Not since the 1960s has America been beset with so many social crises. The relative calm of the 1990s has given way to a train of national handicaps such as war, immigration, natural disasters, and rising fuel prices. People are frustrated. They are concerned about the state of a country that appears to be fading under the intense rays of national tribulation.
The political climate is unusually tense. A disappointing Republican performance is even turning many conservatives away from the Grand Old Party. The population is realizing that the Left/Right political paradigm is limited and senior politicians on both political aisles are virtually the same. After twelve presidents since FDR there has been no genuine change in national policy. Government is bigger, the cost of living is higher, and personal liberties are under threat. For all of the “Christian” presidents we’ve had since Roe v. Wade, the slaughter of the unborn continues, and a Nazi-like scientism euphemistically refers to abortion now as “reproductive rights.”
But, an even greater social divide is now looming large. It is the debate over the religious identity of America. On one side are the Christian nationalists—revisionists bent on redefining America as a Christian nation. They refer repeatedly to the religious intent of the founding fathers as a buttress for a contemporary campaign to legislatively convert America.
On the other side are the secularists, made up of both atheists and left-wing professing Christians. Groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are the well-known non-profits leading this wing. This constituency was galvanized due to the two-term leadership of an allegedly evangelical president and the coterminous rise of a politically aggressive Christian Right. These far-left advocates are the only political group decrying the threat of an encroaching theocracy by Christian dominionism.
The secularists are convinced that democracy itself is under siege by the dominionists. They proffer a false antithesis by suggesting that the theocracy advocated for forty years by the Chalcedon Foundation is antithetical to American democracy. The self-appointed “expert” on dominionism, Frederick Clarkson, describes theocracy as a replacement for his version of democracy with the direct rule of a “theocratic elite”:
Generally, Reconstructionism seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by imposing their interpretation of “Biblical Law.” Reconstructionism would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations, such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools.1
Having been a student of Christian Reconstruction since 1987, I don’t recall ever gleaning this concept of theocracy in any systematic way. Clarkson is referring more to the sensationalism of Dr. Gary North (a.k.a. “Scary Gary”) rather than any single book. North admitted to using inflammatory rhetoric intentionally as a means of drawing critics out into a direct debate with Christian Reconstructionists. It is not my intent to defend the work of Gary North, but one need only refer to the long-standing division between North and Rushdoony to understand that there is hardly a monolithic agreement between Reconstructionists.
But such hyperbolic speech by the likes of North and others provides usable fodder for critics of Reconstruction. Most of the written critiques of Christian Reconstruction feature the same handful of inflammatory quotes by men like Gary North. However, a genuine critique of Christian theocratic thinking requires reading thousands of pages of theological and philosophical discussion. It’s much easier for the critic to simply cite how Gary North wants to tear down secular institutions than tackle the voluminous writing of any one theonomic writer.
Without reading the full breadth of Reconstructionist literature, such isolated citations lose their context. For example, when Gary North questions the rightness of the Constitution, he is in no way organizing a coup to overturn it. More often than not, he believes it will be a very long time before Americans would ever return to a national covenant as modeled by the early American Puritans. What is central to understand about North’s perspective is that any constitutional or institutional transition is contingent upon the vast majority of Americans embracing a Reconstructionist theology. New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson, understands this well:
Theonomists are often accused, wrongly, of wanting to impose Old Testament penal codes on contemporary offenders, against the will of the vast majority of the populace. In fact, what they argue is that by the preaching of the gospel and the adoption of this interpretation of the Bible, the nation should, and one day will, repent and reaffirm the covenant. Old Testament sanctions will then be the will of the people and the law of the land. This view of the future, of course, is tied to a firm conviction of the rightness of postmillennialism.2
The Rise of the “Experts”
Clarkson recently boasted that Kevin Phillips, author of the newly released American Theocracy (see Dr. Terrell’s review on page 24), gleaned considerably from Clarkson’s Internet exposé cited previously:
