Eight years ago, during the Easter season, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, a controversial depiction of Jesus’ last days deeply influenced by the radical Traditionalist Catholic worldview to which he subscribes. This Easter season, without the hype, and even less controversy, Kirk Cameron has released Monumental, a documentary that “seeks to discover America’s true “national treasure”: the people, places, and principles that made America the freest, most prosperous and generous nation the world has ever known.”
Given his starring role in the Left Behind series and 2008’s Fireproof, most viewers, both sympathetic and critical, expected another thinly-veiled rehearsal of Cameron’s well-known conservative evangelical perspective. And to the untrained eye this is more or less what they were treated to.
But just like The Passion, which was not, as Mel Gibson claimed, a literal depiction of the Gospels, Monumental isn’t guided by a standard conservative Christianity. In fact, if Monumental had had footnotes, they would have traced back directly to R. J. Rushdoony, the founder of the Christian Reconstructionist worldview.
Based on pre-release clips and interviews, many observers, myself included, noted the ties between Cameron’s experts (especially David Barton and Herb Titus) and Christian Reconstruction. But as I sat in the theater recently, I was stunned at how thoroughly the film was shaped by the worldview articulated by Rushdoony a half century ago. I never expected to see “my folks” (as we ethnographers call the people we study) on the big screen in a packed theater (one of 550 nationwide) presenting the Rushdoony worldview to unsuspecting evangelicals, homeschoolers, and tea partiers.
What was not evident from pre-release promotional material was the central influence of co-producer Marshall Foster, a “guest” through much of the film. As president of the Mayflower Institute (now the “World History Institute”), Foster was the “David Barton” of Christian Schooling and homeschooling before David Barton. When I told him in 2009 (at a conference in Fort Lauderdale) that I was writing about the influence of R. J. Rushdoony, he told me “Rushdoony changed my life.” And indeed, it’s that philosophy of history that Foster brought to Cameron’s project.
The Reconstructionist Theological “Trinity”
Christian Reconstruction promotes a “biblical worldview” with three interlocking theological notions that, while framed in technical language, have been popularized for over half a century in simple terms and slogans that are now familiar to watchers of the religious right.
Presuppositionalism stipulates that all knowledge is understood to begin with the acceptance of unprovable assumptions. For Reconstructionists only two mutually exclusive starting points are possible: the true sovereignty and authority of the god of the Bible or the false claim of the supremacy of human reason. This point has found a voice in the ubiquitous critique of “secular humanism” and the argument that religious neutrality is impossible.
Postmillennialism, an end-times theology that challenges contemporary rapture theology, claims that the kingdom of God was established at the resurrection and is being realized as Christianity spreads across the world through the exercise of dominion. Its popularized versions are “dominion theology” and the effort to “restore America’s foundation” as a “Christian nation.”
Theonomy is the view that all law must be based in God’s law, which is to say biblical law. Reconstructionists look to ancient Israel as the model for society and to the Puritans as an exemplar of the modern application of biblical law. They argue for a distinction between theonomy and the more commonly used theocracy on the basis of what they claim is a biblical division of earthly authority set forth by God.
In their view, God ordained three separate spheres of human government: family government, church (ecclesiastical) government, and civil government. Each sphere is charged with certain responsibilities and restricted from activities belonging to another sphere: the family is to raise and educate children; the church is to spread the gospel and provide ecclesiastical discipline; and the civil government should do nothing more than punish evildoers and protect property. Looking to the civil government to do anything more (like provide education or a safety net for the poor) is idolatry. Each sphere is independent of the others (so the state is not subject to the church) but all three are under biblical law and “religious” in character.
Reconstructionists, unlike many Christians read the Bible as a coherent whole; both Old and New Testaments. They believe that the Trinity was present at creation and that while some parts of the Old Testament are no longer applicable, most of them are, giving them a somewhat different notion of the character of God than most contemporary Christians have.
Ridiculing Popular “End Times” Theology
Kirk Cameron, with his starring role in the post-rapture Left Behind movies and his efforts to support creationism, was once in the center of mainstream conservative evangelicalism. And, while in the past few years he had become involved in the Christian homeschooling movement, as well as Doug Phillips’ Vision Forum and the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival (SAICFF), it was unclear whether he was promoting their views. In the weeks leading up to the release of Monumental, Cameron made numerous appearances ranging from CNN, to CPAC, to interviews with religious-right leaders where he embraced popularized versions of the Reconstructionist framework.
On David Barton’s Wallbuilders Live (listen here), Cameron embraced presuppositionalism, the myth of neutrality, and the inescapability of authority:
faith is always involved in politics, even those who are secular humanists, they are importing their secular humanist faith and religion and morality and imposing it on everybody else through the laws that they make. So the idea of faith in government is inescapable; it’s always going to be somebody’s faith, even if it’s faith in atheism.
At the Vision Forum’s SAICFF, Cameron ridiculed premillennialism, sounding distinctly postmillennial:
Their attitude (the Puritans) was not ‘uh-oh the beast and the Antichrist is here… let’s just keep our heads down and wait for the end of the world.’ Instead they said, ‘Let’s make a 500-year plan and go start a nation….’
And in Christianity Today he connected American history to ancient Israel and biblical law:
The true roots of America go all the way back to the ancient Hebrew republic. You can trace those roots at Jamestown back to Europe as well. This is the trail of freedom that leads us all the way back to the ancient Hebrews under Moses where he first delivered those laws of liberty—when he told them to elect leaders, men of character that you willingly submit yourself to, to self-govern rather than have a king.
Combining a postmillennial attitude with the very language Reconstructionists use to argue a difference between a “top-down” theocracy and a “bottom up” reconstruction of society, he told Janet Mefferd:
These guys were optimists. These guys saw a gospel with victory written all over it and believed it was unstoppable… They didn’t believe change happens from the top down, you build it from the bottom up and from your heart and then it slowly works its way out to every other sphere of society.
Cameron told the Global Christian Post that “What people are actually doing is looking to the government to be their savior… and when you do that, you give all of the power to the savior that you are depending on.” In fact, nearly every “expert” Cameron cited had Reconstructionist ties, including Stephen McDowell, whose essay on David Barton’s website on biblical slavery draws extensively on Rushdoony’s controversial and oft-cited work on the topic.
The film includes ongoing renunciation, and even ridicule, of premillennialism in favor of an “optimistic vision.” Cameron repeats the critique of secular humanism based in presuppositionalism; explores “God’s hand in the founding of America,” with Puritan New England serving as the model of the application of biblical law to society; challenges separation of church and state, with Reconstructionist “decentralized” theonomy (and the sphere sovereignty described above); and promotes Reconstructionist views on education, stopping just short of advocating the elimination of “government schools” (an unusual term used almost exclusively by Reconstructionists.)
Some who write about Christian Reconstructionists and Rushdoony focus too much on the most extreme parts of his work, like biblical slavery and stoning as the biblical penalty for homosexuality. Unbelievable as those views are, it’s more important to focus on his views that actually have a hand in shaping our current political debates; particularly on education and gender. (It is important to note, however, as Sarah Posner has pointed out, that even the most extreme views can’t simply be dismissed.)
Clearly, Kirk Cameron isn’t secretly working toward the re-establishment of biblical slavery or the death penalty for homosexuality (though he did make an unfortunate choice of words when talking about the controversy over his recent anti-gay comments, suggesting he had been “stoned” by the media). So why does it even matter whether or not Cameron has been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism?
It matters because Monumental serves as a good illustration of the gradual and subtle influence of Rushdoony’s work in the broader culture—often in places where his name is completely unknown. Cameron is affiliating with Christian Reconstructionists—he is supporting their organizations and promoting their theological framework—and he’s doing it in a way that isn’t necessarily apparent to mainstream evangelicals and tea partiers. Moreover he’s doing so without rejecting or even acknowledging many of the extreme implications of the arguments he is making (like the elimination of public education).
Is there a conspiracy here? No. The difference between a conspiracy theory and observing the articulation and implementation of a plan (and what makes conspiracies crazy) is that conspiracies require elaborate and improbable secrets; secrets that would be impossible to keep hidden. The Christian Reconstructionist goal of transforming every aspect of culture to bring it under the influence of biblical law is not a secret: they’ve written about it for 50 years.
As I left the Jacksonville theater (which sold out more than two hours before its start time, spilling into an overflow theater) a small group had gathered to listen to a woman explain all the work that Doug Phillips had done for the homeschooling community. One wonders whether her audience was aware of the theology behind it—or whether that even matters.