Rushdoony Among the Academics: The Secular Relevance of the Thought of R. J. Rushdoony

By Michael McVicar
May 01, 2007

For regular readers of Faith for All of Life, the writings and public ministry of R. J. Rushdoony are neither eccentric nor controversial. Rushdoony is rightly respected for his prodigious authorial output, his extensive learning, and his ability to communicate sophisticated theological issues to a wide audience.

Since the 1970s, his ideas have slowly trickled out of his writings and into the minds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans and others worldwide. Yet this perception of Rushdoony is hardly appreciated outside the circles of his colleagues, former students, and others directly influenced by his ideas. In fact, regular readers of Faith for All of Life are also acquainted with another view of Rushdoony. This view, popularized by a recent burst of fashionable journalistic articles and books, depicts Rushdoony as a dangerous theocratic fascist.

I first encountered this latter depiction of Rushdoony in a religious studies course I took at Ohio State University. Initially, I accepted it with the uncritical faith common to zealots and demagogues of all stripes. After careful research, however, I came to reject this unfair depiction of Rushdoony. I have made it my personal mission to familiarize secularists with the Rushdoony that most Chalcedon supporters already respect.

Chris Ortiz has asked me to recount this effort and explain why a young secular academic would reject the wisdom of his peers in order to take Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction seriously. Below, I outline the argument I sometimes use to persuade secularists of Rushdoony’s political and philosophical significance. As you’ll surmise from the text, I am neither a Reconstructionist nor sympathetic to the worldview expounded by Rushdoony. As a historian of American religion, I am the product of a secular academy that is far removed from the world Rushdoony envisioned, yet this distance need not translate into overt hostility. I have come to realize that Rushdoony has much to teach us about American Christianity, but before I came to this conclusion, I had to reeducate myself.

Rushdoony in the Secular Academy

As a graduate student in a religious studies program located in one of the largest secular universities in the United States, I can immediately testify to Rushdoony’s wide reception beyond conservative Christian circles. During my tenure as a Ph.D. student, I encountered Rushdoony in several classes covering twentieth-century American religion. Like most undergraduate and graduate students in secular universities all over the U.S., I met Rushdoony in popular texts such as Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God, and Michael Lienesch’s Redeeming America. The first two authors implicitly tie Rushdoony to terrorists and revolutionaries, while the last text renders him utterly indistinguishable from such popular evangelical authors as Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. In each case, the presentations are short and partially inaccurate.

Worse still among academic treatments are works like Mark Crispin Miller’s Cruel and Unusual. Miller, a professor of media studies at NYU, has set the gold standard for shallow academic work, flippantly arguing that Rushdoony is the secret mastermind behind the current Bush/Cheney administration. His specious narrative is a mendacious reworking of the important—and more accurate—journalistic work pioneered by long-time Rushdoony critics Frederick Clarkson and Chip Berlet. These academic and popular journalistic accounts have become most Americans’ introduction to Rushdoony. They all deliver anxious warnings about fundamentalist “theocracy” and neglect the broader significance of Rushdoony’s ideas.

The Secularist Anxiety

One might interpret the secular academy’s reaction to Rushdoony as sinful rebelliousness, but I’d rather suggest that it is rooted in the systematic misreading of his ideas and his ministry.

At the heart of the secularist critique of Rushdoony, I detect a contradictory narrative that declares him to be the most relevant irrelevant Christian thinker of the twentieth century. He and his supporters—the Christian Reconstructionists and dominionists—are said to be both insignificant outsiders and the theocratic masterminds behind the rise of George W. Bush and the Christian Right. These critics blame the Reconstructionists for everything from George W. Bush’s interventionist war in Iraq to his faith-based initiatives even as they simultaneously ridicule Rushdoony for his primitive irrelevance. That neither portrayal has any basis in fact has yet to deter the purveyors of the vast theocratic conspiracy theory.

After initially buying into this conspiracy theorizing, I came to realize that it tells me more about Rushdoony’s detractors than it does about his ministry. My peers and I had turned Rushdoony into an allegorical figure that embodies all of our uneasiness with the Bush regime and the so-called Christian Right. Thus we obsessively warn that Rushdoony’s followers will steal elections, oppress their foes, and indiscriminately murder children and homosexuals. Such presentations neglect to point out why so many Christians find Rushdoony’s work persuasive. They also neglect to point out how and why Rushdoony’s ideas are relevant to us haughty secularists.

Rushdoony and Postmodernity

Looking beyond the nonexistent theocratic conspiracy, I believe that Rushdoony’s urgent relevance to the secular academy can be found elsewhere in his radically postmodern philosophical mission. Postmodern!? No doubt both Rushdoony’s critics and supporters from all sides of the political, philosophical, and theological spectrum are muttering with disgust at this characterization of his thought, but don’t close the magazine yet.

