The “Sunbelt Argument” and the Rise of Christian Reconstructionism

History

To swipe Oscar Hammerstein’s famous lyric, histories of twentieth-century American religious history – whether academically or popularly-oriented – can’t figure out how to solve a problem like Rousas John Rushdoony, the progenitor and elder statesmen of Christian Reconstructionism.

To swipe Oscar Hammerstein’s famous lyric, histories of twentieth-century American religious history – whether academically or popularly-oriented – can’t figure out how to solve a problem like Rousas John Rushdoony, the progenitor and elder statesmen of Christian Reconstructionism.  Sometimes called Christian theonomy or, even more specifically, Christian theonomic postmillennialism), Christian Reconstructionism has been defined, most succinctly by Molly Worthen, as a movement which is soteriologically Calvinist, eschatologically postmillennial, politically libertarian, philosophically connected to the work of Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til, and juridically theonomic (in this case, defined as the belief that the entirety of God’s law, including the Mosaic code, is relevant and applicable to modern society).[1]

Over the years, there has been significant disagreement over the extent to which Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism influenced the content and trajectory of Cold War (and post-Cold War) American religious history.  Many popularly-written analyses of late 20th and early 21st-century conservative US politics and religion directly attribute to Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism the threat posed by conservative evangelicals and their alleged, underlying political program of Christian “dominionism” and, so far, most academic historians have downplayed the man and the movement.

For instance, in Daniel K. Williams’ comprehensive history of the Christian Right, he was comfortable relegating his discussion of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism to a total of five short paragraphs near the end of the book, where, in the midst of his telling of  the late 1980s withering of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and its leader Randall Terry’s political “disillusionment,” he characterized Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism – indeed Operation Rescue itself –as “fringe movements” that attracted politically burned-over evangelicals at the end of the Cold War. [2]  Yet, at the same time, in a more popularly-written analysis of conservative evangelicalism’s influence on the Republican Party published just one year before Williams’ book, journalist Max Blumenthal played up Rushdoony within the first twenty pages, suggesting that Jerry Falwell had been attracted to Rushdoony’s theology and that Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, the late-20th century evangelical philosophe and cultural critic, had “mutually shaped the Christian Right’s philosophy.”[3]  And three years before Blumenthal, Chris Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America offered up within the first ten pages Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism as the overall foundation for evangelical political engagement.[4]

While two yet-to-be-published books – Michael McVicar’s An Everlasting Dominion: Christian Reconstructionism and the Rise of American Conservatism, and Julie Ingersoll’s Building the Kingdom of God: Christian Reconstructionism and the Religious Right in America[5] – are slated to provide detailed (and in McVicar’s case, archival-based) analyses of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism to the academic community, I’d like to address how one of the reigning narratives in the study of American conservatism – the Sunbelt thesis – has not been marshaled to the extent it might be in order to facilitate a greater understanding of the rise and influence of Christian Reconstructionism.  Some of this is addressed by McVicar, but I’ve been surprised to see how one major Sunbelt scholar – Darren Dochuk – missed out on the opportunity to shed deeper light on Rushdoony, his followers and his movement.

 

The “Sunbelt” argument combines new urban/suburban history, social network analysis, women’s history and women’s studies, and political economy.  In short, the argument runs that the Sunbelt was the geographic destination for large numbers of people, often from less-economically-advantaged areas, for employment during World War II and up through the defense spending of the Eisenhower years.  These economic migrants carried with them their own regional (and, as we’ll see in Dochuk’s work, denominational) sensibilities and, over time, grew affluent and crafted a distinct political style – one revolving around a strong national defense (i.e. self-interest with respect to employment), anti-communism, limited state involvement in markets and, in most cases, neighborhood racial homogeneity. [6]

In her Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr offered a study of conservative growth in defense industry-heavy Orange County, California in the 1950s and 1960s.  Since McGirr — and particularly with the addition of Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South – it is safe to say that the Sunbelt argument has been the primary arena of inquiry for the study of conservatism’s rise for the last decade or so.  Most recently-published academic histories play off the Sunbelt argument in some fashion – the role of Sunbelt housewives, fights over racial integration in Sunbelt cities, and the financial support of Sunbelt business/corporate leaders to conservative causes.[7]

The same argument has directed the academic study of Cold War-era conservative evangelicalism and its influence over national politics.  The debates still roll back and forth over whether the immediate cause of the rise of the Religious Right is found the Roe vs. Wade decision versus evangelical fears and anger over desegregation – witness, for instance, Randall Balmer’s late May 2014 article in Politico arguing emphatically for the latter[8] – but, in academia, the bigger push has been the search for the Religious Right’s pre-1970s origins using the Sunbelt-oriented work of McGirr, Lassiter, Michelle Nickerson and others.

