The following is Part 4 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
Dear Colonel Doner,
At this point in reading the autobiographical section of your book, I was reminded that my life is a mirror image of yours. You say you were raised in a “fundamentalist” Christian home and have now found faith as a “postmodern Christian” (which I consider to be an oxymoron).
On the flip side, I was raised in a nominally Christian home, Roman Catholic to be specific. For some reason, I always had a curiosity and affinity for the Bible and read the Gospels and later the entire New Testament through as a teenager. I also took a Bible as Literature class in my high school and was familiar with much of the Old Testament – at least in outline form. As a child, I was shocked to find out that my parents and even some of my teachers in Catholic CCD classes did not interpret the story of Adam and Eve as a historical reality, but as symbolic of a group of “cave men” that became aware of sin.
When I perused the New Testament genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it seemed to me as if these people were to be taken as historical flesh and blood characters. If Jesus was a real person, then so were David, Abraham, Noah and Adam. If history blended at some point into a legendary or mythical account, then one has to inquire as to where to draw the line. At what point does the genealogy of Jesus become fictitious? And more perplexingly, I wondered how and why such a genealogy would have come into being in the first place.
Further, if the story of Adam’s fall into sin was a myth, then the Gospel of salvation did not hold water. Certainly, it would still work as a fable or a moral lesson. But this business about a real Jesus dying on the cross in order to atone for sin, resulting in a real bodily resurrection and ascension would make no sense without a real Adam who brought original sin into the world as the father of the fallen human race.
Somewhere in my late teenage years, I became a postmodernist – or more accurately, a universalist or monist, believing that God is in everyone and in every religion. If Dostoyevsky’s maxim is true, “Without God everything is permissible,” then it is equally true that if everything is God, anything is permissible. To be epistemologically consistent with that worldview, I went to hear the Dali Lama speak on world peace at my college and was so bored I fell asleep. I also went to a meeting with Rolling Thunder, an American Indian mystic, looking for some type of spiritual guidance. I read many books on postmodern philosophy and alternative reality by Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Joseph Campbell. All were interesting and mind expanding. But none had the Truth.
I became a born-again believer at age 23 after having imbibed the idea that “spiritual truth is whatever is true for you” all throughout my college years. What I found most interesting about your book is that during the time when I began to repent – reforming a mind that was conformed to the pattern of this age – you were a 37-year-old king maker in Washington D.C. manipulating the Christian right voting bloc.
Zapping embryos and other wedge issues
In describing your younger years as an activist in Washington, I was surprised to see that you literally say that you learned to manipulate the Christian right using political wedge issues such as school prayer, gay rights and abortion, when those were not really “your issues.”
It didn’t take me too long to become a hardened political pro, willing to exploit issues that I was personally ambivalent about (like gay rights and abortion) to win elections. As I explained to one of Reagan’s top confidantes … we would never be able to motivate Evangelicals to the polls based on the issues that he and I were most concerned about – economics, national defense and foreign policy. … Personally I had nothing against homosexuals. Several of my young Republican friends were gay. And I was mostly ambivalent about abortion, although it seemed to me that cutting up a baby that already developed fingers and toes was a long stretch from zapping a formless embryo. Nevertheless, as a political strategist, these were efficacious wedge issues that I could not afford to ignore.
While you were raising millions from Christians using these hot-button issues, I was offering my body as fodder for the Operation Rescue movement, spending several weekends in jail after sit-ins in front of abortion clinics. When you finally left Washington in more or less of a jaded state, I was still a brand new Christian cutting my teeth on the revival sermons of the Great Awakenings and beginning to digest Reconstructionist works by R.J. Rushdoony and David Chilton.
Our paths crossed, of course, when you were “writing Reconstructionist books” (most of which I assume were never published) and “keynoting their conferences.” Interestingly, there is a Festschrift written about you by several members of the Reconstructionist movement after the end of this period when you had reached the ripe old age of 54. The book is entitled, A Life of Transformation From Politician to Good Samaritan.
(Festschrift is a German word that is loosely translated as a “celebration in writing.” It is a usually a collection of short writings honoring a respected person and presented during his lifetime.)
During most this period, I did not think of myself as a Calvinist even though I had a lot of respect for the Puritans and the Reformed sages who had led the Great Awakenings. Eventually, I did accept that label, but by that time you were in the process of yet another paradigm shift in which you rejected Christian Reconstruction and “fundamentalist” Christianity altogether.
Definitions: Theocracy vs. Theonomy
Reading the end of part one of your book, you make it sound as though Christian Reconstructionists are those who are preparing for a militant takeover of the government in order to deal with God’s enemies by enforcing biblical law from the top down. Your description of Christian Reconstruction is similar to that offered by Dartmouth College professor and author Jeff Sharlet and others on the left wing.
Confusion abounds whenever critics assail those whom they call “right-wing theocrats.” In reality, every nation in the world is a theocracy because, whether or not they recognize it, Jesus is the sovereign king over the nations (Revelation 1:5). The leftist’s fear is not of those who would pledge that we are “one nation under God” – a theocracy – which means literally “God’s government.” They fear rather that American civil government might come under the rule of an ecclesiocracy – a government run by a church.
