In September 2020, about 150 Christians gathered to stage an informal Psalm Sing in the parking lot of Moscow, Idaho’s city hall. They were there to protest the local mask mandate.
Five individuals were cited by police for violating the local order to wear masks, and two were arrested “for suspicion of resisting or obstructing an officer.” One of the event’s organizers was Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, a 900-member congregation with historical connections to Christian Reconstructionism (also known as theonomy), a movement that hopes to see earthly society governed by biblical law. One month earlier on Twitter, Wilson had framed his concerns about the issue in revealing terms: “Too few see the masking orders for what they ultimately are. Our modern and very swollen state wants to get the largest possible number of people to get used to putting up with the most manifest lies.”
In Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest, historian Crawford Gribben recounts how in recent decades conservative evangelicals, inspired by assorted strands of theonomy and survivalism, came to settle in the Pacific Northwest. Gribben explores how this group of “born-again Protestants who embrace their marginal status” has thrived in the wilds of Idaho and adjoining states, proposing “strategies of survival, resistance, and reconstruction in evangelical America.”
Turning toward triumphalism
Gribben describes his book as a “social history of theological ideas” based on long-distance interviews of several subjects and in-person fieldwork. Rather than crafting a journalistic exposé or a theological critique, Gribben employs “biographical, institutional, or thematic” approaches.
Previous accounts of Christian Reconstructionists have tended to focus on these believers’ theocratic vision of a future Christian polity rather than their separation from mainstream society. Today, Gribben concludes, these practitioners of “strategies of hibernation” may no longer be as marginal as some have assumed. In a series of illuminating chapters, Gribben astutely examines the history of theonomist migration to the Northwest, the eschatological assumptions underlying the original Reconstructionist vision, theonomic political theory, the movement’s influential educational ideas, and its thoughtful and innovative use of publishing and electronic media.
For these theonomists, present-day survivalism is closely linked to a future reconstruction of a godly society and Christianity’s earthly triumph. Theonomy is a diverse theological movement, arising within a conservative Reformed milieu. Its central ideas were first articulated by Rousas John Rushdoony, a California-based Presbyterian pastor and the son of Armenian immigrants. Gary North, Rushdoony’s estranged son-in-law, is one of many to carry its banner forward into the 21st century. Although theonomy first gained notoriety through its bold application of Mosaic law to the existing political order, more recent adherents have often sanded down its sharp edges.
Among the most intriguing features of Reconstructionism is its view of human history as it relates to Christ’s second coming. For much of the 20th century, American evangelicals were mainly premillennialists, believing Jesus would return to earth before inaugurating a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity (the Millennium). Premillennialism went hand in hand with pessimism about existing social conditions—if Christ needed to come before things would get better, then why waste much energy on making them better in the here and now? By the 1970s, works like Hal Lindsey’s best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth had popularized a premillennial eschatology that stressed cultural and moral decline and applied apocalyptic prophecies to the Cold War.
Rushdoony challenged this dominant paradigm in the early 1970s, shifting toward a postmillennial view that saw the earthly progress of Christianity as a precursor to Christ’s return. First in a biblical commentary and then in volume 1 of his magnum opus, the pretentiously titled The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony argued that most believers lacked faith in Christianity’s ultimate triumph. “The whole of Scripture,” he countered, “proclaims the certainty of God’s victory in time and in eternity” (emphasis mine). The saints were called upon to fight for a Christian society here and now, and their victory in this world was assured.
The unalloyed triumphalism of Reconstructionism appealed to some disheartened evangelicals. Douglas Wilson’s evolving theology was shaped by Rushdoony’s postmillennial vision, although he has subtly distanced himself from the more extreme aspects of Rushdoony’s application of ancient Israel’s legal code. Because of years of hard work by Wilson and his followers, Gribben argues, “Moscow may now be America’s most postmillennial town,” with two large, thriving Reconstructionist congregations and members who play important roles in the town’s social and economic life.
In his chapter on the Reconstructionist understanding of government, Gribben carefully examines the historical origins of the movement’s odd coupling of Old Testament legal codes and libertarian politics. While other evangelicals were being drawn to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Rushdoony began working for the conservative William Volker Charities Fund. The Fund played a key role in getting libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago, and it embraced Hayek’s anti-statism.
