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Examining the Agenda of Secularism

On April 29-30, 2005, Chalcedon’s Communications Director, Chris Ortiz, and I attended Examining The Real Agenda Of The Religious Far Right at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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On April 29-30, 2005, Chalcedon’s Communications Director, Chris Ortiz, and I attended Examining The Real Agenda Of The Religious Far Right at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. The speakers hailed from very diverse ideological backgrounds and institutions, yet all found common cause in decrying the “danger” posed by Christians who mount any challenge to the secularism entrenched in modern politics and culture. This event was funded solely through conference fees. It didn’t promote an agenda per se so much as a reactionary anti-agenda set in opposition to growing Christian effectiveness in the sociopolitical arena.

As I sat and listened, I repeatedly asked myself, “How was R. J. Rushdoony able to see across the decades and so accurately predict that things would come to this?” As to content, mode, and strategy, Rushdoony had described, in disturbing detail, how and why the opposition to Biblical Christianity would unfold in our time.  In particular, his 1986 book, Christianity and the State, characterizes the issues raised at this 2005 conference with near-journalistic precision.

To return to the basic problem today, the real issue is not between church and state, but simply this: the state as a religious establishment has progressively disestablished Christianity as its law foundation, and, while professing neutrality, has in fact established humanism as the religion of the state. When the religion of a people changes, its laws inevitably reflect that change and conform themselves to the new faith and the new morality. There has been deception on the part of the courts, by their profession of religious neutrality, as they have substituted one religion for another, humanism for Christianity. The basic reason, however, has been the theological collapse of the churches, and this has been true of all of them.

This theological collapse led to the untenable belief in religious neutralism and to the surrender of Christian schools for statist education. As a result, humanism became the established religion of state and school, and, by infiltration, of the churches as well.

Christianity is quite logically progressively excluded from state, school, and church and has a weak and scarcely tenable position in modern life. It probably lacks extensive and organized persecution in most countries because orthodox Christianity has become progressively weaker and less and less relevant.

Any revival of Christian strength will thus precipitate major conflict, in that it will constitute a threat to the humanistic establishment. In recent years, few have feared the church, because the church has been impotent and itself an ally of humanism. There are evidences that this may change. (p. 7-8)

The first of Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Position Papers, the 1979 essay “Conflict with the State,” affirmed the same theme:

In recent years, under the influences of humanism on the one hand and pietism on the other, the church has withdrawn from many of its historic and basic functions. As the church begins to revive and resume its required ministry, the result is conflict with the humanistic state. (The Roots of Reconstruction, p. 1)

The key elements of Rushdoony’s analyses are these:  (1) the theological collapse of the churches paralleled a concomitant infiltration of humanism and pietism into their midst; (2) the progressive exclusion of Christianity from modern life marginalized it into irrelevance; (3) Christian weakness and irrelevance had rendered opposition to it superfluous and pointless, especially where the church had effectively become an ally of humanism; and (4) any reversal of these trends would be treated as a dangerous threat.

The “T word”

Just as the term “fundamentalism” has become the new “F-word,” so too “theocracy” has become the new “T-word.”  Of course, conspicuously absent from the conference was any citation of Rushdoony’s that actually touched on the topic of theocracy proper in any pertinent way. A quick referral to the first three sentences of Rushdoony’s “Chalcedon Position Paper No. 15: The Meaning of Theocracy” would have corrected (and rendered irrelevant) 85% of what passed for “concerned scholarship” at the conference. In Rushdoony’s introductory statement, note how resoundingly the wrong definition of theocracy was hammered into the heads of attendees at the conference:

Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had. (Roots of Reconstruction, p. 63)

Demonizing Others Can Trigger a Backlash

The increasing popularity of the quasi-media (e.g., fake news), fed by a profound dissatisfaction with mainstream journalism, has launched a new breed of protagonist who openly disdains the drawing of the battle lines in such an extremist form. Jon Stewart, adopting a “pox on both your houses” perspective, savages not only the kind of thinking later expressed at the conference, but also its partisan counterpart across the aisle:

So much of what is out there is polemics. Once you write your diatribe about how liberal America is ruining the country, or how conservative America is turning us into a theocracy, where do you go from there? The next book has to be that Joe McCarthy was a decent guy or that George Bush is a Saudi operative. (Entertainment Weekly No. 784, September 17, 2004, p. 11)

Comedians like Jon Stewart revel in deflating targets like today’s exaggerated rhetoric. Had Mr. Stewart attended the conference, he’d have learned the answer to “where do you go from there?” (He’d realize that he got the big picture right — theocracy was looming large on the horizon — but the finer details were slightly off: Bush is seen more as an instigator of a future American Taliban than a Saudi operative.)  Allusions to the Taliban, and Iran under the mullahs, dotted the rhetorical landscape over the two-day span of this conference — and that was when the speakers were being nice.

