Rousas John Rushdoony and the rise of Christian conservatives.
The nerve center of the Christian Reconstruction movement is located in the tiny Gold Rush town of Vallecito, about three hours east of San Francisco, off Highway 4. The founder of the movement, the late conservative theologian Rousas John Rushdoony ’38, C.Sing. ’39, M.A. ’40, relocated here from Los Angeles in 1975, fearing civil unrest and World War III. He believed that in the event of nuclear attack, the area’s prevailing winds would mitigate the fallout.
A small bear of a man with a white beard straight out of the Old Testament, Rushdoony named his headquarters the Chalcedon Foundation, after a 5th-century religious decree declaring God’s law supreme. He believed that modern America was in thrall to the false religion of secularism and that the only path to salvation was to reconstruct the nation according to Biblical law. It was a harsh vision: The federal government would be gutted, public education and Social Security abolished, debtors enslaved, and society reordered along patriarchal lines. Atheists, homosexuals, blasphemers, adulterers, incorrigible children, and a host of other offenders would be executed, as in the Old Testament. Once godly men had reclaimed the country, Jesus would return to usher in the new Kingdom.
Such extreme views made Rushdoony a bogeyman to the Left and marginalized him even among the Right. Nevertheless, many of his ideas have seeped into the conservative mainstream.
Rushdoony died in 2001 at age 84, but multiple candidates in this year’s Republican presidential primaries appeared to be channeling him. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has made Rushdoonian arguments on everything from taxes to homosexuality, called for the posting of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and for the nation to return to the Biblical principles upon which she says it was created. The country’s founders, she told a rally in 2003, “recognized the Ten Commandments as the foundation of our laws.”
For his part, Texas Governor Rick Perry aligned himself with a Pentecostal sect whose founder, C. Peter Wagner, admonishes Christians to claim dominion over the “Seven Mountains” of American culture, a range that runs the gamut from entertainment to government. “Dominion,” Wagner tells his flock, “means ruling as kings.”
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, though no theocrat, has employed Rushdoony acolytes as aides. There were echoes of Rushdoony even in statements by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a devout Roman Catholic, vilifying the public school system, and in his accusation that President Barack Obama subscribed to the “phony theology” of environmentalism—a “theology” that elevated Earth above man and, by extension, man above God: “It’s just all an attempt to centralize power, to give more power to the government.”
Granted, it’s not clear that all of these candidates have read or even heard of Rushdoony’s work. But Michael McVicar, an Ohio State University scholar who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the obscure theologian’s impact on conservative thought, insists that the man has exerted a profound, if subterranean, influence on the modern Right. “Whether they know it or not,” he says, “they’re just one step removed from his influence.”
One day last spring, my girlfriend and I drove up to Vallecito from San Francisco to see Rushdoony’s headquarters for ourselves. Chalcedon turned out to be a bare-bones affair, a combination of pioneer home and a strip-mall storefront, protected by a listing chain-link fence. We parked next to a car bearing a Ron Paul bumper sticker and went inside. At our entrance, the handful of staffers looked up from their desks, startled. Long silence followed. “We don’t get many visitors,” one of them finally said. It seems most of the foundation’s business is done via mail-order.
Since we were there, we browsed the bookshelves, admiring the heft of Rushdoony’s 800-page 1973 opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law. We remarked on its Spanish and Portuguese translations. “They’re working on a Chinese version, too,” said one of his daughters, Rebecca. “We have an underground mission in China.”
Soon, Mark Rushdoony, the patriarch’s son and president of Chalcedon, swept in and made straight for us. He was tall, polo-shirted, wearing a cell phone on his belt. When I mentioned Berkeley, he looked as if he had swallowed something disagreeable. “That was a long time ago,” he said, adding that his father didn’t talk about his college years. We exchanged business cards, but that was the end of our conversation.
Jill Rouse, one of Rushdoony’s 18 grandchildren, was more talkative. She told us that her theologian grandfather was also a movie buff. Twins was a particular favorite. Surely she didn’t mean that buddy comedy with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing long-lost brothers? The very same. “He watched it over and over,” she said. “He thought it was the funniest movie.”