Christian Reconstructionists advocate neither a theocracy (we already are one) nor an ecclesiocracy, but rather a civil state under the rule of God’s Law. We use the term theonomy to describe those laws, which align with the Law of God found in both the Old and New Testaments. Theonomists do not want to enforce the Law of Moses as our detractors like to claim. On the contrary, the Law of God is found in the whole Bible and includes the New Covenant of grace. The error made by many critics of theonomy is they assume that since the modern liberal state is authoritarian on almost every matter, leading to totalitarianism when left unchecked, then a “theocratic” state would be totalitarian as well and would lead to mass executions of innocent people.
What we are speaking of is not a civil nation run by a church, but all government – civil, ecclesiastical, familial and individual – reformed on the basis of God’s Law. Most of God’s Law ought to be enforced by the family, the church and the local community, not by civil magistrates. Only a small minority of biblical laws carry civil penalties. All biblical crimes are sins, but very few sins are crimes. God’s people are expected to love the Law and be self-governing in striving to obey all of God’s commandments. When we look at the Ten Commandments, we see that the violation of each of the commandments could be punishable by death until we come to “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness” and “You shall not covet.”
We also see in the case laws that the punishments for violations of the Ten Commandments have exceptions depending on the severity and the circumstances of the crime. So a civil magistrate in a biblically ordered society has some leeway in how he will enforce the law in these capital cases.
The irony in debates over theonomy is that most of our current civil code is directly influenced by the Bible. All states have laws against murder, theft, perjury, rape and so on. Many states even have laws on the books against adultery and sodomy, although these are never enforced. Wherever God’s Law is followed, it creates public peace. Wherever biblical law is not followed, it always creates crisis. Whenever man’s law and God’s Law are in conflict, we ought to side with God’s Law. As you rightly point out, difficulties in interpretation are due to difficulties with the interpreter, not with God’s Word itself. The ultimate issue is whether we as a society will stand for God’s Law or man’s arbitrary rule in determining our civil and criminal code.
My Personal Encounter with Rushdoony
One of the things I learned on the day when I met both you and R.J. Rushdoony for the first time is that Christian Reconstruction does not seek a top-down government, but rather a bottom-up transformation of society. This takes place as individuals are spiritually regenerated and learn to voluntarily apply God’s Law to reform their own lives.
At the 1995 conference, a friend of mine, Eric Holmberg, had come to interview several of the speakers for a video concept called, Why Do the Nations Rage? This video never was produced, but the interviews later were used in another project, God’s Law and Society. Eric brought a written treatment of the video, which included many questions. Some of these involved the capital punishment sanctions described in both the Old and New Testament.
After one of the sessions, Rushdoony, who was a short Armenian man, curtly confronted Eric, who is a tall and lanky Scandinavian, and said something to the effect of the following. “Eric, these questions are stupid! I am not answering any of these questions. You obviously have read none of my work. I have never taught that Reconstruction can come about by killing people. I have always taught that reformation comes from the bottom-up – by regeneration.”
Rushdoony did eventually consent to do the interview, but asked to just be able to present the case for Christian Reconstruction without a script in front of him. He did marvelously well and his interviews make up about half-an-hour of the four-hour video, God’s Law and Society. Today, it is one of the few available video interviews with Rushdoony.
Throughout his lifetime, Rushdoony had to deal with those who would caricaturize his view as an attempt to enforce biblical law from the top-down. On the contrary, he understood that we can legislate morality, but we can never legislate righteousness, which is a gift from God that must be imputed to individuals by faith. Therefore, the role of the Christian in politics is not to be a king maker, but a standard bearer. The pathway to reform our culture is not the next election cycle. This must be done instead over a generation or more through child rearing by Godly parents. That is the functional principle of Christian Reconstruction.
With the exception of child rearing, it is not the job of individual Christians to punish sin. We can reprove sin and teach the Law as a standard of righteousness, but beside the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, we cannot do anything forcefully to stop immorality. The civil magistrate may punish specific crimes, but most sins are not crimes. God works through His eternal covenant to punish and reward His own people when we either ignore or obey His Law. Despite our disobedience, God still loves us and will work to woo us, chastising us as His children if necessary. He will get us to heaven by His grace, but we will do better in this life if we are consistent covenant keepers.
The ultimate purpose of God’s covenant is to bless the people of God and elevate them to the place where we can teach the nations to obey God’s commandments. Likewise, nations that follow God’s Law will prosper and multiply. Those nations who disobey God’s commandments will end up – to use a Trotskian phrase – on the ash-heap of history. Ungodly societies will be eventually replaced with Godly societies. But this is not done by the might of the physical sword, but by the power of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word of God.
