First Major Book About R. J. Rushdoony Michael J. McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism
Dr. Michael J. McVicar has written the first major scholarly work on the history of Christian Reconstruction, unraveling the complexities of the impact made upon our culture by the work of R. J. Rushdoony. While the work’s 1,017 endnotes1 underscore the academic workmanship of the author, the value of the underlying research is in its reliance on original sources (rare in a field of study where second- and third-hand sourcing and hearsay are the general rule). The quality and relevance of Dr. McVicar’s sources are as important as the comprehensive range they cover.
From one standpoint, such a study is overdue. As the author points out, “In the 1980s, after nearly two decades of studiously ignoring Rushdoony, many influential church leaders and evangelical intellectuals suddenly realized that Rushdoony’s ideas were everywhere. And this required explanation.”2 Part of the explanation is unflattering: Rushdoony was the object of academic blackouts, such as “Christianity Today’s unwritten policy of ignoring Rushdoony whenever possible … however, this blackout had a significant unintended consequence…”3 This book provides the first major counterpoise to decades of blackouts and self-inflicted ignorance.
How many individuals warrant a book-length treatment from a major university press? The mere existence of this book is indicative of the significance of R. J Rushdoony’s contributions to the world of ideas. That such a book would go further and attempt to clarify the man’s impact, to determine what should and should not be laid to his blame or credit, and to attempt to rightly estimate his stature among movers and shakers visible and invisible, is even more remarkable.
Twists and Turns
This is not a perfect book, but it is an excellent one. The weaknesses of Dr. McVicar’s work (which are relatively few, to be noted in more detail later) arise from several factors. First, there is a limit to what can be gleaned from primary sources, especially when so many of them emanate from the personal journals and correspondence of only one man. Reconstructing events that occurred decades earlier may require occasional use of conjecture and extrapolation to connect the dots. Determining the relative weight and reliability of various witnesses who are unavailable for cross-examination is challenging, and no scholar wants to give questionable sources equal standing to good sources. In most cases, Dr. McVicar navigates around the evidentiary holes well, providing due warning when drawing provisional conclusions. His conjectures are never anything less than defensible, and many of them provide remarkable insights into matters hitherto shrouded in obscurity.
Second, Dr. McVicar is writing for a constituency that is largely hostile to Christian Reconstruction. It is doubtful that the University of North Carolina Press was looking to mass-print a puff piece extolling R. J. Rushdoony’s work. Dr. McVicar is not himself a Reconstructionist, a point we reiterated each time Chalcedon published one of his essays (which were early drafts of specific sections of this book) in Faith for All of Life. His “outsider” status allowed him to wear the robe of objectivity.
His new book appears to make nods towards its non- and anti-Reconstructionist constituency, being marketed as a tool to warn the unwary about a shadowy figure (the terms “rogue’s gallery”4 and “shadowy and amorphous network”5 appear twice; Rushdoony is a “crafty bootstrapper” seeking to “insulate his activities from taxation”6; the perversity of the modern state is essentially in the imagination of Rushdoony7 and other conservatives; the “notoriety” of Rushdoony and/or his writings8 is front-and-center, etc.). That the book’s actual content tends to reposition Rushdoony against prevailing misconceptions isn’t immediately obvious. Like the Trojan horse, its payload isn’t evident from its external trappings.
Third, the author didn’t have the advantage of a final feedback review from Chalcedon, although he sought it by providing drafts for that purpose. Some charity, then, must be extended to a scholar who tried to do right. From previous review cycles with Dr. McVicar, he evinced every intention to get the story straight, and accepted the vast bulk of our recommendations for correcting the facts and the presentation of complex ideas.
We therefore extrapolate that this author would have done the same had we been in a position to provide feedback on the schedule required by the publisher, and that many errors in the text would not have appeared had we been able to fulfill his request to review his final draft. By pointing them out later, we’re essentially providing Dr. McVicar with the review he requested, retroactively.
From Responsible Student to Published Historian
Dr. McVicar has come a long way in his analysis when compared to his earlier excursions into Rushdoony studies.9 Some misstatements creeping into his earlier research were pointed out to him, and those errors were, by and large, corrected.10 As Dr. McVicar concedes at the outset of the present work, “The interpretations contained herein—and any factual errors—are mine alone.”
As stated above, Dr. McVicar went so far as to provide Chalcedon with draft materials for comment. He went the extra mile. The fact that Chalcedon could not allocate time to provide the feedback requested is no reflection on the author and his proactive search for counsel. While true that the errors are his, they are errors he sought to eradicate in good faith—but deadlines necessarily took precedence. In addition, the typographic errors will doubtless be corrected in the next edition.11
As Dr. McVicar admits, Chalcedon president Mark R. Rushdoony “took a certain risk in allowing an unknown graduate student totally unfettered access to his father’s personal papers and unpublished manuscripts.”12 The risk factor boiled down to the researcher’s moral character. While some have thought Chalcedon’s openness was tantamount to Hezekiah giving some Babylonians a cook’s tour of Jerusalem (Isaiah 39), the actual takeaway was something different: the foundation that R.J. Rushdoony founded fifty years ago was not the secretive, shadowy splinter cell of pop legend. As Dr. McVicar noted, Christian Reconstruction was “poorly understood,”13 a deficiency14 he purposed to correct.
