Christian Reconstructionism

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Founder
Rousas John Rushdoony
Time Period
1965
Description
Developed from the work of Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), a reformed theologian and political activist, Christian Reconstructionists believe that biblical law should apply to all aspects of society. Believing that God calls on all Christians to "take dominion" over all spheres of human life, Rushdoony founded the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965, a small Christian think tank disseminating his theocratic vision of a world.

Many of his followers pushed a Reconstructionist agenda in local and national politics. Reconstructionists even played controversial role in the emergence of the Christian Right during the late 1970s and 1980s. Reconstructionism’s commitments to building male-led familial units, supporting home education, and encouraging aggressive political activism have been credited with driving some conservative Christians into the political sphere.

Many evangelicals and secularists alike have condemned the movement for its open call for instituting a theocracy in the United States.
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Narrative
Historical Origins

Organizationally, Reconstructionism emerged out of the Los Angeles area during the mid-1960s. In a tumultuous era of student unrest, anti-Vietnam war activism, and increasing crime rates, a network of Southern California grassroots activists and social reformers coalesced around R. J. Rushdoony’s project of Christian Reconstruction. Building on a network of activists who mobilized to support the John Birch Society and the presidential campaign of the Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, Rushdoony leveraged the limited financial support of a few families to create a nationwide ministry of writing and public lecturing. With the support of this small group of Christian activists, Rushdoony published dozens of books and a long-running newsletter calling for Christians to return to the strictures of biblical law outlined in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. His writings and lectures synthesized elements of U.S. political conservatism, economic libertarianism, and Cold War-era valorization of the nuclear family unit into a potent social reform project.

Rushdoony introduced the concept of Christian Reconstruction in the November 1965 issue of the Chalcedon Foundation’s monthly newsletter. "No God means no law," Rushdoony told his readers, "and no law means that nothing can be a crime" (Rushdoony, 1991: 546). In response, he called on his supporters to adopt God’s law as the standard by which they would manage their lives and asked, "whether we will be among those judged, or among those, the saved remnant, who undertake even now the task of reconstruction" (Rushdoony, 1991: 546). Over the ensuing decades, Rushdoony and his followers adopted Christian Reconstruction as the name of their project of social and religious reform. Through Rushdoony’s numerous books and two regular periodicals, The Chalcedon Report and The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, the Chalcedon Foundation advanced presuppositional apologetics, theonomy (Mosaic law), and postmillennial eschatology. Reconstructionists joined these three theological concepts into a threefold project of social reform. They encouraged conservative evangelicals to homeschool their children, insisted on the biblical foundations of American society and sought Christian dominion over social and political systems through the mechanism of God’s law.

Reconstructionism’s popularity grew in the 1970s. Wider awareness of the movement stemmed from the publication of three important Reconstructionist works. First, Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) distilled Reconstructionism into a positive social agenda. Next, Gary North’s An Introduction to Christian Economics (1973) offered a libertarian-themed economic theory to supplement Rushdoony’s theocratic social theology. North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law and a prolific economic theorist, insisted that biblical law must also be the foundation for all economic exchanges. Finally, Greg L. Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977) offered the most theologically rigorous defense of Rushdoony’s concept of theonomy. Bahnsen, a student of Cornelius Van Til and aspiring academic theologian, helped make theonomy and Reconstruction a topic of scholarly debate in many theological seminaries, especially conservative Reformed institutions in the U.S. South.

By the 1980s, the work of Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, and many other Reconstructionists influenced a number of national ministries and generated significant controversy in religious and secular circles. As awareness and uneasiness with the movement grew, Reconstructionism split into two more or less distinct groups: one centered on Rushdoony in Vallecito, California, and another concentrated in the Westminster Presbyterian Church, a Tyler, Texas-based congregation led, in part, by Rushdoony’s son-in-law Gary North. North was a popular expositor of Rushdoony’s Reconstructionist project who melded his father-in-law’s theological ideas with a free-market economic model.

The Tyler branch of Reconstructionism tended to downplay the familial aspect of Reconstructionism in order to focus on the role of the church in the lives of reconstructed Christians. North founded the Institute of Christian Economics (ICE) to publish works by himself, Bahnsen, David Chilton, James Jordan, and many others. The Tyler works tended to emphasize practical action, economic ideas, church power, and disaster preparedness. It also developed the dominion mandate in a more aggressive and openly political manner than Rushdoony’s branch of the movement. Tensions between North and Rushdoony eventually led to a split between the two forms of Reconstructionism. Personal and theological disagreements led North and Rushdoony to part ways and the two never spoke to one another again after 1981.

While the division took a personal toll on the parties involved, it also led to an explosion of Reconstructionist literature from both camps that helped popularize the movement. While never a large movement, Reconstructionism’s prolific literary output and its call for a more aggressive and engaged form of evangelicalism generated controversy far out of proportion to the size of the movement. In the domains of educational reform and political engagement, Reconstructionism prompted a series of intense controversies and remains a potent if tiny force in conservative U.S. Christianity. Educationally, the movement helped establish homeschooling as a right of every parent in the United State. Politically, the movement helped spur some religious conservatives to action and introduced the "dominion mandate" to a generation of activists.

