In 1965, R. J. Rushdoony moved his family from Palo Alto, California, to the San Fernando Valley. He had been working for two years on a research grant from the Center for American Studies, which was in the process of being dissolved.
That same year, he started what became Chalcedon, operating under the legal umbrella of Walter Knott’s non-profit foundation. He began publishing a monthly newsletter, which became the Chalcedon Report. None of this attracted any attention by the media.
At the other end of the country in 1965, two momentous events took place. First, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee, began a major shift of editorial policy. What had been a standard though highly literate journal of conventional political liberal opinion began a metamorphosis into a much more skeptical publication. Podhoretz and his friends steadily lost confidence in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Second, also in New York City, Podhoretz’s friend Irving Kristol launched The Public Interest, a quarterly scholarly journal. This journal became the primary intellectual outlet for what became known as neoconservatism. Under Kristol’s editorial leadership, this journal began to publish articles by professors at some of America’s finest universities. What was unique after 1965 was their willingness to analyze the actual results of the growing welfare state. They found, as Ludwig von Mises had been saying for half a century by 1965, that the results of government intervention into the economy are the opposite of what the interventionists promised that their programs would achieve.
Mises had made this judgment based on a rigorous application of economic theory. Authors in The Public Interest kept economic theory in the background. They reported on the empirical results of the government’s welfare programs. These programs, if not total failures, at least were producing highly negative side effects. Of course, there is no such thing as a side effect, as biologist Garett Hardin once remarked. There are only effects, some of which people do not like. These unpleasant effects are then called side effects.
What was remarkable at the time and also in retrospect is the fact that in 1965 there were academic authors who were willing to break with the prevailing liberal opinion. This was in the heyday of the Great Society, when Johnson was able to pass more welfare legislation than any president since Franklin Roosevelt during his first term. Yet these authors sent in their footnoted articles, indicating that they had either been closet conservatives for many years or else they had experienced a paradigm shift, along with Podhoretz and Kristol.
In the case of sociologist-historian Robert Nisbet, there had been no paradigm shift. He had been a conservative for well over a decade, a conservative of the Russell Kirk variety. It was Nisbet who first introduced me to Kirk in 1960. I was one of two undergraduates invited to lunch by Nisbet, where Kirk also had been invited. Approximately two students were the sum total of conservative political opinion at the University of California, Riverside, in 1960.
Nisbet had written one book, The Quest for Community, in 1953. In 1954, he became the Dean of the College at UCR, the year it opened. Thus, Podhoretz and Kristol lifted Nisbet out of academic obscurity and opened the door for him to become one of the leading intellectuals in American conservatism by 1970. As editor of Basic Books, Kristol published Nisbet’s book, The Sociological Tradition, in 1966. It became an instant classic — a rare event in book publishing.
Nisbet had the intelligence, the literary skills, and the perspective in 1953. But he had no market. Beginning in 1965, he gained access to a large market. As he told me in the late 1960s, “I became one of their in-house sociologists. Jews buy a lot of books.” Yet this does not explain the existence of that market after 1964. It had not existed in 1963.
Something changed in 1965. Many things changed, seemingly overnight. A new liberalism arrived, which developed into the Vietnam student protest movement and the domestic counterculture, commonly known as the hippie movement. The counterculture was opposed by all conservatives, but also by the fledgling neoconservatives. We can easily date the arrival of this new liberalism: the student protest movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1964. It caught the older liberalism completely by surprise. By 1968, it had confirmed the old adage, “The Revolution is eaten by its children.” To which anti-revolutionary conservatives have always responded: “But not soon enough.”
One irony here is that Nisbet and Rushdoony were both educated at Berkeley in the late 1930s. Nisbet had remained there as a professor. Rushdoony had gone into almost perfect obscurity as a missionary to the Western Shoshone tribe in Nevada and Utah. There he read constantly, assembling his now legendary personal library. There he also saw socialism firsthand: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), arguably the West’s oldest national experiment in socialism. The system was a visible failure — one which few non-BIA white men had ever witnessed at close range in 1950. Liberalism never tempted Rushdoony again.