The author admits that partisan ideologues will find things to love and hate in the book. Critics will see things that reinforce their negative impressions of Rushdoony15 while advocates will find reinforcement of their views. “More temperate readers,” he says, “will likely find Rushdoony to be something of an enigma—at once intellectually deep and emotionally distant, a complex mix of hubris and humility.”16
Major Insights Intuited by Dr. McVicar
Concerning Rushdoony, Dr. McVicar wrote, “The dedication he engendered was for adherence to an intellectual cause, not loyalty to a man.”17 (Oddly, though, the author doesn’t pursue the posthumous extension of that intellectual cause conducted by the very institution Rushdoony founded for that purpose: the Chalcedon Foundation. The author may not recognize that the exact same under-the-surface influence18 he traces in the twentieth century is still at work on an even broader decentralized scale.)
“If Rushdoony could persuade Christians to reject any form of education that emphasized state sovereignty over God’s sovereignty, then he could start a reform movement that would fundamentally reorganize all human relationships.”19 This would be good if current human relationships are corrupted, but bad if they’re considered the gold standard. While Dr. McVicar leaves this matter open for now, the implicit assumption is that a backlash will be forthcoming.
“Rushdoony believed that the lack of critical journalism within all major Protestant denominations imperiled the church.”20 If such journalism doesn’t exist, you’ll get your ideas from a default secular source. The church and its leadership then declines away from the faith and becomes a shell of its former self, an institutional whited sepulcher.
The internal rot of the church was something Rushdoony regularly had to confront. When a former PCUSA general assembly moderator condemned him as “devil-possessed,” Rushdoony “took the admonishment as a compliment, sardonically noting that the statement ‘indicates a return to conservative theology … Perhaps having recognized the devil’s existence, he may even admit God’s!’”21
Dr. McVicar notes that “It is in this distinction between liberty as truth and liberty as afruit of the truth of Christ that Rushdoony located the uniqueness of his own social and political mission.”22 The author clearly grasps the importance of this distinction, one usually lost upon those habituated to merge these ideas or treat them as synonyms.
When R. J. Rushdoony taught that the family was the basic unit of society, he meant it. And that fact directed him to the proper avenue for confronting societal issues. “For Rushdoony, political activism and social change could happen in all spheres of life, but the farther these changes were removed from the family, the less effective they became. As a result, he worked to convince Christians … that they needed to rethink their political activism and refocus it on creating a proper Christian family.”23
Rushdoony’s view of law and order “pushed against the central assumptions of reformers on the left and right … The answers to [the crisis] could not be found in more police officers, more-conservative politicians, a more-aggressive foreign policy, or a slick evangelical outreach to the souls of a broken nation. Civic salvation would not come through public protest and civil disobedience.”24 The political right and left weren’t the only impotent forces on the stage, as Dr. McVicar points out later: “Neoevangelicals could revive, presuppositionalists could destroy, but neither could reconstruct. This perception of the twin failures of neoevangelicalism and neo-Calvinism prompted Rushdoony to develop a systemic Protestant casuistry to respond to the ‘law-and-order’ problem of the 1960s.”25
Dr. McVicar’s attempt to parse the One and the Many concept in regard to the matter of sphere sovereignty is to the point. “Faith in and dedication to God’s final sovereignty dictated that no sphere can be made subservient to another. Therefore, every sphere provides a check to the potential tyranny of the others … at every turn, true Christian families and churches provide a check against the totalitarian claims of the state on the lives of humans.”26
Rushdoony’s Concept of Governance
Dovetailing with these concepts is Dr. McVicar’s excellent exposition of Rushdoony’s concept of governance, where civil government is but one form among many: “Rushdoony understood that historically, governance has not been the sole domain of the territorial nation-state.”27
On the question of civil disobedience (in both moderate and extreme forms), Dr. McVicar is careful to distinguish between the views of different Reconstructionists (which is remarkable for the simple reason that such care is rarely taken by critics). As Dr. McVicar documents, “Rushdoony had long condemned any form of antiabortion civil disobedience as antinomian sin,” going so far as voting with his feet when push came to shove.28
But it was in America’s courtrooms that Rushdoony changed the nation’s landscape most profoundly. Dr. McVicar’s account is galvanizing and well-structured, resonating with the heat of battle and the acknowledgment of the centrality of Rushdoony’s contribution in safeguarding alternatives to state education. “Rushdoony used the public space of America’s courtrooms to carve out the private, domestic spaces necessary for the familializing process of Christian Reconstruction to thrive.”29 “If Whitehead and Shaeffer helped pioneer Christian legal activism in the 1980s, they did so by following paths blazed by Rushdoony in his effort to legalize Christian homeschooling.”30
The divisions between Reconstructionists are handled in a reasonably even-handed way by the author, and he sets out the contrasts clearly in respect to conflicting emphases. Where the laundry is dirty, it comes in for examination. Dr. McVicar strives to remain objective, but it is possible to sense that his sympathies are closer to Rushdoony than to the next generation of Reconstructionists. This section of the work falters only once,31 which is remarkable given the incendiary materials that had to be collated into a coherent whole.