“People have this misperception of him as this strict pastor,” Rouse continued. She remembers a man who was warm, though professorial, and who sometimes drank beer with dinner. “He had a pool behind his house, and he loved having the grandkids over. He’d sit out there with us, watching us with a big grin on his face.”
To Rushdoony, Christianity was an all-or-nothing proposition. “If the word of God means anything, it means everything,” he said in an oral history. From what biographical details are available, it’s not hard to see how he arrived at that diamond-hard faith.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Rushdoony was born in New York City in 1916. But he was conceived a world away, in blood and fire.
An ethnic Armenian, he came from an elite family that he claimed had provided priests to the church for the previous 15 centuries. Much of Armenia had been an unwilling part of the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire since the 1500s, and in 1915 the Turks launched a campaign of genocide that killed or exiled some 1.5 million Armenians. Many of Rushdoony’s kinsmen were massacred, and his older brother, George, died for lack of medical care. Rushdoony’s parents, however, escaped across a river into Russia on a lame horse. Safe on the opposite shore, they watched as Turkish troops murdered their coreligionists. From Russia, Rushdoony’s parents eventually made it to America, finally settling in Kingsburg, California, south of Fresno.
The Bible was everywhere as he grew up. A precocious kid who read by kerosene lamplight in his family’s farmhouse, Rushdoony had read the holy book at least six times by the time he was a teenager. He was also surrounded by reminders of the genocide, in the form of visitors from the old country bearing news of the dead. These reports helped shape his Manichaean worldview—either you were with God, or you were with Satan.
“In Armenia, there was no neutral ground between Islam and Christianity,” he wrote in 1997. “And I came to realize that there is no neutral ground anywhere.”
When he entered Berkeley in the 1930s, the country was reeling from the Depression. Marxism was in vogue, and students and professors were questioning both God and capitalism. Rushdoony was disgusted. “I regarded [the University] as a degenerate establishment,” he later said. “It was the ugliest experience of my life.” He was swimming against the tide of modernity, and sometimes he feared he’d drown. To fortify himself, he got in the habit of reading the Bible aloud for up to an hour, “saturating myself with the glory of God speaking to man.”
After graduating from the University, he moved on to the Pacific School of Religion, the liberal seminary in Berkeley, where he earned his divinity degree. Here, too, he was among the enemy—modern Christians who had incorporated both Darwinism and Enlightenment values into their faith. Afterward, he served for many years as a Presbyterian missionary on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada, near the Idaho border. It was a place of poverty, rampant alcoholism, and winter-long snowdrifts.
In Owyhee, Rushdoony read, hunted and fished, and preached to his benighted congregation, trying to counter the despair he found there. He came to believe that the problem of modern life wasn’t just man’s rejection of God, but also that the state had usurped the role of God—a fearful prospect for a man nurtured on stories of state-sanctioned genocide. He ran a campaign to replace the government-run reservation school board with members of his church. McVicar, the Ohio State University scholar who was granted exclusive access to Rushdoony’s correspondence by his son, Mark, writes that the young pastor saw himself then as “a holy warrior crusading on the very frontiers of Christianity.” From the reservation, Rushdoony wrote a triumphal letter to a friend: “First Owyhee, and then the world: such is my dream.”
A final piece of Rushdoony’s emerging belief system fell into place when he discovered the ideas of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). A Calvinist theologian who rejected the modernism that brought Darwin and Enlightenment ideas into the Protestant mainstream, Van Til insisted that man cannot think independently of God, and to try to do so is evil. Just as Adam and Eve sinned, the modern world had gone astray in its embrace of rationalism and scientific thought.
In Van Til, Rushdoony found a rejoinder to the secularism he had come to despise at Berkeley. The solution, both for his congregation and for the world, was to “reconstruct” everything from the ground up—the family, the state, and man’s relationship to God. Only by reinstating Biblical law would man be saved. “You can have two kinds of law,” Rushdoony declared. “Theonomy—God’s law. Or autonomy—self-law. That’s what it boils down to. And autonomy leads to anarchy, which is what we are getting increasingly.”
Harking back to John Calvin’s attempt to create a theocracy in 16th-century Geneva, and to Puritan rule in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Rushdoony began working out the details that would culminate in The Institutes of Biblical Law, his explication of the Bible for modern times. He was exceedingly thorough: State regulation of workplace matters was evil; a wife’s duty was to be a “help-meet” to her husband; nudism was “both pathetic and suicidal”; God frowned upon women who spent too much time doing their hair.
