By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
Here’s the overwhelming difficulty one faces when talking about Christian Reconstructionism (CR):
Most people have never heard of it.
Those who have are usually divided between worried liberals and ignorant conservatives who think it means theocracy. And when they envision theocracy, they’re thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale brought to life.
Worried liberals see CR everywhere in the Religious Right, prompting them to believe a secret, cohesive group of Christian extremists are engineering a theocratic revolution at this very moment. The ignorant conservatives think the worried liberals are tilting after windmills of their own religion-hating, secular imagination. And while both the liberals and the conservatives are wrong in their own ways, it is — ironically — the conservatives who are more wrong.
Published by Oxford University Press this year, Julie J. Ingersoll’s book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction is a clarion call to both worried liberals as well as ignorant conservatives to more accurately understand the nature of CR. By more accurately understanding that nature, both groups of people can hopefully better grasp how to respond. And by respond, I mean the same thing for both groups of people: how to properly challenge the ways in which CR has infiltrated popular society and is slowly eroding the healthfulness and vibrancy of American Christianity and the American political system. I believe the task of making that challenge belongs to both liberals and conservatives alike.
Ingersoll is a scholar. She earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California Santa Barbara and is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. However, she is also a former insider of CR. She was married to Mark Thoburn, son of Bob Thoburn, a prominent Reconstructionist within the Christian schooling movement who founded Fairfax Christian School.[i] Her “insider” status does not lead her to histrionics against a movement she left, as conservatives might fear. Nor does her “insider” status lead her to play up potentially “juicy secrets” of the movement, as liberals might hope. Rather, she uses her intimate, personal knowledge of the movement to buttress her impressive academic skills. She combines the level-headedness of a scholar and the precision possessed by only someone who grew up in a insular subculture could have.
Ingersoll describes CR as “more a school of thought than an organization (or society)”.[ii] Originally fashioned by Reformed theologian R.J. Rushdoony, CR targets “secular humanism” as the biggest threat to contemporary Christianity. To do so, it posits three core beliefs: “presuppositionalism, postmillennialism, and theonomy.”[iii] Presuppositionalism argues that knowledge about anything – whether it is science or history or educational pedagogy — must either begin with the Bible or be damned as “secular humanism.” Throughout her book, Ingersoll traces presuppositionalism’s either/or emphasis and how it has led to “the all-or-nothing character of contemporary American conservatism.”[iv] Postmillennialism is the belief that “the Kingdom of God is a present, earthly reality.”[v] Christians are supposed to work towards creating Heaven on Earth, which will eventually materialize as God sanctifies more and more people. Finally, theonomy is the belief that Mosaic laws are applicable to modern society and binding on Christians. Ingersoll cites CR advocate Greg Bahnsen, who says, “We must recognize the continuing obligation of civil magistrates to obey and enforce the relevant laws of the Old Testament, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth.”[vi]
What I would argue is the consistent and reoccurring theme of Building God’s Kingdom is that both liberals and conservatives have misinterpreted and thus misunderstood the overwhelming influence CR has had on 21st century American Christian conservatism. “Both the alarmists and their critics misunderstand the influence of the Reconstructionists,” she writes. “Their influence is subtle, implicit, and hidden.”[vii] This is often intentionally so, Ingersoll argues: “Reconstructionists often argue in favor of bringing about these changes in ways that won’t be recognized by the rest of us for what they are. They call it ‘being wise as serpents.’”[viii]
Reconstructionists have been wildly successful in their efforts. “Little slivers of Rushdoony’s work seem to be everywhere,”[ix] Ingersoll says. She highlights how CR ideas, which run counter to so much of the ideological foundations of other conservative and fundamentalist Christians, have infiltrated those conservative and fundamentalist cultures so thoroughly that the foundations of the CR ideas have replaced those other subcultures’ foundations, even when the ideas themselves are either rejected or unknown. That infiltration is deliberate and intentional by means of the CR pioneering of the Christian schooling and Christian homeschooling movements: “Reconstructionist ideas made their way into evangelical and fundamentalist churches through study guides and Christian school (and later homeschool) curriculum, giving rise to an integrated worldview and a distinct subculture.”[x]
Most of Ingersoll’s book is dedicated to the task of tracing Reconstructionist ideas and how they fed into those movements. The depth and breadth of that influence surprised even me, who grew up in the Christian homeschooling movement. Ingersoll shows how Rushdoony and his many influential followers shaped the very contours of the Christian schooling and Christian homeschooling movements; how he aided young earth creationism in becoming the biblical (and only biblical) perspective of Creation within those worlds; how his ideas about providential history inspired Marshall Foster and David Barton; and how his ideas about patriarchy and multigenerational faithfulness undergird the ideologies of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull. But even more astonishing, at least to me, is that the very language that conservative Christians use today — language about “religious freedom,” “parental rights,” and “government schools” is evidence of CR’s influence.
