Monday, July 25, 2016

The Power and the Glory, Forever

Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction

Christian Reconstruction doesn’t believe the Rapture is nigh. They don’t expect to escape Earth next Thursday; they plan to live among us for generations, centuries, or longer. More important, they have concrete plans to rebuild America’s core values according to Christian Gospel and Levitical law. Even most non-seminarian Christians haven’t heard of them, but their influence touches Christian homeschooling, anti-abortion activism, Quiverfull, conservative politics, and beyond.

In her introduction, Julie Ingersoll, professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, describes her early upbringing in Reconstruction-affiliated conservative Christianity. She describes marrying into one of the movement’s leading families. She once fought for the cause, but eventually grew disgusted when the movement’s inherent violence became inarguable. Now she mixes scholarship, journalism, and history to expose a movement that specifically desires to change how you think.

Ingersoll traces Christian Reconstruction’s roots to RJ Rushdoony, Presbyterian pastor and son of Armenian immigrants. After Rushdoony’s passing in 2001, the leadership mantle passed to his son-in-law, Gary North. Between them, Rushdoony and North have assiduously created a matrix of thought and philosophy literally encompassing every aspect of life. Their thoughts are voluble, their knowledge vast if slanted, and their influence touches many Christians who’d ordinarily find their teachings weird.

Reconstructionist thought is firmly grounded in very old-school Five-Point Calvinism. Don’t worry if terms like “Five-Point Calvinism” sound opaque. Ingersoll writes for generalist audiences, and defines specialist terminology in vernacular English. She also defines very important words like “presuppositionalism” and “theonomy,” words she reuses generously. For our purposes, they mean: all knowledge comes from somewhere, and all authority derives from God. This matters for Reconstructionists’ all-encompassing philosophy.

Julie J. Ingersoll
For starters, Reconstruction’s critics often lambaste them with terms like “theocratic” and “patriarchal.” While critics mean these terms insultingly, according to Ingersoll, Reconstructionists actually embrace these terms. Since they believe all authority derives from God, and expresses itself in family, church, and state, we already have theocracy, they say; secularists just don’t recognize God’s authority. And yes, they’re patriarchal: a stern father drives all Reconstructionist social order.

Importantly, Reconstructionists deny political motivations. But unpacking their supposed apolitical leanings, we realize parties are just talking past one another. Here, as elsewhere, Reconstructionists use the same words outsiders use, but mean something altogether different. Because “politics,” for Reconstructionists, refers exclusively to state authority, which they consider limited, they believe they themselves aren’t political, although their entire philosophical structure is dedicated to the relationship between individuals and power.

When Christian Reconstructionists intend to rebuild American society along Christian lines, they don’t mean what I would. They don’t highlight issues of justice, feeding the hungry, and comforting the afflicted. They want to establish society, meaning specifically America, according to strict Levitical law. Most Christians today feel squeamish about Leviticus, and apply it selectively at best. But Reconstructionists want to apply Leviticus culture-wide, through power structures beginning with household patriarchs.

To accomplish these goals, Reconstructionists have established networks of Christian homeschoolers, political firebrands, and preachers who deliberately court problems with the state. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that every homeschooler, Tea Party sign-waver, and activist preacher is a Christian Reconstructionist. But the Reconstructionists have integrated themselves, often invisibly, into these circles. It’s impossible to pursue these goals without some Reconstructionism rubbing off on you.

Besides just scholastically describing Reconstruction from historical sources, Ingersoll dives into their world. She meets founders of Reconstructionist private schools, attends Reconstructionist conferences and gatherings (many of which tellingly have the word “Vision” in their titles), and dives into their circles. She records their motivations directly from their mouths, expressing how they want the world to perceive them. This sometimes includes telling society one thing, while doing another.

The world Ingersoll ultimately describes herein isn’t only religious, or political, or social. These words don’t convey the sweeping motivations that drive Reconstructionists. They literally believe they’re charged by God, from the Bible itself, to reorganize society according to God’s vision. They insist they’re only following the Bible literally, and everyone else is apostate, a common far-right Christian belief: they insist they’re only following God, everyone else is the problem.

Secular audiences will read this book and feel chilled. They’ll see the pervasive ways a little-known sect has permeated discussions that aren’t specifically religious. They’ll recognize the violence implicit in a Levitical system. But Christian audiences should feel horrified at this book too. Because what Ingersoll describes isn’t limited to fringe elements. This shockingly violent, authoritarian message has permeated mainline Christianity, often unseen. And it’s changed our discourse, possibly forever.

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