When Phillips tackled the subject, one that was new to him, he soon realized that one cannot talk about the theocratic tendencies of the Christian right without looking at the intellectual sources of contemporary theocratic thought. Hence the importance of Christian Reconstructionism, the central intellectual source of the theocratic movement in the U.S. I was honored that Phillips drew considerably on an article about Christian Reconstructionism I wrote in 1994 for The Public Eye magazine.3
From this we can only expect that Kevin Phillips will also perpetuate this false conspiracy theory that American democracy is under threat by an advancing theocratic elite—an elite educated by the shadow master, R. J. Rushdoony. Whereas they see “Christian nationalism” as a measured concern, the real threat is the Christian theocrats, i.e., the Christian Reconstructionists. So says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates:
Whereas the Christian theocrats, the harder right wing of the Christian right, are people who think that only Christian men deserve to rule American society. Theocracy means rule of the godly as represented by a particular religious viewpoint. They’re a pretty scary group. The Christian Coalition would be like the Christian nationalists and groups like the Christian Reconstructionists are Christian theocrats.4
There you have it. We are a “pretty scary group” of power-hungry extremists bent on destroying the U.S. Constitution and eliminating the American political system. We are supposed to be meeting daily on how to bring a rapid demise to our most hated ideology—Western democracy. Here is how Berlet defines us, the Christian theocrats:
Christian Theocrats – They want to replace democracy with an authoritarian theocratic society run by a handful of Christian men. They seek to supersede the Constitution and Bill of Rights with Old Testament Biblical law. We must oppose them and not give an inch in our defense of democracy against theocracy.5
Berlet, like Clarkson and other critics, repeats the same errors: (a) that Reconstructionists are opposed to American democracy, and (b) that we advocate an authoritarian rule over an unwilling populace by a select cabal of religious elitists. These accusations are never accompanied with any citations. They are simply declared. If R. J. Rushdoony is the founder of modern Christian theocracy, then why is it that critics never cite his views on theocracy? Probably because Rushdoony’s concept of theocracy presents a much different scenario than the secular conspiracists allege:
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.6
Chip Berlet derives much for his thesis from the early critiques by Sara Diamond (Spiritual Warfare, 1989) and Bruce Barron (Heaven on Earth? The Social and Political Agendas of Dominion Theology, 1992). Berlet thinks much of the research of Dr. Barron, but oddly deviates from much of Barron’s analysis:
Author Bruce Barron warned of a growing “dominionist impulse” among evangelicals in his 1992 book Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology. Barron, with a Ph.D. in American religious history, is also an advocate of Christian political participation, and has worked with conservative Christian evangelicals and elected officials. Barron is smart, courteous, and not someone you would debate without doing a whole boatload of homework. Disrespect him at your own risk.7
Berlet disregards the early warnings of Barron who wrote, “What little attention dominionists have received from secular writers has more often than not been designed to convince the general public that dominionists are extremist, fanatical, and downright scary” (emphasis mine).8 As I cited previously, Berlet referred to Christian Reconstructionists as a “pretty scary group.”
It is my contention that Barron’s assessment is more relevant today than in 1992. Men like Berlet and Clarkson are intentionally creating public outrage to Christian Reconstruction in a political effort to influence voters. By seeking to attach North and Rushdoony to the thinking of George W. Bush and the GOP, they hope to influence mainstream Americans to repaint the red states blue. In addition, these men are creating a name for themselves while garnering much media attention along with new readers. As in all cases, objectivity goes out the window when the mailing list rules.
Democracy vs. Theocracy
Secular critics claim to be defenders of democracy. Frederick Clarkson indicates that a few of the theocratic targets include such “democratic” manifestations as “labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools.”9 By framing the debate this way, Clarkson is bearing false witness. Encouraging Christian parents to remove their children from public schools is hardly a war on democracy. In all honesty, I don’t think Clarkson has taken the time to define democracy before slandering Christian theocrats as being opposed to it.
Democracy is an elastic term that is used in varying ways to define a political form or special interest. What do secularists mean when they say “democracy”? Do they suggest a direct rule by every citizen without representation (i.e., vox populi, vox Dei)? Is democracy simply the electoral procedure? Is it a majority rule? Does democracy equate to social or economic equality?
If by democracy the secularists mean supporting gay marriage and public schools and that politicians cannot vote their faith, then yes, we theocrats would be opposed to that hijacked version of democracy. But that is not democracy—democracy is not socialism. It does not equate to gay rights or abortion on demand. Democracy does not equate to taxing your neighbor in order to subsidize your irresponsibility.
