Thank you, Kevin Phillips. The conservative scholar and author of the important new book, American Theocracy, has made it safe for all to utter the word “theocracy,” without fear of being dismissed as a kook, an exaggerator or a religious bigot. (Or at least safer.)
I will have much more to say about American Theocracy in the not too distant future, but for now let’s note that while this book is important for many reasons, it is worth highlighting that unlike almost every other writer that has tackled the Christian Right, he does not shy away from discussing the Christian theocratic movement as it exists in our time, in the U.S. (His argument is summarized in the current issue of The Nation. His article opens this way:
“Is theocracy in the United States (1) a legitimate fear, as some liberals argue; (2) a joke, given the nation’s rising secular population and moral laxity; (3) a worrisome bias of major GOP constituencies and pressure groups; or (4) all of the above? The last, I would argue.”
It is worth discussing the nature of theocratic ideas and movements in the United States in our time, and I think the publication of American Theocracy will help us to do so over the next few months and years as America once again comes to grips with notions of totalitarian religious governance that have been part of the mix of American political thought since the Colonial era. There are many reasons why such ideas have gained traction in our time, and Phillips describes some of them very well.
But before we do, let’s just note that for a long time, discussing the explicitly theocratic views of elements of the Christian Right made people wary and unwilling to actively discuss it. Indeed, there has been a strong undertow of denial in the culture — one that continues, even if it is now suddenly less fashionable. Some people considered talk of contemporary theocratic politics and ideas as poppycock and conspiracy theory. Others feared that some Christians might be offended. Some were in the kind of a fearful state of denial that can only be described as “it can’t happen here” and were unable to take in any information that would allow them to seriously entertain the idea that there was and is an active theocratic movement in the United States. For others, “theocrat” was seized on as an epithet for all conservative Christian views of which they disapproved. This was particularly unhelpful, because the unsubstantiated name calling tended to reinforced the attitudes of those who considered even the use of the word theocracy or theocrat somehow untoward. All of these tendencies are still with us, and will need to be continually addressed if we are going to be able to have meaningful conversations about the theocrats of our time.
While I encourage everyone to read Phillips’ book, I also want to give a big plug for my own, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, which was first published in 1997 by Common Courage Press. (The title is borrowed from a quote from Thomas Jefferson, which is engraved in the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. In response to the theocrats of his time he wrote:
I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
When Phillips tackled the subject, one that was new to him, he soon realized that one cannot talk about the theocratic tendencies of the Christian right without looking at the intellectual sources of contemporary theocratic thought. Hence the importance of Christian Reconstructionism, the central intellectual source of the theocratic movement in the U.S. I was honored that Phillips drew considerably on an article about Christian Reconstructionism I wrote in 1994 for The Public Eye magazine. As it happens, I incorporated and expanded on that article for Eternal Hostility.
Demand for Eternal Hostility has been steady over the years, and my publisher tells me that they are about to reprint it. (But when they do… the price will go up! Shipping prices have gone up too, so I will soon have to raise the price I charge through my web site. So. For a limited time, you can get the book that discussed the theocratic movement in America before it was cool to — at the pre-cool price.)
I am pleased to report that it has stood up quite well over time. While the book covers a lot of ground from Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition and the Promise Keepers, to the empire of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Here are a few excerpts from my discussion of Christian Reconstructionism, a subject that I am sorry to report must be grappled with in any serious discussion of the Christian theocratic movements in the U.S. These excerpts are intended to offer a few snapshots of the seriousness of the thought and purpose of the movement, and some sense of its influence.
Let’ just start out by noting that the work of the Reconstructionist thinkers, especially the late theologian R.J. Rushdoony, are so central to the development of the contemporary Christian Right that Rev. Robert Billings, one of the founders of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority once acknowledged that “if it were not for [Rushdoony’s] books, none of us would be here.” This is important to note, because some of what I discuss below will sound so outlandish that it may be difficult to believe that anyone take such ideas seriously. But indeed they do. And while the vast majority of the leaders and activists of the Christian Right do not accept these ideas, it is important to note that there are those that do; that these ideas have been central, not peripheral, to the political and theological conversation in key circles of conservative evangelicalism; and have been a part of the modern conversation for a generation.
Reconstructionism is a theology… which asserts that contemporary application of the laws of Old Testament Israel is the basis for reconstructing society towards the Kingdom of God on earth.