Rushdoony the Heretic?
Dr. McVicar provides an accurate picture of the 1987 dust-up between Christianity Today and the Reconstructionists when Rodney Clapp came out with all guns blazing. Clapp portrayed “a dystopian society built on Rushdoony’s ideas… In a single article, Clapp had distilled the spirit of a decades-long theological fight into a fundamental accusation: Rushdoony was a heretic.” More pointedly, the Reconstructionists were “political heretics out of touch with contemporary evangelicalism and, worse still, contemporary American political sensibilities.”32 The result of this shift in strategy by the critics of reconstruction? “Secular concepts of force, violence, domination, and political legitimation … [became] the new metrics for measuring Rushdoony’s theology.”33
Back on the evangelical ranch, three books were penned34 that became (by default) the de facto standards for dismissing Christian Reconstruction. “Other authors in the evangelical and secular presses have repeatedly cited them, thereby solidifying their central role in forming popular conceptions35” of this theology. “Ultimately, each text warned that dominion theology was incompatible with mainstream evangelicalism.”36
Was Rushdoony treated any better by those who embraced his ideas compared to those who rejected them? Not in Dr. McVicar’s telling of the continual uncredited plagiarizing of Rushdoony’s work. The theologian stated the case succinctly: “I find my materials, illustrations, and footnotes used, sometimes verbatim, with no credit, because I am ‘controversial.’ So is the Lord.” In Dr. McVicar’s words, Rushdoony “interpreted a failure to directly cite his influence as a manifestation of Christian cowardice and cultural retreat in order to avoid controversy.”37
Into this conflicted maelstrom, confusion spread as distinctions were erased, generating imaginary associations where none existed. “While evangelicals used ‘dominion’ labels to facilitate the critique and expulsion of what they perceived as theological and eschatological aberrations, many secular pundits and journalists abandoned nuance and instead identified ‘dominionism’ as the unifying ideology behind all politically engaged conservative Protestants.”38 Broad brushes are so much more convenient even if they get paint on the wrong things—or people.
Dr. McVicar identifies a “readymade set of tropes”39 used to vilify Rushdoony: he was compared to Islamic extremists, then to fascists (the list seems to omit Islamo-fascism but does include “Christo-fascism”40) and he was derided as “the Ayatollah of holy rollers.”41
The book reexamines this antipathy more closely in its concluding pages in the section titled “Good Religion, Bad Religion.”42 Here Dr. McVicar unpacks the concept of a “negative reference group” operating in an environment where “good” and “bad” forms of religious expression are being culturally entrenched through the exchange of ideas.
Such a polarization was already evident in Mel White’s 2006 book, Religion Gone Bad: Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right, which was reviewed by this reviewer for Faith for All of Life (in addition to key essays by Jeff Sharlet and Molly Worthen that Dr. McVicar cites in this volume). All such “negative reference points” embody “a normative understanding of the proper limits of religion and citizenship in the United States.”43 At this point the author appeals to the work of Robert A. Orsi and Sean McCloud to undergird the conclusion that “the business of religion and its study is the creation of marginalized others.”44
The marginalizing of Christian Reconstruction through “obsessive, ritualized exposure and condemnation”45 of the concept conforms to these pigeon-holing strategies. Dr. McVicar summarizes this with clear vision: “By using Reconstructionism to embody ‘bad’ religion, such narratives [give birth to] the normative and naïve assumption that ‘good’ American evangelicalism simply seeks to bring the light of Christ’s Gospel to a fallen world.”46
Missed Connections and Opportunities
When Van Til reconstructed scholarship as a religious activity, Dr. McVicar conceives this to mean “that such knowledge is essentially political because it recognizes God’s absolute sovereignty over His creation.”47 This assessment is backwards and reflects the “fish unaware of the water” problem for those who regard modern statism as normative. Because the modern state has usurped divine sovereignty, any claims to the contrary by God or His people are characterized as “essentially political” because statism abhors any challenge to its stolen prerogatives. “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.”48 University professors would find this particular epistemology “essentially intellectual,” while economists would find it “essentially economic,” because it is a totalistic epistemology that gores all oxen equally. A slightly better assessment occupies an endnote.49 This shift of sovereignty from God to state is documented at length in Rushdoony’s massive study, Sovereignty.
