Here’s why you need to understand evangelical Christianity’s outrageous — and influential — far-right fringe
Here’s a simple question: Have you ever heard of Christian Reconstruction, Rousas J. Rushdoony, or one of his most influential works, The Institutes of Biblical Law? Probably not. Christian Reconstruction is a religious belief system set out by the late Rushdoony, which maintains that every aspect of society – church, state, family, economy — should be based on Biblical law. It is evangelical Christianity’s right-wing fringe, yet its tentacles reach deep into the clown car that is the Republican Party’s field of presidential candidates.
Is Christian Reconstruction so fringed out it is not worthy of attention? Not according to Julie J. Ingersoll, author of the new book, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2015), who posits that Reconstructionists’ “biblical worldview” plays a highly influential role, although subtle and often hidden, in contemporary right-wing politics.
As John F. Sugg pointed out in a 2004 extensive piece in Tampa, Florida’s Weekly Planet, “Most churchgoers have never heard of Christian Reconstruction or theonomy. Believers would be hard-pressed to define ‘dominion theology,’ ‘covenant theology,’ ‘pre-millennial,’ [or] ‘post- millennial.’ … Nor would most Americans reflexively embrace a ‘theology’ that denounced all government social programs, public schools, environmental protections — a religion that promoted mass executions for sins as minor as swearing at parents….”
While a number of investigative reporters, researchers and writers such as Sugg, and Chip Berlet, author of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, and Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, have delved deeply into this movement over the years, perhaps no one has been as immersed in it as Julie Ingersoll.
In the preface to Building God’s Kingdom, Ingersoll, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, writes that she first encountered Christian Reconstruction in the early 1980s at Rutgers University. Steeped in the conservative movement, Ingersoll worked as a volunteer, intern, writer and researcher for several of the more significant New Right political organizations of that period, including the National Conservative Political Action Committee, Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, and the American Life Lobby. She attended campaign schools run by the National Conservative Foundation, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and the College Republican National Committee Feldman School.
In 1983, Ingersoll writes, she “married a member of one of the Reconstructionist families,” and was divorced in the early 1990s. Although she had differences with many in the movement, mostly over issues related to the treatment of women, she worked with a number of right-to-life groups, including Operation Rescue, and was the California chapter president of Feminists for Life.
Building God’s Kingdom is the result of nearly 30 years of research, writing, reflection, rethinking, involvement with and detachment from evangelical Christian conservative movements. Ingersoll acknowledges that it is difficult to quantify the influence of Christian Reconstruction on mainstream politics as they have their own institutions and do not readily share their data, therefore leaving “the strategy of trying to trace the[ir] influence in more subtle, nuanced, and admittedly interpretive ways.”
Rushdoony: New Right ‘Intellectual Godfather’
According to Ingersoll, Rushdoony never received his props. He was one of the religious right’s “intellectual godfathers,” but he was “often treated like a crazy uncle.” Nevertheless, while Reconstructionism never attracted “much [grassroots] support … the movement’s ideas became a driving force in American politics,” as Reconstructionists “found a home in Washington-based political organizations, such as the Moral Majority and Christian Voice.”
Howard Phillips, a major figure in the early development of the religious right called Rousas John Rushdoony the “most influential man of the 21st century” whose work brought about “historic changes in the thinking of countless leaders.” Phillips told Ingersoll that Rushdoony was “early and often on all the big issues, and he was a pioneer in the homeschool movement.” On the occasion of Rushdoony’s death in February 2001, Gary North, a movement leader and Rushdoony’s son-in-law, credited him with “being the source of many of the core ideas of the New Christian Right,” and maintained that the media never understood the scope of his influence.
Ruashdoony’s appeal to religious right leaders was that he put the Bible at the center of everything. Rushdoony’s work permeated “arguments made by conservative Christians about biblical government that focus on the character and structure of families, free-market economics, the legal status of religion, the critique of public education, care for the poor, the right to own guns, the funding of health care.”
Ingersoll’s Building God’s Freedom “address[es] one aspect of the story of the contemporary conservative Christian subculture and the rise of the religious right: the impact of a small group of fundamentalists known as Christian Reconstructionists.”
“Well before the establishment of the Washington-based political organizations designed to harness the growing dissatisfaction among conservative Christians,” Ingersoll writes, “Reconstructionists were laying the intellectual foundation that would shape the twenty-first century conservative Christian subculture, developing what would become the religious right’s critique of the American social order, and plotting strategies to bring about change.”
While adherents of the religious right do not make up a majority of this country’spopulation, a substantial number of people believe, as Christian Reconstructionists do, that America is Christian nation, separation of church and state is a liberal-initiated shibboleth, patriarchy is the God-ordained structure for families, and the Bible, and the laws contained within it, should rule over every aspect of life.
Christian Reconstruction is playing the long game, and Ingersoll meticulously explores its “strategy” of “mak[ing] meaningful the mundane details of day-to-day life by situating them in a sweeping narrative framed as the fundamental purpose of God and his creation.” Building God’s Kingdom traces the origins of the New Christian Right back to the Old Christian Right, describes how Reconstructionists “helped the movement take root in the conservative Protestant subculture” and details how Reconstructionist ideas were planted in evangelical culture, even among those who didn’t identify with Reconstructionism.
Cyclically, mainstream media’s pundits bury the religious right. And while it is worthwhile pointing out that the religious right’s influence has ebbed and flowed over the past two decades, some of its issues — now most famously being played out under the meme of “religious freedom” — remains at center stage. While Reconstructionists are not responsible for totally birthing the religious right, and have rarely been in the spotlight, nevertheless its “influence continues, although often until recently unacknowledged and sometimes denied.”