Let us examine each conference presentation in more detail.

Joan Bokaer on the Rise of Dominionism in the U.S. Government

Joan Bokaer, associated with Theocracy Watch ( and Cornell University’s Center For Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, was the first speaker following the introductory formalities. Bokaer’s misapplied definition of theocracy (“a form of government ruled by religion”) grounded her antipathy toward Christians being effective in the public sphere. Bokaer delighted in quoting Maureen Dowd’s outcry, “Oh my God. We’re living in a theocracy!” thereby setting up her punch-line: in a theocracy, Dowd’s first three words would have violated the Third Commandment, bringing judgment down on her head.

Bokaer’s tracing of history starts with Paul Weyrich in the Goldwater era, marking milestones like the Heritage Foundation (1973), the term “moral majority” (1979) and the Council for National Policy (1981), whose meetings are “highly secretive.” Not just “secretive,” mind you. I’m guessing the primary offense is that, unlike modern presidential administrations, this group doesn’t leak information to the press. Such private discussions must be inherently heinous in nature, gauging from the loud hiss rising from the audience when Bokaer showed Tim LaHaye’s picture on the screen. Ralph Reed and James Dobson were the next pariahs paraded through the Powerpoint perp walk.

Back of all this is Bokaer’s assertion of what this was all initially about: “manipulation of people of a certain faith.” She re-invoked the “secrecy motif” (Pat Robertson counseled stealth, while Ralph Reed mirrored this sentiment, etc.).  Rev. Tommy Ice was quoted favorably by Bokaer by virtue of his explicitly anti-dominionist stance. (Bokaer, in effect, turned supposed compatriots LaHaye and Ice into estranged bedfellows. Gentlemen?)

Astonishingly, she held that “conservative” is synonymous with pro-statist.

Not astonishingly, she dramatically brandished the spectre of the Taliban.

Quote that her audience took to heart: “We cannot let them succeed!”

Quote that Chalcedon supporters should take to heart: “Education is critically important.”

Quote receiving enthusiastic applause that Bokaer seemed to think will cause God to stand down: “We’re quite powerful, and we’re the majority!”

Chip Berlet on Millennialist and Apocalyptic Influences on Dominionism

Chip Berlet is Senior Analyst of Political Research Associates (

To be honest, this poor guy had his work cut out for him. Pastors have a hard time getting a flock to sit through “tedious” theological distinctions. How do you pull off this stunt in less than an hour with a lay audience? Mr. Berlet did what most pastors do to keep the flock’s attention: ratchet up the rhetoric. 

Now, I’ve taught through the book of Revelation, and I don’t ever remember beginning my classes with Berlet’s unique characterization of the author: “a guy named John of Patmos who lived in a cave….” Hard to believe, but it actually went downhill from there with respect to accurate exposition of Scripture. Still, Berlet hit some points on target.

Setting aside his irresponsible characterization of postmillennialism as a scenario where “Christians seize control of government,” he does see something potent and highly influential about the work of postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists. Then he adds, “Here’s the catch: there aren’t that many of them out there.” Influential, but small in numbers. We didn’t say it — our opponents did.

Berlet describes the far more numerous premillennial dispensationalists (pretribulationists) as those looking for the signs of the end times (“plagues, tsunamis, immorality…”). He asks (quite logically, we might add) that if you’re pre-trib, why bother voting? Why bother with political action? You need a Biblical justification for political participation. Berlet holds that Rushdoony’s polemics provided the kind of justification being sought. According to Berlet, Christian Reconstructionism powered the conversion of a passive premil population into the largest bloc supporting the Republican party.

No sooner had Berlet denounced the use of derisive labels like “religious political extremist” (on the grounds that you can’t reach people if you insult them), he described Christian Reconstructionism as “Calvinism on crack,” and later asked “How do we rein in the loony left while reining in the vile right?”  I’m guessing that being called “vile” and a Calvinist “on crack” is part of the outreach program intended to “reach me,” since Chip couldn’t have meant them as insults. Remember, he just as pointedly distanced himself from what he called “the loony left.” Perhaps there is such a thing as an extreme centrist.

Berlet redefines dualism as being the “us good, them bad” mentality, which he regards as “profoundly antidemocratic.” Like other speakers, he pits democracy against Christian political activism, implicitly upholding the former as alone inherently legitimate.

Robert W. Edgar on the Gospel According to a Religious Progressive

“Where’s the religious left? Where have we been?” asks Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches (NCC), who proudly regards his zero rating with the Moral Majority as “a badge of honor.” It appears that the “NCC was fiscally bankrupt. Ideologically it was OK.” Edgar then counseled the religious left that it was important “not just to speak against the religious right, but to speak to what I call the middle church,” all the while upholding the banner of religious pluralism.

