Today I welcome a guest blogpost from Crawford Gribben, who has published extensively on the history of Puritanism. That includes his notable 2016 book John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat. His new book is strictly contemporary in subject matter, addressing as it does Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford University Press, March 2021). I will leave him to describe the project:
Evangelicalism and its Discontents
by Crawford Gribben
It didn’t take long to identify a scapegoat for the “stop the steal” protest and the chaotic and half-hearted “putsch” that followed. The language and music of many of those who turned up to support President Trump on January 6 were quickly identified as evangelical. This was a “Christian insurrection,” claimed conservative columnist David French. And something must be done about it. For evangelicalism has become a “cancer,” the historian Anthea Butler has insisted, which must be “cut out” of American life.
It’s certainly true that many evangelicals have been anticipating some kind of confrontation with the changing social order. Over the last five years, I’ve been writing about what might be one of the most significant trends among American evangelicals – a migration movement into the Pacific Northwest that has resulted in the formation of some very successful and increasingly influential intentional communities. From small towns in northern Idaho, and elsewhere in the region, writers, artists and polemicists are publishing books with Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Random House, and broadcasting talk-shows on Amazon Prime. While offering different perspectives, they present a similar sense of crisis. The nation is no longer held together by common values, they explain. They argue that the teaching of evolution in public schools, the debates about gender and marriage, and the guidelines that shut down churches for reasons of public health are different fronts in a long war against Christianity. They recognize that the neutrality of the public square is an impossible ideal. They understand that politics is always about coercion. And so they propose their solution. During the Obama years, they argued, believers should opt out of the political binary, recognizing that any vote for the lesser of two evils guaranteed that some form of evil would always win. With the appearance of Trump, they began to change their tune. They understood the faults of his character. But, in summer 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests turned into riots, as what they called “the left” scaled up its ambition to de-fund the police, these believers turned increasingly towards Trump. It was time for radical agendas for survival and resistance at what Robert P. Jones described as the “end of white, Christian America.”
While, in the grand scheme of things, the believers who have migrated to the Pacific Northwest are not numerically significant – although they may number in the tens of thousands – they do project considerable soft power. Many of these believers live very visible lives. The community of several thousand members that has been established in Moscow, Idaho, for example, supports a publishing house, a music conservatory and an impressive liberal arts college. Led by Douglas Wilson, whose many publications include a book that he co-authored with Christopher Hitchens, this community sets out to make Moscow a Christian town. Other migrants into the region prefer more secluded lives. They are attracted by the idea that this region could form an “American Redoubt,” as James Wesley Rawles has argued, a hold-out for those who want to resist the cultural powers that be. Rawles is the author of several novels and preparedness manuals, which are published by Penguin, and his website, survivalblog.com, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every month. His work sets out a more ambitious agenda for survival and resistance, in which readers are encouraged to adopt evangelical piety while being ready, if necessary, for less spiritual forms of defensive combat. For obvious reasons, those who follow Rawles’ agenda prefer not to attract attention. But for all their differences, Wilson and Rawles agree that believers need to expect an extraordinary cultural crisis in the short to medium term, and prepare for the new world that will follow. While their tactics for dealing with opposition are sharply different, their vision of the future is much the same. Dark skies are on the horizon, but huge numbers of Americans will be converted, the social and political life of the nation will be renewed, and the policy of a renewed republic will be built around the demands of biblical law.
This agenda for survival and resistance emerges from a larger movement to rebuild a Christian nation. The movement of Christian Reconstruction, out of which Wilson and Rawles in different ways emerged, began in the 1960s under the influence of R.J. Rushdoony, an Armenian-American Presbyterian minister whose Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) showed evangelicals how the demands of Old Testament law might relate to the modern world. Published in the same year as Roe v Wade, Rushdoony’s work provided evangelicals with a credible social theory, together with the confidence that its goals would, eventually, be realized. Rushdoony’s proposal was simple – that the laws of Moses should become the model for the laws of a reconstructed nation. Taxation would be reduced to less than ten per cent of income. Prisons would be abolished, as criminals would be made to work towards restitution. But the number of capital crimes would be expanded to include the first seven of the ten commandments – now to include idolatry, blasphemy, and several sexual sins.
In the mid-1970s, socially engaged evangelicals seized upon the Institutes of Biblical Law as they emerged, blinking, into a world that was no longer in their image. Rushdoony’s work was hailed in Christianity Today. And, while many evangelical thought leaders balked at Rushdoony’s more extreme proposals, they quietly adopted the basics of his approach. In the 1970s, Christian Reconstructionists might not have supported a Christian nationalism – but they certainly set out a framework for a future Christian state.
Rushdoony’s work was controversial – but it was undoubtedly prophetic. In the 1970s and 1980s, few evangelical writers anticipated as clearly as he did the cultural changes that would be worked out at the end of the twentieth century and in the decades that have followed.
But what Rushdoony did not foresee was that his ideas would be taken up, in modified form, and cleansed of his most controversial claims, as staple components of New York Times best-sellers and talk-shows on Amazon Prime. From small communities in the Pacific Northwest, Rushdoony’s theological descendants are pursuing strategies of survival and resistance, reaching a larger audience more successfully than they ever did before. The ideas that might do most to re-shape American evangelicalism are being developed on its margins.