My father coined the term Christian Reconstruction in 1965, the year Chalcedon began, in order to describe the work he saw ahead of the modern church. It is a term that our critics in and out of the church have branded to our disadvantage. Our opponents claim it’s a “political agenda,” that it is a legalistic attempt at imposing a moral order on society, or that we are the “American Taliban.” We have been branded as extremists.
Even many who are sympathetic to our theology avoid the label. Some have said Christian Reconstruction has failed, that, since no great change has resulted, we ought to drop the term. Such thinking misses the point entirely. Christian Reconstruction is not a strategy with a five or ten-year plan, but an analogy of the Christian responsibility to a culture failing because of its repudiation of Christianity. Christian Reconstruction is a description of our labors in the Kingdom of God.
Chalcedon was originally envisioned as a college or seminary but took form as a non-profit educational foundation. It officially began in Los Angeles in late summer, 1965.
The 1960s were a time of radical and rapid changes in the West. In 1963 John F. Kennedy was murdered. Few remember that he was an ineffective President whose agenda faced crippling opposition from his own party. “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Goldwater, seemed to have a very promising strategy for success in 1964: he would control the West, Mid-West and South, leaving Kennedy with only the insufficient electoral votes of New England. After his death, however, Texan Lyndon Johnson took much of Goldwater’s western and southern support. Moreover, he shamelessly milked the name of the fallen Kennedy in what became the Kennedy cult. It worked. Legislation that had stalled under Kennedy was quickly passed by Congress and Johnson won in a landslide. He then began his own sweeping social agenda, the “Great Society.” His ambitious “War on Poverty” threw money (and debt) at welfare programs. Conservatives were left in the dust and were very discouraged.
Moreover, the youth revolt of the 1960s was beginning. Hippies and communes became common, as well as lawless demonstrations on college campuses and public venues. Police were unprepared to deal with mass demonstrations. Additionally, in 1965, the summer we moved from northern to southern California to begin Chalcedon, the Watts race riot occurred.
Mainline churches had become rather anemic by then. Modernism or neo-orthodoxy had taken control of many denominations, and there was a new intellectual disdain for Christianity.
Even the arts were undergoing dramatic upheavals. Rock ‘n roll went from silly love songs to a rebellious, angry tone. Movies began to mimic the youth movement by elevating “anti-heroes” to prominence. As the decade progressed, they dropped their self-censorship and by the 1970s were full of gratuitous nudity just to be “edgy.” The counter-culture produced its own pop and psychedelic art; Norman Rockwell was passé and ridiculed. Everywhere one turned there was a visible repudiation of anything old.
Those who were caught by surprise by the truly revolutionary cultural changes were confused. They were anxious to put events into context, a narrative. There was a radical student saying variously attributed to Jack Weinberg and Jerry Rubin: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” It is easy to forget just how young this youth revolt was; it repudiated the majority of Americans and their ideas as “establishment.”
My father spoke to the root causes of what seemed to be a sudden manifestation. The revolution had been a long time coming. It was the repudiation of a culture and its ethics for a “new morality.” The revolt was against the implicit Christian morality in the culture. A large number of young people refused to live under a morality in which they no longer believed, they saw American culture as hypocritical, and to a large extent they were correct; Americans held to a public ethic that was far more Biblical than their faith.
The new religion of America, my father said, was humanism. After the Enlightenment, natural law had been seen as a cosmic truth observable by rational thought. Natural law served as a transcendent absolute, even if no one really knew what it was. Darwin, however, had dealt a deathblow to natural law a century earlier and generations of school children had been taught that nature was characterized by chaos, change, and violence, not by any law or absolutes. The revolution had taken place years earlier, my father said. The worldview of the West had shifted. What was happening was the result, the post-revolutionary purges of all Christian influence in public life.
There was little Christian faith left in the public sphere in 1965, so there was little resistance, and that came more from a “conservative” disdain for the “bad behavior” and impertinence of the rebels than from principled objections. When rebels asked “Why should we …?” conservatives could only respond with “How dare you …” They were comfortable with the way things were; the generation of the 1960s was not.
The problems that seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1960s were merely manifestations of the shift from Christianity to humanism, the faith in the pre-eminence of man, the only possible conclusion one can derive from Darwin’s biological scheme. The student rebels and those who sided with them understood the implications of their Darwinian educations.
The rebellion of the 1960s (and Darwin himself) was a manifestation of man’s desire to make good on Satan’s promise that men could “be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Humanism is the philosophical embodiment of that desire to be as gods, to supplant the authority of God with man’s. Western culture had been living on a borrowed Christian worldview and ethic. There was an intelligent, if perverse, consistency in the rebels that was lacking in the conservative element of society; the latter was coasting and merely wanted the ride to continue.