Educational Reform

With the foundation of the Chalcedon Foundation in the 1960s, Rushdoony became increasingly involved in legal activism as a strategy of furthering Christian dominion. He emphasized legal reforms that would allow for more Christian self-government and less state intervention in American families. He was especially distressed by a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings -- Engel v. Vitale (1962), Murray v. Curlett (1963), and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) -- that effectively ended the practice of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Further, Rushdoony and many conservative Christians believed that Green v. Connally (1971), a district court ruling that upheld an IRS decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of any organization that engaged in racial discrimination, would allow the government to directly regulate churches, schools, and other private religious organizations.

Within this legal environment, Rushdoony presented Reconstruction as an educational reform movement with a tight focus on efforts to legalize Christian schools and homeschooling in the United States. In three important works from the 1960s -- Intellectual Schizophrenia (1961) and its companion volumes, The Messianic Nature of American Education (1963) and The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (1967) -- Rushdoony attacked state-funded education and insisted that Christian parents who send their children to state schools are engaging in "Moloch worship." State education, as Moloch worship, affirms that humanity is its own measure and as such establishes humanism as the de facto religion of the state. Conservative Christians who failed to resist public schooling were, in effect, engaging in grave sin by allowing the state to educate their children. Rushdoony insisted that conservative Christians, therefore, have a duty to resist compulsory attendance in state schools and to create a parallel educational system that is both academically rigorous and free from state-sponsored humanistic education.

As Rushdoony’s profile rose following the publication of the Institutes in the early 1970s, he became a much sought- after expert witness in a series of federal, state, and local trials related to home education and Christian schools. With the Chalcedon Foundation financing Rushdoony’s lectures across the United States, he built relationships with a number of Christian lawyers defending homeschooling parents against state prosecution. Important Christian legal activists including David C. Gibbs, Lawrence D. Pratt, Herbert Titus, and John W. Whitehead studied Rushdoony’s ideas carefully and sought his counsel in numerous cases. In dozens of trials from the late 1970s through the 1990s, lawyers called on Rushdoony as an expert who could establish that compulsory public school attendance policies and state-licensing procedures for private schools and homeschools put an undue religious burden on conservative Protestants. Rushdoony’s testimony frequently used Van Til’s presuppositional method to demonstrate that education is an inherently religious matter for many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. In case after case, Rushdoony explained that submitting to any educational standards other than explicitly Christian ones is inherently sinful for conservative Protestants.

Reconstructionist literature and Rushdoony’s expert testimony are now widely regarded as having played a singularly formative role in the pedagogical and legal framework behind the Christian education movement in the United States. As education historian Milton Gaither has noted: "In the homeschooling movement Rushdoony’s influence has been direct and powerful. His writings have bequeathed to the conservative wing of the homeschooling movement both a strong sense of opposition between God’s law and human laws and a tendency to think of itself as a divinely guided instrument in restoring a Christian America" (Gaither 2008: 137).

Rushdoony’s expert testimony shaped many important court decisions during the 1970s and 1980s, and played a crucial role in landmark decisions in Ohio (Ohio v. Whisner, et al. [1976] and State ex rel. Nagle v. Olin [1980],) and Texas (Leeper et al. v. Arlington ISD et al. [1987]). When Rushdoony began writing on Christian education in the 1960s, compulsory education laws made homeschooling nearly impossible in most states; by the middle of the 1990s it was legal in every state thanks, in part, to Rushdoony’s ministry and the network of activists he helped create.

Christian Reconstruction, Politics, and Dominion Theology

A number of political changes taking place in the late 1970s and 1980s reinforced the connection between Reconstructionism and legal activism. Most notably, the successful mobilization of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants as a cohesive voting bloc at the state and national levels created a context in which there was increased interest in theology that specifically engaged political issues. The organizational machinery behind the rise of this so-called Religious or Christian right helped elect two presidents: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Simultaneously, changing attitudes related to abortion, sexuality, and individual liberty partially contributed to the rise of this Christian Right. Finally, the resonance between the stated political and cultural aspirations of the Christian Right and the emergence of popular conservative sentiment during the early 1980s created a context in which the ideas of Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists circulated far beyond the Reformed church circles and homeschoolers who once supported the movement. By helping to frame the theological debates of the era and organizing activists, Christian Reconstructionism emerged as an important intellectual and organizational component of the conservative realignment of political and religious culture in the United States during the 1980s. Most notably, Reconstructionism’s concept of the "dominion mandate" became a frequently cited and widely misunderstood concept by the end of the 20th century.

