Christian Reconstruction: An Interview with Michael J. McVicar, Part 1

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today begins a two-part interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Dr. McVicar is Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida State University where he teaches courses on religion, new religious movements, and religion and American political culture. Additional features on Christian Reconstruction are available as podcasts here and here. Part 2 of the interview posts tomorrow.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): In the sometimes shadowy and sometimes elusive recesses of the Christian Right, the name Rousas John Rushdoony is key to the larger story of political and religious conservatism in this country. Who was R. J. Rushdoony, the person, the scholar, the iconoclast?

Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was a theologically and socially conservative Presbyterian minister who played an important role in the development of the Christian Right of the late 1970s. His biography is compelling because it reflects many of the major cultural and social upheavals of the twentieth century. He was the son of Armenian immigrants who fled Turkish forces during the Armenian genocide of 1915. His older brother, Rousas George, died during the Turkish siege of the city of Van. After a Russian assault forced Turks to lift their siege, Rushdoony’s parents—his mother already pregnant with Rousas John—escaped through Russia to New York City. R. J. Rushdoony was born in New York and baptized in Los Angeles. His father, Y. K. Rushdoony, went on to minister to Armenian diasporic communities in California and Michigan. The plight of his family and the Armenian people more generally haunted Rushdoony for the rest of his life as he struggled to come to terms with their suffering and the forces that enabled such violence. After graduating first from the University of California, Berkeley, and then from seminary in the 1940s, Rushdoony served as a missionary on a Native American reservation in Nevada. There he became convinced that the forces that led to the Armenian genocide were identical to the forces behind the genocide of America’s native populations: the abandonment of orthodox Christianity for the sinful elevation of the state to god-like status in human affairs. In short, Rushdoony’s early ministry was directly shaped by his personal experiences as a survivor of one of the twentieth century’s great atrocities. 

As a scholar, Rushdoony developed a radical anti-statist theology by synthesizing the presuppositional apologetics of Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til with the political theology of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, the great German-American medieval historian and Rushdoony’s mentor at Berkeley. Rushdoony fused these intellectual projects with his own idiosyncratic brand of Christian libertarianism that he developed in conversation with the libertarian economic and social theorists popular in some circles of the American right following World War II. As a fundamentalist theologian, he tried to harmonize these modish midcentury ideas with a rigorous and aggressive Christian message that preached individual regeneration through literal adherence to Biblical law. He came to see orthodox Christianity, especially as embodied in the definition of Chalcedon, as an antidote to the problems of modernity and as a way of resisting the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism in the twentieth century.

Rushdoony monomaniacally pursued a ministry based on these ideas and, in the process, earned a reputation for being an iconoclastic figure committed to a narrow vision of Reformed Presbyterian theology. Initially, he adhered to J. Gresham Machen’s separatist model of fundamentalism. By the mid 1950s, he had left the reservation to lead a mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Southern California. After a series of battles over his political views and theological ideas, he abandoned the PCUSA and, eventually, even withdrew from several more conservative Presbyterian polities, including Machen’s own Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. In the process of severing ties with these polities, Rushdoony became well known in fundamentalist and evangelical circles as an insistent theological brawler who was determined to push his theological vision at any cost. At one point he even attempted to bully his way into the editorial process at Christianity Today through his connections with powerful oilman J. Howard Pew. The fight made him a mortal enemy of Carl F. H. Henry and led to Rushdoony’s self-imposed exile from the neo-evangelical movement. Rushdoony paralleled these religious schisms with an endless succession of battles with political conservatives in California. He knew all of the important figures in the region, including important right-wing organizers such as Harold Luhnow of the William Volker Fund, Walter Knott of the Americanism Educational League, and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society. Rushdoony’s theological and political visions were so rigid that he eventually alienated himself from some of the most important right-wing philanthropists of the 1960s and struck out on his own to start a political and religious movement.

PLS: As one of the leading intellectual architects of Christian Reconstruction, what is “Christian Reconstruction” and who and what shaped Rushdoony’s political formation and spiritual imagination?

MJM: Christian Reconstruction is the social and theological project that Rushdoony began articulating in the 1960s. In many ways, Rushdoony conceived of Reconstructionism as a response to what he perceived as the failures and aimlessness of mid-century American neo-evangelicalism. In distinction to many of the trendy megaministries of the era—such as Billy Graham’s popular crusades, Christianity Today’s bid for evangelical intellectual legitimacy, or Bill Bright’s evangelicalism for the college-educated masses—Rushdoony went small. He wrote for tiny audiences, preached to small parents’ and citizens’ groups, and he lectured at little conservative seminaries in the South. His postmillennialism encouraged him to think of social reform in terms of decades of slow, methodical change. He believed change happened through the cultivation of strong families, not through other social mechanisms. 

His Reconstructionism envisions patriarchal family units as embodying God’s order in Genesis 1:26-28 for Adam to “have dominion” over the earth. Rushdoony insisted that this passage is a “creation mandate” that requires “humankind [to] subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it.” This mandate forms the heart of the Reconstruction movement. Rushdoony argued that Christians must become “dominion men,” who “take dominion” over the planet and “reconstruct” all of life according to Old Testament law. Rushdoony referred to this project as theonomy, from the Greek theos (God) and nomos (law). Theonomy has become notorious for Rushdoony’s political activism and far-right social, theological, and political positions—ranging from Rushdoony’s controversial statements regarding the execution of homosexuals, witches, and adulterers to his support for a specific form of Christian theocratic rule. With the publication of his mammoth work, The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, Rushdoony began a gradualist, grassroots campaign to popularize theonomy among homeschoolers, libertarians, and Presbyterians in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Australia, and South Africa. 


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