for the Kingdom. One Reconstructionist pastor writes that the
leadership of the movement is passing to hundreds of small local
churches that are "starting to grow, both numerically and
theologically. Their people are being trained in the Reconstruction
army. And at least in Presbyterian circles. . .we're Baptizing and
catechizing a whole generation of Gary Norths, R. J. Rushdoonys and
North writes that this percolation of ideas, actions, and institutions
is largely untraceable. "No historian," he says, "will ever be able to
go back and identify in terms of the primary source documents, [what
happened] because we can't possibly do it."
Part of the reason for this is that Reconstructionism cloaks its
identity, as well as its activities, understanding the degree of
opposition it provokes. For example, Gary North was caught donating
Reconstructionist books (mostly his own) to university libraries under
the pretense of being an anonymous alumnus. What might seem a small
matter of shameless self-promotion--getting one's books into libraries
to influence American intellectual life by hook or by crook--is
actually part of the larger strategy of covert influence and
Similarly, while claiming to be reformers, not revolutionaries,
Reconstructionists recognize that the harsh theocracy they advocate is
revolutionary indeed. Gary North warns against a "premature
revolutionary situation," saying that the public must begin to accept
"the judicially binding case laws of the Old Testament before we
attempt to tear down judicial institutions that still rely on natural
law or public virtue. (I have in mind the US Constitution.)" Thus,
radical ideas must be gently and often indirectly infused into their
target constituencies and society at large. The vague claim that God
and Jesus want Christians to govern society is certainly more
appealing than the bloodthirsty notion of justice as "vengeance"
advocated by some of the Reconstructionists. The claim that they do
not seek to impose a theocracy from the top down--waiting for a time
when a majority will have converted and thus want to live under
Biblical Law--is consistent with Reconstructionists' decentralist and
anti-state populism, which they often pass off as a form of
libertarianism. Even so, there is an inevitable point when the
"majority" would impose its will. North bluntly says that one of his
first actions would be to "remove legal access to the franchise and to
civil offices from those who refuse to become communicant members of
Trinitarian churches." Quick to condemn democracy as the idea that the
law is whatever the majority says it is, North et al. would be quick
to cynically utilize a similar "majority" for a permanent theocratic
The Timing of the Kingdom
One of the variations within Reconstructionism is the matter of the
timing of the Kingdom, as defined by when Christians take power. For
example, Rev. Everette Sileven of Louisville, Nebraska thinks the
Kingdom is overdue. (Rev. Sileven is best known for his battle with
the state in the mid-1980s, when he refused to certify the teachers in
his private Christian school as required by state law.) In 1987,
Sileven predicted the crumbling of the economy, democracy, the
judicial system, and the IRS before 1992. From this crisis, he
believed, the Kingdom would emerge.
Rev. David Chilton has a longer-term vision. He believes the Kingdom
may not begin for 36,000 years. Most Reconstructionists, however,
would argue for the Kingdom breaking out within a few generations,
possibly even the next.
A general outline of what the reconstructed "Kingdom," or
confederation of Biblical theocracies, would look like emerges from
the large body of Reconstructionist literature. This society would
feature a minimal national government, whose main function would be
defense by the armed forces. No social services would be provided
outside the church, which would be responsible for "health, education,
and welfare." A radically unfettered capitalism (except in so far as
it clashed with Biblical Law) would prevail. Society would return to
the gold or silver standard or abolish paper money altogether. The
public schools would be abolished. Government functions, including
taxes, would be primarily at the county level.
Women would be relegated primarily to the home and home schools, and
would be banned from government.
Indeed, Joseph Morecraft states that the existence of women civil
magistrates "is a sign of God's judgment on a culture." Those
qualified to vote or hold office would be limited to males from
Biblically correct churches. Democratic values would be replaced by
intolerance of many things. R. J. Rushdoony, Reconstructionism's
leading proponent, writes that: "In the name of toleration [in
contemporary society] 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." He also advocates various forms
of discrimination in the service of antiunionism: "an employer has a
property right to prefer whom he will in terms of color, creed, race,
or national origin."
