Phillip Luke Sinitiere
Today is part 2 of my interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Read part 1 of the interview here.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): Can you pinpoint some of Rushdoony’s
major impacts—even legacies—within the broader worlds of religious and
political conservatism in the U. S.? In this regard, how does your book
connect to the recent and related studies by Molly Worthen, Matt Sutton,
Kevin Kruse, and Tim Gloege, among others?
Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Arguably,
Rushdoony’s singular achievement came not in the form of
Reconstructionism, but in his advocacy for Christian homeschooling. In
the 1950s, Rushdoony began arguing that conservative Christians had a
theological and religious obligation to free themselves from
state-funded public schools. By the 1960s, a series of U.S. Supreme
Court Rulings—ranging from controversial integration decisions to orders
banning school prayer and religious instruction in public schools—made
Rushdoony seem especially prescient. Concerned parents flocked to his
lectures and he built a grassroots network of lawyers, educators, and
activists who challenged compulsory state attendance laws and other
regulations limiting parents’ ability to educate their children at home
or in private Christian schools. He eagerly cooperated with left-wing
homeschooling advocates or adherents of other religious faiths so long
as they shared his view of the educational autonomy of parents.
Rushdoony also had a broad influence on conservative grassroots
political activism from the 1960s through the 1990s, but most of this
influence came at such a granular and decentralized level that it is
nearly impossibly to assess the scope of his activities.
of Rushdoony’s broader influence can be found in the current popularity
of free market economic theories among conservative Protestants—a trend
facilitated by Rushdoony’s economist son-in-law Gary North. Rushdoony
was a significant beneficiary of the network of corporate interests most
recently highlighted in Kruse’s recent work on the relationship between
midcentury corporate and religious interests. Rushdoony played an
overlooked role in contributing to the intellectual vision of
organizations such as Spiritual Mobilization, the Foundation for
Economic Education, and the Christian Freedom Foundation. Further,
Rushdoony helped subtly shift some evangelicals to rethink—but not
reject—premillennial eschatology in relationship to postmillennial
themes—especially as they relate to patriarchal visions of large
families expanding over subsequent generations to Christianize the
world—in some conservative ministries. This is important in relationship
to in American Apocalypse, because characters such as Rushdoony and the
Reconstructionists he inspired simply don’t fit in Sutton’s narrative.
Rushdoony represented a mode of postmillennial eschatology that has
strong traditional connections to the various ethnic Reformed polities
in the Midwest—especially Dutch Calvinism—and old-line Princeton a- and
postmillennial eschatology. As I argue in the book—and in more depth elsewhere—Reconstructionist postmillennialism did play a subtle but
important role in challenging the dominance of premillennialism in the
1980s. It would be a gross exaggeration to claim that Rushdoony changed
the eschatological discussion, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say he made
many popular figures think carefully about the political and social
implications of premillennialism.
the end, it might be best to read my book as a sunbelt mircohistory.
That is, it is most clearly in dialogue with works by Lisa McGirr,
Michelle Nickerson, and Darren Dochuk. It affirms the observations of
these works, but it does so by focusing on the ministry of a largely
overlooked figured from California who had direct connections to many of
the characters and organizations discussed by the aforementioned
authors. My book highlights how Rushdoony built Reconstructionism out of
a network of small Calvinist and Reformed churches scattered across the
South, Southwest, and Midwest. The narrative suggests that even a tiny,
decentralized movement of committed activists could have a
disproportional influence on larger social and religious movements
during the twentieth century.
You write that you had unique and essentially unfettered access to
Rushdoony’s papers and files, and massive library. Can you discuss the
archival and documentary foundation of your book?
I did the primary research for the book over two separate trips to
Rushdoony’s library in Vallecito, California. When I began the project, I
knew that I needed more than the available secondary literature on
Rushdoony and Reconstructionism. I also wanted to avoid relying too
heavily on the published writings of Reconstructionists. The secondary
literature is rife with hyperbolic half-truths about the movement that
treat it in an ahistorical manner, while the Reconstructionist
literature is triumphalist, polemical, and of little historical value
for assessing the organizational development of the movement.
Consequently, I worked on building an open and honest exchange with Rev.
Mark Rousas Rushdoony, R. J.’s son and the current president of the
Chalcedon Foundation, about my research agenda. After a few months of
exchanges facilitated by Chris Ortiz, the former PR man for Chalcedon, I
asked Mark Rushdoony to review and comment on an essay I was writing
for Public Eye, the magazine of the left-leaning Political Research Associates. When Rev. Rushdoony saw that I intended to write a richly
contextualized historical study of the development of Reconstructionism
and Rushdoony’s ministry, he agreed to let me into his father’s library.
He allowed me complete access to the entire library, with the exception
of some legal records related to his father’s divorce. I could
photograph and digitize anything I wanted. After a visit in 2007 and
another in 2014, I captured thousands of digital images of letters,
journals, book manuscripts, and administrative files from the Chalcedon
foundation. They form the archival heart of the book.
PLS: What current projects are you working on?
I’m currently developing a new book-length project that investigates
the complex interaction between religion, domestic intelligence
gathering, and the emergence of political conservatism in twentieth
century U.S. culture. The project will specifically focus on the history
of intelligence gathering operations operated by religiously affiliated
organizations during the course of the twentieth century. I’m currently
studying a network of organizations including the American Intelligence
Agency, the Anti-Defamation League, the Christian Crusade Against
Communism, the Church League of America, Group Research Associates, and
the John Birch Society. My hope is that by concentrating on the
development of intelligence and dossier gathering operations operated by
religious organizations (or groups committed to resisting certain
religious organizations), the project will illuminate the contested
systems of bureaucracy, archiving, and the materiality of memory-making
that developed in state, corporate, church, and private organizations in
the middle of the twentieth century. The project will synthesize recent
insights from material history and media history with religious studies
to explore key issues related to race, political ideology, gender and
the contestation of social boundary formation during the Cold War.