Ever the anti-statist, Rushdoony’s ideal society wouldn’t technically be a theocracy. In the society he envisioned, government would be weak and decentralized, and civil authorities would merely enforce religious laws rather than make them. But God’s law would reign supreme. Nonbelievers would have the opportunity to leave. Anyone worshiping a non-Christian deity would be killed.
In a rare television interview with Rushdoony in 1988, PBS’s Bill Moyers pressed him on the harsh prescriptions:
Moyers: But you would reinstate the death penalty for some of these or all of these Biblical crimes?
Rushdoony: I wouldn’t …
Moyers: But the reconstructed society—
Rushdoony: I’m saying that this is what God requires. I’m not saying that everything in the Bible, I like. Some of it rubs me the wrong way. But I’m simply saying, this is what God requires. This is what God says is justice. Therefore, I don’t feel I have a choice.
Julie Ingersoll, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, is writing a book on Rushdoony and his ilk. She says, “Modernism was a problem for lots of folks, and Rushdoony said, ‘Any question you throw at me, I can develop an answer from the Bible.’ That’s pretty powerful.”
After leaving Owyhee in 1952, Rushdoony began building bridges to political conservatives. He wrote essays for conservative magazines, condemning property tax and lamenting the country’s deteriorating morals. An inveterate lead-foot, he drove to Los Angeles each weekend to preach to a growing group of supporters. In 1965, he founded Chalcedon.
Rushdoony maintained a nearly inhuman work schedule. In 1970 alone, McVicar reports, the man wrote 54 book chapters, two magazine columns each month, and 2,435 letters, and preached or spoke 213 times. His second wife, Dorothy, kept house and made dinner for her husband and Chalcedon’s ever-flowing stream of visitors. (Rushdoony’s first wife and mother of his five children, Arda, whom he divorced in the 1950s, has been airbrushed out of his biography.) Dorothy Rushdoony also typed, proofread, and indexed Rushdoony’s articles and manuscripts. Other family members mimeographed, stapled, and mailed out the foundation’s monthly report.
The patriarch nevertheless had his pleasures. He was a baseball fan, although he deplored the sport’s commercialization. And many nights, at Dorothy’s behest, the family would gather in front of the TV to watch Wheel of Fortune.
Mostly, though, he lived in the realm of ideas. Like many conservatives then and now, Rushdoony believed that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. In the postwar era, when many on the right felt that holy heritage was under siege, his fusion of right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity had particular resonance.
Indeed, Rushdoony’s worldview held something for everyone on the right, even if few people subscribed to every aspect. Free-marketeers and self-styled patriots who hated the New Deal and were alarmed by Communism flocked to his banner. (He counted Robert Welch, founder of the hard-right John Birch Society, among his friends.) But Rushdoony also attracted social conservatives who saw the Devil’s hand in feminism, reproductive rights, and civil rights. For these people, he confirmed the sinfulness of all challenges to the traditional order. “In the name of toleration,” he wrote, “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 as though no differences existed.”
Due to the extremity of Rushdoony’s views, however, establishment conservatives like William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, kept him at arm’s length. Buckley, who was trying to build a broad Judeo-Christian coalition, thought Rushdoony and other fringe voices such as the Birchers were bad PR for the GOP. But Rushdoony didn’t need the establishment. His views continued to percolate through the conservative underground throughout the 1970s, quietly gathering force. With the rise of the Religious Right, those views would finally bubble up to the surface.
Frank Schaeffer, the onetime evangelical firebrand who repudiated the Christian Right in favor of a more tolerant Protestantism, remembers visiting the Vallecito compound in the late 1970s. He had come to discuss a project with Rushdoony, and the two men spoke in the library, attended by onlookers who hung on Rushdoony’s every word. Schaeffer found the atmosphere spooky. Despite being an evangelical activist himself, Schaeffer thought, “‘These people are not from my planet.’ It was like what you read about Jonestown or the Koresh compound, or some whacked-out madrasa in Pakistan.”
