Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Theocracy in America?

Untold numbers of books and articles have been written of late concerning the threat to American life by the Religious Right and other purveyor’s of theocracy. We’ve been warned that if these groups have their way, America won’t look much different from Iran or even Saudi Arabia. If they get their way they’ll institute Levitical law, which if you look closely seems to resemble Sharia. That there are advocates of religious extremism is quite evident, but the likelihood of a Christian Fundamentalist takeover of American political life is probably far fetched.


The popular faces of theocratic tendencies have been folk like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and the late Jerry Falwell and the equally dead James D. Kennedy. In their writings and in their pronouncements they have railed against the spread of secularism and have called forth legions of Christians to make their voices and votes felt in transforming America. It’s nothing new, of course, back in the 1970’s there were movements that called for taking America for Jesus, but things seem to have gotten farther along in recent years, at least until recently.


When it comes to theocracy, the aforementioned preachers and psychologist (Dobson is psychologist not preacher) aren’t the intellectual founders of the theocratic voice. The person often pointed to as the foundation stone of the movement is an Armenian Orthodox Presbyterian pastor named Rousas John Rushdoony. Rushdoony has since passed on, but over the years he issued a series of books, pamphlets, articles, speeches, and more that offered a vision of American life that is at points quite scary. The question is: who is he and what is his message? Beyond that, what influence does he have on American religious and political life?


I’m neither expert on Rushdoony or the movements that are linked to him – movements that go by such names as Theonomy (divine law), Christian Reconstructionism, and Dominionism – but a Yale University doctoral candidate named Molly Worthen appears to be. In an article published in the June 2008 issue of Church History entitled: “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism” (pp. 299-437) wrestles with the issue of theocracy and Rushdoony’s influence. She makes clear that most of the interpreters of the movement and of Rushdoony have misunderstood and misinterpreted him. She also points out that folk like Robertson make for strange bed fellows with Rushdoony, who is a rigid Calvinist and post-millennialist. Robertson and ilk tend to be pre-millennialist, believing that Christ will return soon in connection with Armageddon. Rushdoony’s program will take much longer and assumes that the church will take dominion of society in preparation for Christ’s return.


What is important to note from Worthen’s interpretation is Rushdoony’s strong distrust of government. He’s a libertarian and could even be considered tribalistic (my words not hers). He believes that biblical law should be instituted, but likely by communities not by something large like the US government. He’s well educated but has a strong distrust in human reason. All of this stems from his Calvinism and embrace of the doctrine of total depravity. It is also rooted in his interpretation of Chalcedon – whereby he sees in the separation of the 2 natures of Christ a strong distinction between the divine and the human.


Rushdoony’s agenda is radical – but of course he’s no longer alive. He has, according to Worthen influenced numerous movements, but they have made their own adaptations of his views. Worthen has written an excellent examination of Rushdoony, his views, and his legacy. She points out his numerous weaknesses, but tries to set him in context. What she wants us to do is look a bit deeper and see what caused this to occur. She writes:

Believing Christians and secular observers alike have the responsibility to see Christian reconstructionism for what it is: a diagnosis of an acute illness in American religious culture, a strain of virulent intolerance that has been mistaken for intellectual consistency. But we can reject Rushdoony’s proposed solution while still granting that the crisis was real. (p. 436)

She also suggests that we consider his basic premise:

“(T)hat we moderns are guilty of the heresies condemned in the fifth century at Chalcedon: we blur human and divine and worship man and his creations. This argument, too often lost in the shadows of his provocative proposals for social change, is the crux of his value for today’s readers. (p. 437)

I found Worthen’s article provocative and thoughtful. I’m not convinced that Rushdoony or his acolytes have the right prescription for American life, but we are best served when understand where a movement is coming from.

I welcome the thoughts of others as to the essay and the movement. Do I find him problematic? Yes. Are we in danger of theocracy? Probably not.

4 comments:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

(From TheAmericanView.com Web site)

The Meaning of Theocracy

By Dr. R.J. Rushdoony

Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.

In Biblical law, the only civil tax was the head or poll tax, the same for all males twenty years of age and older (Ex. 30:11-16). This tax provided an atonement or covering for people, i.e. the covering of civil protection by the State as a ministry of justice (Rom. 13:1-4). This very limited tax was continued by the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem, and from 768-900 AD helped make the Jewish princedom of Narbonne (in France) and other areas a very important and powerful realm (see Arthur J. Zuckerman: ” A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France 768-900” (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1965, 1972). This tax was limited to half a sheckel of silver per man.

All other functions of government were financed by the tithe. Health, education, welfare, worship, etc., were all provided for by tithes and offerings. Of this tithe, one tenth (i.e. one percent of one’s income) went to the priests for worship. Perhaps an equal amount went for music, and for the care of the sanctuary. The tithe was God’s tax, to provide for basic government in God’s way. The second and the third tithes provided for welfare, and for the family’s rest and rejoicing before the Lord (see E.A. Powell and R.J. Rushdoony: “Tithing and Dominion” (Ross House Books, P.O. Box 67 Vallecito, CA 95251).