An Eschatology of Victory
A big key in understanding Christian Reconstruction is postmillennialism or a long term view of victory for the Gospel in history. Our job as Christians is not to win the whole world quickly in order to usher in the kingdom of God and the return of Jesus to the earth as the premillennial triumphalists teach. Rather the kingdom of God is already here. Our job in history is to possess the whole earth with a long-term generational view – “little by little” (Deuteronomy 7:22) – until the whole earth is full of the glory of God. Discipling the nations does not entail immediately punishing the wicked. Without a Godly culture to fill the void, we could end up with something far worse than what we began with. This is why dominion means raising Godly children and being industrious with a strong work ethic in the vocations that God has called each of us to.
In this way, Christian Reconstruction is similar to Marxism. The Marxist was called to sacrifice all to work for the Communist Party. The Christian is called to work for the kingdom of God. Marxism was successful for a brief time in some nations because it imitated the work ethic of Christianity. Unfortunately, all Marxist and socialist societies deny property rights and individual initiative in violation of God’s Law. The seeds of destruction are sown into the foundation of all socialist and communist societies.
A good snapshot of God’s covenantal sanctions is seen in the fall of the Soviet Union. My first article for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Report was entitled, The Puritan Hope in a Post Cold War Era. I asked the question of whether Christians in the West had the vision to replace the fallen structures of Soviet society with the Puritan vision of “a city set upon a hill” as described in John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. For decades, Russian Christian dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been begging us to do just that. Could we give them a blueprint for rebuilding a fallen society and go the extra mile beyond just “a smile and Jesus loves you”?
What has worked in the past can work again. Christian Reconstruction can work by the same model by which Christians took hold of the corrupt and falling pagan Roman Empire – by providing honest commerce, honest courts and respecting human life – values that were absent in Roman culture and are beginning to disappear in or own. Beginning with the Apostle Paul who preached to Nero’s household, members of the Roman aristocracy, including many wives and family members of senators were converted to Jesus Christ. When their children came of age in the society, Christians began to take control of the government and eventually the Emperor was converted. Rushdoony explained how simple New Testament principles overtook the world order.
Consider what Paul was doing: offerings to alleviate the poverty of the saints during the famine in Palestine; counseling that the needy be cared for, but “He who will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). We do know that anyone who became unemployed was given three days income. After that they found work for him. Another Christian would hire him, but at lower than his normal pay so there would be no incentive to stay under that diaconal care.
We know from 1 Corinthians 6 that Paul said [in paraphrase]: “Don’t go to the civil courts. They’re ungodly. Create your own courts.” And they did. They were so efficient that after a while pagans were coming to the church courts and saying: “Adjudicate our problems for us. It takes years to get a case heard in the civil courts and it bankrupts us and then we don’t get justice. Would you do it for us?” When Constantine became Emperor, he called in the bishops and he said, “The courts of the Empire are failing. We have cases that have been in the courts forty years with no justice. I want you men when you go out in the streets to wear the garb of a Roman magistrate by my orders so that the people of Rome and of the Empire will know that they can come to you for justice.” Well, that’s where the bishop’s garb comes from. Unless a bishop has heard me lecture on the subject, he doesn’t know where his own bishop’s robe originates.
Then the deacons took care of the sick, the poor, the orphans and the widows, of needy people in general, of captives, because as the Roman Empire began to breakdown, pirates and lawless bands would take men for ransom, hold men captive. One bishop in the early church ransomed 15,000 captives. When Rome fell, for six centuries, the only courts of Europe were the church courts for arbitration. When Rome was gone, the government, the state was gone, but Europe had justice because the church provided it. This was the pattern through much of the Middle Ages. It was the pattern of the Reformation. I have written of Calvin and Geneva and of the work of the diaconate. There were two offerings taken every Sunday: one for the work of the deacons so that all of the needy were cared for so that apart from crime, the church through these diaconal courts and through various independent Christian agencies provided for the basic government of the community.
This is how we take dominion – by home-schooling our children, founding Christian schools, church courts, hospitals, hunger relief organizations and eventually reforming the fallen educational system that has been ruined by socialism. I recently heard a college professor remark that the reason why China’s educational system works better than ours is simply because they run it by capitalist principles. So even though China has a command economy, they will far outpace us when their children – especially the now growing population of Christian intellectuals – move into spheres of influence in the society.
The point is that it happens “little by little.” We have to take into account that God is sovereign. We do not take dominion by seizing control and punishing all disobedience. That will happen in time, but the vast majority of the discipline is by a sovereign God who disciplines according to the course of history.
Although we might not see much happening in our own lifetimes our faithfulness, our obedience and prayers are recognized by God. As far as I am concerned, I am just happy to be along for the ride. I hope to be a witness to the defeat of abortion in my lifetime. However, it is God who is in the business of removing covenant breakers from the land. He cannot do it too fast though otherwise there would not be anything left.
The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you (Deuteronomy 7:22).
One of the problems now is that even if all the “ungodly” were removed from the society, there are not enough covenant keeping Christians in the society to fill the vacuum. That is why Christian Reconstruction is needed, to teach Christians the laws and principles of Christ’s victorious kingdom.