Bob McDonnell’s Christian Reconstructionist Thesis

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is in the news again this week. He was appointed chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the resulting increased national visibility is fueling speculation that McDonnell might be a strong vice-presidential running mate.

But McDonnell comes with some baggage, most significantly his 1989 Masters thesis at Regent University, written under the direction of Reconstructionist Herb Titus. Sarah wrote about Titus’ role in founding Oral Roberts University Law School, where Michele Bachmann earned her law degree, and how, more recently, he developed birther theories, arguing that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president. Sarah and I also wrote about McDonnell’s thesis in our 2010 piece on Titus and his client Gun Owners of America.

When McDonnell ran for governor of Virginia in 2009, the thesis was widely criticized for advocating family policies that would curtail the rights of women and those not fitting the religious right’s definition of family. (You can read the whole thing here.) McDonnell managed to sidestep the attack by claiming that his views had changed since then, and pointing to the fact that he had hired women and that women in his family, indeed, work outside the home. Moreover, he said the paper was an “academic exercise.” Yet the Washington Post noted, “during his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper.”

Even in 2009 I thought that McDonnell’s facile dismissal seemed just too convenient, so yesterday I went back to it for a second look. First, as an “academic exercise,” this paper is really weak. It is a graduate-level thesis, but McDonnell’s use of sources would be inadequate even in an undergraduate class. For example, he cites statistical evidence as the basis for his arguments, but checking his references we find that his source is not a scholarly report but an un-footnoted reference by a Christian Reconstructionist pastor, Ray Sutton, in a little book written for Gary North’s “Biblical Blueprint” series. The book is written at a level appropriate for a church Bible study. In other places McDonnell makes assertions about the roles of the family or the relationship between family authority and civil government. His citations there are to Bible verses (problematic because first this is a public policy/law degree, not a theology degree, and second, because the verses themselves are entirely uninterpreted, as though their meaning and application isn’t open to question).

More important, though, is how the entire treatise outlines a Christian Reconstructionist’s version of a biblical worldview as it relates to the relationship between family, church, and civil government, and outlines proposals to privilege that social ordering with taxes and policies. McDonnell sets out the jurisdictional view of authority promoted by Reconstructionists with which RD readers will be familiar: the “God-ordained institutions,” of the civil government (citing Genesis 9-11), the church (citing Matthew 16), and the family (citing Genesis 2).

He argues:

The family as an institution existed antecedent to civil government, and hence is not subject to being defined by it. It is in the Law of Nature of the created order that the Creator instituted marriage and family in Eden, where he ordained that “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Family arises out of this divinely-created covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, the terms of which can neither be originally set nor subsequently altered by the parties or the state. (13)

The remainder of the document comprises legal and political strategies to use the authority of the “civil government” to secure the preferential position of this “biblical” view of family on the basis of the argument that it is what “God” intended. While taxation not explicitly endorsed in the Bible is seen as “theft,” the use of tax support and tax supported institutions to promote “biblical families” (among—and at the expense of—those of us who don’t believe in their God, their Bible, or their views of family) is based solely in this circular argument that God has ordained it thus.

I am sympathetic to the fact that people’s views change over time (in fact suspicious of people whose views seem to not change). But candidates for public office owe it to voters to be specific about what has changed and how these changes have, or have not, effected the entire framework they have previously endorsed.