What we today fail to see, and must recapture, is the fact that the basic governmentis the self-governing of covenant man; then the family is the central governing institutionof Scripture. The school is a governmental agency, and so too is the church. Our vocation also governs us, and our society. Civil government must be one form of government among many, and a minor one. Paganism (and Baal worship in all its forms) made the State and its rulers into a god or gods walking on earth, and gave them total over-rule in all spheres. The prophets denounced all such idolatry, and the apostles held, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

From the days of the Caesars to the heads of the democratic states and Marxist empires, the ungodly have seen what Christians too often fail to see, namely, that Biblical faith requires and creates a rival government to the humanistic State. Defective faith seeks to reduce Biblical faith to a man-centered minimum, salvation. Now salvation, our re-generation, is the absolutely essential starting point of the Christian life, but, if it is made the sum total thereof, it is in effect denied. Salvation is then made into a man-centered and egotistical thing, when it is in fact God-centered and requires the death, not the enthronement, of our sinful and self-centered ego. We are saved for God’s purposes, saved to serve, not in time only, but eternally (Rev. 22:3). To be saved is to be working members of that realm.

In a theocracy, therefore, God and His law rule. The State ceases to be the over-lord and ruler of man. God’s tax, the tithe, is used by Godly men to create schools, hospitals, welfare agencies, counselors and more. It provides, as it did in Scripture, for music and more. All the basic social financing, other than the head tax of Ex. 30:11-16 was provided for by tithes and offerings or gifts. An offering or gift was that which was given above and over a tithe.

Since none of the tithe agencies have any coercive power to collect funds, none can exist beyond their useful service to God and man. For the modern State, uselessness and corruption are no problem; they do not limit its power to collect more taxes. Indeed, the State increases its taxing power because it is more corrupt and more useless, because its growing bureaucracy demands it.

California State Senator H.L. “Bill” Richardson has repeatedly called attention to the fact that, once elected, public officials respond only under pressure to their voters but more to their peer group and their superiors. Lacking faith, they are governed by power.

People may complain about the unresponsiveness of their elected officials, and their subservience to their peers and superiors, but nothing will alter this fact other than a change in the faith of the electorate and the elected. Men will respond to and obey the dominant power in their lives, faith, and perspective. If that dominant power or god in their lives is the State, they will react to it. If, however, it is the triune God of Scripture who rules them, then men will respond to and obey His law-word. Men will obey their gods.

One of the more important books of this country was Albert Jay Nock’s “Our Enemy, The State”(Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1935). Without agreeing with Nock in all things, it is necessary to agree with him that the modern State is man’s new church and saving institution. The state, however, is an antisocial institution, determined to suppress and destroy all the historic and religiously grounded powers of society. With F.D. Roosevelt and “The New Deal,” the goal of the Statists became openly “the complete extinction of social power through absorption by the State” (p.21). This will continue in its suicidal course, until there is not enough social power left to finance the State’s plans (as became the case in Rome). The State’s intervention into every realm is financed by the productivity of the non-Statist and economic sector: “Intervention retards production; then the resulting stringency and inconvenience enable further intervention, which in turn still further retards production; and this process goes on until, as in Rome, in the third century, production ceases entirely, and the source of payment dries up” (p.151f). It is true that crime needs suppression, but, instead of suppressing crime, the State safeguards its own monopoly of crime.”

We can add that the solution to crime and injustice is not more power to the state, but God’s law and a regenerate man. The best safeguard against crime is godly men and a godly society. Furthermore, God’s law, in dealing with crime, requires restitution and with habitual criminals, the death penalty. (See R.J. Rushdoony: “Institutes of Biblical Law”).

One more important point from Nock: he called attention to the fact that “social power” once took care of all emergencies, relieves, and disasters. When the Johnstown flood occurred all relief and aid was the result of a great outpouring of “private” giving. “Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained. (p.6)

This was once the only way such crises were met. Can it happen again? The fact is that it is happening again. Today, between 20-30% of all school children K-12 are in non-state-ist schools, and the percentage is likely to pass 50% by 1990 if Christians defend their schools from state-ist interventionism. More and more Christians are recognizing their duties for the care of their parents; churches are again assuming, in many cases, the care of elderly members. Homes for the elderly people, and also for delinquent children are being established. (One of the more famous of these, under the leadership of Lester Roloff, was under attack by the State, which refused to recognize sin as the basic problem with delinquents, and regeneration and sanctification as the answer.) Christians are moving into the areas of radio and television, not only to preach salvation but to apply Scripture to political, economic and other issues.

Moreover, everywhere Christians are asking themselves the question, “What must I do, now that I am saved?” Answers take a variety of forms: textbook publishing for Christian Schools; periodicals and more. The need to revive and extend Christian hospitals is being recognized and much, much more.

Isaiah 9:6-7 tells us that when Christ was born, the government was to be on His shoulders, and that “Of the increase of His government and peace, there shall be no end.” By means of their tithing and actions, believers are in increasing numbers submitting to Christ’s government and re-ordering life and society in terms of it.

