The Lie of Religious ‘Victimhood’ at the Root of Culture War

 

What nurtures the victimhood on the one hand and the hubris about “taking America back for God” on the other hand? When you hear words like “We want to take back America for God!” the twenty-first century expression of such theocratic ideas can be traced back to some of my old friends: the Reconstructionists.

Conservative Roman Catholics, Mormons and Evangelicals couldn’t turn back the gay-rights movement and the progressive attitudes of most Americans about sex and legalized abortion, so they indulged in vehement anti-gay-marriage or anti-abortion or anti-stem cell research referendums meant to rebuke if not hurt and punish, more than to change hearts and minds.

When these efforts mostly failed (some “succeeded”) the Jesus Victims doing the loudest talking about “traditional family values” were sure they were being persecuted “for the sake of Christ.” Actually, all that was happening was that their absolute certainties were not so convincing to most Americans.

Most Americans have never heard of the Reconstructionists. But they have felt their impact through the Reconstructionists’ profound if indirect influence over the wider Evangelical community. In turn, the Evangelicals shaped the politics of a secular culture that barely understood the Religious Right let alone the forces within that movement that gave it its hate-filled edge.

If you feel victimized by modernity then the Reconstructionists have the answer: apply the full scope of the Biblical Law to modern America and to the larger world. Reconstructionists want to replace the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the Bible.

In its modern American incarnation, which hardened into a twentieth century movement in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s, Reconstructionism was propagated by people I knew personally and worked with closely when I too was both a Jesus Victim and a Jesus Predator claiming God’s special favor.

The leaders of the Reconstructionist movement included the late Rousas Rushdoony (Calvinist theologian, father of modern-era Christian Reconstructionism, patron saint to gold-hoarding Federal Reserve-haters, and creator of the modern Evangelical home-school movement),  his son-in-law Gary North (an economist, gold-buff, publisher and leading conspiracy theorist), and David Chilton (ultra-Calvinist pastor and author.)[2]

Until Rushdoony, founder and late president of the Chalcedon Foundation, began writing in the 1960s, most American fundamentalists (including my parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer) didn’t try to apply biblical laws about capital punishment, homosexuality, and divorce to the United States. Even the most conservative Evangelicals said they were “New-Testament Christians.” In other words, they believed that after the coming of Jesus, the harsher bits of the Bible had been (at least to some extent) transformed by the “New Covenant” of Jesus’ “Law of Love.”

By contrast, the leaders of Reconstructionism believed that Old Testament teachings—on everything from capital punishment for gays to child beating—were still valid, because they are the inerrant Word and Will of God, and therefore should be enforced. Not only that, they said that Biblical Law should be imposed even on non-believers. This theology was the American version of the attempt in some Muslim countries to impose Shariah Law on all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It was my old friend, the short, stocky bearded gnome-like Armenian-American Rousas Rushdoony who, in 1973, most thoroughly laid out the Far Right/Religious Right agenda in his book The Institutes of Biblical Law. Rushdoony changed the definition of salvation, from the accepted Evangelical idea that it applies to individuals, by claiming that salvation is really about politics. With this re-definition, Rushdoony contradicted the usual reading of Jesus’ words by most Christians when in the Gospel of John, Jesus said that He had not come to this earth to be a political leader: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

In Rushdoony’s vision of biblical politics we are to forget the gospel of John and go with the other gospels that don’t mention Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this earth. So according to Rushdoony, all nations on Earth should be obedient to the ancient Jewish/Christian version of “God’s Law,” so that the world will experience “God’s blessings.” Biblical salvation will then turn back the consequences of The Fall, and we’ll be on our way to the New Eden. To achieve this “turning back,” coercion must be used to stop the evildoers who are, by definition, anyone not obeying all of God’s Laws — as defined by the Calvinist and Reconstructionist interpretation of the Bible.

I remember first meeting Rushdoony at his home in Vallecito, California, in the late 1970s. I was accompanied by Jim Buchfuehrer who had produced the anti-abortion documentary series of films with me that featured my father and Dr. C. Everett Koop. (Koop would become Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general.) The movie series and book project Whatever Happened To The Human Race? was Koop’s and my brainchild. He had seen Dad’s and my first film series — How Should We Then Live? and Koop wanted to team up to expand on the last episodes where Dad had denounced the “imperial court” for “stripping the unborn” of their right to life.