Both Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism and Williams’ aforementioned God’s Own Party address the Sunbelt argument.  Both books cover similar ground and reference many of the same personalities (both well-known and heretofore obscure), events, and regional and denominational distinctives.  Williams intended his book to be a very detailed “chronological history of the Christian Right” and the Sunbelt argument pops up at different moments, particularly in his discussion of conservative evangelicalism during and after Nixon.[9]  Dochuk, however, offers his readers an explicitly Sunbelt-oriented thesis.  In From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, he explains how a distinct, populist brand of Protestantism from the “Western South,” or what he labels the “burned-over district of Southern evangelicalism,” was carried to Southern California during the Dust Bowl, World War II and the early Cold War.[10]  In Southern California, these economic migrants planted churches, built neighborhoods, increased their personal wealth (largely as a result of national defense spending), established vibrant parachurch ministries, and, through the Goldwater and post-Goldwater years, helped to build a Christian conservatism in the California Southland.[11]  The appearance of conservative evangelicalism on the national scene in the late 1970s was, he argues, an export of Southern Californian evangelicalism to Texas, Virginia and further afield, particularly with Reagan’s post-Goldwater rise in the GOP.[12]

 

But where do Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism fit?  I noted earlier the extent of Williams’ discussion about the influence of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism – a bare reference in the context of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue.  Two other points should be made about Williams’ take on Christian Reconstructionism.  First, even though he talks about Francis Schaeffer throughout the book, Williams chose not to wield the common argument or assertion that Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism were brought through the backdoor via Schaeffer’s writings.[13]  Second, it is strange given the context of anti-abortion activity, Williams chose not to reference the one example with the closest connection to Christian Reconstructionism – Paul Hill.  Those familiar with the literature about Hill’s murder of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard in July 1994 know that Hill (a) took classes with the theonomist scholar Greg Bahnsen at Reformed Theological Seminary – Jackson, Mississippi (RTS-Jackson) in the late 1970s, (b) attended St. Paul Presbyterian, a theonomist/ Reconstructionist congregation in Jackson, (c) followed A. Michael Schneider, the minister at St. Paul Presbyterian, to Trinity Presbyterian in Valparaiso, Florida and (d) remained a member of Trinity Presbyterian up through his status as an excommunicate in 1993.[14]

And Dochuk?  For a book covering the growth of the California conservative evangelical scene from the 1940s through the 1970s, including that community’s interaction with the myriad of conservative think tanks, publishers, funders and sponsors, one would expect that Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction to have appeared somewhere in the book.  Surprisingly, there are no references – none.  And that is unfortunate because Rushdoony would fit extraordinarily well into Dochuk’s overall storyline.  In 1958-1959, having moved following a church split to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Northern California and having secured funding under the libertarian-oriented Volker Fund, Rushdoony was busy re-working draft material for what later became his book Intellectual Schizophrenia, a study of the philosophical underpinnings of American education.  In Dochuk’s narrative, education was, in late 1958, a hot-button issue in California in light of William Knowland’s run for governor against Pat Brown and a fight over Proposition 16 (which involved the taxing of private schools).[15]  Moreover, another way Rushdoony could be integrated with Dochuk’s work (as well as with McGirr and Nickerson) can be seen by descriptions given by McVicar’s and Rushdoony’s estranged son-in-law Gary North’s of how Southern California housewives and the conservative Betsy Ross Book Shop in Westwood financed and sponsored Rushdoony’s activities, particularly in the wake of his termination from the Volker Fund’s follow-on Center for American Studies in Burlingame.[16]