The implicitly perceived Gospel of Inclusivism couldn’t keep its candle lit for very long before a question from the audience blew it out. An atheist put Edgar on the spot about not being as inclusive as he let on, given his promotion of pluralism.  His response assured the atheist that she wasn’t being unfairly singled out: “We don’t even have Unitarians! We’re not inclusive! We’re just eclectic. We’re all Trinitarian.”

Here it was as Rushdoony had described it: humanism and pietism infiltrating the church, causing it to become an ally of humanism. Clearly, such declension from orthodoxy marked the nineteenth century church, and was nothing new: E. W. Hengstenberg and B. B. Warfield had battled it in their prime. What’s different today? Simply this: the political implications have completely changed. Edgar’s species of thinking has effectively inverted the promise of Zechariah 4:6 as if it actually read, “Not by My Spirit, but by might and power!”

Two thousand years ago, the theologically liberal wing was the Sadducee contingent. They were the “sensible” cognoscenti that jettisoned “unreasonable, unenlightened” sections of Scripture (e.g., the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead) and continued to maintain a measure of respect and credibility among the people. Modern Christendom evidently has its Sadducees as well, who stand in the shadow of their liberal-minded forebears. Sadducees use Scripture when convenient, even pitting Scripture against Scripture (Mt. 22:23-33). The contemporary mechanism is more convoluted: Edgar pointed out that royalties proceeding from the sale of the Revised Standard Version Bible had held the NCC together. Hearing this, one begins to sympathize with Rushdoony’s expanded view of the meaning of boiling a calf in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19).

So, what does a group so thoroughly infiltrated with humanism propose as its strategy?  That’s right: more infiltration. According to Edgar, “we need to infiltrate our seminaries” to promote different packaging, e.g., homiletics based on the Web, or TV sound bite techniques, rather than dated “nineteenth century preparation” of sermon form and content.

Dr. Rushdoony pinpointed precisely this mechanism of infiltration as the key to neutering the church to keep it in a quadraplegic condition, permitting the power state/welfare state to rush in and fulfill all useful societal functions (given that nature abhors a vacuum).

Brace yourselves.

Hugh Urban on America Left Behind:
Bush, the Neoconservatives, and Christian Evangelical Fiction

Hugh Urban is associate professor of religion at Ohio State Univesity.

Hugh Urban alluded to Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity” to describe the “mutually beneficial and reinforcing” relationship between neoconservative foreign policy and the best-selling Left Behind volumes. In this, he has probably come close to a general truth (with notable exceptions).  Of course, the political implications stemming from various theological views of Israel’s ultimate destiny run the gamut of options: Urban has chosen to focus on the one currently enjoying bestseller status.  Christians who reject the eschatology of the Left Behind series simply don’t fall anywhere on Urban’s radar screen. Since Urban has a specific axe to grind, he doesn’t mention that other eschatologies (such as Rushdoony’s) would void his glittering generalizations.

Urban, to his credit, provides compelling evidence that one’s eschatology has consequences ranging all the way up to the domains of international diplomacy and realpolitik. His implicit thesis, that works of fiction written by pretrib Christians may have an impact on international politics, causes Christian Reconstructionists to shudder as much as Urban does. He just doesn’t choose to notice the Reconstructionists’ aversion.

Charles Strozier on the Psychology and Theocracy of George W. Bush

Charles Strozier is professor of history at John Jay College, CUNY, New York.

Here we are, back to the imputed idea of Christians seizing power again, expressed in even more dramatic terms than those found in Chip Berlet’s jeremiad. Strozier relished rhetoric like “The Right began to lick its chops” and “neocons chomping at the bit for power.” Strozier embodies the emotional depths of the antipathy marking today’s partisan politics when he effectively excuses hatred for George W. Bush. (Strozier describes a Bush opponent “so blinded by his hatred for Bush — an understandable error — etc.”)  His aside obviously played to a delighted crowd.

Strozier’s theological diagnosis of current events is inexplicable. He pinpoints a shift in emphasis “from the Sermon on the Mount to the Book of Revelation.” Strozier comments that the latter block of Scripture describes those who “swim forever in the Lake of Fire — and there are no lifeguards.”  He apparently regards the Sermon on the Mount as far more irenic.  Really? “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Mt. 7:19). “Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mt. 5:22c). And in two places (Mt. 5:29 & 30), the verse concludes “…for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” In other words, pitting Scripture against Scripture (which presupposes their non-authorship by a sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God) is an empty exercise.

