Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A Weak Defense of Reconstructionism

Christopher Ortiz, editor of the reconstructionist journal Faith for All of Life and communications director for the Chalcedon Foundation, has authored a weakly reasoned defense of reconstructionism. In it, he takes on critics like Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson. Ortiz seems to miss completely the real argument against reconstructionism by focusing on tactics rather than on outcome. For instance, he criticizes Clarkson thusly:

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.

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 Ortiz here is only playing around the edges of the argument, focusing on fairly irrelevant details. His argument is that reconstructionists do not oppose democracy, but want to use democracy to impose the theocratic rule that he and his movement seeks:

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.

Okay, so if they can get enough people to buy into their theocratic madness, they can then impose it on the rest of the nation. But the real criticism of theocratic movements is not over how they gain power, but what they would do with that power once they get it. The fact that they may seek to impose their rule through majority vote does not make the loss of liberty that would result any less real. They seek to use democracy to end liberty, something the founding fathers were very much afraid of. The result is still tyranny, regardless of whether it is imposed by majority vote or by divine decree.

Ortiz keeps using the phrase “American democracy” as though it was equivalent to majority rule, but the Constitution is in fact an anti-majoritarian document. The entire point of the Bill of Rights is to act as a roadblock against majoritarian tyranny. That was also the purpose of having an independent judiciary and an unelected Senate. As originally written, the Constitution only had one half of one branch of government elected by direct democratic vote (the House). The rest were either appointed by the states (the Senate), elected indirectly through the electoral college (the President), or appointed for life precisely so that they would not be swayed by the need for reelection (the Federal courts). So “American democracy” is far from being a pure democracy, it is a republic that begins with the premise that liberty must be protected from majoritarian tyranny. Ortiz seems blissfully unaware of this:

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.

Notice there is not a single mention of individual freedom or liberty anywhere in his formulation of “American democracy”. Reconstructionists like Rushdoony and North often call themselves “Christian libertarians”, but that claim is patently absurd. I’m not a doctrinaire libertarian myself, and I generally hate it when people attempt to define what a “real” member of a group must believe. But there is a bare minimum standard you have to meet beforey ou can reasonably be considered a libertarian, and in this case that bare minimum is inherent in the word itself: you cannot be a libertarian without defending liberty. You certainly cannot be a libertarian if your entire view of the proper role of government ignores the very concept of liberty, as Ortiz does here.

The fact is that theocracy would mean the death of liberty. Ortiz admits in his article that their goal is to establish “the universal rule of God” and “impose the full text of Biblical law.” He quotes Rushdoony:

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.

But what they propose is that the “free man in Christ” – meaning their fellow theocrats – would impose “God’s law” on everyone else, something obviously forbidden by our Constitution. This is precisely the sort of religious establishment that the founders sought to avoid. Theocracy means that the entire Mosaic law gets imposed on every individual. It means stoning for adultery, sodomy and premarital sex. It means the elimination of free speech through blasphemy laws, and the end of religious freedom for everyone but Christians. That they seek to impose such barbarism through democratic processes is irrelevant. A totalitarian society imposed by majority vote is no less barbaric and liberty-destroying than one imposed by divine decree.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    August 23, 2006

    It wouldn’t be liberal democracy, either. Democracy isn’t just about voting. Elections were held in the Soviet Union, and are still held in Cuba and Iran. Certain freedoms, especially those related to thought, expression, religion, and association, are prerequisite to what we mean by a liberal democracy. Once the majority votes to establish institutions that suppress these freedoms, typically by establishing an official religious or political doctrine, democracy has effectively ended.

  2. #2 kehrsam
    August 23, 2006

    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.

    Yes, he is being disingenuous with regard to practical politics, because here he is describing the ideal: Yes, in a “Peaceable Kingdom” sort of world, there would be no stoning for aultery, etc because no one would be doing it!