One element that I felt was missing in Ingersoll’s book is a presentation of orthodox Christianity by which one could compare and contrast Christian Reconstructionism. For example, Ingersoll makes salient the fact that Christian Reconstructionists believe parents (and only parents) are the rightful teachers of their children. For parents to give the role of teaching their children to anyone else is a sin. Rushdoony promoted replacing the phrase “public school” with the “government school,” and everyone from HSLDA to the National Center for Life and Liberty to Fox News to John Stonestreet now uses the latter. The phrase itself is loaded with Rushdoony’s belief that any and every government school system is tyrannical because it usurps the rightful authority (and God-given obligation) of parents to educate their children. Hence why people like the late Chris Klicka of HSLDA said parents who put their children in public school “sacrifice their children,” comparing such parents to Israelites in Ezekiel 16:20-21 who “slaughtered [their] children” by fire[xi]; or why people like Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute argue that Christians putting their children in public school is “antithetical to Biblical teaching.”[xii]
I think it would have been helpful to contrast this extremist position with the history of Christian thought. This would help readers understand that the CR position is a severe departure from not only Christian beliefs on education in general, but specifically even Reformed beliefs on education. For example, it is Martin Luther, Reformer par excellence (and not Protestant homeschoolers’ favorite target Adolf Hitler) who is the genesis of the public education system.[xiii] Indeed, Luther believed that “when the natural parents prevent able youngsters from pursuing an education,” “the interests of the state [are] superior to the rights of the parents.”[xiv] The other grandfather of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, also believed in a centralized education system.[xv] And the Prussian education system, which is blamed by homeschoolers for the American public school system as much as Hitler is blamed, was inspired by A.H. Francke, a Lutheran Christian.[xvi] Francke, in turn, was a significant influence on the Puritan Cotton Mather, also a CR favorite — who was, incidentally, also an outspoken advocate of government involvement in education.[xvii]
Another example is when Ingersoll says that an important characteristic of Christian Reconstructionism is sphere sovereignty. Ingersoll describes CR’s idea of sphere sovereignty in the following manner: “Biblical authority is God’s authority delegated to humans, who exercise dominion under God’s law in three distinct God-ordained institutions: the family, the church, and the civil government.”[xviii] The fact is, sphere sovereignty transcends CR. One could argue that Jesus himself established some species of sphere sovereignty when he declared, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”[xix] But not everyone knows this. So someone less versed in Christian history might think that any belief in sphere sovereignty indicates adherence to CR.