Democracy is procedural. It is a form of populist self-government in which qualified citizens elect political leaders to represent their interests. Democracy is not manifested in such institutions as the public school system. Socialism is manifested in the public school system. Tyranny is also manifested in the public school system. R. J. Rushdoony gained most of his notoriety by defending homeschooling parents and Christian academies against the prosecuting state. So much for democracy there, eh, Mr. Clarkson?
Nobody within Christian Reconstruction is opposed to the form of democracy that suggests citizens of a republic can elect representative leadership. America is not, nor has it ever been, a pure democracy. America is a republic with a democratic procedural political process governed by the rule of law.
Biblical theocracy is not opposed to the American democratic process. As Rushdoony states, theocracy is a “radical libertarianism” because it advocates the rule of God over every man, woman, and child. Not by the direct tyranny of a religious elite—that would be “ecclesiocracy”—but by the rule of God in the hearts and minds of people as they govern themselves in terms of Biblical law instead of autonomous reason, and without coercion by the state or church. Naturally, this would result in a vast reduction in the size of civil government, as obedient people would provide their own retirement, care for their own elderly, educate their own children, and provide for the poor in their communities.
By What Standard?
Rushdoony often noted that the U.S. Constitution only presented a procedural morality—it did not provide us with a substantive morality. What this means is that the Constitution is designed to govern the political process more so than outline the fundamentals of morality. It is also a document designed to explicate the restraints upon civil government. Even the beloved “separation of church and state”—words that do not actually appear anywhere in the Constitution—is intended to restrain civil government from involvement in the organized church.
If the Constitution did not provide a substantive morality, where then did the individual states derive their moral law? For example, as late as 1960 all fifty states still had sodomy laws on their books. This amount was vastly reduced over the ensuing years and took a nosedive after the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003.10
Secularists will often engage in revisionism by suggesting that early American morality was shaped more by the Enlightenment and Greco-Roman social theory than Biblical law. This is not a tenable argument. Sodomy laws were not adopted from Greco-Roman civilization. Greece, and Rome in its decline, were immoral, and the most prominent classical thinkers and rulers were homosexual. Think of the “Greek Bathhouse.”
Why then did all states codify sodomy laws? They did it because of the direct influence of Biblical law on early America. The Constitution does not address sexual morality, and therefore it is unconstitutional for the Supreme Court to address the issue of sodomy for independent states. The Supreme Court is only empowered to adjudicate in cases involving public leaders, maritime jurisdiction, and controversies between the states or between citizens of each state (Article III, Section 1). These are all matters of procedural law. These are all constitutional matters.
Sodomy laws are not procedural—or constitutional—matters. These are issues of substantive moral law that are derived from other sources than the Constitution. In most cases, the moral laws of individual states were based upon Biblical law.
Moral civil laws can certainly change, but only by the decision of the citizens of each state and their representative leadership. The cultural battle is an ethical conflict, not a constitutional conflict. Christians have every right to elect leaders that will rule in terms of Biblical law. Secularists have equal right to elect leaders that will seek to overturn Biblically reflective laws. That is the democratic process. That is what’s being denied to contemporary conservative Christians. Any involvement in the political process to push forward a Christian moral agenda is labeled as “dominionist” and a push toward theocracy.
Based upon those premises, secularists would have to admit that at the time the Constitution was ratified, America was a full-blown theocracy. Sodomy laws, blasphemy laws, and even Sabbath laws were common in various states. If secularists are crying “theocracy” now, they would’ve marched in the streets of eighteenth-century America.
Since the present conflict is an ethical issue, education is the primary responsibility of Christian leaders, but not simply a continual reference to the founding fathers. Ethical authority is not located in the intents of the constitutional writers. Ethical authority is found in God’s law. Educating the population in Biblical law is the only means to stemming America’s transformation to the new Sodom and Gomorrah.
Christian theocracy is often misconstrued as a monolithic movement. Whereas earlier critics, like Bruce Barron, were more careful to distinguish between the respective factions of politically active Christians, today’s critics tend to slander all Christian social action as “dominionist.” Although Christian Reconstructionists believe that the Kingdom is now, it is not to be confused with “Kingdom Now” ideology.
