Theocracy: “What Would Be So Bad About It?”

Christianity Today’s recent article “Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson: What inspires the art enthusiast to give millions away?” is primarily about the role of Roberta (the wife of heir to the Home Savings fortune and religious right funder Howard Ahmanson) in support of the arts. But of greater interest is the article‘s uncritical treatment of the couple’s controversial involvement (and extensive financial support of) conservative politics (including Proposition 8, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the career of World magazine editor and former King’s College provost Marvin Olasky, and  the creationist Discovery Institute).

In its discussion of the now well-known ties between the Ahmansons and Christian Reconstructionist founder Rousas John Rushdoony, the article provides yet another example of the inability of the media to take seriously Rushdoony’s impact and legacy. While most mentions of Rushdoony are followed by the simplistic and inflammatory tagline “who advocated stoning of homosexuals,” in this case the Christianity Today article allows Roberta Ahmanson to paint Rushdoony as an man who spent his life struggling with his family history and whose ideas aren’t really all “that bad” but are misunderstood in contemporary culture:

Roberta claims he wasn’t “the ogre” he was made out to be and explains his theodicy as a response to his family’s flight from the Armenian genocide in Turkey. His whole life project was to try to figure out what could protect you. In the end, he came down to the only thing that is solid is God’s law. Well, you say the word law in the 20th or 21st century, and people break out in a rash.

I’m not sure why she used the word theodicy — which is an attempt to answer the theological problem of evil, that is, how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving god permit evil to exist — when what she was talking about was clearly theocracy (and Rushdoony didn’t articulate a distinctive theodicy anyway). The flattering essay describes Ahmanson as a “force of nature” and “unflinching in her defense of Rushdoony.” And, in turn, the article doesn’t question either her denial of her own theocratic leanings — or her defense of theocracy as a concept.

The Ahmansons supplied crucial early support to Rushdoony’s writing, his early efforts in the creationist movement, and to the establishment of his Chalcedon Foundation (which Rushdoony’s son Mark now runs). In 2004 Max Blumenthal traced the Ahmansons’ contributions and argued that they were key financial backers in the effort to bring about theocracy as envisioned by Rushdoony. In the Christianity Today piece, though, Roberta Ahmanson is quoted as saying “I never was (a theocrat), and I don’t know if Howard ever was either. I’m afraid to say this, but also, what would be so bad about it?”

Rushdoony certainly was no “ogre”—in fact, at least later in life, he seemed every bit the distinguished intellectual father of a very significant social movement. As both Sarah and I have written here, pundits who look no further than the issue of the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality justifiably highlight that incendiary point, but at the expense of explicating the far-reaching influence of the Reconstructionist movement, and how its vision became central to the contemporary religious right’s political agenda.

Mind you, I’m not minimizing the crazy idea that homosexuality should be punished by death — and the point should not be lost that these Christian Reconstructionist views have contributed to the anti-gay movement — but Christian Reconstructionism is much broader, advocating a very specific ordering of family, church and civil society. It undergirds the religious right’s agenda in far more sweeping ways than the anti-gay movement.

When Roberta Ahmanson suggests theocracy wouldn’t “be so bad,” we want to know what she’s talking about.