The Significance of Reconstructionism
The leaders of Reconstructionism see themselves as playing a critical
role in the history of the church (and of the world). They envision
themselves salvaging Christianity from modern fundamentalism as well
liberalism. Because they are both conservative movement activists and
conservative Christians seeking to pick up where the Puritans left
off, they have constructed a theology that would provide the
ideological direction and underpinning for a new kind of conservatism.
It is, as well, a formidable theology designed to take on all comers.
In order to wage a battle for God's dominion over all aspects of
society, they needed a comprehensive analysis, game plan, and
justification. This is what Reconstructionism provides to a wide range
of evangelical and other would-be conservative Christians. New Right
activist Howard Phillips believes that Reconstructionism, as expressed
by Rushdoony and North, has "provided [evangelical Christian] leaders
with the intellectual self confidence" to become politically active,
whereas many previously were not. Many conservatives apparently felt
that they had no positive program and had been left in the role of
reactionaries, just saying no to modernism and liberalism.
Reconstructionism offers a platform that encompasses the religious and
Many Christian Right thinkers and activists have been profoundly
influenced by Reconstructionism. Among others: the late Francis
Schaeffer, whose book A Christian Manifesto was an influential call to
evangelical political action that sold two million copies, and John
Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute (a Christian Right
legal action group).
Francis Schaeffer is widely credited with providing the impetus for
Protestant evangelical political action against abortion. For example,
Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, says: "You have to
read Schaeffer's Christian Manifesto if you want to understand
Operation Rescue." Schaeffer, a longtime leader in Rev. Carl
McIntire's splinter denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church, was a
reader of Reconstructionist literature but has been reluctant to
acknowledge its influence. Indeed, Schaeffer and his followers
specifically rejected the modern application of Old Testament law.
The Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead was a student of both
Schaeffer and Rushdoony, and credits them as the two major influences
on his thought. The Rutherford Institute is an influential
conservative legal advocacy group which has gained considerable
legitimacy. Given this legitimacy, it is not surprising that Whitehead
goes to great lengths to deny that he is a Reconstructionist. However,
perhaps he doth protest too much. Rushdoony, introducing Whitehead at
a Reconstructionist conference, called him a man "chosen by God."
Consequently, he said, "There is something very important. . .at work
in the ministry of John Whitehead." Rushdoony then spoke of "our
plans, through Rutherford, to fight the battle against statism and the
freedom of Christ's Kingdom." The Rutherford Institute was founded as
a legal project of R. J. Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation, with
Rushdoony and fellow Chalcedon director Howard Ahmanson on its
original board of directors. Whitehead credits Rushdoony with
providing the outline for his first book, which he researched in
Rushdoony's library. Coalition on Revival
Whether it is acknowledged or not, Reconstructionism has profoundly
influenced the Christian Right. Perhaps its most important role within
the Christian Right can be traced to the formation in 1982 of the
Coalition on Revival (COR), an umbrella organization which has
brokered a series of theological compromises among differing,
competing conservative evangelical leaders. These compromises have had
a Reconstructionist orientation, thus increasing the reach and
influence of Reconstructionism.
Founded and headed by Dr. Jay Grimstead, COR has sought in this way to
create a transdenominational theology--a process that has involved
hundreds of evangelical scholars, pastors, and activists, and the
creation of a series of theological statements epitomized by the
"Manifesto of the Christian Church." The COR leadership has
significantly overlapped with the Christian Right, and has included:
Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, televangelists Tim
LaHaye and D. James Kennedy, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue,
Houston GOP activist Steven Hotze, Rev. Glen Cole of Sacramento, CA,
1993 Virginia GOP Lt. Governor candidate Michael Farris, lobbyist
Robert Dugan of the National Association of Evangelicals, former US
Congressmen Bill Dannemeyer (R-CA) and Mark Siljander (R-MI), as well
as such leading Reconstructionists as R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North,
Joseph Morecraft, David Chilton, Gary DeMar of American Vision, and
Rus Walton of the Plymouth Rock Foundation.
A major focus of COR has been to reconcile the two main evangelical
eschatologies (end-times theologies).
