Michael McVicar is Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Florida State University. This interview is based on his new book, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (The University of North Carolina Press, April 2015).
JF: What led you to write Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism?
MM: I started preliminary research for Christian Reconstruction in graduate school at the Ohio State University under the guidance of Hugh B. Urban. I entered the Department of Comparative Studies, a cultural studies program with a religious studies concentration, in 2002. Because of the proximity to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many of the seminars I participated in during the first few years of graduate study focused on the themes of religiously motivated violence, cultural exclusion, political extremism, and the problem of secularism/secularization. As I gravitated toward studying twentieth century U.S. religious history, I kept running across an obscure theological movement called “Christian Reconstruction” in many of the studies I read during this period. The brainchild of Calvinist theologian and Presbyterian churchman Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), Reconstructionism emphasizes postmillennial eschatology, the literal application of Biblical law on Christians and non-Christians alike, and calls for Christians to exercise “dominion” in all aspects of life.
Many of the histories of politically active evangelicals and fundamentalists produced in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first few of years of the twenty-first century mentioned the importance of R. J. Rushdoony and his theological project. Works as varied as Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, the second edition of Mark Juergensmeyer’s, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, William C. Martin’s With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, and the second edition of George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture pointed to the influence of Reconstructionism and acknowledged Rushdoony as an influential thinker with a contested reputation among theologically and socially conservative Protestants in the United States. In spite of this widespread recognition of Reconstructionism, I could find very little substantive historical research on the movement or on Rushdoony.
By the mid 2000s, a wave of journalistic material appeared that associated Rushdoony and his movement with stealth political activism and far-right social, theological, and political positions—ranging from Rushdoony’s controversial statements regarding the execution of homosexuals to his support for a specific form of Christian theocratic rule. This reporting convinced me that a study of Reconstructionism might be valuable. Much of this reporting—especially in the hyperbolic accounts of Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order, and Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party—treated the movement as a sui generis, singularly dangerous threat to American democracy. As I researched, I realized that the absence of historical nuance in the journalistic exposés of Reconstruction was directly related to deficiencies in the academic scholarship on the movement that lacked access to the typical archival sources utilized by professional historians. After several years of sleuthing and building trust with Rushdoony’s California-based think tank, the Chalcedon Foundation, I tracked down several overlooked public archival sources and eventually visited Rushdoony’s private library. Rushdoony’s personal archive allowed me to move beyond a project focused solely on Rushdoony’s published writings to examine the previously unexplored organizational history of Reconstructionism. As a result, I was able to situate the movement in the much richer historical context of the development of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement and the coalescence of the neo-evangelical coalition of the 1960s.
As my research came together, the popular reporting on Reconstructionism’s relationship to conservative politicians peaked in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles. As the frequent and ever-shriller nature of journalistic reporting on the movement increased, I began to see Reconstructionism as an interesting test case for thinking through the ways in which ostensibly “extremist” positions are constituted through political, theological, legal, and journalistic discourses. Reconstructionism provided the opportunity to reflect on the broader themes of my graduate training by working through the complex relationship between religious institutions, political activism, and the construction of “dangerous,” “marginal,” or “fringe” religious movements.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Christian Reconstruction?
MM: Christian Reconstruction is an intellectual and organizational history of the rise and fall of the Christian Reconstruction movement and its pioneering leader, R. J. Rushdoony. The book argues that Rushdoony’s vision of Christian Reconstruction played a subtle but misunderstood role in three interconnected areas of the American conservative movement: the synthesis of libertarian economic theories and conservative Protestant theology; the development of the legal and theoretical impetus behind the Christian homeschooling movement; and, the politicization of a very specific strain of sectarian Calvinism.
JF: Why do we need to read Christian Reconstruction?
MM: Like a lot of recent work on the development of religious conservatism in the late twentieth century, Christian Reconstruction narrates the development of socially and theologically conservative Protestantism from the onset of the Great Depression to the emergence of the so-called Religious Right in the 1980s. Unlike a lot of the recent scholarship, however, the book uses the ministry of a man largely dismissed as a fringe or marginal figure to explore the organizational and intellectual networks of conservative Protestantism. With this broad point in mind, I’d say there are two contributions that make the book worth reading:
First, few figures are more polarizing than Rushdoony. Over the course of a ministry spanning nearly sixty years, Rushdoony interacted with a range of important religious figures and institutions. During the 1960s, he helped shape—and then destroy—the William Volker Charities Fund, one of the most important libertarian charitable organizations of the twentieth century. He attempted to strong-arm his way into the editorial process at Christianity Today through his connections with powerful oilman J. Howard Pew. By the 1970s, he was a well-known and divisive figure in organizations ranging from the John Birch Society to Westminster Theological Seminary. And, in the 1980s, most major Christian advocacy lawyers knew of Rushdoony as a vicious expert witness who could destroy prosecuting attorneys from the stand. Everyone from Pat Robertson to Francis A. Schaeffer cited his writings, but no one wanted to directly associate with his theological vision. As a result of these complex connections, Christian Reconstruction offers something of an alternative history of the rise of conservative evangelical activism. It focuses on the “extremes” to explore how a movement now widely regarded as marginal and extremist simultaneously shaped and was shaped by its interaction with mainstream elements of the American conservative intellectual movement and traditional strains of evangelical and fundamentalist theology.
Second, my narrative is based on exclusive access to Rushdoony’s private library and archive at the Chalcedon Foundation located in Vallecito, California. Rushdoony’s library is an utterly unique resource that captured correspondence and publications unavailable anywhere else. It is singularly important because it archives material related not only to the history of Reconstructionism, but it also houses more-or-less exclusive resources documenting the emergence of popular conservatism in California from the 1950s through the early 2000s. Likewise, it is an important repository documenting the development of the activist movement that made homeschooling legal in the United States. Christian Reconstruction uses these non-public resources in conjunction with a number of public archives and the publications of Reconstructionists to narrate the history of a movement that has either escaped the attention of scholars or that has been misunderstood because of the lack of publicly available archival materials.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MM: I’m not sure that I ever quite decided to become an American historian. I started this project as a researcher in religious studies with an interest in critical cultural theory. I brought the questions and themes from these fields to twentieth century American religious history. It was only after I began serious archival research and started digging into the historiography of the emergence of the post-World War II American conservative movement and the Religious Right that I began to see the project as a historical narrative with all of the trappings of a conventional biography, clear periodization, and some of the conventions of microhistories. I now teach American religious history at Florida State University, partly as a consequence of this book. So, you might say that the research and the needs of the project pushed me toward American history in ways I couldn’t have anticipated when I started researching Christian Reconstruction.
JF: What is your next project?
MM: My next book-length project will consider the complex interaction between religion, domestic intelligence gathering, and the emergence of political conservatism in twentieth century U.S. culture. The project will specifically focus on the under-explored history of intelligence gathering operations organized by religiously affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the course of the twentieth century. Although I have not fully narrowed the scope of the project, I plan to consider a network of organizations including the American Intelligence Agency, the Anti-Defamation League, the Christian Crusade Against Communism, the Church League of America, Group Research Associates, and the John Birch Society. By concentrating on the development of NGO intelligence gathering specifically motivated by religious convictions (or developed to resist certain religious groups), the project will explore the contested systems of bureaucracy, archiving, and the materiality of memory-making that developed in state, corporate, church, and private organizations during the Cold War. I hope to synthesize recent insights from material history and media history with religious studies to investigate key issues related to race, political ideology, gender, and the contestation of social boundary formation.
JF: Can't wait to see what you come up with! Thanks Michael.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner