Christian reconstructionism is a fundamentalist Reformed theonomic movement that developed under the ideas of Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen and Gary North; it has had an important influence on the Christian Right in the United States. In keeping with the cultural mandate, reconstructionists advocate theonomy and the restoration of certain biblical laws said to have continuing applicability. The movement declined in the 1990s and was declared dead in a 2008 Church History journal article, although Christian reconstructionist organizations such as the Chalcedon Foundation and American Vision are active today. Christian Reconstructionists are usually postmillennialists and followers of the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.
A Christian denomination that advocates the view of Christian reconstructionism is the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States. Most Reformed Christians, however, disavow Christian reconstructionism and hold to classical covenant theology, the traditional Reformed view of the relationship between the Old Covenant and Christianity.
Christian reconstructionists advocate a theonomic government and libertarian economic principles. They maintain a distinction of spheres of authority between family, church, and state. For example, the enforcement of moral sanctions under theonomy is carried out by the family and church government, and sanctions for moral offenses are outside the authority of civil government (which is limited to criminal matters, courts and national defense). However, some believe these distinctions become blurred, as the application of theonomy implies an increase in the authority of the civil government. Reconstructionists argue, though, that under theonomy, the authority of the state is severely limited to a point where only the judicial branch exists (e.g., a homosexual does not fear of a police force breaking in their house at night, since, under theonomy, there is no executive branch and therefore no police). Reconstructionists also say that the theocratic government is not an oligarchy or monarchy of man communicating with God, but rather, a national recognition of existing laws. Prominent advocates of Christian reconstructionism have written that according to their understanding, God's law approves of the death penalty not only for murder, but also for propagators of all forms of idolatry, active homosexuals, adulterers, practitioners of witchcraft, blasphemers, and perhaps even recalcitrant youths (see the List of capital crimes in the Bible). American Vision's Joel McDurmon responded to these criticisms by denying that reconstructionists have promoted coercive means.
Conversely, Christian reconstructionism's founder, Rousas Rushdoony, wrote in The Institutes of Biblical Law (the founding document of reconstructionism) that Old Testament law should be applied to modern society, and he advocates the reinstatement of the Mosaic law's penal sanctions. Under such a system, the list of civil crimes which carried a death sentence would include homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about one's virginity, bestiality, witchcraft, idolatry or apostasy, public blasphemy, false prophesying, kidnapping, rape, and bearing false witness in a capital case.
Kayser points out that the Bible advocates justice, and that biblical punishments prescribed for crimes are the maximum allowable to maintain justice and not the only available option, because lesser punishments are authorized as well.
Rousas Rushdoony wrote in his magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law: "The heresy of democracy has since [the days of colonial New England] worked havoc in church and state" and: "Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies", and he said elsewhere that "Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic; it is committed to spiritual aristocracy," and characterized democracy as "the great love of the failures and cowards of life". He nevertheless repeatedly expressed his opposition to any sort of violent revolution and advocated instead the gradual reformation (often termed "regeneration" in his writings) of society from the bottom up, beginning with the individual and the family and from there gradually reforming other spheres of authority, including the church and the state.
Rushdoony believed that a republic is a better form of civil government than a democracy. According to Rushdoony, a republic avoided mob rule and the rule of the "51%" of society; in other words "might does not make right" in a republic. Rushdoony wrote that America's separation of powers between 3 branches of government is a far more neutral and better method of civil government than a direct democracy, stating "[t]he [American] Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order". Rushdoony argues that the Constitution's purpose was to protect religion from the federal government and to preserve "states' rights."
Douglas W. Kennard, a Professor Theology and Philosophy at the Houston Graduate School of Theology, wrote with regard to Christian reconstructionism, that Christians of non-Reformed traditions, such as some "Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, [and] Orthodox", would be "under threat of capital punishment as fostered by the extreme Theonomist." On the other hand, Ligon Duncan has stated that "Roman Catholics to Episcopalians to Presbyterians to Pentecostals", as well as "Arminian and Calvinist, charismatic and non-charismatic, high Church and low Church traditions are all represented in the broader umbrella of Reconstructionism (often in the form of the "Christian America" movement)."
Although relatively insignificant in terms of the number of self-described adherents, Christian reconstructionism has played a role in promoting the trend toward explicitly Christian politics in the larger American Christian right. This is the wider trend to which some critics refer, generally, as dominionism. They also allegedly have influence disproportionate to their numbers among advocates of the growth of the Christian homeschooling and other Christian education movements that seek independence from the direct oversight or support of the civil government. Because their numbers are so small compared to their influence, they are sometimes accused of being secretive and conspiratorial.
In Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." This verse is seen as an announcement by Jesus that he has assumed authority over all earthly authority. In that light, some theologians interpret the Great Commission as a command to exercise that authority in his name, bringing all things (including societies and cultures) into subjection under his commands. Rousas Rushdoony, for example, interpreted the Great Commission as a republication of the "creation mandate", referring to Genesis 1:28
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing...
The purpose of Christ's coming was in terms of the creation mandate… The redeemed are called to the original purpose of man, to exercise dominion under God, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfil "the righteousness of the law" (Rom. 8:4)… Man is summoned to create the society God requires.
Elsewhere he wrote:
The man who is being progressively sanctified will inescapably sanctify his home, school, politics, economics, science, and all things else by understanding and interpreting all things in terms of the word of God.
According to sociologist and professor of religion William Martin, author of With God on Our Side:
It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, 'Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.' In addition, several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books. Rushdoony has appeared on Kennedy's television program and the 700 Club several times. Pat Robertson makes frequent use of 'dominion' language; his book, The Secret Kingdom, has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he 'would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,' as well as when he later wrote, 'There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.' And Jay Grimstead, who leads the Coalition on Revival, which brings Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals, has said, 'I don't call myself [a Reconstructionist],' but 'A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God's standard of morality … in all points of history … and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike… It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.' He added, 'There are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership—James Kennedy is one of them—who don't go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.'
Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary California has warned against the seductiveness of power-religion. The Christian rhetoric of the movement is weak, he argues, against the logic of its authoritarian and legalistic program, which will always drive reconstructionism toward sub-Christian ideas about sin, and the perfectibility of human nature (such as to imagine that, if Christians are in power, they won't be inclined to do evil). On the contrary, Horton and others maintain, God's Law can, often has been, and will be put to evil uses by Christians and others, in the state, in churches, in the marketplace, and in families; and these crimes are aggravated, because to oppose a wrong committed through abuse of God's law, a critic must bear being labeled an enemy of God's law.
J. Ligon Duncan of the Department of Systematic Theology of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, warns that "Theonomy, in gross violation of biblical patterns and common sense, ignores the context of the giving of the law to the redemptive community of the Old Testament. This constitutes an approach to the nature of the civil law very different from Calvin and the rest of the Reformed tradition, which sees the civil law as God's application of his eternal standards to the particular exigencies of his people." Duncan rejects the reconstructionist's insistence that "the Old Testament civil case law is normative for the civil magistrate and government in the New Covenant era". He views their denial of the threefold distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial law as representing one of the severe flaws in the reconstructionist hermeneutic.
Professor Meredith Kline, whose own theology has influenced the method of several reconstructionist theologians, has adamantly maintained that reconstructionism makes the mistake of failing to understand the special prophetic role of biblical Israel, including the laws and sanctions, calling it "a delusive and grotesque perversion of the teachings of scripture." Kline's student, Lee Irons, furthers the critique:
According to the Reformed theocrats apparently… the only satisfactory goal is that America become a Christian nation.
Ironically... it is the wholesale rejection (not revival) of theocratic principles that is desperately needed today if the church is to be faithful to the task of gospel witness entrusted to her in the present age… It is only as the church… puts aside the lust for worldly influence and power – that she will be a positive presence in society.
In an April 2009 article in Christianity Today about controversial theologian and writer Douglas Wilson, the magazine described reconstructionism as outside the 'mainstream' views of evangelical Christians. It also stated that it "borders on a call for outright theocracy".
