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McVicar on Rushdoony

Michael L. McVicar. Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill, N. C.  University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 309. $34.95.

Rousas J. Rushdoony: the very mention of the name in Reformed circles brings an immediate reaction, as do the words “theonomy,” “Reconstructionism,” “dominion.” At the height of his influence, and in spite of his polarizing effect, Rousas Rushdoony made a significant impact on the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s. Opinions about him vary from being regarded as the fearless propagator of truth (always black and white) to being an embarrassment whose extremism, it is alleged, exposes the essential weakness of his brand of Calvinism. Neutrality seems impossibility when it comes to Rousas Rushdoony.

He still casts a long shadow on one of the contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination for president for instance. In 1976, during Ron Rand’s short first term in Congress, Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law and fellow-theonomist,  served as a staffer, helping to sow the seeds of the Rands’ libertarianism. Rushdoony’s ideology was shaped by Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. Rushdoony cannot simply be dismissed or ridiculed. He exposes some of the weaknesses and inconsistencies of those who have drunk from the same theological well.

That is why this new study of Rousas Rushdoony, thoroughly researched and as objective as one can be about its subject, is so important. Biographer Professor Michael Joseph McVicar, who teaches history at Florida State University, is a thorough researcher who comes to his subject as a professor of religion, not as a theologian nor specifically as an historian or philosopher, which is the strength as well as the weakness of the book. As a social scientist he is able to analyze trends, influences, interactions and relationships. He is on less secure ground when dealing with philosophical, theological or Biblical aspects of Rushdoony’s views. But he makes a valiant effort and his navigating all the complex strands of American right wing politics and conservative Christianity, always a minefield, is heroic. The book concludes with respect for Rushdoony, which particularly in his case, and as a biographer, is a real asset. He takes his subject seriously as many have not, and is scrupulously fair.

It is, of course, Van Til who shaped Rushdoony’s whole approach. It was, as McVicar chronicles it, the discovery in a pastor friend’s library in Colorado in March 1946 of the just published The New Modernism that set the course of the rest of his life. His access to Van Til through Karl Barth is significant: his theological education had been at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, an interdenominational liberal school with a strong left wing and pacifist clientele. One of the weaknesses of the theonomist school, not pointed out in the book, was that it lacked a well-rounded systematic theology. Rushdoony never took seriously (nor does the author mention) the noetic effect of sin, a pillar of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. The reality he was a sinner kept Van Til balanced and thus avoiding much of the either/or approach his methodology seemed to characterise some of his acolytes and later disciples. “Gentlemen, I could be wrong” was a humanizing comment he made to his students. It is too bad that Rushdoony didn’t take that comment seriously. It would have turned down his volume and made him less confrontational.

But he was confrontational by personality and by birth. It is curious that a man who was conceived just before the Turks slaughtered the Armenians in the family’s hometown of Van in 1915 and owed his birth to Russian protection as the family escaped to America (a subject of later concern for the FBI) was himself a denier of the gravity of the Holocaust, one of the opinions that to this day clouds his reputation. McVicar provides neither explanation nor excuse. As Carl Truman says in his Histories and Fallacies this miasma demonstrates Rushdoony’s “appalling incompetence as a historian.” (Page 30) History was not Rushdoony’s strong suit: it was only useful to prove a point and in his home schooling history texts, as McVicar suggests, generalizations and unsubstantiated statements of fact to prove his concept of the decline and ultimate collapse of Western civilization. Doomsday scenarios and survivorship are hallmarks of the American right wing, exacerbated by their apocalyptic eschatology and their profound political pessimism for the existing order.

Rushdoony’s postmillienialism, a staple of Christian Reconstructionism is another minefield for those uninitiated in the finer points of evangelical eschatology. In contrasting the varieties on offer, McVicar lumps (page 136) among seminaries the dispensational premillennialism of Dallas with Fuller, which in his review in First Things makes Richard Mouw, Fuller’s president emeritus, bristle. McVicar similarly shows a lack of awareness of the varieties of postmillenialism. He cites Hendrickson’s More Than Conquerors and misidentifies Campbell’s Israel and the New Covenant as he proceeds to use their classic Seventeenth Century Reformed views to provide a backdrop to Rushdoony’s so-called “eschatology of victory.” Van Til, after the divisions of the 1930’s at Westminster Seminary, had always favoured eschatological freedom though he himself, as a Calvinist, was amillenial.

Underlying all of this is the understanding of Scripture employed by the Reconstructionists. Grasping Rushdoony’s hermeneutics is basic to understanding his system, nowhere more than his use (or abuse) of the Old Testament. Best known of all his views of the law is his insistence that, once the Old Testament theocracy is established, homosexuals and rebellious teenagers will receive capital punishment. Again, Rushdoony’s lack of theological training made his inability to integrate the Old and New Testaments created constant (and unnecessary) discontinuities. Genesis 1:28 was a key verse for the Reconstructionists but the meaning and extent of “dominion” was never clearly spelled out. Nor was the place of law under the new covenant. Theonomists might trumpet their recovery of the law but the daily practicalities of discipleship eluded them. The almost complete neglect of the reading of the law as a staple of contemporary Reformed worship was a sign of the neglect of this doctrine. Rushdoony and his followers needed a strong dose of the Puritans and Patrick Fairbairn.
McVicar deals well with the final denouement between the disciples of Rushdoony and the followers of his son-in-law. Gary North attended Westminster Seminary for a single year (1963-4) and left in disgust with what he regarded as the lack of serious intellectual inquiry. In his final days of lecturing he was not the only one disillusioned by Van Til’s efforts to bring levity to his heavy philosophical discussions with chalk fights, the ubiquitous two circles on the blackboard and the general lack of organization and system to his lectures, so dependent on published syllabi. North was unlike Greg Bahnsen, the other member of the Reconstructionist trio, who graduated from Westminster in 1978 full of recognition and scholarships. Bahnsen later imploded at Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, Mississippi, after creating a loyal circle of followers among some of his students. He died at the age of 49 in 1995.

“Scary” Gary North, as he was known, married Sharon, Rushdoony’s third child by his first wife, in 1972. He and his father-in-law parted over whether the family or the church was the locus for God’s reconstructed society. His father-in-law’s emphasis on the family must have been a disruptive concept considering his abandoning of his first wife. The loci of the quarrel centered on Tyler Texas where North associated with other likeminded church-centered Reconstructionists, and Vallecito, California, where Rushdoony had set up shop. McVicar wisely does not detail North’s disclosures about the breakup of the first marriage. But the family estrangement appeared a denial of all that Reconstructionists had professed.

When Rushdoony died in 2001 the zenith of his immediate personal influence was long past. But his impact continues, particularly through the homeschooling network to which he devoted so much of time and endless energy. Rushdoony can still be seen, overtly and covertly, everywhere the so-called “Religious Right” is analyzed and dissected. This book is a helpful conversation-starter as it raises many questions: questions about Van Till but more so about the impact he has had on Reformed discourse and apologetics. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Rushdoony’s legacy is the implicit assumption, on the part of many outsiders, that Reformed and evangelical Americans have a single political identity. That identification has done the gospel no end of harm. This book helps to ground the conversation in a welcome analysis of the complexities of Christian political discourse. To Michael McVicar we owe a debt of gratitude.