What is Christian Reconstructionism?

In the Author's Own Words

Everywhere, it seems, one hears “Wasn’t our country founded as a Christian nation? Shouldn’t we vote only for Christian candidates willing to stand up for our beliefs?” The talk has grown in volume in recent years as earnest Christians endeavor to discern God’s will for church and society. Behind this talk is a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism, whose set of ideas is based on bringing Christian law into the public and political sphere….

Everywhere, it seems, one hears “Wasn’t our country founded as a Christian nation? Shouldn’t we vote only for Christian candidates willing to stand up for our beliefs?” The talk has grown in volume in recent years as earnest Christians endeavor to discern God’s will for church and society. Behind this talk is a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism, whose set of ideas is based on bringing Christian law into the public and political sphere.

Christian Reconstructionism can be defined by four interconnected ideas:

  1. Christians have a complete system of right knowledge about the universe (or “worldview”), which cultivates epistemological dualism: “us” vs. “them.”
  2. Christians have the right and the role of legislating morality for all people everywhere.
  3. Christianity and western culture are two sides of the same coin.
  4. The ultimate calling of Christians is to dominate the earth.

This is a timely issue first of all for American Christians because these ideas of Christian Reconstructionism profoundly distort the faith they cherish, which is based on the Bible, and shared in common with the global church. And it is a timely issue for American citizens—whatever their religious beliefs—because it poses a fundamental threat to religious liberty, and ultimately to democracy itself.

Some theological responses to the above conundrums:

Regarding the notion of epistemological dualism, the cross of Jesus Christ according to Scripture radically eliminates all thinking in terms of “us” vs. “them.” The narrative of the crucifixion in the canonical gospels draws a line, but it is not a line between the friends and supporters of Jesus and his enemies. Rather, the disciples, the Romans, the Jews, indeed the whole world, is on one side of the line, and Jesus alone is on the other. Jesus goes to the cross alone, carrying the sins of the whole world, in order to redeem all humanity. The cross is therefore the end of all dividing walls between human beings, tearing down every barrier erected in the name of “religion.” The church’s ultimate commitment is to the open proclamation of the gospel to all people.

In response to the notion of applying Mosaic Law in society I call to mind the simple but profound fact that God’s Word does not come to humanity as abstract moral principles, according to Scripture; rather God speaks in specific, concrete commands: do this, go here, come, etc. In the Bible, there are no abstract principles standing between God and humanity, principles that can be easily manipulated. There is only the sheer sovereign reality of God who commands, and the concrete response of obedience. Nor is there any room for “case law” in the Bible, which is a human endeavor to make applications based on “moral cases.” The biblical word does not work that way. Rather, the only source of the knowledge of God’s will is his active, living communication; and the only response is to do it. The issue at stake is the fundamental relation of law and gospel.

In regards to cultural Christianity, I point to the radically new reality of the gospel, which turns the religious and moral values of this world upside down. The gospel is the breaking into reality of the utterly new world of God, which serves no personal, cultural, or national agenda whatsoever. Rather, God’s new world reaches out to embrace all races, all tribes, all nations, all peoples of the earth. To seek to tie the gospel to the self-interests of any one nation—the whole notion of America as a “Christian nation”—whatever its historical merits, fundamentally distorts the call to global mission that constitutes the basic commission of the church.

Finally, to respond to the notion of Christian political domination I point to our fundamental call to discipleship according to Scripture, which is to be conformed to the image of Christ. Just as Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, so we are conformed to the image of Christ in outer service of others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. Whenever the church has tried to identify its own interests directly with the kingdom of God, it has experienced miserable failure. The biblical call to discipleship is not a call to dominate the world, but explicitly and directly a call to serve Christ in word and deed.

Reconstruction, by definition, looks backward, seeking to reconstruct what is believed to have been lost. The gospel, on the other hand, always draws us forward to God’s new world, already established in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has already transformed the whole of creation; what does it mean for Christians to live in the world in the light of that radiant divine transformation? On the basis of Scripture, I want to stress four points: first, the inherent value of democracy as a divine right for all peoples and nations; second, the need for economic equality in a world increasingly polarized between the wealthy and the poor; third, the embrace of the outsider, the foreigner, the marginalized in our global society; and finally, the relative value of human culture including government, art, science, education, and so forth) for Christian existence under God’s gracious care. All of these are joined together in a force more powerful than any false quest for dominion over the other, indeed the most powerful force in the world: the power of love. The Christian is to participate in nothing less than a new society.

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Paul McGlasson is the author of No! A Theological Response to Christian Reconstructionism and is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sullivan, Indiana. He received his MDiv from Yale Divinity School, and his PhD from Yale University in Systematic Theology. He is the author of several books, including God the Redeemer, Canon and Proclamation, and Invitation to Dogmatic Theology. Before entering the parish ministry, McGlasson taught theology for several years in college and seminary.

 

5 thoughts on “What is Christian Reconstructionism?

  1. I’m in a PCA church in Charleston, SC, and there’s some strains of thought here that veer toward Gary North and Greg Bahnsen, but how prevalent do you think Christian Reconstructionism really is? Even the most “Religious Right” people I know who constantly talk about America as a Christian Nation still trash CR.

    1. Jeremy, I follow scholars such as George Marsden and Mark Noll in making a distinction between “hard reconstructionism”—the sign on the dotted line people, who are still probably few in number, and “soft reconstructionism”, the set of ideas which has been generated. The latter I am fully convinced is growing in strength; for example, the GOP platform, at least in its initial draft, is calling for endorsing posting the Ten Commandments on court house lawns. And Owen, you are quite right of course; Rushdoony is crucial. The book itself devotes a careful chapter to expanding his ideas, then an equally careful chapter responding to them. The title I suppose says it all. Incidentally, Rushdoony also gets us back to Jeremy; for R.J.R. was a major factor in so-called Christian homeschooling (he rejected all public education on the basis of “Mosaic Law”), and hence his ideas are often disseminated below the radar in Christian homeschooling textbooks.

  2. I realize that this is meant as a very basic overview, but I was surprised to read a post titled “What is Christian Reconstructionism?” that doesn’t mention at least Rushdoony. Sometimes it helps to have the name of a heretic associated with a heresy. If folks were to actually read Rushdoony, they would find that your description isn’t hyperbolic and is, if anything, a more than charitable description of the basic tenets of Reconstructionist thought.

  3. I second Jeremy’s question, and wonder if the overstatement of Christian Reconstructionism’s influence doesn’t serve to silence any claim that Christian belief should have influence over our political decisions. I think there are ways to think about the U.S. being a “Christian nation” quite different from Reconstructionsim, for example that we are a country where the vast majority of people at least profess to be Christian, and that our nation’s laws and policies ought to reflect Christian beliefs about human dignity and the common good.

    1. Matthew, I respectfully disagree. First, I do think CR has swept other notions of “Christian America” like a tide before it. But more importantly, I would question the whole notion of “Christian America” on theological grounds. Theological, from a biblical perspective, means dialectical. On the one hand, according to the first commandment (You shall have no other gods), the attempt to align the self-interests of any nation, no matter how many Christians reside there, is a serious violation of the divine imperative. God is God, as Luther was fond of reminding us. On the other hand, according to Paul in Rom. 5, there is in some sense an ontological relation between Jesus Christ and every human being. Thus, in that sense, every nation is a Christian nation, even if only one Christian resides there. Either way, the grounds for human dignity and the common good do not in any sense rest upon majorities or minorities, but upon the divine gracious purpose for humanity.

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