Dr. McVicar states that the “philosophical foundations of Van Til’s apologetic method sound like abstract theological sophistry”50 yet Rushdoony nonetheless embraced it. Dr. McVicar found his encounter with Van Til unconvincing, being skeptical of the Dutchman’s account of the fall: “one might wonder exactly how Van Til grasped Adam’s thought process in all its logical rigor…”51 Van Til is tough sledding and Dr. McVicar’s didn’t know which sources to look to, although one was available.52
Rushdoony’s perspective, writes Dr. McVicar, “found its niche with a dedicated minority of Christian conservatives who longed to fundamentally redraw the boundaries between individuals, families, the church, and the state.”53 The implication is that the status quo is normative, when it was itself the result of relentless boundary redrawing as secularism advanced across the world. Mitigating that implication is Dr. McVicar’s acknowledgment of “a century-long trend of ceding family governance to other institutions.”54
Dr. McVicar criticizes John Birch Society founder Robert Welch because “his appeal to autodidacticism encouraged Birchers to decontextualize everything that they knew and recode it in terms of the guiding metanarrative of an insidious communist plot.”55 Apparently self-learning is unsafe, and nobody else recodes facts in terms of a guiding metanarrative – except, of course, that everybody does exactly this. As Van Tillians would say, it’s not a matter of having a metanarrative or not having one: it’s a matter of which metanarrative will govern your thinking. Merely because there weren’t Bolsheviks under every bed, that doesn’t mean the prevailing status quo metanarrative should be affirmed against other contending perspectives: that is a non sequitur as well as a false dichotomy. As far as recoding to arrive at a credible synthesis, Dr. McVicar does this in his book, and I’m doing that with this book review. This, held Van Til and Rushdoony, is inescapably true. The question becomes, which presuppositions, which metanarrative, is the true one?
Love and War
Dr. McVicar opens his fourth chapter by juxtaposing two quotes, one from Rushdoony’s Institutes and the other from Romans 13:10. On the face of it, this looks like an attempt to pit the two writers against each other (as if Rushdoony had somehow argued that “war is the fulfilling of the law” while Paul states that “love is the fulfilling of the law”). But the preceding verses in Romans 13 do speak of swords being wielded against the wicked by magistrates defending the law-order. The context, then, suggests that Dr. McVicar is really pitting St. Paul against St. Paul. It might have been wiser to consult Rushdoony’s commentary on Romans than to stage what amounts to a proof text hit-and-run (and a decontextualized one at that).
Dr. McVicar does not appear to be amenable to Rushdoony’s view that state education of children is tantamount to Moloch worship56 (perhaps having considered it only in the extreme form it sometimes took in the Old Testament). But Rushdoony was nothing if not rigorous in making the connection between state worship and Moloch worship. Anyone confronted with the totality of his argument would have a major task in countering Rushdoony’s view.
From the courtroom accounts of homeschooling trials that Dr. McVicar brings forward, it can easily be seen that the Christians were never dealing with some presumed “kinder, gentler Moloch.” And while the book details the gratitude of many of those aided by Dr. Rushdoony’s expert witness testimony in court, it doesn’t mention the sad parallels to Luke 17:12–18 (where ten lepers were healed but only one expressed gratitude). There were trials where the Christians that received critical help from R. J. Rushdoony in court would turn their backs on him afterward, treating him like a leper (no pun intended). The basis for such antipathy to Rushdoony is continually expressed elsewhere by Dr. McVicar: the man’s theology simply made him a pariah in many circles.
The harshest assessment Dr. McVicar brings forward is Franky Shaeffer V’s assertion that his father, noted Swiss theologian Francis A. Schaeffer IV, had asserted that Rushdoony was “clinically insane.” Had this claim gone unqualified, the resulting impression would have been journalistically irresponsible, but Dr. McVicar’s lengthy endnote takes pains to mitigate this claim.57
In respect to the current state of Christian Reconstruction, Dr. McVicar falls victim to the provincial nature of his research stint. Says he, “the disintegration of the organizational structures of Christian Reconstruction seemed to have little impact on its influence on an assemblage of interlocking religious and political issues.”58 If by “disintegration” he means the aging buildings in Vallecito, then why should that have such an impact on the influence of Christian Reconstruction? Chalcedon was never about the facility, it was about the ideas. Does he mean that Chalcedon is disintegrating as an institution? If so, on what basis does he make this claim? As a historian, he should have metrics at hand to undergird such a conclusion.
Rushdoony’s published output has never ceased to grow (and would continue growing for years after his passing). Might that not be a credible vehicle for widening and deepening his influence? The posting of his works on the Internet, and translation into foreign languages, continues apace. Consequently, the notion of disintegration, to use Dr. McVicar’s own phrase, is difficult to parse.