The impact of the two film series, as well as their companion books, was to give the evangelical community a frame of reference through which to understand the “secularization of American culture,” and to point to the “human life issue” as the watershed between a “Christian society” and a utilitarian relativistic “post-Christian” future. By the time the films had been viewed by literally millions of American Evangelicals Dad had become the leader of those Evangelicals who took a “stand” on the life issues.

When we talked Rushdoony always spoke as if he were assured that all of Evangelical America would soon follow him. He talked about “secular” America as if it were an enemy state, not his own country. He talked about how “we” should all use cash, never credit cards, since cards would make it easy for the government to “track us.” Rushdoony spoke passionately about the virtues of gold, how very soon the conflict between the Soviet Union and America would lead to war, and out of the ruins, “our” new theocracy would emerge. On the other hand Rush also noted that Vallecito, was “well located to survive the next war” given “the prevailing wind directions” and its water supply.

Since I was the son of someone Rush regarded as a rival I had to be handled delicately. For the up-and-coming heir apparent to the growing Schaeffer movement to join Rushdoony would have been quite a coup. During our half dozen or so meetings, Rushdoony made every effort to reel me in and constantly proposed ways we could all cooperate and “join forces,” as he put it. Rushdoony was polite when talking about Dad, but nevertheless made it very clear that my father just didn’t “go far enough.” Dad, Rushdoony said, was “not consistently Calvinist.” Dad had failed to present the “full Reformed solution.” Rushdoony added that Dad’s “analysis of the problem is good,” but that the only “real solution” to modernity is the “full application of the Biblical Law.”

The bizarre scope of Reconstructionists’ ambition—“insanity,” as my father often called it,  is clear in the table of contents[7] of Rushdoony’s 890 page The Institutes of Biblical Law, wherein he commented on the world, its history and future in the light of what the Bible “says.” Rushdoony provided Reconstruction theory for law, politics, jurisprudence, and social morality, you name it, just about everything except a Reformed Calvinist recipe for chicken soup!

The “Jesus” that Rushdoony projected wasn’t any Jesus that would be recognizable to most Christians. Rushdoony’s “Jesus” was a theocratic Calvinist dictator who — when the “woman taken in sin” was brought before Him — would have told the Jewish mob to make His day by throwing that first stone in accordance with Jewish Law. (To which smarter of the Reconstructionists might answer that Jesus in Revelation is the theocratic warrior and that the Woman-Caught-In-adultery episode is not in the earliest manuscripts and so forth which, I guess, goes to show the madness of parsing Bronze Age-to-Roman texts to find “information” in order to override our Constitution.)

The message of Rushdoony’s work is best summed up in one of his innumerable Chalcedon Foundation position papers,[8] “The Increase of His Government and Peace.” He writes: “[T]he ultimate and absolute government of all things shall belong to Christ.” In his book Thy Kingdom Come[9]–using words that are similar to those the leaders of al Qaida would use decades later in reference to “true Islam” — Rushdoony argues that democracy and Christianity are incompatible: “Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” he writes.  “One [biblical] faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state… Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”[10]

The impact of Reconstructionism (often under other names) has grown even though Rushdoony has largely been forgotten even in Evangelical circles let alone by the wider world. For instance, Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George extremist anti-abortion, anti-Obama, anti-gay rights, anti-stem cell research “pro-family” activism has found expression in statements like George’s brainchild: the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” (This was published in 2009 as an anti-Obama manifesto.) Many Evangelical leaders signed on. Their support for this document would have been inconceivable (at least in modern America) outside of the context of the influence of Reconstructionism on American Evangelicals over the last forty years that “normalized” the idea that America has a Christian version of a Shariah alternate “law” waiting in the wings to “correct” secular law.

