A Weak Defense of Reconstructionism

A Weak Defense of Reconstructionism August 23, 2006

Christopher Ortiz, editor of the reconstructionist journal Faith for All of Life and communications director for the Chalcedon Foundation, has authored a weakly reasoned defense of reconstructionism. In it, he takes on critics like Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson. Ortiz seems to miss completely the real argument against reconstructionism by focusing on tactics rather than on outcome. For instance, he criticizes Clarkson thusly:

The secularists are convinced that democracy itself is under siege by the dominionists. They proffer a false antithesis by suggesting that the theocracy advocated for forty years by the Chalcedon Foundation is antithetical to American democracy. The self-appointed “expert” on dominionism, Frederick Clarkson, describes theocracy as a replacement for his version of democracy with the direct rule of a “theocratic elite”:

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.

Having been a student of Christian Reconstruction since 1987, I don’t recall ever gleaning this concept of theocracy in any systematic way. Clarkson is referring more to the sensationalism of Dr. Gary North (a.k.a. “Scary Gary”) rather than any single book. North admitted to using inflammatory rhetoric intentionally as a means of drawing critics out into a direct debate with Christian Reconstructionists. It is not my intent to defend the work of Gary North, but one need only refer to the long-standing division between North and Rushdoony to understand that there is hardly a monolithic agreement between Reconstructionists.

But Ortiz here is only playing around the edges of the argument, focusing on fairly irrelevant details. His argument is that reconstructionists do not oppose democracy, but want to use democracy to impose the theocratic rule that he and his movement seeks:

What is central to understand about North’s perspective is that any constitutional or institutional transition is contingent upon the vast majority of Americans embracing a Reconstructionist theology. New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson, understands this well:

Theonomists are often accused, wrongly, of wanting to impose Old Testament penal codes on contemporary offenders, against the will of the vast majority of the populace. In fact, what they argue is that by the preaching of the gospel and the adoption of this interpretation of the Bible, the nation should, and one day will, repent and reaffirm the covenant. Old Testament sanctions will then be the will of the people and the law of the land. This view of the future, of course, is tied to a firm conviction of the rightness of postmillennialism.

Okay, so if they can get enough people to buy into their theocratic madness, they can then impose it on the rest of the nation. But the real criticism of theocratic movements is not over how they gain power, but what they would do with that power once they get it. The fact that they may seek to impose their rule through majority vote does not make the loss of liberty that would result any less real. They seek to use democracy to end liberty, something the founding fathers were very much afraid of. The result is still tyranny, regardless of whether it is imposed by majority vote or by divine decree.

Ortiz keeps using the phrase “American democracy” as though it was equivalent to majority rule, but the Constitution is in fact an anti-majoritarian document. The entire point of the Bill of Rights is to act as a roadblock against majoritarian tyranny. That was also the purpose of having an independent judiciary and an unelected Senate. As originally written, the Constitution only had one half of one branch of government elected by direct democratic vote (the House). The rest were either appointed by the states (the Senate), elected indirectly through the electoral college (the President), or appointed for life precisely so that they would not be swayed by the need for reelection (the Federal courts). So “American democracy” is far from being a pure democracy, it is a republic that begins with the premise that liberty must be protected from majoritarian tyranny. Ortiz seems blissfully unaware of this:

Nobody within Christian Reconstruction is opposed to the form of democracy that suggests citizens of a republic can elect representative leadership. America is not, nor has it ever been, a pure democracy. America is a republic with a democratic procedural political process governed by the rule of law.

Biblical theocracy is not opposed to the American democratic process. As Rushdoony states, theocracy is a “radical libertarianism” because it advocates the rule of God over every man, woman, and child. Not by the direct tyranny of a religious elite–that would be “ecclesiocracy”–but by the rule of God in the hearts and minds of people as they govern themselves in terms of Biblical law instead of autonomous reason, and without coercion by the state or church. Naturally, this would result in a vast reduction in the size of civil government, as obedient people would provide their own retirement, care for their own elderly, educate their own children, and provide for the poor in their communities.

Notice there is not a single mention of individual freedom or liberty anywhere in his formulation of “American democracy”. Reconstructionists like Rushdoony and North often call themselves “Christian libertarians”, but that claim is patently absurd. I’m not a doctrinaire libertarian myself, and I generally hate it when people attempt to define what a “real” member of a group must believe. But there is a bare minimum standard you have to meet beforey ou can reasonably be considered a libertarian, and in this case that bare minimum is inherent in the word itself: you cannot be a libertarian without defending liberty. You certainly cannot be a libertarian if your entire view of the proper role of government ignores the very concept of liberty, as Ortiz does here.

The fact is that theocracy would mean the death of liberty. Ortiz admits in his article that their goal is to establish “the universal rule of God” and “impose the full text of Biblical law.” He quotes Rushdoony:

This is the heart of theocracy as the Bible sets it forth. Dictionaries to the contrary, theocracy is not a government by the state but a government over every institution by God and His Law, and through the activities of the free man in Christ to bring every area of life and thought under Christ’s Kingship.

But what they propose is that the “free man in Christ” – meaning their fellow theocrats – would impose “God’s law” on everyone else, something obviously forbidden by our Constitution. This is precisely the sort of religious establishment that the founders sought to avoid. Theocracy means that the entire Mosaic law gets imposed on every individual. It means stoning for adultery, sodomy and premarital sex. It means the elimination of free speech through blasphemy laws, and the end of religious freedom for everyone but Christians. That they seek to impose such barbarism through democratic processes is irrelevant. A totalitarian society imposed by majority vote is no less barbaric and liberty-destroying than one imposed by divine decree.

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