At the height of Reconstructionism’s influence during the 1980s, Rushdoony maintained connections with numerous nationally prominent evangelical ministries. Reconstructionists played a role in forming the Coalition on Revival (COR), an organization designed to bridge the gap between Reconstructionists and premillenarian evangelicals and charismatics. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists drafted and signed a series of COR Christian World View documents that highlighted points of Christian consensus in their resistance to secular humanism. Similarly, Rushdoony worked closely with popular Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy on the legal activism and appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club television program. Both evangelists referenced Rushdoony’s writings and his concepts of dominion and Reconstruction. Robertson was especially taken with the concept of the dominion mandate. He publicized it in his book, The Secret Kingdom (1982), and openly embraced the dominion mandate on his television program and during his 1988 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Likewise, a number of prominent charismatic preachers adopted the dominion mandate in their ministries. Notably, Bishop Earl Paulk Jr. of the 12,000-member Chapel Hill Harvester Church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, openly spoke of his admiration for dominion and adapted it to his "Kingdom Now" project. Similarly, C. Peter Wagner, a cofounder of the New Apostolic Reformation, believed the dominion mandate was compatible with his brand of "power evangelism" that emphasized healing, prophecy, and divine miracles. Alongside these national ministries, Reconstructionism influenced a number of regional ministries including Joseph Morecraft’s Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Georgia.

The rising popularity of the dominion mandate led to a backlash in the late 1980s. Evangelical publishers took notice of Reconstructionism and published a series of critical attacks aimed at the movement. Three key books by popular authors appeared in the evangelical press in 1988-1989: Dave Hunt’s Whatever Happened to Heaven? (1988), H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice’s Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (1988), and Hal Lindsey’s The Road to Holocaust (1989). Significantly, these books condemned Reconstructionism as the source for a more general form of politicized Christianity that the authors variously labeled as "dominion theology" or "dominionism." The authors developed these broader categories to account for the network of churches inspired by Reconstructionism’s focus on the dominion mandate, but that rejected other aspects of the platform such as theonomy or postmillennialism. Ultimately, each text warned that dominion theology is incompatible with mainstream evangelicalism and insisted that Christian political engagement during the Reagan era had wrongly led evangelicals to "became more intrigued by periodic marches on Washington and getting their candidates voted into key offices" than with saving souls (Hunt 1988: 8). Regardless of the exact conclusion of the texts, one thing was clear: many American evangelical leaders had reached the consensus conclusion that Reconstructionism was driving an un-Christian interest in merging religion and politics.

In spite of the significant hostility to Reconstructionism in some conservative religious circles, Rushdoony, North, and other Reconstructionists retained significant support at the turn of the millennium. In the 1980s, Rushdoony served on the board of the influential Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive conservative policy advocacy group. In the CNP meetings, Rushdoony built connections with many prominent conservative leaders, including notable conservative political organizer Howard Phillips. Phillips has cited Christian Reconstruction as a key influence on the foundation of his Constitution Party, a political third party that endorses closer adherence to Bible-based legal concepts, limited government, and libertarian economics.

Since the 1990s, Reconstructionism has had a lasting influence in the homeschooling and Christian education movement. While the Chalcedon Foundation has continued to publish Rushdoony’s writings on education, it has also produced influential works by Samuel Blumenfeld and Bruce N. Shortt that offer critical assessments of public schools. Shortt’s work has inspired a number of local educational reform movements such as the Exodus Mandate Project. Exodus Mandate, the brainchild of Rev. E. Ray Moore Jr. a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), urges parents to abandon public schools and start their own institutions. Throughout the early 2000s, Moore and Shortt proposed resolutions in SBC annual meetings that called for the formation of an alternative K-12 school system to be administered by Christian churches.

Along with educational reform, Reconstructionism’s defense of normative gender roles, very harsh condemnation of homosexuality as well as interracial marriage, and support of male-centered authority have made it an important contributor to the Christian patriarchy or "Quiverfull" movement. With a strong emphasis on male headship, female submission, large families, and home education, Christian patriarchy ministries such as Doug Phillip’s now-defunct Vision Forum and R. C. Sproul, Jr.’s Ligonier Ministries have acknowledged the influence of Reconstructionism. Many of these groups and the loose network of families influenced by them have supported the development of a Christian courtship culture in which daughters remain under the authority of fathers or other adult males until they marry.

By the 2010s, many of the institutional components of Reconstructionism declined. The Chalcedon Foundation mostly focuses on preserving Rushdoony’s legacy while North has closed ICE. Important ministries and publishers -- such as Gary DeMar’s Georgia-based American Vision -- remain, but the already factious and decentralized movement has further fragmented. The movement’s close association with figures on the religious right and smaller, controversial ministries have made it the focus of intense critical attention since the 1980s, and it remains a perennial interest in political reporting during election cycles. Many conservative evangelicals continue to attack the movement’s theological positions and its prescriptive political solutions. Likewise, liberal-leaning right-wing watchdog groups, legal church-state separation advocates, and journalists remain interested in Reconstructionism and the ministries it influenced.

Works Cited

Hunt, Dave. 1988. Whatever Happened to Heaven? Eugene, OR: Harvest House.

Rushdoony, Rousas John. 1991. The Roots of Reconstruction. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books.
Photographs

Rousas J Rushdoony- Wikimedia Commons- photo from Presbyterian Guardian (1958)

Gary North speaking- Flickr- photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Michael J. McVicar

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