But the author quickly takes up the slack in the work’s concluding pages, noting that “Christian Reconstruction was never a centralized movement,” all but rendering conventional measures of influence useless. This decentralized aspect of Rushdoony’s views informs his definition of theocracy as the most libertarian system possible, and Dr. McVicar to his credit provides the full quotation59 to illustrate that the critics and Rushdoony mean radically different things.
Errors in the Book
Rushdoony did not want to “break down the boundaries between church and state,”60 although he did believe in the separation of school and state. Dr. McVicar asserts that Rushdoony called for applying the death penalty to “incorrigible children,” but the reference he provides actually reads “incorrigible delinquents.”61 The charge of misogyny appears throughout the text,62 in apparent disregard of published expositions of Rushdoony’s work to the contrary63 and/or ignorance of important qualifying nuances in the theologian’s views. The claim that Gen. 1:26–28 (the dominion mandate) refers to “governing other human beings”64 is suitably ominous but never taught by Rushdoony.
The author misuses important theological terms when he writes that “Only the millennial Kingdom, ruled by the all-sovereign god-man Jesus Christ, could both save and rule humanity.”65
One subhead is emblematic of a host of related misstatements: “Sanctified by Grace, Regenerated by Law.”66 These are terms that have narrowly defined meanings in orthodox theology, but here they’re assembled in a way neither Rushdoony nor any other conservative Christian would countenance. Law has no power, cannot regenerate, cannot sanctify. It is a pattern for sanctification, for holiness, being a transcript of God’s character, and it is what Christ conforms His people to, but no magic properties adhere to it. That there are consequences for our response to the law is a very different thing.
Later, Dr. McVicar argues that, “Law sanctifies by separating and purifying. It mediates between man and God by granting life and by taking it.”67 The separation the law “creates” is a passive one: it distinguishes between the lawkeeper and the lawbreaker, the just and the unjust, denoting an ethical separation. The second sentence is just as problematic, as there is only one Mediator between God and man. However, Rushdoony did hold that the law mediates between man and man by providing the framework for justice in human relations—again, a very different thing.
By the same token, the continual use of “reconstructed” as an adjective applied to people (“reconstructed Christian self,”68 “reconstructed men,”69 “reconstructed father,”70 “reconstructed families”71) cannot be found in Rushdoony, and is (as expressed and used) inaccurate. One can have regenerate persons, and regenerate persons can reconstruct a field or discipline or sphere, but reconstruction as such doesn’t apply to persons. People are agents of reconstruction, not objects of it.
When Dr. McVicar refers to Rushdoony’s “emphasis on the Old Testament over the New Testament,”72 he fails to understand that Christian Reconstruction is restoring the Old Testament to parity with the New rather than retiring it as the Word of God Emeritus. In the very next sentence, Dr. McVicar asserts that Rushdoony’s orientation must posit an “imagined continuity” between Old and New Testaments, effectively dismissing all contrary (and formidable) scholarship with a wave of the hand.
When Dr. McVicar says he is “simplifying greatly” in trying to describe what postmillennialists believe, this is an understatement. The explanation is seriously defective, for postmillennialists don’t hold that “Christ will return to rule the earth after Christians have first established His Kingdom.”73 Another critic of Christian Reconstruction, Chip Berlet, understood better the difference between premillennialism and postmillennialism. Dr. McVicar also falls into the error of equating the social gospel with postmillennialism, a parallel that has been repeatedly and soundly debunked for decades. Perhaps Dr. McVicar didn’t have sources at hand to get these ideas straight.
But a more serious lapse on the author’s part occurs in his use of William Hendriksen’s book, More Than Conquerors. This commentary does not “offer a preterist interpretation of the book of Revelation”74 in the accepted sense of the term in eschatological discourse (unless one wrongly assumes that the alternative to futurism must be preterism). Hendriksen’s work is amillennial (despite the book’s optimistic title) and sets forth an idealist (not preterist) exposition of Revelation. Had Dr. McVicar glanced at the page right across from the one he cites, he could have avoided this mistake: Hendriksen explicitly says the scope of John’s prophecies extends from the last decade of the 1st century to the present day and beyond, up until the Second Coming. Preterists position the book’s primary focus in the years running up to 70 A.D., but Hendriksen’s timeframe starts at 95 A.D. and has yet to expire.
Mark Rushdoony contradicts Dr. McVicar’s assertion that R. J. Rushdoony chose to relocate Chalcedon to Vallecito “to reduce the threat of fallout in the event of a nuclear attack.”75 The lesson here is simple: vet your sources carefully. Chris Smith never met R.J. Rushdoony but felt free to make easily disproven claims about the prevailing winds (they would actually blow fallout from San Francisco or Sacramento into Vallecito). Says Mark, “My father was so concerned with a nuclear holocaust that he moved downwind of an expected blast zone into an all-electric home! This is nonsense tailored to further discredit my father by tying him to fringe groups.”