Most evangelicals in this century have been pre-millennialists--that
is, Christians who generally believe that it is not possible to reform
this world until Jesus returns (the Second Coming), which will be
followed by a 1,000year rule of Jesus and the Christians. The
other-worldly orientation of pre-millennialism has tended to keep the
majority of evangelicals on the political sidelines.
A minority of evangelicals are post-millennialists, believing that it
is necessary to build the Kingdom of God in the here and now, before
the return of Jesus is possible. Thus, for postmillennialists, Jesus
will return when the world has become perfectly Christian, the return
crowning 1,000 years of Christian rule. This eschatology urges
political involvement and action by evangelicals, who must play a
critical role in establishing Christian rule. COR has sought to
establish a "non-quarreling policy" on matters of eschatology, and has
emphasized building the Kingdom of God in so far as it is possible
until Jesus returns. This neatly urges political involvement and
action, without anyone having to say how much can actually be
accomplished. It reconciles the difference over eschatology that has
divided evangelicals, and opens the door to political involvement and
action without requiring either of the two sides to abandon its
While COR is not an overtly Reconstructionist organization, much of
COR doctrine is clearly Reconstructionist in orientation. Among other
things, COR calls for exercising Christian dominion over 17 "spheres"
of life-- including government, education, and economics. COR chief
Jay Grimstead has been hard-pressed, in the face
of controversy, to explain the role of Reconstructionism in COR, but
in a letter to COR members he gave it his best shot: "COR's goals,
leadership and documents overlap so much with those of Christian
Reconstruction that in the eyes of our enemies we. . .are a monolithic
Reconstructionist movement. The fine technical distinctions we make
between ourselves," he explains, "are meaningless to these enemies of
Christ. To them, anyone who wants to rebuild our society upon Biblical
Principles. . .is a Reconstructionist. So we must simply live with the
Reconstructionist label, and be grateful to be in the company of
brilliant scholars like. . .Gary North, and R. J. Rushdoony."
Grimstead can't help acknowledging the significance of
Reconstructionism to the Christian Right: "These men were rethinking
the church's mission to the world and how to apply a Christian
worldview to every area of life and thought 10 to 20 years before most
of the rest of us had yet awakened from our slumbers. We owe them a
debt of gratitude for pioneering the way into Biblical world changing,
even if we can't accept everything they teach."
Grimstead's fig leafs notwithstanding, a number of COR Steering
Committee members have had to drop out because even mere association
with Reconstructionism was too hotly controversial. One evangelical
critic observes, however, that those who signed the COR documents or
"covenants" had to be "willing to die in the attempt to establish a
theonomic political state. This statement makes the COR Manifesto
Covenant more than just a covenant; it is a blood covenant, sworn on
the life of the signers."
A key, if not exclusively Reconstructionist, doctrine uniting many
evangelicals is the "dominion mandate," also called the "cultural
mandate." This concept derives from the Book of Genesis and God's
direction to "subdue" the earth and exercise "dominion" over it. While
much of Reconstructionism, as one observer put it, "dies the death of
a thousand qualifications," the commitment to dominion is the
theological principle that serves as the uniting force of Christian
Right extremism, while people debate the particulars.
Christian Reconstructionism is a stealth theology, spreading its
influence throughout the Religious Right. Its analysis of America as a
Christian nation and the security of complete control implied in the
concept of dominion is understandably appealing to many conservative
Christians. Its apocalyptic vision of rule by Biblical Law is a
mandate for political involvement. Organizations such as COR and the
Rutherford Institute provide political guidance and act as vehicles
for growing political aspirations.