Two Kinds of Opposition
The neoconservatives tended to be skeptics of the Vietnam War as the 1960s closed. So was Rushdoony. So was I. But there was a fundamental difference in this anti-war spirit. The neoconservatives had all been big supporters of previous American wars. Rushdoony and I were both historical revisionists regarding America’s wars. We believed that the United States had not fought a legitimate war since 1783. We were convinced that Wilson and Roosevelt had tricked the nation into war, with Roosevelt deliberately provoking Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. The neoconservatives were anti-war selectively — we might say empirically. They opposed the Vietnam war in much the same way that they opposed this or that Great Society program: on an ad hoc basis. They were visibly pragmatists.
They were also pro-Israel. They believed in the policies of the U.S. government in supporting the State of Israel against the Arabs and in sending billions of taxpayers’ dollars to the government of Israel. Rushdoony and I were anti-Zionists. We were also opposed to government-to-government foreign aid – to Israel or any other nation.
Rushdoony and I were anti-Communists of the Old Right. We were foreign policy non-interventionists, called isolationists by non-interventionism’s critics. We rejected the idea of the state as savior, and Communism was the most intense and ruthless of the modern philosophies of salvation by civil law. In contrast, neoconservatives had been anti-Communists of the conventional liberal variety. Some of them, including Kristol, had been part of a CIA-funded front called the Congress of Cultural Freedom, established in 1950. The CIA had bankrolled the liberal but anti-Communist monthly British magazine, Encounter, which had been a kind of Gentile version of Commentary. This CIA connection was not discovered by the literati until 1967. Kristol was Encounter’s first co-editor. Melvin Lasky edited it from 1958 to 1990. Both he and Kristol had been Trotskyites in the 1930s.1
During the 1970s, the neoconservatives began to be concerned about the build-up of Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons. One of their organizations was the Committee on the Present Danger, which publicized the nuclear threat. In the 1980s, this outlook dovetailed with the work of former General Daniel Graham’s work in publicizing SDI: the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars” by the media after Reagan’s 1983 speech. Graham, Rushdoony, and I were all active members of the Council for National Policy in the first half of the 1980s.
Graham was promoting national defense, not the establishment of an American counter-empire. He and retired General Albion Knight favored SDI because it offered a technological nullification of MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction, which was policy based on holding civilian populations captive by the threat of nuclear attacks on cities. I agreed.
With the Gulf War in early 1991, the split between the neoconservatives and Christian Reconstruction became obvious. Rushdoony and I publicly opposed the war. The neoconservatives favored it.
With the fall of the Soviet Union six months later, the neoconservatives became open advocates of a new American empire. Christian Reconstructionists rejoiced that the Soviet monster was dead, but we had moral objections to the Clinton Administration’s economic sanctions against Iraq. The neoconservatives went along with the sanctions.
Hijacking the Christian Right
The neoconservatives have had access to millions of dollars through large foundations: Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and Smith Richardson. Money talks. In Washington, it screams. Christian Reconstruction has been entirely self-funded through small donations by newsletter subscribers and book buyers.
Neoconservatism could call on high-level government figures to give speeches after Reagan’s election. Christian Reconstruction could not. Neoconservatives were on major university faculties from the beginning. Not so with Christian Reconstruction.
Neoconservatives gained influence — some would say control — over the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. I wrote a couple of book reviews for it in the early 1970s.
The New Christian Right was born in September, 1980, at the Reunion Arena in Dallas: the National Affairs Briefing Conference. This was an amalgam of the post-Goldwater Right (Richard Viguerie’s mailing list empire), called the New Right, and some major Protestant fundamentalist TV leaders. I spoke, through the intervention of Howard Phillips. In a back room of the Arena, Bob Billings said it best in a private conversation: “This meeting is being held because of Rushdoony’s influence, even though most of the attendees have never heard of him.” I agreed with that assessment.
By the end of the 1980s, Christian Reconstruction’s ideas had spread into the home school movement. They had not spread inside the Washington beltway. Christian Reconstruction’s slogans — “There is no neutrality,” “Christian world-and-life view” — are today familiar to millions of Protestants in the pews, even though their politics revealed that they still believe in neutrality and common-ground law.
Christian Reconstruction is opposed to empire because empire is the preferred alternative to the kingdom of God in history (Daniel 2:44-45). 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. Eschatology matters.
1 Andrew Roth, “Melvin Lasky,” The Guardian (May 22, 2004). http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,1222311,00.html