Other factual errors about Rushdoony family history mar Dr. McVicar’s account of the escape from Armenia. The claim that Ronald Rushdoony was an orphan is in error, and the source cited actually states that R. J. Rushdoony “wasn’t much for hunting.” Fishing, however…
No small controversy surrounds Dr. McVicar’s discussion of Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s termination from Reformed Theological Seminary.76 A counter-narrative, comprised of documentary evidence that’s been privately archived for decades, has been posted at American Vision’s website to counter the claims floated about Bahnsen’s character (versus the character of his interlocutors and opponents). While Dr. McVicar was careful to say that the historical details were “difficult to parse” and that Bahnsen’s views were polarizing in themselves, Bahnsen’s defenders were quick to rise up to clear his reputation. Perhaps the newly posted material would never have seen the light of day had Dr. McVicar not proceeded as he had. Now that it has been made available, the other side of the coin is finally open to scrutiny.
Restoring The Missing Quotation
“First Owyhee and Then the World,” beginning on page 24 of Dr. McVicar’s book, was published as a stand-alone essay by Chalcedon. As such, we had access to early and later drafts of Dr. McVicar’s detailed description of Rushdoony’s work with the Paiute and Shoshone peoples. During the evolution of the manuscript, a quotation was dropped, prompting me to write the author on November 12, 2008, concerning the missing text (which underscored Rushdoony’s determination to be a “moral force” on the reservation). The text, written by Rushdoony, was evidently omitted from the book as well (which I read cover-to-cover including every endnote).
Dr. McVicar removed the original quotation due to space considerations and to tighten his argument, but after considering my point he conceded the relevance of the quotation and invited Chalcedon to reinsert it in the online version of his article.77 He conveyed a moving assessment of Dr. Rushdoony’s early correspondence to us that is worth reading in its own right.78
Here, then, is what Rushdoony had to say about his work at the reservation as a microcosm of the church at large:
Both Church and State are located at the base of an extinct volcano, a true symbol of their condition. Ichabod, the glory is departed. Both Church and State live on the dead embers of their true sovereignty and power while striving hungrily to gain visibility through bastard sources. So it is, but this outpost of the Church shall not do so.79
There are those who, encountering but a single word in the wrong place, will condemn an entire book on the spot. They will close the book and never reopen it. But knowledge is always provisional, and the historian’s task compounds that factor.
A book like this must be absorbed as a whole. To strain out gnats would be entirely misplaced, and does not constitute a sign of holiness or spiritual superiority. “I would never have written that sentence in that way,” the critic sniffs, but the critic would never have spent the years needed to research and compile the data upon which to write such a detailed book. After all, nitpicking is easy; lifting the elephant into the eighteen-wheeler is hard.
The strengths of the book put its weaknesses well into the shadow. This is now the ultimate reference on the topics it covers: first, a very complex individual; second, an equally complex movement that addresses all spheres and disciplines; and third, the world’s response to the man and his all-embracing vision concerning the applicable extent of the Holy Scriptures. To grasp all of these factors and synthesize them into a coherent whole involves a multi-disciplinary awareness that is difficult to cultivate.
Negatively, the book undercuts the bulk of the popular myths about R. J. Rushdoony and his impact. In its positive exposition of his ideas, the author by and large succeeds in navigating between Scylla and Charybdis: Rushdoony’s advocates and detractors.
Prior to publication of Dr. McVicar’s work, the pile of myths and errors about R. J. Rushdoony reeked to the heavens, filling the Augean stables of the popular mind. Sure, Rushdoony partisans could publish rearguard actions in a piecemeal way, with narrow circulation and unknown traction. But when Dr. McVicar took the task upon himself, and made the project palatable to a secular publishing house, he was able to divert the river to clean out the stables and to set a new reference point for accurate journalism. This will now serve as the new starting point for subsequent studies.
No, the book is not perfect, but the author has made the next researcher’s job ten thousand times easier. The stables can now be cleaned out with a swish broom. If this volume isn’t the cause for appreciation on that ground alone, we have proven how dull of understanding we are. In the shadow of Dr. McVicar’s book, the world will no longer have a beam in its eye when it comes to R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. To then whine and complain about any motes in Dr. McVicar’s eye is to quibble.
Buy it. Read it. Critique it. Learn from it. If you can do better, prove it.
1. Since the numbers reset back to 1 for each chapter, the book designer provided helpful footers specifying which main page numbers the end notes belong to.
2. Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 196. There remained some confusion about what those ideas actually meant: “… a network of activists, missionaries, and national church leaders were calling for Christians to ‘take dominion,’ although exactly what ‘dominion’ meant was inchoate at best.” (202)
3. McVicar, 197. He later supplies some basis for the antipathy to Rushdoony: “… many American evangelicals knew what ‘true’ Christianity was, and Christian Reconstruction was not it.” (201)
4. McVicar, 44, 54. So-called “rogue ministries” appear on page 141 but in a somewhat different context.
5. McVicar, 45, 57.
6. McVicar, 98. The rescript of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:23–24 is the foundation of the tax exemption for institutions doing God’s work, but Dr. McVicar seems to assume the modern tax system is intrinsically good, making unwillingness to pay the pound of flesh inherently bad. Thus are Rushdoony’s motives impugned.