No Longer Without Sheep
Reconstructionism had been of interest to few outside the evangelical
community until the early 1990s, when its political significance began
to emerge. At the same time that the Coalition on Revival provided a
catalyst (and a cover) for the discussion, dissemination, and
acceptance of Reconstructionist doctrine, these ideas have percolated
up through a wide swath of American Protestantism. Nowhere, however,
is Reconstructionism (sometimes known as dominionism) having a more
dramatic impact than in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Pentecostalists, best known for speaking in tongues and practicing
faith healing and prophesy--known as "gifts of the spirit"--include
televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts. Among well-known
charismatics are Pat Robertson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas. Historically, Pentecostals have been apolitical for the most
part. However, since 1980 much of Pentecostalism has begun to adopt
aspects of Reconstructionist or dominion theology. This is not an
Reconstructionists have sought to graft their theology onto the
experientially oriented, and often theologically amorphous,
Pentecostal and charismatic religious traditions. Following a 1987
Reconstructionist/ Pentecostal theological meeting, Joseph Morecraft
exclaimed: "God is blending Presbyterian theology with charismatic
zeal into a force that cannot be stopped!"
Gary North claims that "the ideas of the Reconstructionists have
penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware
of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to
transform them." North describes the "three major legs of the
Reconstructionist movement" as "the Presbyterian oriented educators,
the Baptist school headmasters and pastors, and the charismatic
What this means is that hundreds of thousands of Pentecostals and
charismatic Christians, as well as many fundamentalist Baptists, have
moved out of the apolitical camp. Many have thrown themselves into
political work--not merely as voters, but as ideologically driven
activists, bringing a reconstructed "Biblical world view" to bear on
their area of activism.
This is probably the lasting contribution of Reconstructionism.
Whether it is Operation Rescue activists called to anti-abortion work
because of Francis Schaeffer's books, or Pentecostals who responded to
the politicizing ministry and electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson
during the 1970s and 1980s, the politicization of Pentecostalism is
one of the major stories of modern American politics.
Indeed, Robertson has been pivotal in this process, mobilizing
Pentecostals and charismatics into politics through his books, TV
programs, Regent University, the 1988 presidential campaign, and his
political organizations--first the Freedom Council in the 1980s and
then the Christian Coalition.
Gary North and others see opportunities for Reconstructionism to build
its influence through an activist response to crises in established
institutions, from the public schools to democracy itself. This
"decentralist" activism is not necessarily independent or
"grassroots." Political brushfires are "a fundamental tool of
resistance" observes North, "but it takes a combination of centralized
strategy, and local mobilization and execution." This is precisely
what we are beginning to see clearly in the contemporary politics of
the Christian Right. From the lawsuits brought by the Rutherford
Institute and the American Center for Law and Justice to stealth
takeovers of school boards, the effort is to subvert the normal
functioning of society in order to make room for the growth of
North sees a special role for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)
TV satellite, as the epitome of the political effectiveness of
televangelists. He appreciates CBN's ability to magnify local battles,
and communicate them to a national audience. "Without a means of
publicizing a crisis," writes North, "few pastors would take a stand."
Thus, North sees CBN as a key component in increasing the impact of
decentralized "brushfire wars" in which the battles over abortion,
pornography, zoning for Christian schools, etc., happen in many places
at once to strain the system.
Reconstructionism & the Christian Right
Reconstructionism has played an important role in shaping the
contemporary Christian Right, as indicated by the number of Christian
Right leaders involved in COR. Reconstructionism's influence is also
pronounced in another major hub of the Christian Right: the
multifaceted organization of Pat Robertson. Although it denies a
Reconstructionist orientation, the Robertson organization is doing
exactly what Gary North describes. Robertson's Christian Coalition,
for instance, follows a clearly decentralist political plan, directed
and encouraged by highly centralized media, educational, and political
The Christian Coalition, forged from Robertson's mailing lists and his
1988 presidential campaign, has become the largest and most
politically significant formation within the Religious Right. Its
comprehensive, locally focused efforts to take over the Republican
Party "from the bottom up" and to run "stealth candidates" for local
offices have been widely reported and discussed.
Robertson himself seems to lack the long-term vision of
Reconstructionist thinkers, but he is clearly driven by a short-term
militant "dominion" mandate--the mandate that Christians
"Christianize" the country's social and political institutions. He
offers a fevered vision of power and "spiritual warfare," perhaps even
physical conflict with the forces of Satan in the near future. "The
world is going to be ours," he once confided, "but not without a
battle, [not] without bloodshed." At a 1994 Christian Coalition
national strategy conference, Robertson railed against "Satanic
forces," declaring: "We are not coming up against just human beings to
beat them in elections. We're going to be coming up against spiritual
warfare. And if we're not aware of what we're fighting, we will lose."