Such meetings between different fundamentalist factions had become increasingly common. Schaeffer’s father, Francis, a popular Protestant theologian, also advocated a total Christian worldview, though he hadn’t worked out the details in the systematic way that Rushdoony had. The two also were united by a visceral hatred of abortion, legalized by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Republican politicians noticed evangelicals’ growing anger and began courting them. In the run up to the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan addressed a conference of conservative religious leaders in Dallas. “I know you can’t endorse me,” the candidate told them, alluding to their organizations’ nonprofit status. “But I endorse you and what you are doing.” Rushdoony, according to one participant, played a central role in bringing the group together: “If it weren’t for his books, none of us would be here.”
That fall, Reagan rode a wave of religious fervor into the White House. A few weeks after his inauguration, Newsweek ran a “Who’s Who in the Religious Right” list. Under think tanks, there was only one name: Chalcedon.
By the mid-1980s, Rushdoony’s ideas were ubiquitous across the Christian Right. He addressed Congress on Biblical law and appeared regularly on The 700 Club, televangelist and 1988 presidential candidate Pat Robertson’s TV show. Rushdoony’s disciples spread out across the country, writing books and forging alliances, and his son-in-law and onetime protégé Gary North worked as an aide to Texas Libertarian-Republican congressman Ron Paul. Fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University and Pat Robertson’s law school taught from Rushdoony’s books.
In its insistence that Christians had a duty to bring about Christ’s return, Reconstructionist theology was crucial to evangelicals’ newfound political engagement. Traditionally, most evangelicals had held to a “pre-millenial” faith—meaning that Christ would only return after a period of great turmoil. (Harold Camping, the Oakland preacher who launched a huge international publicity campaign declaring May 21, 2011, as Judgment Day, is a pre-millenialist. Like Rushdoony, Camping was also a 1942 Cal graduate, but the two did not know each other.) This fatalistic approach lent itself to political apathy. “Do you polish brass on a sinking ship?” as the radio preacher J. Vernon McGee put it in the 1950s.
Rushdoony turned the Second Coming on its head. A “post-millenialist,” he looked to the book of Genesis for his marching orders: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” To Rushdoony, this passage wasn’t an admonition simply to take care of the planet; it was a mandate for godly men to seize control of all human affairs. As he explained in a 1999 interview, “Our Lord said, ‘Occupy until I come.’ … We are to bring everything into captivity to Christ.”
From this fertile soil grew the Dominionist movement. Rushdoony had little patience for those who would water down his ideas, but Dominionism proved popular. Stripped of more-extreme prescriptions (such as the stoning of adulterers), it was a sort of “Reconstruction Lite,” offering a blueprint for Christian triumph that everybody under the fundamentalist sun, including some presidential candidates, could smile upon.
Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director of Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, says, “Rushdoony’s descendants have incorporated his premises while sidelining the man himself.”
Although some of Rushdoony’s allies in the Christian Right were anxious for revolution—they wanted to seize political power and immediately bring America back to Christ—Rushdoony had always taken the long view. Political control was necessary but not sufficient: He also needed people’s minds, and that would take time.
“The change we are required to make is by regeneration, not revolution,” he wrote in 1996. “Our Lord stressed patience and gradualism in the work of the Kingdom: ‘First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.'”
Key to this strategy was the homeschooling movement. Education, Rushdoony realized early on, was the best way to distribute his message. To that end, he wrote multiple books on the history of American education, charting its transformation from one-room schoolhouses and parochial schools to urban institutions. These books became guideposts for Christians who believed that public schools were indoctrinating their kids in the false faith of secular humanism. McVicar, the Ohio State scholar, says, “Rushdoony understood that if he changed the way Christians educated their children, he could change the way they thought.”
At the time, though, the government didn’t always recognize the legitimacy of Christian homeschooling. Rushdoony spent the 1970s and ’80s traveling the country, testifying as an expert witness. He was wildly successful, making one state after another safe for homeschoolers. Erudite and icily calm, Rushdoony was a particularly effective witness in a pivotal 1987 case that legitimized homeschooling in Texas. As recalled later by Shelby Sharpe, the homeschoolers’ attorney, “It was one of the few times in my career that I ever saw a witness destroy the attorney who was trying to examine him.”