Waxing apocalyptic in his own right, Strozier pointed out that “we don’t need God to bring about the end.” In his view, nuclear weapons have shifted this to human agency. Therefore, “nuclear weapons represent the religion of our age.”  His view competes with one enunciated in The Very Early Universe, edited by Hawking, Gibbons, and Siklos, which broaches the idea of a “vacuum eschatology” bringing our world to a sudden end without the agency of God or nuclear weapons. Such theories — which are God-free — appear to comfort those who embrace them, blocking out the ominous dread with which mortal man regards the specter of ultimate justice. Perhaps in their heart of hearts, humanity recognizes that “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).  Death is no safe haven from Him with whom we have to do (Is. 28:15-18).

The statement, “nuclear weapons represent the religion of our age,” is a confession of idolatry. It reverts sovereign control over mankind’s fate back into man’s hands. As Rushdoony pointed out in “Chalcedon Position Paper No. 15: The Meaning of Theocracy,” Isaiah 9:6-7 declares that “the government shall be upon His shoulders, and of the increase of His government and of peace, there shall be no end….”  In The Roots of Reconstruction, he continues:

The essence of humanism, from Francis Bacon to the present, has been this creed: to be human, man must be in control (Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard: The Emerging Order, p. 27.). This is an indirect way of saying that man is not man unless the government of all things is upon his shoulders, unless he is himself god.” (p. 66)

In short, man fully intends to shift the government from Christ’s shoulders onto his own. The Infiltrated Church (shot through with pietism and humanism) is willing to help switch out Christ’s iron scepter for a limp reed.

The Lord Jesus Christ is Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8). In contrast, modern cosmology has proposed that the formula “In the beginning, Hydrogen” replace the obsolete statement, “In the beginning, God.” Nuclear weapons, which detonate a hydrogen fusion process, have made men their own potential exterminator. The humanists’ mantra would appear to have come full circle: Hydrogen is the Alpha and Omega. This, too, is idolatry.

Katherine Yurica: “Is an Unholy American Theocracy Here?”

Many conference speakers invoked religion, even Christianity and the Bible, in their “principled” assaults on (among other things) Christian Reconstruction. Katherine Yurica (former reporter for Christianity Today, and an investigative journalist whose essay, “The Despoiling of America,” was published in Toward a New Political Humanism) believes that the Bible endorses a pro-statist ethic: that righteousness in a nation involves adoption of a liberal/progressive social program by the state.  As an observer, one becomes torn: surely we do want to see the Bible applied to cultural questions!  But Yurica’s Herculean effort to stand the Bible on its head to conform to a humanistic, statist ethos falls flat.

Here is an object lesson from a Yurica breakout session I attended. During her main lecture, Yurica contended that the “Old Testament supports relief of poverty through taxation.”  In the breakout session, she shared an experience she had debating this point, during which her opponent argued that Yurica “had not proved that the king institutes [the poor tithe].”  Her opponent had apparently argued for private, personal charity, perhaps as analyzed in compelling detail in Rushdoony and Powell’s Tithing and Dominion. Yurica didn’t just reject that reading of Scripture: she claimed that her opponents “are adding something” to the Biblical text to de-institute the state from its God-chartered task of tithe collection for the poor. Moreover, nobody offers such private assistance to the needy as mandated in Scripture. This presumably is the proper function of the coercive sector of society (civil government) in Yurica’s “reading” of Scripture.

A guest I invited to the conference glanced knowingly at me when Yurica made such points, because I had personally issued a “poor tithe” check for over four thousand dollars to a young single mother just three weeks earlier. (Think I just lost my reward in heaven by mentioning it? The Deuteronomic poor tithe isn’t anonymous. Matthew 6:1-4 warns against ostentation in voluntary gifts — alms — above and beyond the poor tithe, a distinction which Paul also makes at 2 Cor. 8:8.) The poor tithe is a large, eye-to-eye personal one-lump disbursement that meaningfully elevates the recipient out of poverty and creates an opportunity for financial independence. The impersonal state dribbles out subsistence-level checks over time that keep the recipient dependent and beholden. Obedient Christians can, and do, falsify Yurica’s claims. The claim that a “privately administered” poor tithe isn’t realistic or effective was simply slammed lifeless to the floor in the eyes of my guest, who knew different.  Yurica doesn’t need to be generous with other people’s money when people obey God (the actual enforcer of the poor tithe, who judged Israel continually for “grinding the faces of the poor,” an indictment directed at the general populace and not at the kings). 