No longer the exclusive revolutionary vision of Christian
Reconstructionist extremists, dominionism has achieved virtual
hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism. Historian Garry
Wills sees dominionist doctrine not only in those "thorough and
consistent dominionists, the followers of Rousas John Rushdoony, who
are called Christian Reconstructionists," but also clearly present in
Pat Robertson's book The Secret Kingdom.
Robertson works not only dominionism, but Old Testament Biblical law
into his books. In The New World Order, Robertson writes that "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." Impatient
with Robertson's public equivocations, Reconstructionist author Gary
DeMar describes Robertson as an "operational Reconstructionist."
Reconstructionist influences are also evident at Robertson's Regent
University. For example, the longtime Dean of the Law School, Herb
Titus, though not himself a Reconstructionist, has used Rushdoony's
book in his introductory Law course. Texts by North and Rushdoony have
been used for years in the School of Public Policy, where
Reconstructionist Joseph Kickasola teaches. The library has extensive
holdings of Reconstructionist literature and tapes.
Regent University board chair Dee Jepson is a longtime COR Steering
Committee member. She was an active advocate for the school's change
of name from Christian Broadcast Network University to Regent
University, arguing that "Regent" better reflected its mission.
Robertson explained that a "regent" is one who governs in the absence
of a sovereign and that Regent U. trains students to rule, until
Jesus, the absent sovereign, returns. Robertson says Regent U. is "a
kingdom institution" for grooming "God's representatives on the face
of the earth."
Dee Jepson, in addition to her membership on the COR Steering
Committee, is married to former Senator Roger Jepson (R-Iowa), who
signed a fundraising letter for Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation in
The Conspiracy Factor
One aspect of Reconstructionism's appeal to the Christian Right is
that it provides a unifying framework for conspiracy theories. Gary
North explains that: "There is one conspiracy, Satan's, and ultimately
it must fail. Satan's supernatural conspiracy is the conspiracy; all
other visible conspiracies are merely outworkings of this supernatural
conspiracy." Pat Robertson makes a similar argument in his book The
New World Order, which all new members of Robertson's Christian
R. J. Rushdoony states that "The view of history as conspiracy. . .is
a basic aspect of the perspective of orthodox Christianity." A
conspiratorial view of history is a consistent ingredient of Christian
Right ideology in the United States, and is often used to explain the
failure of conservative Christian denominations with millennial
ambitions to achieve or sustain political power. The blame for this is
most often assigned to the Masons, particularly an 18th-century
Masonic group called the Illuminati, and, ultimately, to Satan.
Panicked Congregationalist clergy, faced with disestablishment of
state churches (and thus their political power) in the 18th and 19th
centuries, fanned the flames of anti-Masonic hatred with conspiracy
theories. Pat Robertson claims Masonic conspiracies are out to destroy
Christianity and thwart Christian rule. Throughout The New
World Order Robertson refers to freemasonry as a Satanic conspiracy,
along with the New Age movement. The distortion of reality that can
follow from such views is well represented by Robertson's assertion
that former Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush
are unwitting agents of Satan because they supported international
groups of nations such as the United Nations.
Another example of Christian Right conspiracy theory is the writing of
Dr. Stanley Monteith, a California activist who is a member of the
Christian Coalition and the Coalition on Revival. He is a leading
antigay spokesperson for the Christian Right. In his book, AIDS, The
Unnecessary Epidemic: America Under Siege,
Monteith argues that AIDS is the result of a conspiracy of gays,
humanists, and other "sinister forces which work behind the scenes
attempting to destroy our society."
Monteith's book is published by a self-described Reconstructionist,
Dalmar D. Dennis (who is also a member of the National Council of the
John Birch Society). Monteith's actions underscore his words. At a
conference of the anti-abortion group Human Life International, Dr.