7. McVicar, 89. “In Rushdoony’s imagination—and in the imaginations of many American conservatives—the modern state represented the most perverse manifestation of humanity’s desire for autosalvation.”
8. McVicar, 129. Rushdoony’s Institutes are “notorious” for a host of reasons as Dr. McVicar sees it. See also 274, n. 44
9. Compare his new book with his 2007 essay for Public Eye: Michael J. McVicar’s assessment in “The Libertarian Theocrats: The Long, Strange History of R.J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism.” The Public Eye Magazine 22/3. Available at http://www.publiceye.org/magaz...
10. For one example, when citing from Mark Crispin Miller’s Cruel and Unusual, Dr. McVicar’s 2007 essay “Dominion Deferred?” states that “Rushdoony’s theology calls for Christians to ‘take dominion’ over all aspects of the federal government and replace it with a theocracy.” My embedded comment in the Word file returned to Dr. McVicar (6/19/2007) warned, “It would be safer to add, ‘Miller holds that Rushdoony’s theology…’ As stated, it’s a misrepresentation, coming across as a definition rather than Miller’s position.” Later, he states, “As a theologian, Rushdoony did something no other Christian theology has managed to do—he politicized epistemology.” My correction to his assessment of Rushdoony’s achievement concerning epistemology was that “He made it relevant, which was tantamount to politicizing it in a world that thinks in statist categories.” For every overstatement or misstatement to be corrected (e.g., “In theory, men will submit to God’s law voluntarily, leaving place for a ruling body of theocratic clerics,” an idea which I pointed out can be found nowhere in Rushdoony’s writings or lectures), there were three times as many accurate, even insightful, analyses that I pointed out for commendation. Dr. McVicar was clearly a scholar in transition who made optimal use of the sources available to him to further hone his message and tighten up his research results.
11. McVicar, 115, “Genesis 1:11” should read “Genesis 1–11.” xi: “compliment” should read “complement.” xii: “into viable” should read “into a viable.” 160: missing indent on first line. 166: correct the publication date of Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum from 1967 to 1981. 181: “asserted themselves into” should read “inserted themselves into.” The word “predications” occurs three times (186) and in each case would make more sense if changed to “predictions.” 196: “Dan Barton” should probably read “David Barton.” 224: the book by Bruce Shortt was not published by Ross House Books but by the Chalcedon Foundation (the former had merged into the latter by 2004).
12. McVicar, xi.
13. McVicar, 4.
14. Dr. McVicar explains how divisions among Reconstructionists produced “profound ignorance about the goals and mission” of the scholars nurtured by Rushdoony (McVicar, 181). To those new to Rushdoony’s views who were “largely unaware of the complex history of the movement, Reconstructionism appeared to be a sui generis antidemocratic, tyrannical, and personally invasive theocratic crusade. To these worried observers, Reconstructionism was an unprecedented movement intent on fusing church and state into a dangerous totalitarian union. In short, Reconstruction seemed like the ultimate American heresy.” (Ibid.)
15. McVicar, 225. As Dr. McVicar draws his book to a close, he throws some significant bones to Rushdoony’s critics on this page, touching on [presumably racial] discrimination, reconstruction’s “dehumanizing theology of homosexuality,” and noting that “the American right … will likely hang onto his ideas out of aesthetic temperament and sheer malice for years to come.”
16. McVicar, 13.
17. McVicar, 12.
18. McVicar, 8.
19. McVicar, 43.
20. McVicar, 53.
21. McVicar, 56.
22. McVicar, 61.
23. McVicar, 92–93. The omitted ellipsis reads thus: “—especially conservative, fundamentalist, and evangelical Protestants—”
24. McVicar, 109.
25. McVicar, 128. There may be some confusion over the author’s use of the term “neo-Calvinism.” In context, it parallels the “presuppositionalists” and should be understood here as such.
26. McVicar, 126.
27. McVicar, 132. Such non-statist forms of government are seen as “shaping human subjects in ways that a state-centered perspective either ignores or obscures.” (133)
28. McVicar, 161.
29. McVicar, 167.
30. McVicar, 175.
31. McVicar 189. The author adopts (or borrows) an analogy that has no place in Biblical postmillennialism: “Here, Gilstrap and others at Tyler pushed Rushdoony’s postmillennial vision toward its nightmarish logical end.” There is nothing logical about connecting postmillennialism with this ill-begotten strategy, but it is entirely nightmarish to unite such opposites.
32. McVicar, 203.
33. McVicar, 203–204.
34. McVicar, 204. The books are Dave Hunt’s Whatever Happened to Heaven?, H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice’s Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? and Hal Lindsey’s The Road to Holocaust.