In case you’ve never heard of Professor George (he’s important to the story I’m telling here so please bear with me) here’s how the New York Times introduced him to their readers: “[Robert George] has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy [the Natural Law theory] into real political influence.  Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as ‘one of the biggest brains in America,’ or, on one broadcast, ‘Superman of the Earth.’ Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research… Newt Gingrich called him ‘an important and growing influence’ on the conservative movement, especially on matters like abortion and marriage. ‘If there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy,’ the conservative Catholic journal Crisis concluded a few years ago, ‘its leaders probably meet in George’s kitchen.’” [11]

George’s “The Manhattan Declaration” was promptly signed by more than 150 American “mainstream” conservative religious leaders.[14] (Thousands more signed in the next months) They joined to “affirm support for traditional marriage” and advocated civil disobedience against laws contradicting the signer’s religious beliefs about marriage and/or the “life issues.”

The drafting committee included the late Evangelical Far Right leader Charles Colson. George’s work on the “Manhattan Declaration” (not to mention his influence with such media figures as Fox News’ Glenn Beck) mirrors a Reconstructionist-inspired attempt to impose theocratic ideas on our pluralistic American society, though George and others (including Colson and Beck) would deny any connection to Rushdoony.[15] But it was the Reconstructionists who, along with several less extreme activists like my father, created the climate in which activists as extreme as George, Colson and Beck were taken seriously by the Evangelicals. Later the Roman Catholic bishops (following George’s suggestion) used their fight with the Obama administration over contraception to push the George agenda by helping the Republicans portray President Obama as “anti-religious.”

Without the work of the Reconstructionists religious activists trying to use the courts, politics (and/or civil disobedience)[16] to impose their narrow theology on the majority of Americans would be relegated to some lonely street corner where they could gather together to howl at the moon. Instead today’s theocrats like George (though they’d never so identify themselves) have the backing of Fox News, are tolerated at places like Princeton University, and can be found running just about every major Evangelical organization not to mention having pushed the American bishops into the far right of the Republican Party having pitted them against the President.

 

footnotes:


[1] Calvinism (also called the Reformed tradition, the Reformed faith, or Reformed theology) is a theological system. This branch of Christianity is named of the French reformer John Calvin. The system is the Five Points of Calvinism stressing the absolute sovereignty of God. The five points are: God is able to save every person upon whom he has mercy and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or the inability of humans. 1) “Total depravity”: The doctrine of total depravity says that, as a consequence of the fall of humanity into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. 2) “Unconditional election”:  The doctrine of unconditional election says that God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself. 3) “Limited atonement”: Also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement,” the doctrine of limited atonement asserts that Jesus’ substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its design and accomplishment. This implies that only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’ death. 4) “Irresistible grace”: The doctrine of irresistible grace says  that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel. 5) “Perseverance of the saints”: Perseverance (or preservation) of the saints. The doctrine asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else.

[2] North gained some notoriety for his prediction of a possible Y2K catastrophe before 2000.

[3] “Theonomy” comes from two Greek words, “theos,” meaning God and “nomos,” meaning law.

[4] In presenting a theonomic view of biblical law, the Chalcedon Foundation is often referred to as promoting theocracy and dominionism.”   (See <www.chalcedon.edu/blog/blog.php>)

 [5] PARADISE RESTORED–A Biblical Theology of Dominion, David Chilton, Dominion Press, Tyler, Texas, 1st 1985 & 6th 1999 (PART 5) TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH chapter 24 p 271

 [6] Howard Ahmanson, Jr. is heir of the Home Savings bank fortune. Howard became Rushdoony’s financier and served as a board member of Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation. In the 1970s Ahmanson started the career of the Far Right Marvin Olasky, who became an important figure in Evangelical media. Howard, like me, later renounced his association with the Reconstructionists and the Far Right even going so far as to quite the Republican Party in 2009 re-registering as a Democrat. He also stopped by my home in 2010 along with his charming wife Roberta to tell me that he liked my memoir Crazy For God.