Monteith, who insists he is not anti-Semitic, shared a literature
table with a purveyor of crude anti-Semitic books, as well as books
claiming to expose the Masonic conspiracy.
The Wrath of Morecraft
If the Christian Right ever came to power, it's anyone's guess what
would actually occur. But it may be instructive to examine what has
happened as theocratically informed factions advance locally. In Cobb
County, Georgia, for example, where the powerful County Commission is
controlled by the Christian Right, homosexuality has been banned, arts
funding cut off, and abortion services through the county public
employee health plan banned. These actions by the Cobb County
Commission made national news in 1993. Rev. Joseph Morecraft, whose
very energetic and politically active
Reconstructionist Chalcedon Presbyterian Church draws most members
from Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County seat, provided a clear
Reconstructionist view of these events. Asked at the time where he saw
Biblical law advancing, he cited "the county where I live," where
"they passed a law. . .that homosexuals are not welcome in that
county, because homosexuality was against the community standards. The
next week," he continued, "they voted on whether or not they should
use tax money of the county to support art--immoral, pornographic art,
so they make the announcement, not only are we not going to use tax
monies in this county to sponsor pornographic art, we're not going to
use tax money to sponsor any art, because that's not the role of civil
government. And last week," he concluded, "[they voted] that no tax
money in Cobb County will be spent on abortions."
Such views pale before Morecraft's deeper views of life and
government. In his book, and especially when speaking at the 1993
Biblical World View and Christian Education Conference, Morecraft
discussed with relish the police power of the state. His belief in the
persecution of nonbelievers and those who are insufficiently orthodox
is crystal clear. Morecraft described democracy as "mob rule," and
stated that the purpose of "civil government" is to "terrorize evil
doers. . . to be an avenger!" he shouted, "To bring down the wrath of
God to bear on all those who practice evil!"
"And how do you terrorize an evil doer?" he asked. "You enforce
Biblical law!" The purpose of government, he said, is "to protect the
church of Jesus Christ," and, "Nobody has the right to worship on this
planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not
have the responsibility to defend anybody's pseudo-right to worship an
idol!" "There ain't no such thing" as religious pluralism, he
declared. Further, "There has never been such a condition in the
history of mankind. There is no such place now. There never will be."
Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the
Reconstructionist movement has been the forging of an ideological pole
(and an accompanying political strategy) in American politics, a pole
by which the Christian Right will continue to measure itself. Some
embrace it completely; others reject it. As recently as the early
1990s, most evangelicals viewed Reconstructionists as a band of
theological misfits without a following. 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
Among those Reconstructionists who have already moved into positions
of significant power and influence are
two directors of R. J. Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation;
philanthropist Howard Ahmanson and political consultant Wayne C.
Johnson, epitomize the political strategy of the new Christian Right.
Heir to a large fortune, Howard Ahmanson is an important California
power broker who has said, "My purpose is total integration of
Biblical law into our lives." He bankrolls Christian Right groups and
political campaigns, largely through an unincorporated entity called
the Fieldstead Company, which has, for example, been a major
contributor to Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. Fieldstead has
also co-published, with Crossway
Books, a series of Reconstructionist-oriented books called Turning
Point: Christian Worldview Series, which is widely available in
Ahmanson and his wife have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars
supporting California political candidates, as well as supporting the
1993 California school voucher initiative and the 1992 voucher
initiative in Colorado. He has also teamed up with a small group of
conservative businessmen, notably Rob Hurtt of Container Supply
Corporation, to form a series of political action committees. The
direct donations from these PACs and the personal contributions of
Ahmanson and Hurtt, coupled with those of other PACs to which the
group substantially contributed, amounted to nearly $3 million to 19
right-wing candidates for the California State Senate and various
other conservative causes in 1992. A dozen candidates backed by the
Christian Right won. Ahmanson himself is a member of the GOP state
central committee, along with many other Christian Rightists, who have
gained power by systematically taking over California GOP county
A political operative named Wayne Johnson, who had been an architect
of California's 1990 term limits initiative, managed the campaigns of
several Ahmanson-backed candidates in 1992. The practical impact of
term limits is to remove the advantage of incumbency (both Democratic
and Republican) which the extreme Christian Right is prepared to
exploit, having created a disciplined voting bloc and the resources to
At a Reconstructionist conference in 1983, Johnson outlined an early
version of the strategy we see operating in California today.