35. McVicar, 204.
36. McVicar, 205. Fear of “a more severe reaction to Christianity than would have normally occurred” is cited by Dr. McVicar as an exacerbating factor to this reception (ibid). “While Rushdoonian Christian Reconstruction motivated thousands of Americans, it terrified many others.” (206)
37. McVicar, 210.
38. McVicar, 215.
39. McVicar, 215.
40. McVicar, 216.
41. McVicar, 215. This “Ayatollah” label was later to be used in private jest by Chalcedon writer Otto Scott when referring to Dr. Rushdoony. This artifice defused the power of the word.
42. McVicar, 228–230.
43. McVicar, 229.
44. McVicar, 229.
45. McVicar, 229.
46. McVicar, 230. The original text used the term “reify” rather than “give birth to,” but we didn’t want to have to drive the reader back to the dictionary yet another time. “Reify,” however, is the better term, meaning to change an abstraction into a concrete reality.
47. McVicar, 35.
48. Vizzini to the Man in Black, The Princess Bride (1987), Battle of Wits.
49. McVicar, 239, n.98 attempts to summarize a key point of Rushdoony’s One and the Many.
50. McVicar, 40.
51. McVicar, 42.
52. Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1998), 152–153, inclusive of footnotes 12 and 13, provide the basis for Van Til’s view of the intellectual dynamics informing the fall.
53. McVicar, 78.
54. McVicar, 165. See also McVicar 263, n.93 for documentary expansion of this point.
55. McVicar, 95.
56. McVicar, 168.
57. McVicar, 272, n174.
58. McVicar, 219.
59. McVicar, 227, quoting the key definition from Rushdoony’s 1980 position paper, “The Meaning of Theocracy.”
60. McVicar, 2.
61. McVicar, 4 and 234, note 15 citing Institutes of Biblical Law 1:235, 1:245. The Biblical text (Deut. 21:10) describes these delinquents as male drunkards (“sons”) who are incorrigible. Substituting “children” falsifies the text and Rushdoony’s meaning.
62. McVicar 234, n. 14. The issue of male patriarchy is continually pressed as well (125). See also 132: “… godly governance is located in the created minds and gendered bodies of Christian men.” Dr. McVicar attempts a sustained tendentious exposition of Rushdoony’s thought (133–134) that goes off the rails (the family is an “ethical hierarchy”?) before happily getting back on track. This is one of the weakest sections of the work in terms of setting forth Rushdoony’s systematic position with accuracy, and in this incomplete form it readily serves to solidify the charge of misogyny.
63. Martin G. Selbrede, “Patriarchy or Feminism,”Faith for All of Life March-April 2010, 7–12. This article is structured as a critical review of Kathryn Joyce’sQuiverfull, cited authoritatively on page 223 of Dr. McVicar’s work where we read that “Kathryn Joyce has documented [that] Rushdoony’s theology had a direct influence on the [quiverfull] movement.” Knowledge of this critical assessment of Joyce would have been useful in counterbalancing this overstated claim.
64. McVicar, 4.
65. McVicar, 89.
66. McVicar, 122. Also “the sanctifying power of biblical law…” (132) and “the regenerative power of biblical law” (138).
67. McVicar, 131. Dr. McVicar is discussing the death penalty in this context, which may explain the peculiar conceptual focus (that executing lawbreakers sanctifies those who remain). This terminology is also not found in Rushdoony, who always speaks in this context of a restraint upon wickedness. To “purge the evil out of your midst” does not lead to personal sanctification of those not executed. Rushdoony was not lobbying for “ethical cleansing” as if it were the valid flipside to ethnic cleansing.
68. McVicar, 126.
69. McVicar, 135.
70. McVicar, 137.
71. McVicar, 138.
72. McVicar, 139.
73. McVicar, 135. The missteps continue well into the next page
74. McVicar, 136.
75. McVicar, 144.
76. McVicar, 157–160.
77. Email from Michael J. McVicar to this reviewer dated November 13, 2008. The later shortened versions, says he, “lost some of the poetry and emotional punch of Rushdoony’s letter.”
78. Ibid. Dr. McVicar concludes thus: “As a side note, having now read a large portion of Rushdoony’s personal correspondence, I believe these early letters of his are an absolute gold-mine. Some are beautifully written, and all are much more emotionally open than his later letters. Some are even quite moving (like this “Ichabod” note). And all provide illuminating glimpses into Rushdoony’s temperament. His later material is very guarded when compared to this early material. I think it’s telling that Rushdoony kept most of these early letters in large cloth-covered binders in his library. He didn’t do that for his later correspondence (he just stacked it up in piles or shoved it haphazardly into boxes and files). I think they held a very special place in his heart.”
79. From the originally submitted draft of the essay sent to Chalcedon. Emphasis added.
- 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.