 [7] The Institutes of Biblical Law. Table of Contents– The Third Commandment . Swearing and Revolution . The Oath and Society . The Oath and Authority. The Fourth Commandment . The Sabbath and Work . The Sabbath and Law Appendix: The Economics of Sabbath keeping — by Gary North V. The Fifth Commandment . The Authority of the Family . The Economics of the Family. Education and the Family. The Family and Delinquency. The Sixth Commandment . The Death Penalty . Hybridization and Law . Abortion . Restitution or Restoration . Military Laws and Production . Taxation. Quarantine Laws. Dietary Rules. Social Inheritance: Landmarks. The Seventh Commandment. Marriage. Family Law. Marriage and Monogamy. Incest. Sex and Crime. Adultery. Divorce. Homosexuality. The Transvestite. Bestiality VIII. The Eighth Commandment. Dominion. Theft. Restitution and Forgiveness. Liability of the Bystander. Money and Measure. Usury. Landmarks and Land. The Virgin Birth and Property. Fraud. Eminent Domain. Labor Laws. Prison. The Rights of Strangers, Widows, and Orphans. The Ninth Commandment. Corroboration. Perjury. False Witness. Slander Within Marriage. Slander as Theft. Judges. The Responsibility of Judges and Rulers. The Court. The Procedure of the Court. The Judgment of the Court. The Tenth Commandment. Covetousness. Special Privilege. The System. Notes on Law in Western Society… etc.

[8] (December 1967)

[9] Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1970.

[10] Rushdoony, Rousas John. Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation. Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1970 p 67.

[11] David Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” New York Times 16 Dec. 2009.

[12] AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country by Frank Schaeffer and Kathy Roth Douquet, Harper Collins 2006

[13] Robert P. George, “Obama’s Abortion Extremism,” Catholic Online Opinion 16 Oct. 2008, The Witherspoon Institute.

[14] http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/home.aspx

[15] George is dismissive of Rushdoony as follows, while pretending to have barely heard of the Reconstructionists he writes: “‘Christian Reconstructionism’ was the political theology of the radical Calvinist guru Rousas John Rushdoony who lived from 1916-2001.  Rushdoony maintained that the U.S. should be governed by Old Testament law under a theory labeled ‘theonomy,’ which, as far as I can tell, was merely his own variant of theocracy.  From a quick review of published accounts of Rushdoony’s life and thought, I gather than he was a racist and a Holocaust diminisher.  Oh yes, and he didn’t think much of Catholicism or Catholics either.” “Natural Law and far right Reconstructionist extremism!” Mirror Of Justice website, March 21, 2010 http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2010/03/natural-law-and-far-right-reconstructionist-extremism.html

 [16] My father argued for the use of civil disobedience in his book A Christina Manifesto and many people followed his “advice” and wound up in jail for having blocked abortion clinic doors. Today “The Manhattan Declaration” calls on Christians to resist the government, if need be by civil disobedience if and when the government passes laws related to gay marriage, abortion, or stem cell research that the authors of the declaration disagree with.

About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hawthorne.90 John Hawthorne

    Debated a reconstructionist in the 1980s on the proper role of government in modern society. When he argued that government taxation was unbiblical because it violated the eighth commandment (Thou Shalt Not Steal), I was dumbfounded. On the other hand, I wound up taking a center-left position and easily carried the argument. The RC extremism is easily exposed when you can get people to unpack their vision for what would result if we took them seriously.

  • http://www.newlocalmedia.com Dan Knauss

    The autobiographical history here is interesting and valuable, but the connection between Reconstructionism and popular Evangelical theopolitics today is not made as well as it could be. The connection with George is not shown and highly unconvincing; I doubt there is one.

    What can be said is that Catholic theocons like George using the natural law tradition bring it to conclusions troublingly similar to Rushdoony’s in some ways, minus the racism and execution of homosexuals, and so on. The problem is that Evangelicals, particularly those under Neo-Reformed influences, may mis/read George in a reconstructionist, “Christian Taliban” way that is far more bigotted and militant than George. To the extent that this mis/reading of George occurs and is passively tolerated or encouraged among Evangelicals, I would say that is definitely a danger and target of valid criticism.

    The natural law tradition on the other hand is not some medieval nonsense to be mocked and dismissed; it represents the oldest and main current of ethical philosophy from the classical world as elaborated together by the best Jewish, Christian, and Muslim minds of post-classical Europe. In its Enlightenment form it underwrites the ideas of universal human rights. People working in this tradition are quite diversified in their perspectives; they do not uniformly conclude the kinds of things George does.


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