Substantively, Yurica sees lurking in the shadows “a plan to take over the government of the United States,” to be done step by step, day by day: first the Republican Party, then Congress, etc., to revamp the balance of power (by weakening the judiciary, permanently gaining the power to control domestic morality, to break individuals and organizations like the National Education Association). She raises the spectre of “the fascism of a religious cult.” Worse yet, she says, is that “today, the dominionists’ dream is within their grasp.” “Dominionism is the fastest-growing political force in America today.” “To make their plan work, they had to take Jim Jones mainstream.”

Yurica alleges that dominionists (her preferred term) have studied Machiavelli and Hitler.  The “Hitler” gambit is the big hammer (Ueberhammer?) in Yurica’s toolbox, so allusions, citations, and quotes by and about Hitler are legion: “To be a leader means being able to move the masses.” Yurica freely interchanges Hitler with “dominionist” Christians, holding that the latter have learned manipulation from the former. “Hitler learned the value of spiritual terror.” “The new individual who appeared in Germany” was “the uncritical recipient of orders.” “Who wins: them or us? Let’s look at a Hitlerian technique....” “As dominionists continue to resurrect the words of Hitler, we invoke Churchill: we will never never never give up. Ladies and gentlemen, we will prevail, we will prevail, we will prevail.”

You’d think yoking your opponent to Hitler would be the ultimate strategy (Jon Stewart, call your office!), but Yurica anticlimactically conjures up images of poisoned Kool-Aid by associating “dominionists” with Jim Jones. (Interestingly, Rushdoony pointed out that Jim Jones had every license and credential the state could ask of him: his papers were in perfect order, but his total compliance with all state certification requirements guaranteed nothing concerning his behavior or performance!)

“The obsession with power never left [Jim] Jones…. He showed how the power of the churches could be used politically…. Pat Robertson borrowed pages from the Jim Jones playbook.” If so, you’d better have the deacons test the Gatorade.

Yurica provides five reasons why the “dominionist” agenda will not prevail. (1) Historically, despotic rulers fall due to pride. (2) “We are dealing with psychological aberrations, if not outright evil.” (3) A dominionist government owes its success to an “edifice of lies,” and such a “house built on sand will fall.” (4) “The American spirit” — and more specifically “Yankee culture” — is “not so easily subjugated.” (5) Humility is stronger than power. She challenged the audience, “Choose truth or power. Our opponents have chosen power. We have chosen truth.” She also said that by recognizing the value of humility, “all the power will shift to our side!” Well, which is it?  Looks like her self-confessed goal is power after all, which she says “will shift to our side!” Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain of humility and truth.

“We live for something bigger than our self  [sic].” “We bow down to truth, to reality, the very heart and soul of mental health.” (Can you detect a New Age component to that last statement?) Bottom line for Yurica: “The dominionists have brought our nation to ruin.”

But “we must snatch it back,” she said at the later breakout session. “We need public forum guardians.” Why? “Lest our nation fall.” Maybe it’s not totally ruined.

Yurica’s approach to Scripture is, unsurprisingly, half-orbed. “I take my Scriptures from Jesus, because it’s compassionate.”  She cites John 8:11 for her position on crime (at least that of adultery): “Neither do I condemn you.” Since Christ does not condemn in this instance (where the Old Testament laws concerning witnesses with clean hands could not be satisfied), Yurica makes a leap to her view that “stoning for Biblical capital crimes is evil.” One cringes at the thought of how she’d handle Matt. 5:17-19, or Matt. 23:3, where Jesus endorses the application of Old Testament law (as comprehensively exposited by Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Warfield, et al.).  Truth be told, she’d have been more accurate to say, “I take my Scriptures from some things that Jesus said, because they’re compassionate. Other things He said don’t fly with me, though.” She picks up fewer items from her already-downsized smorgasbord than she lets on.

Yurica appears not to recognize that she indulges in will-worship. God’s will be done, when it coincides with my will is not Biblical Christianity, it’s pure humanism with a veneer of Christ-Lite dabbed onto it. Sadly, she labels orthodox views of the Scriptures as distortions, and her distorted views are offered up in their place. I asked her if she had ever attempted a dialogue “across the aisle” with those on the other side (thinking that I might just attempt one with her), but her answer (that went on and on about some incident evidently involving members of a South American country’s Mafia) didn’t give me hope that I was being understood very well. The speaker after Yurica, Karen Armstrong, spoke about “a chasm of incomprehension,” and I had to confess that I had surely stood at its brink at the tail end of the breakout session with Yurica.

Karen Armstrong on Fundamentalism: The Fear and the Rage

Karen Armstrong is a former nun and author of 12 books, including Islam, a Short History.

Karen Armstrong, too, has specific ideas about the Bible. She holds that infallibility is “a new doctrine.” (Assuming that to be true, which it’s not, how would newness affect its validity?) Postmodern relativism as applied to the Bible comes easily to her: since the Word of God was infinite, it couldn’t be contained (restricted) to one interpretation.