While Rushdoony advocated the adoption of Mosaic civil law in a reconstructed Christian political order (including stoning those who engaged in homosexual behavior or disrespected their parents), he also embraced a small-government model that would have warmed the heart of Thomas Jefferson. Theonomy’s focus on Old Testament regulations has had little impact on conservative public policy, but Rushdoony and North’s tireless efforts to reconcile Christian principles with libertarian governing philosophies have been quite influential among some Christian conservatives.
Reconstructionists have also shaped evangelical educational theory. Rushdoony first gained attention with his forceful critique of public education. Inspired by theologian Cornelius Van Til’s argument that a neutral philosophical perspective was impossible and that secular and Christian approaches were fundamentally incompatible, Rushdoony advocated Christian alternatives.
By the 1990s, Wilson had become a widely acknowledged authority on homeschooling, promoting a classical curriculum based loosely on Dorothy Sayers’s previously neglected essay, The Lost Tools of Learning (1947). Moreover, Wilson helped found both a seminary and a small residential liberal arts college (ambitiously christened New Saint Andrews) in Moscow. Pacific Northwest theonomists separated themselves from the public school system as part of their strategy to transform society at large. “Before we can enlist in the culture war,” Wilson commented, “we have to have a culture. And that culture must be Christian.”
To promote their educational ideas and socially conservative vision, Wilson and company have creatively used both conventional book publishing (establishing Canon Press) and the internet. Behind all these ambitious efforts is the ultimate goal of cultural renewal or reconstruction. As the community’s organ, Credenda Agenda, put it bluntly, publishing “is warfare.” This campaign included a well-publicized series of debates between Wilson and atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens in 2009 over whether Christianity has been good for the world. (Gribben mentions the interaction with Hitchens at least five times.)
Gribben’s study is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the theonomist movement. His dispassionate, non-alarmist account allows the participants to speak for themselves. Occasionally, however, Gribben seems reluctant to pursue more searching questions, and his appraisal can sometimes be muted. It provides little comfort, for instance, when Gribben reassures readers that while Rushdoony “may not have approved of democracy,” he didn’t actually “approve of its violent subversion.” Allowing subjects to speak for themselves can periodically wander toward accepting their self-portraits. Still, Gribben handles complex cultural and theological questions deftly and with admirable sensitivity.
Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America raises a host of fascinating questions that no single work of this sort can answer. Two such questions spring to mind.
First, despite all their dismissals of benighted pietism, isn’t it ironic that Rushdoony, North, and Wilson all ended up following 20th-century evangelicals in disparaging state intervention and embracing libertarianism? Despite the theonomists’ reverence for the Puritans, libertarian assumptions appear to trump the Puritans’ focus on the common good and their conception of the state as a moral agent. As such, their theonomy appears to owe more to Rand Paul than to, say, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop. In this sense, is it really accurate to affirm, as Gribben does, that “the Moscow community … has successfully resisted American modernity”?
Second, and more broadly, while theonomy has certainly proven influential in ways unrecognized by scholars, just how seriously should Christians take its theological and social project? Evangelicals can sometimes be taken in by the appearance of scholarship. Answering those who claimed theonomists were weighty thinkers, former First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus once commented acerbically:
One might object that the argumentation of the theonomists is more often obsessive and fevered than well-reasoned, and the pedantry of bloated footnoting should not be mistaken for scholarship. One may also be permitted to doubt whether there is, in the explosion of theonomic writing, one major new idea or finding that anyone outside theonomy’s presuppositional circle need feel obliged to take seriously.
Though downplayed by Gribben, Rushdoony’s circle of fellow travelers should give any thoughtful Christian considerable pause. To note only a few red flags: In the first volume of his Institutes, Rushdoony appeared to flirt with Holocaust denial. Years later, he promoted the work of a writer who endorsed geostationary theory, which denies that the earth orbits around the sun. Gary North was among the most alarmist and apocalyptic of the Y2K prophets—at least until the clock struck midnight at the close of 1999. More recently, Wilson authored a booklet, Black & Tan, that adopted discredited Lost Cause views regarding secession and described the allegedly benign features of antebellum slavery. It is easy (especially in the age of Twitter) to confuse quantity with quality and strong opinions with wisdom.
Biographer Michael McVicar once speculated that Rushdoony was “one of the most frequently cited intellectuals of the American right.” Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America provides an insightful exploration of the larger social and regional contexts inhabited by Rushdoony’s offspring. While strict theonomists remain comparatively few, their influence has been significant in some surprising places. Lamentably, they have usually championed an approach more narrowly ideological than genuinely scriptural.
Gillis J. Harp teaches history at Grove City College. He is the author of Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History.