For connoisseurs of surrealism on the American right, it's hard to beat an exchange that appeared about a decade ago in the Heritage Foundation magazine Policy Review. It started when two associates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote an article which criticized Christian Reconstructionism, the influential movement led by theologian Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, for advocating positions that even they as committed fundamentalists found "scary." Among Reconstructionism's highlights, the article cited support for laws "mandating the death penalty for homosexuals and drunkards." The Rev. Rushdoony fired off a letter to the editor complaining that the article had got his followers' views all wrong: They didn't intend to put drunkards to death.
Ah, yes, accuracy does count. In a world run by Rushdoony followers, sots would escape capital punishment--which would make them happy exceptions indeed. Those who would face execution include not only gays but a very long list of others: blasphemers, heretics, apostate Christians, people who cursed or struck their parents, females guilty of "unchastity before marriage," "incorrigible" juvenile delinquents, adulterers, and (probably) telephone psychics. And that's to say nothing of murderers and those guilty of raping married women or "betrothed virgins." Adulterers, among others, might meet their doom by being publicly stoned--a rather abrupt way for the Clinton presidency to end.
Mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post are finally starting to take note of the influence Rushdoony and his followers have exerted for years in American conservative circles. But a second part of the story, of particular interest to readers of this magazine, is the degree to which Reconstructionists have gained prominence in libertarian causes, ranging from hard-money economics to the defense of home schooling. "Christian economist" Gary North, Rushdoony's son-in-law and star polemicist of the Reconstructionist movement, is widely cited as a spokesman for free markets, if not exactly free minds; he even served for a brief time on the House staff of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in 1988, when Paul was a member of Congress in the '70s. For his part, Rushdoony has blandly described himself to the press as a critic of "statism" and even as a "Christian libertarian." Say what?
An outgrowth of Calvinism, modern
Reconstructionism can be traced to Rushdoony's 1973 magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law. (Many leading Reconstructionists emerged from conservative Presbyterianism, but as with so much of today's religious ferment, the movement cuts across denominational lines.) Not one to pursue a high public profile, Rushdoony has set up his Chalcedon Institute in off-the-beaten-path Vallecito, California, while North runs his Institute for Christian Economics out of Tyler, Texas.
As a "post-millennialist" school of thought, Reconstructionism holds that believers should work toward achieving God's kingdom on earth in the here and now, rather than expect its advent only after a second coming of Christ. Some are in a bit of a hurry about it, too. "World conquest," proclaims George Grant, in what by Reconstructionist standards is not an especially breathless formulation. "It is dominion we are after. Not just a voice... not just influence...not just equal time. It is dominion we are after."
Well, OK, it's easy to laugh. Yet grandiosity does sometimes get results, especially when combined with an all-out conviction that one is historically predestined to win (the Communist Party in the '30s comes to mind). Reconstructionism has a record of turning out hugely prolific writers, tireless organizers who stay at meetings until the last chair is folded up, and driven activists willing to undergo arrest (Reconstructionist Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue, the lawbreaking anti-abortion campaign) to make their point.
Politically, Reconstructionists have been active both in the GOP and in the splinter U.S. Taxpayers Party; but their greater influence, as they themselves would doubtless agree, has been felt in the sphere of ideas, in helping change the terms of discourse on the traditionalist right. One of their effects has been to allow everyone else to feel moderate. To wit: Almost any anti-abortion stance seems nuanced when compared with Gary North's advocacy of public execution not just for women who undergo abortions but for those who advised them to do so. And with the Rushdoony faction proposing the actual judicial murder of gays, fewer blink at the position of a Gary Bauer or a Janet Folger, who support laws exposing them to mere imprisonment.
Among other ideas Reconstructionists have helped popularize is that state neutrality on the subject of religion is meaningless. Any legal order is bound to "establish" one religious order or another, the argument runs, and the only question is whose. Put the question that way, and watch your polemical troubles disappear. If we're getting a religious establishment anyway, why not mine?
"The Christian goal for the world," Recon theologian David Chilton has explained, is "the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics." Scripturally based law would be enforced by the state with a stern rod in these republics. And not just any scriptural law, either, but a hardline-originalist version of Old Testament law--the point at which even most fundamentalists agree things start to get "scary." American evangelicals have tended to hold that the bloodthirsty pre-Talmudic Mosaic code, with its quick resort to capital punishment, its flogging and stoning and countenancing of slavery, was mostly if not entirely superseded by the milder precepts of the New Testament (the "dispensationalist" view, as it's called). Not so, say the Reconstructionists. They reckon only a relative few dietary and ritualistic observances were overthrown.
So when Exodus 21:15-17 prescribes that cursing or striking a parent is to be punished by execution, that's fine with Gary North. "When people curse their parents, it unquestionably is a capital crime," he writes. "The integrity of the family must be maintained by the threat of death." Likewise with blasphemy, dealt with summarily in Leviticus 24:16: "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him."
Reconstructionists provide the most enthusiastic constituency for stoning since the Taliban seized Kabul. "Why stoning?" asks North. "There are many reasons. First, the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost." Thrift and ubiquity aside, "executions are community projects--not with spectators who watch a professional executioner do `his' duty, but rather with actual participants." You might even say that like square dances or quilting bees, they represent the kind of hands-on neighborliness so often missed in this impersonal era. "That modern Christians never consider the possibility of the reintroduction of stoning for capital crimes," North continues, "indicates how thoroughly humanistic concepts of punishment have influenced the thinking of Christians." And he may be right about that last point, you know.
The Recons are keenly aware of the P.R. difficulties such views pose as they become more widely known. Brian Abshire writes in the January Chalcedon Report, the official magazine of Rushdoony's institute, that the "judicial sanctions" are "at the root" of the antipathy most evangelicals still show towards Reconstruction. Indeed, as the press spotlight has intensified, prominent religious conservatives have edged away. For a while the Coalition on Revival (COR), an umbrella group set up to "bring America back to its biblical foundations" by identifying common ground among Christian right activists of differing theological backgrounds, allowed leading Reconstructionists to chum around with such figures as televangelist D. James Kennedy (whose Coral Ridge Ministries also employed militant Reconstructionist George Grant as a vice president) and National Association of Evangelicals lobbyist Robert Dugan.
In recent years, however, the COR has lost many of its best-known members; former Virginia lieutenant governor candidate Mike Farris, for example, told The Washington Post that he left the group because "it started heading to a theocracy...and I don't believe in a theocracy." John Whitehead, a Rushdoony protégé who, with Chalcedon assistance, launched the Rutherford Institute to pursue religious litigation, has moved with some vigor to disavow his old mentor's views.
Prominent California philanthropist Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., who
has given Rushdoony's operations more than $700,000 over the years,
may also be loosening his ties. According to the June 30, 1996,
Orange County Register, Ahmanson has departed the
Chalcedon board and says he "does not embrace all of Rushdoony's
teachings." An heir of the Home Savings bank fortune, Ahmanson has
also been an important donor to numerous
other groups, including the Claremont Institute, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and--just to show how complicated life gets--the Reason Foundation, the publisher of this magazine (for projects not associated with its publication).
The continuing, extensive Reconstructionist presence in fields like the home schooling movement poses for libertarians an obvious question: How serious do differences have to become before it becomes inappropriate to overlook them in an otherwise good cause? The printed program of last year's Separation of School & State Alliance convention constituted an odd ideological mix in which certified good guys such as Sheldon Richman, Jim Bovard, and Don Boudreaux alternated with Chalcedon stalwarts like Samuel Blumenfeld, Howard Phillips, and Rushdoony himself.