Rushdoony’s advocacy had another effect, too. In traveling from one state to the next, he connected one isolated homeschooler to another, building a network of likeminded parents. “Nobody was a central node like Rushdoony was,” McVicar says. As of 2007, there were an estimated 1.5 million homeschoolers in America; 83 percent of these parents said their motivation was religious or moral. Today, groups such as the Exodus Mandate, led by a South Carolina pastor who rails against the “anti-Christian government school system,” calls for the mass withdrawal of Christians from public schools. The movement says its numbers are growing by 15 percent a year. And Rushdoony’s books—or others inspired by his thought—provide some of the main teaching texts. “Go to a homeschooling conference,” Ingersoll says, “and he’s everywhere, beneath the surface.”
Of course, Rushdoony didn’t just want to boost homeschooling. He also wanted to abolish public schools, or at the very least transform them into God-centered institutions. As his son-in-law North put it in a 1994 letter to his supporters, “I suggest that every Christian adopt a three-word slogan for the reform of public education: Shut ’em down.”
Short of abolition, Rushdoony’s followers pursued other strategies: Get elected to local school boards, then drastically cut salaries; make as much of the curriculum as possible available via video for homeschooling; and redirect public money toward private evangelical schools. In Texas, evangelicals have taken over school boards and pushed for the teaching of Creationism and Dominionism. In states from Florida to Wisconsin, Religious Right groups have lobbied to grant vouchers and tax credits to Christian schools and homeschoolers. During the 2010–11 academic year, Florida funneled $129 million in tax credits into such alternative schools, roughly 80 percent of which were religious.
Homeschoolers now have powerful allies in Washington, D.C. This year’s Republican presidential primary race featured two legitimate contenders who came out of the homeschooling movement. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann launched her career with a campaign against Minnesota public schools. And in a speech last year, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum lit into the very idea of public education. “Just call them what they are,” he said. “Public schools? That’s a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools.”
Today, Rushdooony’s ideological descendants are legion. Of course, the idea of executing blasphemers is still unpalatable, even to the most callous of Christians, so true Reconstructionism remains obscure. Dominionism is where the action is. In the run up to his presidential bid, Texas Governor Rick Perry hosted a Christians-only rally at a Houston stadium. The event was co-sponsored by the New Apostolic Reformation, a Pentecostal Dominionist group that urges Christians to take control of the aforementioned “Seven Mountains”: government, church, family, media, business, education, and arts and entertainment. (This sect is also tied to politicians in Uganda who drafted legislation to execute homosexuals.)
Michele Bachmann, meanwhile, has cited as a mentor a law professor named John Eidsmoe, who, as Ingersoll notes, regularly lectures at Reconstructionist events on the Biblical roots of American law. During the primaries, Bachmann signed a family-values pledge declaring, among other things, that “Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” In its casual minimization of slavery’s evils, the pledge echoed Rushdoony’s insistence that chattel slavery in America actually benefited the enslaved.
More broadly, many of the old Reconstructionist articles of faith—Christian nationalism, hard-money economic policy, and antigovernment sentiment—converge in the Tea Party. (A 2010 Pew poll showed that 69 percent of conservative Christians identified with the Tea Party.) One of the movement’s intellectual lights, the revisionist historian David Barton, is a frequent guest on Glenn Beck’s shows and a font of repackaged Reconstructionist ideas. “We’re not after a theocracy,” he said during an appearance on a Christian TV show earlier this year. “They are—it’s a secular theocracy.”
For all the right-wing ferment, America isn’t likely to elect a Reconstructionist (or even Dominionist) president anytime soon. Rushdoony the patriarch, though, always preached patience. Through the election of local leaders and the growth of homeschools, he believed, America would be transformed eventually. In pushing his ideas into the mainline of evangelical thought—and, ultimately, lodging them somewhere near the heart of modern conservativism—Rushdoony could claim victory. As Frank Schaeffer, the ex-evangelical warrior, says, “He pulled the center to the right. He was like a drop of radical flavoring in an otherwise clear broth.”
Before leaving Chalcedon that day in Vallecito, we bought a couple of Rushdoony’s books. His granddaughter popped them into a recyclable tote bag inscribed with a Rushdoony quote from 1965. “History has never been dominated by majorities,” it read, “but by dedicated minorities who stand unconditionally on their faith.”