On other points, she was a more reliable guide. She noted that we’re seeing “a clash of sacred values.” The secularists had threatened the fundamentalists, and they were threatening the secularists back. They see each other across “a chasm of incomprehension” (perhaps the single most insightful comment I heard over two days of lectures).

Regrettably, she defined “antinomianism” as the breaking of humanistic civil law, not the deprecating of God’s law (which was the entire raison d’etre of this conference). From a Biblical point of view, the conference was precisely geared toward promoting antinomianism as that term has been historically understood. Turning the tables on Christian Reconstructionists and calling them antinomian signals a deliberate hijacking of meaning.

In any event, Armstrong believes (correctly) that modernity is on one side of the conflict, but she characterizes its foe (incorrectly) as a yearning for a “pre-modern era.” Modernity and religion are pitted against each other over the issue of certainty: religion allegedly provides it while modernity delivers us from its stifling grip. Armstrong favors modernity’s uncertainty and contingency, because “things must be left open-ended so we can progress.” This “open-ended” component of philosophy has had many hundreds of pages accorded to it in the writings of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and R. J. Rushdoony, and it has been comprehensively shown to be an utterly futile dead-end, and hardly the harbinger of progress as was claimed.

Armstrong concludes that the rise of modernity entailed the political subjugation and humiliation of fundamentalists, which created the current “chasm of incomprehension” while paralleling the ensuing disturbance of social norms. 

Frederick Clarkson:
Learning About the Christian Right and What in the World To Do

Frederick Clarkson is an author and blogger ( and frequent guest on NPR.

Frederick Clarkson brought the “T-word” back to center stage, quoting the New York Times to the effect that “This is Christian theocracy breaking out.” This isn’t good news, says he, but is evidence of a “gathering darkness,” replete with “religious supremacism” and “religious bigotry.” But Clarkson holds out hope: some lights are coming on.

Clarkson proposes a three-pronged reclamation project: Reclaim faith (but not in the religious sense); Reclaim history (American history sans any elements of alleged Christian revisionism); and Reclaim citizenship. 

Clarkson challenged the audience with some bitter concessions: “We have abandoned the playing field in electoral politics to the best-organized faction, which is the Christian right.” “They won fair and square: they used the electoral system.” “If we don’t know how to elect officials, we’re ceding the turf to those that do.”

Were the thirteen original colonies theocracies? Clarkson says that they were, but adds that the framers of the Constitution specifically overthrew 150 years of theocracy, replacing it with a much-to-be-preferred substitute: religious equality. “The religious right of the eighteenth century didn’t like the Constitution, and they don’t like it now.” Clarkson might consider boning up on the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1988: Symposium on the Constitution and Political Theology to see how far his statements deviate from the truth.

To his credit, Clarkson urged caution and restraint in polemic discourse. Although he said that democracy is tough, and some labels are necessarily harsh, terms like “radical religious right” or “radical religious extremists” essentially “mean nothing.” He regards such a loaded term as “radical religious extremist” as “just a mean epithet to score cheap political points.” He counseled using language to fit the occasion, and to use language carefully. “In fact, it is necessary [to do so].”

Joseph C. Hough on Faith, Ethics and Politics

Joseph C. Hough is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Dr. Joseph C. Hough claimed that fundamentalist control destroyed the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s not high on Christian fundamentalism, but probably not for the same reasons as his father: “My father was a [Biblical] literalist, but not a fundamentalist. There is a difference.” Not one to complain about something without having a solution in hand, he proposed a simple way to “cure people of fundamentalism”: “Send them to Yale Divinity School!”

Hough likes the label “liberal.” “Liberal means tolerant. It means open-minded.” They just don’t happen to be open-minded about Biblical law, or particularly tolerant of those who are favorably disposed toward it. The crowd was hostile enough that Chalcedon’s Chris Ortiz, in a moment of levity, approached me during a break, shook my hand, and pointedly introduced himself with the words, “Hi, I’m Chris Ortiz with TheocracyWatch.”

The Book of Revelation was exhumed for another autopsy at its author’s expense (you remember: the guy who lived in a cave). Hough said of Revelation, “I don’t know what John was smoking when he wrote it.”  Hough impugned it on other grounds (the date it entered the canon; Cyril’s disdain for it, etc.), thereby crafting a very one-sided hit-and-run argument that anyone conversant with Warfield’s defense of canonicity could have reduced to rubble. Hough brought up the Book of Revelation because “preoccupation with the end times cuts the nerve for any kind of social action.”