There is room, then, for treating Rushdoony as a consummate California figure, and Christian Reconstructionism as an exemplary Sunbelt phenomenon, which makes their absence in Dochuk’s narrative peculiar.  Granted, Rushdoony himself wasn’t a “Western South” transplant to California, which means he falls outside Dochuk’s overarching theory, but Rushdoony was nonetheless very involved with many of the people Dochuk highlights.  Another possibility is that Rushdoony’s involvement in California’s conservative Presbyterian circles.  Compared to Baptists and Pentecostals, Presbyterians receive less air time in Dochuk’s narrative, but as he addresses Carl McIntyre’s influence among California evangelicals, it is not as if he completely ignores the conservative Presbyterian side of the story.[17]  All-in-all, Rushdoony – not to mention the other Southern California-centered Christian Reconstructionists (i.e. Gary North, Greg Bahnsen and David Chilton) – is missing in action in Dochuk’s work.  And while bordering on pop-psychology, one final California angle on Rushdoony (particularly given his emphasis on education reform and Biblically-based law and order) might be found in his relationship to his undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley.  As a traveler in right-wing and libertarian circles, Rushdoony, along with everyone else in California starting around 1964, watched as his alma mater became ground zero for nationwide, left-wing campus rebellion.  Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power makes for a great tandem read with Dochuk, as it fleshes out the extent to which the events in Berkeley served as an energizing force for the post-Goldwater Right in California, of which Rushdoony, his Chalcedon Foundation, and other Southern California-based Christian Reconstructionists were part and parcel.

Indeed, the use of the Sunbelt argument could be very useful for examining Christian Reconstructionism as a political-theological ecosystem from the 1970s onward.  There were three primary centers of Christian Reconstructionist activity beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s – Rushdoony and his followers in Southern California; Joseph Morecraft III and Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in the Atlanta suburbs; and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas, east of Dallas.  Take Chalcedon Presbyterian Church to begin with.  Kevin Kruse has done solid historical work on the early (1950-1960s) origins of “white flight” in Atlanta, but what might a study look like addressing the growth of Morecraft’s church, including its sponsorship of public lectures in the late 1970s (including talks by Rushdoony and North), its pro-life work and Morecraft’s run for political office, if connected to political economy, race, and an extension of Kruse’s narrative into the 1970s and 1980s?[18]   Moreover, as with Dochuk’s look at “Western South” transplants, how might Morecraft’s political-theological views have been colored as an Appalachian in the New South?

 

And then there is Tyler, Texas.  McVicar has a solid chapter in his dissertation covering the personal and theological rifts between Rushdoony’s group in California and the “Tyler Circle” centered around North, James Jordan, Ray Sutton and Michael Gilstrap, and yet there is still little known about why the group chose, of all places, eastern Texas.[19]  In one of his short biographical statements, North talked about his move to Tyler purely in terms of the Lone Star State’s business-and-tax-friendly environment, but as North was moving from, at that time, North Carolina to a church community already in existence in Tyler, tax relief doesn’t have much explanatory power when it comes to how Westminster Presbyterian in Tyler went Reconstructionist in the first place.  Intriguingly, in his dissertation on twentieth century conservative politics in Texas, Sean Cunningham talks about Tyler as a political “fulcrum point” in the late 1970s, explaining how the district, which had been strongly rural, “anti-elitist [and] populist” and, in terms of party registration, historically Democratic, had, after 1972, been moving in a distinctly Republican direction.  Cunningham adds that, in the run-up to Reagan’s election, “several local religious groups” (which he doesn’t identify, and wasn’t able to track down for this author) had been strongly pressuring the local GOP.[20]

To conclude, even though the academic study of conservative evangelicalism and its relationship to domestic and foreign policy has matured over the last decade, the study of Rushdoony, his followers and interlocutors, and the Christian Reconstructionist movement as a whole is in comparative infancy.  McVicar and Ingersoll’s contributions will go far in providing a non-polemical foundation for understanding the movement’s overall influence, but there is much more work to be done to connect, as I put it earlier, the larger Christian Reconstructionist or theonomist ecosystem to existing Sunbelt historiographical arguments.  Added to this, there is a need for a solid, go-to theological-political academic history of the movement’s particular style of Calvinist cultural and political engagement in the late 20th century and early 21st century in the United States.  Such a history will need to address the three distinct Sunbelt centers for Christian Reconstructionist thought, but also touching on how the movement morphed and changed in the 1990s and 2000s.