George M. Marsden, a Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, has remarked in Christianity Today that "Reconstructionism in its pure form is a radical movement". He also wrote, "[t]he positive proposals of Reconstructionists are so far out of line with American evangelical commitments to American republican ideals such as religious freedom that the number of true believers in the movement is small."
Popular religious author, feminist, and former Roman Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong sees a potential for "fascism" in Christian reconstructionism, and sees the eventual Dominion envisioned by theologians R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North as: "totalitarian. There is no room for any other view or policy, no democratic tolerance for rival parties, no individual freedom."
Traditional Reformed Christians have argued that Christian reconstructionists have "significantly misunderstood the positions of Calvin, other Reformed teachers and the Westminster Confession concerning the relationship between the Sinai covenant's ethical stipulations and the Christian obligation to the Mosaic judicial laws today."
Some sociologists and critics refer to reconstructionism as a type of dominionism. These critics claim that the frequent use of the word dominion by reconstructionist writers, strongly associates the critical term dominionism with this movement. As an ideological form of dominionism, reconstructionism is sometimes held up as the most typical form of dominion theology.
The Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer is linked with the movement by some critics, but some reconstructionist thinkers are highly critical of Schaeffer's positions and he himself disavowed any connection or affiliation with reconstructionism, though he did cordially correspond with Rushdoony on occasion. Authors Sara Diamond and Fred Clarkson suggest that Schaeffer shared with reconstructionism the tendency toward dominionism.
Christian reconstructionists object to the dominionism and the dominion theology labels, which they say misrepresent their views. Some separate Christian cultural and political movements object to being described with the label dominionism, because in their mind the word implies attachment to reconstructionism. In reconstructionism the idea of godly dominion, subject to God, is contrasted with the autonomous dominion of mankind in rebellion against God.
The few bona fide Christian Reconstructionists still on the scene, notably Gary DeMar at American Vision, Inc. in Atlanta and a few holdouts at the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, consider themselves a separate movement and seem to exert little direct influence on the Religious Right.
There are several Christian Reconstructionist organizations but the key centers are as follows: Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California; his son in-law Gary North's Institute of Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas; and Gary DeMar's American Vision organization in Atlanta, Georgia.
Reconstructionists are separated by geography, and sometimes by their stances on certain issues, into various formal organizations. Among their key centers are Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California; North's Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas; and Gary DeMar's American Vision organization in Atlanta, Georgia.
His laws are to be obeyed by every human individual as well as by every human institution. [… T]he Bible does recognize several other legitimate human governments that God has established. […] These governments are under His sovereignty and are also separate from one another. Each one has its moral authority ordained by God within its limited sphere of jurisdiction. […] The Family […] The Church […] The State […] Historically, human civilizations have brought tremendous suffering and judgment upon themselves because they have blurred the distinctions between these separate governments, have failed to submit to the biblical requirements for these governments, and have over-extended the authority of one or more of these governments.
What is the legitimate punishment for a crime? [… W]hat would stop a tyrannical state from once again imposing the death penalty for petty theft as was repeatedly practiced in England? On the other hand, what would hinder the state from simply fining a murderer $100? […] Without an objective standard of justice from God, how can we discern justice? […] Is it unjust to cut off the hand of a thief as is prescribed in the Koran? The Bible would say, yes. In America people are placed into jail for years for thefts that could have been paid off by means of Biblical restitution in much less time. With the biblical penalty, the criminal is rehabilitated and the victim is compensated. It is easy to see how the Biblical penalties designed to be restorative would be a wonderful alternative to present penalties. But some people have questioned whether the Biblical death penalty should be implemented. It is acknowledged that the penalty for murder is not restorative. But it is the contention of this booklet that the (maximum) penalty of death for every other crime was designed to restore sinners to repentance. […] Theonomists have tended to treat [the Hebrew phrase "möt yumat"] as a mandate for the death penalty. I argue that this is impossible, since God Himself authorized lesser penalties.
In colonial New England the covenantal concept of church and state was applied. [...] The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state, and it has worked towards reducing society to anarchy.