According to Johnson, the principal factor in determining victory in
California state legislative races is incumbency, by a factor of 35 to
1. The legislature at the time was dominated by Democrats (and
Republicans unacceptable to conservatives). The key for the Christian
Right was to be able to: 1) remove or minimize the advantage of
incumbency, and 2) create a disciplined voting bloc from which to run
candidates in Republican primaries, where voter turn out was low and
scarce resources could be put to maximum effect. Since the early
1990s, Christian Rightists have been able to do both. Thanks to
Ahmanson, Hurtt, and others, they also now have the financing to be
competitive. Since the mid-1970s, the extreme Christian Right, under
the tutelage of then-State Senator H. L Richardson, targeted open
seats and would finance only challengers, not incumbents. By 1983,
they were able to increase the number of what Johnson called
"reasonably decent guys" in the legislature from four to 27. At the
Third Annual Northwest Conference for Reconstruction in 1983, Johnson
stated that he believed they may achieve "political hegemony. . .in
this generation." In 1994, they were not far from that goal. Rob Hurtt
won a 1993 open seat by election for State Senate. In 1994, State
Senator Hurtt was also the chairman of the Republican campaign
committee for the State Legislature, an important power brokering role
for a freshman State Senator. The GOP, led by conservative Christians,
was only four seats away from majority control in 1994.
A Whole Generation of Gary Norths
Still, it is in the next generation that most Reconstructionists hope
to seize the future. "All long-term social change," declares Gary
North, "comes from the successful efforts of one or another struggling
organizations to capture the minds of a hard core of future leaders,
as well as the respect of a wider population." The key to this, they
believe, lies with the Christian school and the home schooling
movement, both deeply influenced by Reconstructionism.
Unsurprisingly, Reconstructionists seek to abolish public schools,
which they see as a critical component in the promotion of a secular
world view. It is this secular world view with which they declare
themselves to be at war. "Until the vast majority of Christians pull
their children out of the public schools," writes Gary North, "there
will be no possibility of creating a theocratic republic."
Among the top Reconstructionists in education politics is Robert
Thoburn of Fairfax Christian School in Fairfax, Virginia. Thoburn
advocates that Christians run for school board, while keeping their
own children out of public schools. "Your goal" (once on the board),
he declares, "must be to sink the ship." While not every conservative
Christian who runs for school board shares this goal, those who do
will, as Thoburn advises, probably keep it to themselves. Thoburn's
book, The Children Trap, is a widely used sourcebook for Christian
Right attacks on public education.
Joseph Morecraft, who also runs a school, said in 1987: "I believe the
children in the Christian schools of America are the Army that is
going to take the future. Right now. . .the Christian Reconstruction
movement is made up of a few preachers, teachers, writers, scholars,
publishing houses, editors of magazines, and it's growing quickly. But
I expect a massive acceleration of this movement in about 25 or 30
years, when those kids that are now in Christian schools have
graduated and taken their places in American society, and moved into
places of influence and power."
Similarly, the Christian "home schooling" movement is part of the
longterm revolutionary strategy of Reconstructionism. One of the
principal home schooling curricula is provided by Reconstructionist
Paul Lindstrom of Christian Liberty Academy (CLA) in Arlington
Heights, Illinois. CLA claims that it serves about 20,000 families.
Its 1994 curriculum included a book on "Biblical Economics" by Gary
North. Home schooling advocate Christopher Klicka, who has been deeply
influenced by R. J. Rushdoony, writes: "Sending our children to the
public school violates nearly every Biblical principle. . . .It is
tantamount to sending our children to be trained by the enemy." He
claims that the public schools are Satan's choice. Klicka also
advocates religious selfsegregation and advises Christians not to
affiliate with non-Christian home schoolers in any way. "The
differences I am talking about," declares Klicka, "have resulted in
wars and martyrdom in the not too distant past." According to Klicka,
who is an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, "as
an organization, and as individuals, we are committed to promote the
cause of Christ and His Kingdom."