“Christian arrogance creates a divisive Christian exclusivism… this is not in the spirit of Jesus Christ.” Hough finds this kind of divisive, exclusivist Christian arrogance in the words of Christ Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He counseled the removal of this text from the church lectionary declaring the text is destructive and led to the Holocaust, not to mention the murder of millions of Muslims and Christians. Put another way, these words of Jesus Christ apparently are “not in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

Hough then pointed out that homosexuality is not mentioned at all by Jesus. Ask yourself this: if Jesus had mentioned it, what would stop someone who is already willing to throw out John 14:6 from rejecting Christ’s position on homosexuality just as contemptuously? Moreover, this whole approach is inverted: throw out what Christ said at John 14:6, but build arguments on homosexuality where no written record of the Lord’s words supposedly exist. (Of course, Christ’s endorsement of Mosaic law, so well-defended by Bahnsen, Warfield, Rushdoony, and others, doesn’t merit consideration in Hough’s view. Although Christ mentions homosexuals at Revelation 22:15, Hough has, for all intents and purposes, already lumped the contents of that precious book in with the works of Carlos Castaneda and Timothy Leary.)

I think I’d have gotten along better with Dr. Hough’s father.

John F. Sugg on America the Theocracy

John Slugg is senior editor of The Weekly Planet and senior editor of Creative Loafing.

John Sugg was unable to deliver his lecture in person, but the content of his intended speech was made available to the audience. The distortions, inaccuracies, smears, and baseless associations that mar Sugg’s essay are “as the sands of the sea in number, and as the stars of heaven.”

The “T-word” is back, stitched like bolts on the neck of the Frankenstein monster, embedded in a wordy torrent that warns about “secretive groups” that act as “an invisible black hole” that “pulls the religious debate toward a theocracy with its closest parallel in Iran’s government-by-mullahs.” Christian Reconstructists are deemed “revolutionaries” who’ve “burrowed deep into the religious right,” whose “tactics for growth are stealthy.” Are we talking about Biblical Christianity or some kind of parasitic infestation here?

One wonders: do men like Sugg know these demonizations to be utterly false, or do they sincerely believe them? Sugg is a journalist who’s received “more than three dozen national and regional awards for investigative reporting” who “has been reporting on the ultra-right religious movement in America for more than a decade.” Perhaps Karen Armstrong’s “chasm of incomprehension” yawns far wider than expected — else how could Sugg misrepresent something he’s been studying for a decade?

Factual errors abound. Sugg writes: “And, Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, his brother Mark, Gary North, and Gary DeMar are names unlikely to spark widespread recognition.” They apparently don’t all spark recognition with Sugg, either: Mark is the son of R.J. Rushdoony, not his brother (that’d be Haig Rushdoony).

The “investigative reporter” delivers the alleged “goods” when he describes Christian Reconstruction as a theology “that denounced all government social programs, public schools, environmental protections — a religion that promoted mass executions for sins as minor as swearing at parents, decried democracy as heretical, relegated women to subservience, or that endorsed segregation and even the return of slavery to the United States.” Sugg mixes in charges of racism and anti-Semitism (picking out quotes denuded of their context) to round out his rhetorical package.

Where to begin? As to denunciation of “all government social programs,” Rushdoony has made it explicit that so long as Christians abdicate their responsibility regarding societal needs, the state must fill that function, since those needs cannot go unmet. Here we have Rush defending the state and indicting his fellow Christians. There’s no need to defend Rush’s advocacy of Christian schooling to Chalcedon’s readership, but Sugg is strangely silent about government attacks on Christian schooling. Not one speaker at this conference who bemoaned the Reconstructionist’s view that government regulations should be lifted ever once mentioned in my hearing that limited liability laws would also be abolished. If the corporation you own does something harmful, you’d become personally liable under Biblical law. Modern limited liability laws enthrone irresponsibility by wedging a massive disconnect between actions and consequences: I can do something wrong corporately, but not pay any price for it personally. But deregulation according to Christian Reconstruction entails greater responsibility and accountability than currently exists. To mention the one without the other is a despicable distortion. Sugg’s claim as stated doesn’t even embody an actual criticism of Christian Reconstruction — there’d have to have been some basis in reduced accountability to complain about, but the opposite is actually true. 

Practically speaking, Sugg’s list is intended to function as a sequence of sound bites: throw the ideas out there and lean on your credibility as a journalist to secure the desired effect. Use enough quotes to assure your readers you’ve gotten the dirt on the bad guys straight from their own mouths and pens.

Never mind that Rushdoony opposed anti-Semitism and racism (note his powerful exposition of Numbers 12, where God struck Miriam with leprosy for having criticized Moses’s marriage to an Ethiopian woman). As regards anti-Semitism, it’s significant that the charge doesn’t have to actually be true to be effective, since it’s so serious a charge. Never mind that Rushdoony repeatedly and consistently taught from Isaiah 19:18-25, which he regarded as the paradigmatic Old Testament passage concerning Israel’s destiny, upon which Paul expands in Romans 11:25-26.