Reconstructionism argues that the Bible is to be the governing text for all areas of life — such as government, education, and law– not merely for “social” or “moral” issues like pornography, homosexuality, and abortion. Reconstructionists have formulated a “Biblical worldview” and “Biblical principles” to govern and inform their lives and their politics.
Reconstructionist theologian David Chilton succinctly describes this view: “The Christian goal for the world is the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s Law.”…
The original and defining text of Reconstructionism is The Institutes of Biblical Law, published in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony—an 800 page explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Biblical “case law” that derives from them, and their application today. “The only true order,” writes Rushdoony, “is founded on Biblical Law. All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion.” In brief, he continues, “every law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare.”
Epitomizing the Reconstructionist idea of biblical “warfare” is the centrality of capital punishment. Doctrinal leaders… call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, “sodomy or homosexuality,” incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and in the case of women, unchastity before marriage.”
Rushdoony insists that Biblical law requires “death without mercy” for “idolatry.” He notes, however, that the death penalty is not required for privately held beliefs… Death is intended for “attempts to subvert others and to subvert the social order by enticing others to idolatry.”… “God’s government prevails, and His alternatives are clear cut: either men and nations obey His laws, or God invokes the death penalty against them.” … The potential for bloodthirsty episodes on the order of the Salem witch trials for the Inquisition is inadvertently revealed by Reconstructionist writer Rev. Ray Sutton of Tyler, Texas, who claims that biblical theocracies would be “happy” places to which people would flock because “capital punishment is one of the best evangelistic tools of a society.”
Reconstructionism often “cloaks its identity, as well as its activities, understanding he degree of opposition it provokes…. While claiming to be reformers, not revolutionaries Reconstructionists recognize that the harsh theocracy they advocate is revolutionary indeed. [Influential Reconstructionist writer] Gary North warns against a “premature revolutionary situation,” saying that the public must begin to accept “the judicially binding case laws of the Old Testament before we attempt to tear down institutions that still rely on natural law or public virtue . (I have in mind the U.S. Constitution.)” Reconstructionists are aware that such ideas must be discreetly infused into their target constituency. The vague claim that God and Jesus want Christians to govern society is certainly more appealing than the bloodthirsty notion of “vengeance,” or the overthrow of constitutional government.
… North bluntly states that one of his first actions would be to remove legal access to the franchise and to civil offices from those who refuse to become communicant members of Trinitarian churches.” Quick to condemn democracy as the idea that law is whatever the majority says it is, North et al, would be quick to cynically utilize a similar “majority” for a permanent theocratic solution. In a claim that could change forever the meaning of “politically correct,” Rushdoony envisions a society in which “only the right have rights.”
Epitomizing the way that Rushdoony’s views are the measure by which many Christian Right leaders determine their own stances, Herb Titus, founding… dean of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School, says that he differs with Rushdoony over the “jurisdiction of the civil ruler” in capital cases. Titus says that God’s covenant with all nations calls for the death penalty for kidnapping, rape and murder. But, with regard to other forms of death penalty, there are differences of opinion among Christians. I do not subscribe to Dr. Rushdoony’s view with regard to the authority of the state with regard to say adultery or committing homosexual behavior.” The “differences of opinion” to which Titus refers go to the heart of the matter. If the leading scholars of the Christian Right cannot agree among themselves as to what God’s laws require, the nature of law and government depends entirely on who gains power, and is thus not “absolute,” as leading demagogues of the Christian Right are fond of claiming.
The writer Richard Weaver is famous among conservative intellectuals for his aphorism, “Ideas have consequences.” While many have taken that notion to justify a wide variety programs, the basic point is fair enough. And it is that sense of the consequences of ideas that is vital in understanding the role and influence of the ideas of Christian Reconstructionism, which have been deeply infused into the thought of the Christian Right. Although the movement has no one denominational or institutional home, its writers have been prolific and deeply, albeit quietly, influential. Christian Right legal activist John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute was a longtime disciple of Rushdoony, although he now says he is no longer a Reconstructionist. Herb Titus taught Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law for many years in his classes at Regent University, an accredited law school. Reconstructionist writers including Rushdoony, influenced the thinking of Marvin Olasky, a longtime adviser to president Bush, and the coiner of the term “compassionate conservatism.”
Suffice to say that there are numerous examples and that this movement is in serious need of far more serious attention than it has received. American Theocracy has opened the door. Let’s walk through it.
[Crossposted from Talk to Action]