This isn’t merely an academic concern. For people interested in challenging CR and its widespread influences, it is vitally important to be able to pinpoint exactly where and how CR departs from orthodox Christianity. One example of this is how CR advocates sphere sovereignty: by means of a new wave of “church courts.” Ingersoll writes that, “Rather than take their troubles to civil court, church members bring them before ruling elders who have authority to issue punishments, demand repentance and restitution, and threaten excommunication.” This is not an insignificant phenomenon: “Some 10-15 percent of American Protestant churches, and churches associated with Vision Forum, now follow this model.”[xx] Ingersoll cites Rushdoony’s vision of church courts: “To go outside the family is to deny the family and break it up. When a husband and wife, or parents and children, or brother against brother, go to an outside court, the family life and government is in most cases dissolved or at least shattered… The Christian denies the reality and power of the Kingdom of God if he seeks justice outside the Kingdom.” Ingersoll illuminates how this “church court” system was used by Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips to make it difficult for his abuse victim, Lourdes Torres Manteufel, to seek justice.[xxi]
One very real, very present threat of CR is, then, that its interpretation of sphere sovereignty directly threatens the well-being of child abuse and domestic violence survivors trapped within churches with these revisionist church courts. We have seen recently, time and time again, how churches that try to handle child abuse and domestic violence cases “in house” further traumatize and terrorize victims and survivors. Peter Leithart, a Christian Reconstructionist[xxii] who severely mishandled a child abuse case within his own church[xxiii] (and recently apologized for that mishandling[xxiv]), continues to call church courts “highly commendable.” He writes that, “It is better to be defrauded and wronged than to take a brother to court.”[xxv]
Being able to articulate the way in which CR has taken an orthodox Christian belief — a belief directly from Jesus, like, say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” — and transformed that into something like these revisionist church courts is crucial. Because the real threat of CR is not that it believes unorthodox theology. It is that CR applies theology — orthodox or not — in a particular way that hides and fosters child and domestic abuse.
Some of these ideas are tangential to Ingersoll’s purpose for the book, so I understand their omission. But the fact that her book inspired so many thought processes and rabbit trails is, in my mind, an indication of its power. Ingersoll’s book is provocative in the best sense and I highly recommend it. It pushes the reader to re-examine the origin of ideas widely held within 21st American Christian conservatism. It urges that we might not know as much about that origin as we thought we did.
Most importantly, Building God’s Kingdom dares to suggest that while conservative Christians were busy straining out the gnat of “secular humanism,” they unknowingly swallowed the far more diseased camel that is Christian Reconstructionism.
[i] Milton Gaither, International Center for Home Education Research, “BUILDING GOD’S KINGDOM: Christian Reconstruction’s Influence on Homeschooling and More,” September 7, 2015, link, accessed on September 29, 2015.
[ii] Julie Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 238.
[iii] Ibid, p. 236.
[iv] Ibid, p. 242.
[v] Ibid, p. 27.
[vi] Greg Bahnsen, By This Standard, Institute for Christian Economics, 1985, p. 3-4.
[vii] Ingersoll, p. 6.
[viii] Ibid, p. 240.
[ix] Ibid, p. 212.
[x] Ibid, p. 6.
[xi] Chris Klicka, The Right Choice: Home Schooling, Noble Publishing Associations, 4th printing and revised edition, 1995, p. 104-5.
[xiv] Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other Than to Care for…the Young?’”, The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 152.
[xv] Barbara Pitkin, “’The Heritage of the Lord’: Children in the Theology of John Calvin,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 179-80.
[xvi] Marcia J. Bunge, “Education and the Child in Eighteenth-Century German Pietism: Perspectives from the Work of A.H. Francke,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 249: “Francke’s ideas significantly shaped school reforms and social policies in Prussia. Largely as a result of his influence, wealthy citizens and nobility became interested in the establishment of public schools. And in 1717 Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, who knew and respected Francke, decreed compulsory education for children between the ages of five and twelve and established about two thousand schools, modeling them after Francke’s schools.”
[xviii] Ingersoll, p. 41.
[xix] Mark 12:17.
[xx] Ingersoll, p. 160.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 164.
[xxii] See Peter Leithart and Gary Demar, The Reduction of Christianity: Dave Hunt’s Theology of Cultural Surrender, Dominion Press, 1988.