The record has long ago been corrected on the other distortions, which have circulated for decades. Although we were disappointed looking for journalistic integrity with regard to Chalcedon’s work, we harbor hope that someone in the secular press will get the story right for once. We know of a noted writer who may just be the first to nail it. It wouldn’t be hard to do: you’d just have to want to do it is all.

Final Assessment

The indictments against Christian activism mirrored the centuries-old plaint of King Ahab against Elijah at 1 Kings 18:17: “And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?”  Ahab felt the situation under his reign was perfectly fine without this theocratic extremist’s intrusion into the nation’s public life.

Elijah answered Ahab: “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.” The conceptual battle lines are drawn equally sharply today, around the same issue: the law of God.

The lecturers at Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right saw Christians who take the Bible seriously in pretty much the same way that Amaziah saw the prophet Amos: “Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to bear all his words” (Am. 7:10). The order to muzzle the man of God to protect the governmental and cultural status quo was quickly issued thereafter (Amos 7:13): “But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.” Christian activists who “prophesy against the king’s court” will encounter its ardent defenders: priests like Amaziah of Bethel, dressed in modernist garb. After all, if the sandal fits….

Rushdoony was right: the status quo recognizes no more serious threat than the effective Christian. Remember how Queen Mary regarded the founder of Presbyterianism, John Knox. She affirmed that she feared no man, except John Knox on his knees.

That ultimately is the key: “Unless the Lord build the house, those that build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Gamaliel laid it out centuries ago (Acts 5:34-39): if God isn’t with us, our goals will go up in smoke. The conference lecturers have nothing to worry about. But if God is with us, Gamaliel would have dutifully informed the attendees in New York that “ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”

The God of Scripture was conspicuously absent from nearly all of the conference, just as He was absent from Amaziah’s complaint. The focus in both instances was “the king’s court” and maintaining its sanctity against perceived threats. That’s how Bethel — the altar in Israel that God didn’t sanction — always operates: it names God’s name (Bethel = house of God) and then pretty much does its own thing.

The conference speakers seemed to think that Christian Reconstructionists are a threat to them and the nation, but that God Himself is not.

The reverse is true.
Stewardship and Mission

Although I attended the conference as a representative of Chalcedon, I subsidized everything out of my own pocket. Why did I come to feel so strongly about not dipping into donations made to Chalcedon to fund my trip?

Here is the answer. I once asked Dr. Rushdoony why he didn’t respond to critical attacks on his work.  His short answer revised my entire outlook on Chalcedon’s proper task: “I don’t let the enemy determine my agenda for me.”  Rushdoony, in effect, was constitutionally unsuited to reacting to things like external criticism: he could only act in terms of his mission. He set aside every weight and pressed toward the mark. He mirrored Nehemiah’s response when called to engage his opponents, Sanballat and Geshem, in dialogue: “And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:2-3) Rushdoony summarily rejected anything that dissipated the work of Chalcedon (the work of the re-excavating and re-erecting of the foundations of applied Biblical thinking) as a worthless distraction. Rush was a man of encyclopedic insights and the broadest imaginable learning, but God, in an act of divine irony, placed  blinders on his head so that he could only look forward to the goal.

Do you imagine that Chalcedon would have had the impact the conference speakers lamented had Rushdoony spent his energy elsewhere (e.g., in responding to critics, participating in debates, etc.) rather than laboring to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ?  Had he lost focus and reacted to his critics, we wouldn’t be in the position today of having a conceptual foundation upon which to continue building (namely, Rush’s written legacy). Instead, we’d have just another dated blog that, eventually, wouldn’t even be worth archiving (because the Rush who actually had an impact was the Rush who, putting his hand to the plow, refused to look back). Rush understood far better than we do today: chit-chat with Sanballat and Geshem prevents Jerusalem from being built. Remember: in the movie Chariots of Fire, sprinter Harold Abrahams lost a race by merely glancing over his shoulder at the other runners.

“Moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (I Cor. 4:2).  Dr. Rushdoony was such a man, and those who now share the mantle he has passed down must be equally faithful stewards. As far as this conference was concerned, I can make no claim that anything even remotely edifying came of my attendance. Your donations to Chalcedon were intended by Rush to extend the Kingdom of God, not to take a reconnaissance party out to survey the enemy’s quite predictable reaction to that Kingdom’s inexorable growth. I accordingly spent my own money to get to New York and attend the conference, and after having heard what I did, I’m grateful I didn’t spend the money brought to His storehouse, in any form, on it.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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