While modernism is popularly associated with the philosophical and aesthetic developments of the early twentieth century, most historians and philosophers recognize that “modernity” is inseparable from sweeping industrial, political, and intellectual changes inaugurated in eighteenth-century Europe and North America. If one accepts this broader perspective of modernism, then postmodernism becomes a heuristic distinction denoting an historical era. By labeling Rushdoony a postmodern thinker, I am appealing to the literal meaning of the term, indicating that his thought developed after and partially in response to many of the modernist philosophies developed between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

To contextualize Rushdoony as a postmodern thinker is to recognize that his thought did not develop in a vacuum. For instance, any Chalcedonian might rightly protest if a scholar tried to understand Rushdoony without referring to the Reformed tradition from which his ideas emerged. But Rushdoony’s Kuyperian heritage grew out of a much larger cultural context that we all—Christians and atheists alike—live with today: the state.

Seen within the totality of his life—from the Armenian genocide that forced his parents to flee Turkey to the horrific twin disasters of the Second World War and the Cold War—I view Rushdoony’s oeuvre as a godly critique of the ascendancy of the modern state. This, I argue, situates Rushdoony as a postmodern thinker because, unlike most forms of modernism that seek to systematically legitimate the state, postmodern philosophy is dominated by the state’s systematic critique.

The State

I recognize that this characterization of Rushdoony is as unlikely to satisfy his supporters as it is his critics, but I nonetheless contend its general accuracy. Unlike the modernist philosophies developed by Hobbes, the utilitarians, or Lenin and Stalin, which sought to legitimate the state via an epistemological break with Europe’s premodern, Christian heritage, postmodern thinkers are highly critical of any presumed foundation for the state.

Like many of his post–World War II contemporaries working in theology and philosophy, Rushdoony explored questions of ontology, epistemology, and language to develop a critical analysis of state power. In contrast to his contemporaries, Rushdoony sought to build a bridge between our contemporary socio-political world and the Protestant Christian premodernity that so many self-styled modernists rejected. From this perspective, he is a thinker of considerable import because he tried to redraw the boundaries between God, the individual, and the state.

Autonomy or Theonomy

The vast majority of philosophers begin their critique of the state by assuming the autonomy of man. For instance, Marx and Nietzsche, the godfathers of leftist postmodern political philosophy, initiated their demolition of the state with an ontological rejection of God in order to establish the autonomy of man. From this rejection, Marx proposed a new kind of state while Nietzsche’s project terminates with an oligarchy of the powerful. Similarly, a host of conservative thinkers deployed a similar materialistic rejection of God based on natural rights to undergird very different criticisms of the state that ultimately culminate in aristocracy or anarcholibertarianism.

Rushdoony entered into this discussion and offered an ethical and political alternative to humanistic autonomy. Following the insights of Van Til, Rushdoony argued that theonomy is the only alternative to autonomy. This ontological perspective has been neglected by nearly all contemporary criticisms of state power.

A Christian Libertarian

To faithful readers of Rushdoony’s works, my presentation of his ministry as an extended meditation on the state should hardly seem radical, yet it is quite foreign to many secular academics and journalists who have cultivated a misleading image of Rushdoony as a primitive, Old Testament patriarch. While it is certainly true that Rushdoony appeals to a law-order radically different from the one that most secularists and liberal Christians recognize, this should not disqualify his work as a political and ethical thinker.

I’ve been busy telling academics and anyone else who will listen that Rushdoony’s postmodern critique of the state challenges almost everything that we think we know about God, the state, and man. That some of my peers find this perspective provocative testifies to the power of Rushdoony’s ideas.

When I then argue that Rushdoony is best understood by his own self-identification as a Christian libertarian, many of his critics are surprised that he ever adopted such a title. Nonetheless, as any good Chalcedonian knows and few secular critics appreciate, Rushdoony played an important role in the Volker Fund, the ur-source of American libertarianism. To this day, many secular libertarians revile him for daring to challenge their irreligious presuppositions. These historical facts don’t jibe with narratives that incorrectly portray Rushdoony as an “American fascist.”

That Rushdoony denounced revolution and eschewed violence is an essential facet of his work ignored by most of his critics. Similarly, the popular authors who spend so much time warning about Rushdoony neglect to point out that Rushdoony was a vociferous critic of the very forms of statist intervention that they want to blame on him.

I am convinced that it is time for secularists of all kinds to move beyond the popular parodies of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism. It’s time to stop projecting our uneasiness with the Bush regime onto all conservative Christians. In fact, by engaging Rushdoony, we might all learn something about resisting tyranny, secular or otherwise.

Topics: Biography, Christian Reconstruction, R. J. Rushdoony

Michael McVicar

Michael J. McVicar's  dissertation exploring the relationship between the ministry of R. J. Rushdoony and the American conservative movement was later published in book form entitled, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservativsm. He lectures at various universities in Ohio. McVicar is not a Reconstructionist. He can be reached with questions and comments [email protected].

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