My father put the revolution in perspective by identifying it not as a random, chaotic aberration, but as a manifestation of a worldview. All men, whether they know it or not, operate in terms of one of two verses in Genesis 3. Some follow Satan’s promise of Genesis 3:5, the desire to be as gods, to be autonomous of the Creator, and to determine for themselves what is right or wrong. The only alternative is to follow God’s promise of Genesis 3:15, that He would send the seed, or descendant, of Eve to crush Satan and his rebellion. Biblical history, and our own, is the outworking of these two plans, what Augustine called the City of Man verses the City of God. The 1960s was humanism’s Battle of the Bulge; it caught Western culture by surprise and they quickly were overran it.
What Are We to Do?
So Chalcedon began in the midst of the revolutionary changes. My father often was asked to comment on current world events. People wanted to know what was happening and where it was leading. The hard part was when he got to “What can we do about it?” He very early became fed up with conspiracy thinking (which largely controlled conservative thinking) because it led to a focus on evil and its power. His alternative was Christian Reconstruction, an analogy of the sanctifying change that could be manifested in individuals, families, churches, associations, businesses, and more as they submitted to God. It meant focusing not on evil but on righteousness as the alternative, a righteousness that begins with regenerate man and extends outward to the culture as he submits his life and thought to God. While conservatives sought to undo their losses via court or political action, my father said, “Let’s rebuild Christian civilization, beginning with us.”
Christian Reconstruction was, and is, a hard sell, because its ultimate goal seems so very distant to our culture and even to our imperfectly sanctified imaginations. It is an all-encompassing idea that involves all men and institutions. My father’s vision of Christian duty was so broad that his secular critics have sometimes falsely seen him as the mastermind of all things on the “right” that they despise. Others have been narrow in their work, focusing on education, or economics, abortion, or various particular Christian works. My father’s work addressed everything. It saw Reconstruction as the Christian’s calling. The secularists saw a big-picture approach in my father’s message of Christian Reconstruction and took it, if not seriously, at least as the antithesis of their own.
To Christians, it was a hard sell and remains so. Some wanted a simple strategy: Stop communism, elect the right president, stop this or that conspiracy. Often all they wanted to do was turn the cultural clock back to a time where they would feel more comfortable. That is the problem with a conservative mindset; it tries to reset the clock, not the culture. My father never longed for the past; he always looked to the future. He often addressed the challenges presented by the changing times by saying, “These are exciting times in which to live.”
Theology, Worldview, and Action
It was often the theology of Christians that was the impediment to accepting Christian Reconstruction. Dualism led to a Pietism which prioritized a false sense of what was “spiritual.” Dispensationalism left the church without a sense of place in the Kingdom of God. Antinomianism left it without an objective ethical and judicial standard. A defeatist eschatology led many to believe disaster was all that we should expect. “Isn’t it wonderful how bad things are? It means Jesus is coming back soon” was a common refrain in premillennial dispensational churches. Often churches would make a point of repudiating not only the dominion mandate but even the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Evangelicals focused on the “simple gospel’ and avoided too much more. Even the Reformed community had succumbed to a “reformed” dispensationalism which reduced the number of God’s irreconcilable plans to two: law and grace. Many had reduced the sovereignty of God to the five points of Calvinism which only address soteriology. If the Evangelical Arminian reduced God’s sovereignty to His allowance of man’s free will, the Reformed reduced it to His predestination. Both tended to keep His law-word out of church and state.
The message of Christian Reconstruction proposes that our culture is crumbling because it has repudiated the application of Christianity. God as Creator and Lord has been replaced by Darwinian mythology and His law has been replaced by statist law. We have de-Christianized our education, family life, science, art, economics, and more. Western civilization was a product of Christianity. Without that ethical and judicial foundation, the superstructure is unstable. The church often compounds the problem by offering only subjective spiritual platitudes. Otto Scott once referred to “the thin veneer of civilization”; our culture is less civilized than it once was, and it now flirts with barbarism.
There are no easy ways to rebuild a weakened structure. Reconstruction of a historic structure is far more difficult than new construction. When a structure is found unsound, though, the decision to start over becomes easier. Christian and home schools were attempts to start anew rather than salvage an existing educational structure. More couples are now abandoning state marriage licenses as those became an offense to a Christian understanding of the institution. Other areas are not easy to replace, as state action sometimes forbids competition. Alternatives to humanistic courts of law, child welfare services, and medical care have to be created.
The early church progressively built its own subculture, which in time became the dominant culture, Christendom. Its theology was not perfect and its institutions were merely stepping-stones to something better. Nevertheless it made great strides.
Christians are the covenant people of God. They are called to be His people, distinct from the world by their works of charity, or grace. The message of Christian Reconstruction is one of Christian duty to follow up faith in God with faithfulness to God. It is not an easy message or an easy task. It cannot be done by one generation, nor must we even think it necessary to plan what the Kingdom will look like in the distant future. God does not demand results from us, only faithfulness. We plant seed, God gives the increase. The alternative to Christian Reconstruction is decay and collapse. It is easy to ponder what Jesus would do. The pertinent question is what should we do, as wise and faithful stewards of His Word and Kingdom, in His absence?