    On how to get from here to there, he is a lot fuzzier. Still, this is a lot like my pastor’s view on homosexuality: It shouldn’t exist, therefore it doesn’t exist. And if I stick my fingers in my ears and can’t hear you, then you really aren’t saying anything.

    If only I could be as righteous as Ortiz and Rushdooney, I would see it all plainly as well. Perhaps at the top of a spectacular Auto da Fey….

  3. #3 mark
    August 23, 2006

    It means the elimination of free speech through blasphemy laws, and the end of religious freedom for everyone but Christians.

    Actually, I think it means the end of religious freedom for most Christians, as well–these whackos think only their flavor is correct, and others with deviating opinions are worse than heathens.

  4. #4 DragonScholar
    August 23, 2006

    Calling it a ‘weak defense’ gives this far too much credit.

    I am really amused by his “democracy defense,” which roughly argues that when 51% of people want to end democracy and freedom, he’s bang along side it. I wonder, somehow, if 51% of people in a country were atheists, if he’d be so supportive of democracy.

  5. #5 Jim Lippard
    August 23, 2006

    It sounds to me like he’s saying that the rules of God will not be enforced by the state, but by God, and that people will voluntarily abide by them: “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” and “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.”

    I don’t think you’ve addressed the content of those claims–I think the proper response is that that just wouldn’t happen, that they would in fact use the power of the state to enforce those rules.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    August 23, 2006

    Jim-

    I don’t think the distinction matters much. When it comes to the holiness laws, for example, in a reconstructionist world they would be imposed not by the government but by the church leaders and the community. It would operate as described in the Old Testament. If a woman is found not to be a virgin, or two men are found lying together, they are brought before the elders, judgement is passed and they are stoned to death. No government need be involved. But does that somehow make it any less barbaric or any less totalitarian? Of course not. I don’t think it matters whether they use the power of the state, or whether the government simply allows such things to go on, the result is the worst kind of tyranny imaginable.

  7. #7 Steve Bencze
    August 23, 2006

    This all sounds an awful lot like the more babrbaric aspects of Sharia law. I don’t even want to consider the state of science and technology after, say, 50 years of this kind of theocracy!

  8. #8 tacitus
    August 23, 2006

    I can see why these people think they can make common cause with the Libertarians. Having read some of the Reconstructionist literature, my impression is that they want to return to some bizarre utopian form of Middle Ages England. Communities would grow their own food, educate their own children, and govern their own lives without the evils of federalism or even state-level government imposing on their lives.

    Progress of all kinds would grind to a halt. It’s unimportant to them. After all, what’s the point? Compared with the eternity of the afterlife, we only spend a fleetingly brief amount of time on Earth anyway.

    It make one wonder if Reconstructionists one cast a jealous eye towards the Pol Pot and Taliban regimes and how they went about radically reshaping society to their own ends. Of course, they would condemn the brutality of those regimes’ methods, but in the end, the only way they would achieve their own Biblical society would be to employ those same methods. Perhaps this generation of Reconstructionists would balk at such an idea, but who’s to say what will happen in the future? In the aftermath of a national or global catastrophe, ideas of civil liberty tend to fall victim to the desire for law and order, whatever the means.

  9. #9 SharonB
    August 23, 2006

    How convenient, to just say, “oh, Gary North was just ‘exaggerating for effect,’ to get every-one’s attention.” I don’t believe this for a moment.

    And it’s not even good Christianity. Mainstream Christianity states that we are free of the Law, under a new Covenant of grace, and the old Covenant, they want to get back under the old covenant of the Law? It is superseded. They are very confused.

  10. #10 kehrsam
    August 23, 2006

    SharonB:

    I don’t think this is exactly “Mainstream Christianity.” But they are awfully influential these days, for reasons I really can’t fathom.

  11. #11 nm
    August 23, 2006

    Until this moment, I had never heard Christian Dominionism called Reconstructionism. How long has the movement been using that term, and can the real Reconstructionists http://www.campjrf.org/about_us/recon.htm stop them?

