End-times theology and support for Israel have undermined the Christian right’s founding vision of bringing about social change through political involvement, says a veteran leader of a controversial movement known as Christian Reconstructionism.
Popularized in a 1973 book called Institutes of Christian Law by scholar Rousas John Rushdoony, Christian Reconstructionism (unrelated to Reconstructionist Judaism) is a subset of a broader fundamentalist Christian movement labeled “Dominion Theology.”
Derived from Gen. 1:26, which gives mankind dominion over the animals of the earth, and Jesus’ Great Commission commanding his followers to proselytize to the world, Dominion Theology holds that Christians are commanded to bring all societies under rule of God’s Word.
But in the current issue of Faith for All of Life, a magazine published by the Chalcedon Foundation, a Reconstructionist think tank, author Gary North laments that the Christian right has been “hijacked” by a competing ideology called Neoconservatism.
Neoconservatism is the name used to describe Republicans—often former liberals–who lack the social conservatives’ zeal for moral issues like abortion or the Libertarians’ commitment to small government but are interventionist and hawkish in foreign policy.
Through influence of well-financed publications like the Weekly Standard andthe editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, North said, the neocons have wooed many fundamentalist Christians with their unconditional support for Israel.
Many religious right groups, like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, are “pre-millennial” in their end-time theology. Popularized in the “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, it is a pessimistic view, which says the world is so tainted by sin that it is beyond redemption. Things will continue to get worse, they say, until a cataclysmic Battle of Armageddon—involving the modern State of Israel–ushers in the Second Coming of Christ.
In contrast, many Dominionists are “post-millennial,” believing the Second Coming promised by Scripture is being delayed to allow Christ’s followers time to usher in God’s Kingdom through good works.
For Reconstructionists, good works mean not only preaching morality but also include abolishing pluralistic democracy and replacing it with a theocracy like ancient Israel, governed by God’s law. Opponents warn that if Reconstructionists had their way, there would be no separation of church and state, the Ten Commandments would be law of the land and homosexuality and adultery would be capital crimes punishable by stoning.
“At its root, Reconstructionism is a militant Biblicism,” says Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, a longtime observer of the movement. “In many ways, it is a revival of the holy war theology of the Hebrew Bible under the guise of Christianity–the chief difference being that Reconstructionists believe they have a mandate to claim more than the land of Palestine; they believe they are commanded to conquer the entire world and exercise ‘dominion’ over all its peoples.”
While few figures in the religious right self-identify as Reconstructionists, the movement has over time gained a substantial foothold in Washington, Mother Jones magazine points out in a feature in the December/January 2006 issue.
Reconstruction-influenced scholar Marvin Olasky is credited with coining the well-known term “compassionate conservative.” He was a key adviser in creation of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Deposed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, though not a card-carrying Reconstructionist, claims to govern with what he calls a “biblical worldview”—a signature phrase of Reconstructionists.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has never declared himself a Reconstructionist but is a frequent speaker at its gatherings.
The movement also has roots in the radical anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue.
North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law, said the “New Christian Right” was born in September 1980 at the Reunion Arena in Dallas–the National Affairs Briefing Conference–where he spoke.
The meeting of religious leaders is best remembered for then-Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith’s comment that God does not hear prayers by Jews and then-candidate Ronald Reagan’s, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”
But North said a private conversation he had backstage said it best: “This meeting is being held because of Rushdoony’s influence, even though most of the attendees have never heard of him.”
Controversial tenets of Reconstructionism include closing prisons and reinstituting slavery as a form of punishment. Another is to close public schools and make parents totally responsible for the education of their children.
By the end of the 1980s, North said, Christian Reconstruction ideas had spread into the home school movement. The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, refused last year to pass a wholesale indictment of “government” schools, but this summer passed a milder resolution encouraging churches and parents to investigate anti-Christian influences in public schools and act accordingly.
While Christian Reconstructionist slogans like “There is no neutrality” and “Christian world-and-life view” are familiar to millions of Protestants in the pew, North said, they have not spread inside the Washington beltway.
“Christian Reconstruction is opposed to empire because empire is the preferred alternative to the kingdom of God in history (Daniel 2:44-45),” he wrote. “Neoconservatives favor the American empire because it is pro-Israel and clothed in the rhetoric of democracy. There is no reconciliation possible between the two positions.”
“The fundamentalist Christian right, because of its complete commitment to the State of Israel, has found common cause with Neoconservatism,” he said. “Eschatology matters.”
North’s introduction to many Baptists came in 1986, when he interviewed Paul Pressler, architect of a fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, for one of his “Fireside Chats.”
In the first documented account of inner workings of the so-called SBC “conservative resurgence,” North gushed about “an example, a truly moving example, of how a dedicated group of principled people can start a plan, execute the plan, and fundamentally transform an organization.”
While issues within the SBC were theological, North said, he believed the techniques adopted by Pressler and others could be a model for taking over other institutions, where those providing the financial support don’t agree with a ruling elite.
During the interview, Pressler dodged questions from North about parallels with secular politics. Acknowledging that the SBC conservatives came to power about the same time as religious right figures like Paul Weyrich were getting ideas translated into public policy, Pressler insisted the two movements were “completely unrelated.”
Later in the interview, however, Pressler boasted about results of the leadership change that were consistent with the Reconstructionist agenda.
“We had a Resolutions Committee that was conservative for the first time,” Pressler said. “And we passed the first pro-life resolution–strongly pro-life resolution–ever passed by the Southern Baptist Convention. And we passed an anti-ERA resolution which just infuriated the liberals because they had been utilizing the powers of the Southern Baptist Convention both for the abortion movement and for ERA. And so here we clipped their wings by opposing both at the national convention.”
Pressler served alongside both Rushdoony and North—as well as Reagan aide Gary Bauer and activist Paul Weyrich—on the Council for National Policy, a group of right-wing leaders once dubbed “the most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of.”
Pressler became agitated in when Bill Moyers tried to get him to talk to him about his involvement with right-wing political leaders in his 1987 PBS documentary “God and Politics,” saying he is careful to separate his political involvement from his involvement in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“What I do as a judge and what I do with my other personal convictions are not a matter of controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, and I think it is extremely unfortunate to try to mix things that are not properly mixed,” Pressler said before cutting off the interview.
But Prescott, who viewed the SBC takeover from the losing moderate side, said he has always been skeptical about Pressler’s claims that it had nothing to do with secular politics.
“Despite the denials, listening to that [North] interview confirmed my suspicion that the goal of influencing secular politics was one of the primary motives for the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC,” said Prescott, who also runs the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
After first hearing the taped interview with Pressler in 1986, Prescott said: “I decided that I needed to learn more about Gary North, the principles that he stood for, and the kind of changes he was interested in seeing effected. Particularly since Pressler’s last words in North’s interview were, ‘I appreciate all that you are doing and the privilege to stand for the same basic principles.'”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.