Washington Post Story Gets Christian Reconstructionism Wrong

On Saturday the Washington Post ran a story by Amy Gardner about the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reelection campaign to paint his Nevada Senate opponent Sharron Angle as an extremist — including his camaign’s distribution of a 27-page document to media outlets that alleges her ties to Christian Reconstructionists.

As RD readers know, I write regularly about the Reconstructionists and their influence on contemporary public figures like Angle, as well as Ron and Rand Paul and others. Just this morning, Angle sent a fundraising appeal through the Reconstructionist group Vision to America.

I have not seen the Reid campaign’s report, but Gardner’s story leaves me questioning her understanding of Christian Reconstructionism. She characterizes the Reid campaign report as saying that “Christian Reconstructionism is a dangerous secret society intent on turning the United States into a theocracy.” Although the description of the movement as a “secret society” is not correct, Christian Reconstructionism is indeed about establishing a theocracy. After attributing that characterization to the Reid campaign, though, Gardner dismisses it as “something of a stretch.” She continues:

At its peak in the 1990s, the Christian Reconstructionist movement was small and mostly ignored. The group’s founder, R.J. Rushdoony, tried to start a political party, but it went nowhere. When Rushdoony died nine years ago, the movement dried up.

Ignored by many, maybe. But contrary to Gardner’s denial of the movement’s reach, in addition to my own published work on the subject (Rank and File Evangelicals and the Activist Elite in Evangelicals and Democracy in America) other scholars, including Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God), Sara Diamond (Not by Politics Alone; Roads to Dominion), Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming), and Randall Balmer (Thy Kingdom Come), have documented the significant Reconstructionist influence in contemporary American politics and culture, starting with the rise of the homeschool and Christian school movements. Rushdoony laid the philosophical/theological grounding for these movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s, served as an expert witness in the trials establishing them as a legal alternative to public schooling in the 1970s and 1980s, and was the impetus for much of the homeschooling curriculum still in use today.

Gardner is also wrong about Rushdoony’s politics. He never tried to start a political party. He insisted that the primary goals of the movement were not political (by which he meant concerned with civil government). He did advocate theocracy, by which he meant that civil rulers derive their authority from God and are obligated to follow biblical law. Angle has embraced this view.

“Dried up?” Absolutely not. Reconstructionists are invigorated in the current political climate and many of them are active in the tea party. I read blogs and discussion boards from them daily. As fieldwork for my current book, I have attended five Reconstructionist-related conferences over the past year and a half.

It’s not clear whether the term “secret society” is Gardner’s term or one taken from the report. In either case it is not accurate. Christian Reconstruction is more a school of thought than an organization. There are many organizations that ascribe to this school of thought, and they are absolutely not secret: they publish more books than anyone—even a full-time academic—can read. Many of them are available free online, as are the daily updates these organizations email their followers.

In my work I explore the Reconstructionists’ worldview and trace its dissemination to activists who acknowledge its influence on their views (like Constitution Party founder Howard Phillips) to those who might not even realize the role of Rushdoony’s teachings in their education. To say that Reconstructionists have influenced Angle is not the same as saying that Angle is a card-carrying member of a “secret society.” But the movement’s influence on her views does call attention to her positions on numerous issues many Nevada voters don’t likely recognize — and are probably not what they’re bargaining for if they’re motivated by a desire to oust Reid.