Estimates of the number of home schooling families vary enormously.
Conservatively, there are certainly over 100,000. Klicka estimates
that 85-90 percent of home schoolers are doing so "based on their
religious convictions." "In effect," he concludes, "these families are
operating religious schools in their homes." A fringe movement no
longer, Christian home schoolers are being actively recruited by the
archconservative Hillsdale College.
A Covert Kingdom
Much has been made of the "stealth tactics" practiced by the Christian
Right. Whereas the Moral Majority, led by Jerry Falwell, was overt
about its Christian agenda, many contemporary Christian Rightists have
lowered their religious profile or gone under cover. In fact, these
tactics have been refined for years by the Reconstructionist movement,
as Robert Thoburn's education strategy suggests. Gary North proposed
stealth tactics more than a decade ago in The Journal of Christian
Reconstruction (1981), urging "infiltration" of government to help
"smooth the transition to Christian political leadership. .
...Christians must begin to organize politically within the present
party structure, and they must begin to infiltrate the existing
institutional order." Similar stealth tactics have epitomized the
resurgence of the Christian Right, as groups like Citizens for
Excellence in Education and the Christian Coalition have quietly
backed candidates who generally avoided running as overtly "Christian"
candidates. The Christian Coalition actually proposed something
similar to Gary North's notion of "infiltration" when its 1992 "County
Action Plan" for Pennsylvania advised that "You should never mention
the name Christian Coalition in Republican circles." The goal,
apparently, is to facilitate becoming "directly involved in the local
Republican Central Committee so that you are an insider. This way,"
continues the manual, "you can get a copy of the local committee rules
and a feel for who is in the current Republican Committee." The next
step is to recruit conservative Christians to occupy vacant party
posts or to run against moderates who "put the Republican Party ahead
Antonio Rivera, a New York Christian Coalition political advisor,
suggested similar ideas at a 1992 Christian Coalition meeting. While
urging that Coalition members seek to place themselves in influential
positions, he advised that "You keep your personal views to yourself
until the Christian community is ready to rise up, and then wow!
They're gonna be devastated!" Some leaders have now publicly renounced
Central to the Christian Right's strategy is to exploit the national
pattern of low voter participation by turning out their constituents
in a strategically disciplined fashion and in greater proportion than
the rest of the population. An important vehicle for achieving this
goal is the ideology of Christian Reconstructionism or its
stripped-down root, dominionism, which at once deepens the political
motivation of their constituency and widens that constituency by
systematically mobilizing a network of churches, many of which were
politically uninvolved until the early 1990s.
Much has been written about the success of Pat Robertson's Christian
Coalition in accomplishing these goals. But it could be argued that
the Christian Coalition would not have been possible without
Reconstructionism, and that Operation Rescue would not have been
possible without the Reconstructionist-influenced philosoper Francis
Schaeffer. In the 1970s, Pat Robertson was an apolitical charismatic
televangelist, and Randall Terry a would-be rock n' roll star.
Conclusion Christian Reconstructionism's ultimate moment may or may
not arrive; however it has had tremendous influence as a
catalyst for an historic shift in American religion and politics.
Christian colleges and bookstores are full of Reconstructionist
material. The proliferation of this material and influence is likely
to continue. Christian Reconstructionism is largely an underground,
underestimated movement of ideas, the rippling surface of which is the
political movement known as the Christian Right.
Frederick Clarkson is an author and lecturer who has written
extensively on right-wing religious groups from the Christian
Coalition to the Unification Church. He is co-author of Challenging
the Christian Right: The Activist's Handbook, (Institute for First
Amendment Studies, 1992), and is author of Eternal Hostility: The
Struggle Between Democracy and Theocracy in the United States, (Common
Courage Press, 1996). This article originally appeared in the March
and June 1994 issues of The Public Eye.
"All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed,
second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as
self-evident." -- Arthur Schopenhauer
Wow, "Biblical Economics"! Back to slavery days?