“Kingdom Now,” or “Dominion Theology,” is a label given to the Charismatic branch of dominionism that spawned in the 1980s. During this time certain Charismatic leaders were inspired by the writings of the Reconstructionist theology and modified it to fit their extra-Biblical ideologies. The marriage of beliefs quickly led to heretical teachings, although the concept of the Kingdom existing now is thoroughly Biblical.
Both John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus made repeated statements about the Kingdom of God being “at hand” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17; Mark 1:14–15). There are dozens of references to the present Kingdom throughout the entirety of the New Testament. I won’t belabor you with references since you’re probably familiar with this perspective.
My point is simply to state that although Christ ushered in the reign of His Kingdom, the world (and especially the United States) is far from exhibiting a Christian theocracy. It is a gross misconstruction to present contemporary Christian political movements as equating to theocracy. It is rather another season of the long-standing debate between the sacred and the secular. Both sides are ideological. Both are manipulative. And neither fully understands the Biblical theocratic vision.
For example, most leaders on the Religious Right view Christian Reconstruction with great disdain. Simply because Christian leaders like Tim LaHaye and James Dobson are engaging in political activism does not mean a cadre of religious leaders is about to take over the country and impose the full text of Biblical law. At present it only means the Christian Right may secure enough conservative seats on the judicial bench to overturn Roe v. Wade. Secularists quickly forget how they did the same thing in order to establish Roe v. Wade. In short, we are simply witnessing political tactics by both the Christians and the secularists.
Towards a Christian Theocracy
The Reconstructionist vision is vastly different from a takeover of the existing monstrosity of American centralized government. Reconstructionists have long disparaged the taxing state for its sheer uselessness and corruption. We have only advocated decentralized efforts funded by the Christian tithe. Tithing and theocracy are intertwined:
In a theocracy, therefore, God and His law rule. The state ceases to be the over-lord and ruler of man. God’s tax, the tithe, is used by godly men to create schools, hospitals, welfare agencies, counselors, and more. It provides, as it did in Scripture, for music and more. All the basic social financing, other than the head tax of Exodus 30:16, was provided for by tithes and offerings or gifts ... Since none of the tithe agencies have any coercive power to collect funds, none can exist beyond their usual service to God and man. For the modern state, uselessness and corruption are no problem; they do not limit its power to collect more taxes. Indeed, the state increases its taxing power because it is more corrupt and more useless, because its growing bureaucracy demands it.11
The power to establish the universal rule of God is based upon the objective work of Christ during His earthly ministry and present Kingship in the heavens. It is as redeemed men seek to apply their faith and conform to God’s law that the Lord works mightily to convert the nations and their governing institutions. This is a long-term process as has often been stated. Yet even then the institutions themselves must always be held in check by Biblical law. The dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 is given directly to the self-governing man:
Aspects of that mandate can be exercised through institutions, and sometimes must be, but the mandate can never be surrendered to them. The mandate precedes all institutions, and it is to man personally as man (Gen. 1:28). This is the heart of theocracy as the Bible sets it forth. Dictionaries to the contrary, theocracy is not a government by the state but a government over every institution by God and His Law, and through the activities of the free man in Christ to bring every area of life and thought under Christ’s Kingship.12
1. Frederick Clarkson, “Theonomic Dominionism Gains Influence”http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v08n1/chrisre1.html.
2. D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 408.
3. Frederick Clarkson, “Thanks to Kevin Phillips, Now We Can Talk About Theocracy”http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/4/22/155830/143.
4. Chip Berlet, “Putting the Right under a Microscope: An Interview with Chip Berlet”http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/269/1/32.
5. Chip Berlet, “The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy—Part Two” http://www.talk2action.org/story/2005/12/5/10810/4239.
6. R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 63. The chapter was printed originally as Chalcedon Position Paper No. 15, “The Meaning of Theocracy.”
7. Chip Berlet, “The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy—Part Three” http://www.talk2action.org/story/2005/12/12/174651/55.
8. Bruce Barron, Heaven on Earth? The Social and Political Agendas of Dominionism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 22.
9. Clarkson, “Theonomic Dominionism.”
10. “Supreme Court strikes down Texas sodomy law” http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/06/26/scotus.sodomy/.
11. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, 64–65.
12. Ibid., 68.
- Christopher J. Ortiz
Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.