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    August 23, 2006

    nm-

    Jewish reconstructionism and Christian reconstructionism are obviously quite distinct. As for the Christian variety, the various labels often used for it – reconstructionism, dominionism, theonomy, etc – do have distinct meanings when you get into the detailed theological disputes between them. I think all three terms are used a bit too freely by their opponents, and often used to apply to any conservative Christian. You often see James Dobson or Pat Robertson referred to as dominionists, but they really aren’t. The big distinction theologically is that reconstructionists are postmillenialist, whereas most religious righters, like Dobson and Robertson, are premillenialist. The premils believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, while the postmils don’t believe that Christ will return until they have taken dominion over the earth and built a Christian world.

  13. #13 Prup aka Jim Benton
    August 23, 2006

    For an idea of some of the other scary ideas behund Dominionism, you might check out the “Uncommon Sense” posring on the Ogio Sec. State website.
    http://www.sos.state.oh.us/sos/initiatives/OCCC.aspx?Section=108

    Ohio, you see, has, thanks to Ken Blackwell, become a “State of Character” along with Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, “character” being defined by the Character Training Institute. (And the CTI is scary in itself. Information on it can be found here:
    http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2450/)

    The principles listed in the “Uncommon Sense” posting sound, at first, like high-minded vacuities, until you read more closely and carefully. (It also helps to remember that they are from a Christianist/Dominionist source.)

    I’ll just quote a couple.

    #7
    ACCOUNTABILITY: High-character people scrutinize themselves and welcome the scrutiny of others. They acknowledge that human nature compels us toward independence. Our preference for independence results in isolation from one another. Isolation breeds temptation to unethical conduct. Highcharacter people resist this chain reaction by adopting transparent life- and work-styles that invite inspection. They place themselves in relationships that motivate self-examination and encourage constructive critique from others, particularly those they serve. (Observable Virtues: an open, up-front, disclosing spirit)

    (Ah yes, if you are a good person, you don’t need privacy, because you have ‘nothing to hide.’)

    #12: UNITY: High-character people strive to build relationships that foster oneness among others who are bound with them to a common promise, mission or purpose. Ethical organizations seek uniformity in their people`s shared character ethics and unity among their otherwise richly diverse people. Without a persevering commitment to shared character ethics, there is no hope for sustainable unity. (Observable Virtue: reconciler)

    #14:HONORING AUTHORITY: All people are imperfect, requiring boundaries for behavior. High-character people willingly yield to the authority of those who are charged with upholding those boundaries. They help shape and then abide by the legitimate laws, rules and boundaries established by legitimate authorities and strive to live within those boundaries for the betterment of all people. When those given authority violate conscience-convicting character ethics, high-character people take wise action to justly hold them accountable. (Observable Virtues: yieldedness, submission / “aligned with the mission”)

    #18SEEKING COUNSEL: High-character people seek wise counsel, particularly when confronted with issues that cause tension and/or confusion between two or more character ethics. Because they are guided by their tireless pursuit of truth, they regularly seek the wisdom of others of high character. After they weigh this counsel, they act. The goal of this process is wise action (what is right), rather than popular action (what would make one appear good) or pragmatic action (what might appear to work). The result of a decision made with wise counsel is a clear conscience and the fruit of a clear conscience is contentment. (Observable Virtues: thoughtfulness, patience, discernment, confidence)

    #19SUBMISSION TO TRUTH: Truth transforms people only when we submit to it. People who seek truth cannot not transform. Eventually everyone confronts the power of truth. When people of conscience are confronted by what is true, they feel convicted to replace or “put off” their lower character by pursuing and “putting on” high-character ethics. Taking action on this choice can occur over night or over a long and often painful period.

    Ah, yes, at first glance it seems harmless. On second glance it sounds like the result of St. Paul rewriting Chairman Mao’s little Red Book. You should really read the whole thing, remembering that this is a document posted on an official website of the State of Ohio.

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