The essence of humanism, from Francis stateto the present, has been this creed: to be human, man must be in control (Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard: “The Emerging Order”, p. 27.). This is an indirect way of saying that man is not man unless the government of all things is upon his shoulders, unless he is himself God. It is the expression of the tempter’s program of revolt against God (Gen. 3:5). John Locke developed this faith by insisting that Christianity thus could not be the basis of public activity, but only a private faith. The foundation of the State and of public life was for Locke, in reason.

But, reason, separated from Christian faith and presupposition, became man’s will, or better, man’s will in radical independence from God. The State then began to claim one area of life after another as public domain and hence under the State as reason incarnate. One of the first things claimed by Locke’s philosophy and “reason” was man himself! Man, instead of being a sinner, was, at least in the human and public realm, morally neutral; he was a blank piece of paper, and what he became was a product of education and experience. It thus was held necessary for the state, the incarnate voice of “reason,” to control education in order to product the desired kind of man.

The State claimed the public realm. The public realm had belonged, in terms of Christian faith, to God, like all things else, and to a free society under God. The church was scarcely dislodged from its claims over the public realm when the state came in to claim it with even more total powers.

But this was not all. The state enlarged the public realm by new definitions, so that steadily, one sphere after another fell into the hands of the state. Education was claimed, and control over economics, a control which is now destroying money and decreasing social and economic productivity. The arts and sciences are subsidized and controlled, and are begging for more. Marriage and the family are controlled; a White House Conference on the Family viewed the family as a public and hence, Statist realm, one the state must invade and control.

Ancient Rome regarded religion itself as a public domain and hence licensed and controlled it. (The very word “liturgy,” Greek in origin, means public service. Religion is indeed a public concern, more so than the state, but not thereby a matter for state-ist control.) Rome, like all ancient pagan states, equated the public domain with the state’s domain, and it saw all things as aspects of the state’s domain.

For any one institution to see itself as the public domain is totalitarianism. All things public and private are in the religious domain and under God. No institution, neither church nor state, can equate itself with God, and claim control of the public (or private) domain. Every sphere of life is interdependent with other spheres and alike under God. No more than mathematics has the “right” to control biology do church or state have the “right” to control one another, or anything beyond their severely limited sphere of government.

There are thus a variety of spheres of government under God. There spheres are limited, interdependent and under God’s sovereign government and law-word. They cannot legitimately exceed their sphere. The legitimate financial powers of all are limited. The state has a small head tax. The tithe finances all other spheres.

The tithe, it must be emphasized, is to the Lord, not to the church, a difference some churchmen choose to miss or overlook. This robs the individual believer of all right to complain about things; by the godly use of his tithe, he can create new agencies, churches, schools, and institutions to further God’s Kingdom in every area of life and thought. Holiness comes not by our abilities to whine and bewail the things that are, but by our faithful use of the tithe and the power God gives us to remake all things according to His Word.

Tithing and godly action, these are the keys to dominion. We are called to dominion (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:1-17; Joshua 1:1-9; Matt. 28:18020; etc.). The creation mandate is our covenant mandate; restoration into the covenant through Christ’s atonement restores us into the mandate to exercise dominion and gives us the power to effect it.

Aspects of that mandate can be exercised through institutions, and sometimes must be, but the mandate can never be surrendered to them. The mandate precedes all instructions, and it is to man personally as man (Gen. 1:28). This is the heart of theocracy as the Bible sets it forth. Dictionaries to the contrary, theocracy is not a government by the state, but a government over every institution by God and His Law, and through the activities of the free man in Christ to bring ever area of life and thought under Christ’s Kingship.

(PS -- If you have a copy of the Worthen/Rushdoony article, might you, please, send me a copy? Thx. John Lofton, JLof@aol.com)

Anonymous said...

Secular law forbids us from probiting the free exercise of Religion. Religious law forbids us from recognizing any religion but it's own. Which is better? I guess it depends on which religion you serve.

I fear religious persecution more than I fear God's wrath because it's the basest component of religious power. As for whether we're headed toward a theocracy in this country, I'd just point to the last 7 years of the Bush Administration. It's pretty obvious what having an openly partisan proponent of Christianity has done to our credibility in the world. Making decisions based on his faith has created problems that we'll be dealing with for decades.

It makes as much sense to base decisions on the Bible alone as it does to base them on a "Strict Constructionist" view of the Constitution. That is, none at all. In either case you're letting people that lived a long time ago make all your decisions for you. It's insane, really, just insane.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

For copies of the Worthen article, you can check directly with the journal itself or check a university or seminary library. Church History may be present there.

That Baptist Ain't Right said...

Are we headed for theocracy? I'd say we're certainly pointing the car in that direction. Slowly, steadily, & without realization, we are recreating the de facto Most Favored Faith of Colonial America.

"When fascism comes to America, it will be draped in the flag and carrying a bible."
--- Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935.