 

[1] Molly Worthen, ““The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism,” Church History, Vol. 77, No. 2 (June 2008), p. 401.

[2] Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 225-226

[3] Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (Nation Books, 2009), pp. 17-27

[4] Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2006), pp. 10-14

[5] Michael McVicar, An Everlasting Dominion: Christian Reconstructionism and the Rise of American Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press; anticipated 2015); Julie Ingersoll, Building the Kingdom of God: Christian Reconstructionism and the Religious Right in America (Oxford University Press; anticipated 2015)

[6] For an overview of this argument, see Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), pp. xv-xxiv, 171-189.

[7] Kim Phillips-Fein, “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History, Vol. 98,  No. 3 (December 2011), pp. pp. 728-729; 731-732.

[8] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico, 27 May 2014, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.html (accessed 21 June 2014)

[9] See Chapter Five of Williams, God’s Own Party.

[10] Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, pp. 9-10; 13-17

[11] Ibid, pp. 167ff.

[12] Ibid., pp. 321ff.

[13] Williams, God’s Own Party, pp. 137-142; 154-156; 158; 173-174

[14] Gary North, Lone Gunners for Jesus: Letters to Paul J. Hill (Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), p. 2, 39-40; Tomilola Adewale, “Paul Hill’s Journey: The Analysis of a Former Minister’s Path to Violent Anti-Abortion Extremism,” (BA Senior Thesis, Duke University, 2010 ), pp. 51-52; 127-129; http://www.tomiadewale.com/thesis.pdf (accessed 28 June 2014); Douglas Wilson, Black and Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War and Scripture (Canon Press, 2005), pp. 62-63.  Adwale’s thesis relies heavily on material from Jim Risen and Judy Thomas, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War (Basic Books, 1998), pp. 345ff.  Michael Schneider continued to serve at Trinity Presbyterian Church and was scheduled to retire in 2012.  See http://www.crechurches.org/documents/minutes/2010_spring_AthanasiusMin.pdf.

[15] Dochuk, pp. 191-195; Michael McVicar, Reconstructing America: Religion, American Conservatism, and the Political Theology of Rousas John Rushdoony (Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2010), pp. 118-119.

[16] See McVicar, Reconstructing America, pp. 210, 214-219.  McVicar cites Michelle Nickerson’s work in this section, including her original Ph.D. dissertation.  Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism actually mentions a 1960s-era conservative bookshop in Van Nuys, California named “Betsy Ross Book Shop,” but given that North and McVicar both place the bookstore in Westwood, it appears that the two are likely different.  Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 149, 175.  Dochuk’s discussion of the “Sunbelt housewives” issue is limited.  See Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, pp. 187, 201, 352.  Gary North discusses the relationship between Rushdoony and Betsy Ross Book Shop in Tithing and the Church (Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), pp. 152, 156.

[17] See Dochuk, pp. 151-152; 241, 271-272.  Dochuk talks about the McIntire-Southern California connections, including, for example, how Strom Thurmond, for example, would talk at McIntire’s East Coast conferences, and then head to rally the crowds in Christian events in Southern California (241-242).  It’s important to note that, unlike Rushdoony, McIntire does fit Dochuk’s “Western South” theory, growing up in the faith as he did in Oklahoma.  For McIntire’s early years in Oklahoma, see Chapter 1 of Gladys Titzck Rhodes and Nancy Titzck Anderson, McIntire: Defender of Faith and Freedom (Xulon Press, 2012), pp. 3-15.

[18] Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2007).

[19] McVicar, Reconstructing America, pp. 285ff.

[20] Sean Cunningham, The Perfect Storm: Social Change, Partisan Realignment and the Transformation of Modern Texas Conservatism, 1963-1980 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 2007), pp. 306-307.  Also see Cunningham, Cowboy Conservatism: Texas and the Rise of the Modern Right (University Press of Kentucky, 2010).  For more on the Texas environment during this period, one should also consult the soon-to-be-released Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (Princeton University Press, 2014).

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