Nov 15, 2010

What we need is an actual history of Christian Reconstructionism

Twice last week, Religion Dispatches published pieces connecting Sarah Palin and Christian Reconstructionism. The connection seems to be complicated, though, in that, in the one article, Palin is adopting a Reconstructionist idea and Theonomic language, specifically Gary North's talk about the Federal Reserve, which she may have also gotten from Howard Phillips, calling the Fed "unbiblical," and in the other, she's dismissing the Reconstructionists' idea about the place and role of women, their anti-feminism and idea of "Biblical Patriarchy," dismissing them as "neanderthals."

Neither piece really takes the time to explore that complication, though, and though the author, Julie Ingersoll, has done a lot of good reporting pointing to the connection between the modern right and the Christian Reconstructionist movement, there are some basic questions about that connection that go unanswered. What Ingersoll reports seems to me to be completely accurate, yet there are still some gaping holes in the account of how the theonomic thinking that came out of the presuppositionalism and postmillennialism of an Armenian Calvinist came to influence a whole wing of the Republican party, including pretty powerful Senators and more than one presidential contender.

A good account of this would need to deal with the complexity and the discrepancies and contradictions. For example, both Palin and Mike Huckabee have definitely been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism and yet reject key tenants of the idea. Both of them, for example, seem to be dispensationalists who expect an imminent, apocalyptic end of human history. Reconstructionism strongly opposes that idea. Palin seems to be pretty Charismatic, and Huckabee is Baptist, and Reconstructionism is a version of Reformed Theology and hostile to and even openly derisive towards Baptists and Charismatics. Neither candidate would be at home, theologically, in a circle of Reconstructionists, and it seems unlikely to me that they'd actually be welcomed there.

It would also have to deal with that fact that while Christian Reconstructionism is an idea, and a movement, in practice it's a scattering of fiefdoms. Every major Reconstructionist after R.J. Rushdooney is considered by some plurality of other Reconstructionists to be a crackpot on the extreme fringe. Those few who aren't characterized by their Reconstructionist brothers as megalomaniacs and crazies are considered to be lightweights, intellectually unserious thinkers who've dumbed down the ideas in order to sell them on the home school and conservative bible church circuit(s).

The connection between Reconstructionists is complicated and messy -- and their connection to modern political conservatism, the Tea Party, and sectors of libertarianism is even messier.

They are connected, but the connection can't be shown with just a wave of the hand. Of course, it's hard to demonstrate the connections and show how the ideas have travelled and percolated, in part because it's in the best interest of politicians to (at least partly) disavow the connection, and the Reconstructions don't stand to gain anything by giving their name to politicians or political movements, and the ideas themselves mutate. A phrase like "Biblical Worldview" has a theonomist provenience, but doesn't mean the same thing to all these people, and the fact that a bunch of people use a phrase like this doesn't actually mean they're connected in any important way. The ideas change and spread and change and they're are often phrased and re-phrased in ways that are hard to understand to outsiders, but still shouldn't be taken as devious or secretive. An actual understand of the ideas is going to have to be more, though, than name drops, phrase-checks and a game of six-degrees-of-Rushdoony.

Bruce Gourely, for example, in his introduction to "American Theocracy" lists Gary DeMar as a "leading theocratic ideologue," which seems more than a little hyperbolic, and then gives a list of "Theocratic Organizations" that's ridiculously broad. Catholics and Baptist and Calvinists, end-times popularizers and postmillennialists are all lumped together. Of course in some places these various people and various organizations make common cause, and that has to be accounted for too, but it has to be accounted for in a way that doesn't conflate everything and mistake that commonality for something more that a very, very loose coalition. If you conflate them all as of one piece -- and then give the impression they're somehow led by DeMar, a name which, I'm confident, a majority of the people working in those organizations wouldn't even recognize -- you've seriously misconstrued things.

A good account would have to show, too, how ideas aren't only communicated in simple, deposit-transfer mechanisms.

Even Jeff Sharlet, whose journalism I respect a lot (and who co-founded Killing the Buddha, where I've written more than once), gets sloppy when it comes to the Reconstructionists (who, admittedly, have always been tangential to his focus) and sometimes makes it seem like these ideas have been passed down like a series of begats.

Too much of the journalism out there about this right now acts like it's revealing a secret, exposing something dirty instead of just trying to actually account for what's going on. Instead of promoting an understanding of what's going on, we get one-offs. Maybe there's a good work out there, accounting for these ideas and their spread, really studying this movement and it's influence and not just sort of showing the connection, but I don't know of it, and that's not happening in what I'm seeing published. There are connections, there is something that's happened in Christian circles on the right, and there have been ideas that have emerged and re-emerged, transferred, shifted, moved and been moved, but it's complicated. Overly simplistic accounts end up being nonsensical, unless the idea of these people just makes you queasy and that's the point. There has to be some depth, though, otherwise you end up with this confusion, where Palin is pooh-poohing Reconstructionists on the 12th, and parroting them on the 14th, and there's no explanation for how that makes sense.

They are doing good work at Religion Dispatches, reporting those connections between Christian Reconstructionism and modern conservatism, and they're right to say that "It is such an essential piece of the religious right that you could not seriously be a student of American politics without recognizing its role and reach." We need a fuller account, though, of how these ideas have been influential and an exploration of how these connections, which are really pretty complicated, actually work.