Reconstructionism

I have already, in an earlier post, mentioned the preference of the Christian Right in America for Old Testament law rather than the mercy-laden commands of Jesus. Much of the current rhetoric aimed at homosexuals, is indebted to passages from the Book of Leviticus. Previous hate-targets of decades gone by include those involved in abortion, feminism and secular humanism and all these ‘evils’are attacked with similar quotes from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The question might arise as to why there is this obsessional attachment to books of Jewish law, while apparently ignoring the commands of Jesus to love enemies, serve others and practice mercy and forgiveness. The reason for this Old Testament approach to society and its ordering can, to a degree, be laid at the door of one R.J. Rushdoony, an American of Armenian extraction. He wrote a huge three volume work in 1960s, known as the Institutes of Biblical Law. This was modelled on Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. In this work, Rushdoony proposed that Old Testament law should be applied to modern society. We have met the word ‘theocratic’ to describe the thinking of the Witnesses. The word to describe Rushdoony’s thinking was a similar one ‘theonomy’, which means the application of the law of God. He argued for a Christian theonomy to be applied to society. Thus, in accordance with Mosaic law, the death sentence would be administered for homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about one’s virginity, bestiality, witchcraft, idolatry or apostasy, public blasphemy, false prophesying, kidnapping, rape and bearing false witness in a capital case. I cheerfully copied this list from a web-site, wondering if Rushdoony had left anything off. Apparently there is one death deserving crime omitted and that is drunkardness. Also, Sabbath breaking is also quietly left off the list, even though the Old Testament thought it worthy of the death sentence.

Behind this nutty version of Biblical interpretation is a visceral hatred of democracy. ‘Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies’, Rushdoony is reported to have said. ‘Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic; it is committed to spiritual aristocracy.’ Such sentiments of course fit neatly into a right-wing paternalistic version of politics, and it is not surprising that his ideas have been embraced by another version of politics known as Dominionism. This is a right wing political vision that embraces the death penalty for all the categories mentioned above and proposes a Christian dominated system for American government. This combines a laissez-faire attitude towards economics and the violent oppression of all thinking and actions that are not approved of.

It was probably obvious to Rushdoony and his followers that his political vision was intemperate and totally impracticable. But the very existence of his massive tome and its apparent closeness to Calvin provided it with great influence both on Calvinist Christianity as well as other right wing forces at work in America. The idea that society can be run according to the Laws of the Old Testament sounds very grand until you start to think it through in practice. Quite apart from whether we wish to stone a public blasphemer or a Sabbath breaker, there is the unpalatable picture of group of unelected men gathering together to administer God’s law in his name. When they are no checks and balances in a system, the consequences for any society are potentially catastrophic. There is nothing to stop such a system becoming similar to that which prevailed in Nazi Germany during the 30s and 40s. The one who takes the power is the one with the guns and the largest ego. Even if such a scenario is hard to imagine even in the States, where guns and survivalist ideas are widespread, such ideas can still become influential in the thinking of mainstream parties. That is where Rushdoony and his ideas have become important as well as dangerous. They are not an actual political blueprint but they act as a kind of evil political virus, working on the imaginations and thinking of those who think they want to bring ‘Christian’ ideas into society.

Why do I bring up the rantings of Rushdoony on this blog? The reason for this is that much of the right-wing rhetoric that spills out against the rights of women and gays has already been rehearsed in the pages of Rushdoony and his followers for decades. Ranting against ‘public blasphemers and false prophesying’ may have been quietly suppressed but pressure can still be placed on the wicked, in the form of those who practice gay sex. Today in the Anglican Church, we who suffer from the poison of Christian homophobic vitriol, do so partly because of the dangerous rabid ideas of a fundamentalist preacher of 60 years ago. I need to repeat, once more, the simple observation that Jesus did not come to reinstate the harsh tenets of Old Testament law. He came to fulfil them, which in practice meant that he came to neutralise the poison, the bile and the hatred that flows through some of these texts. We cannot allow our thinking, political or religious, in any way to be influenced by an atrocious piece of writing which owes more to the murky depths of Fascist rhetoric of the 1930s than to anything emerging out of modern political or religious thought. Even when the origins of these primitive and bestial ideas have been long forgotten, we still need to be reminded how easily Christian thinkers have been prepared to drink at the cess-pit of extremist thought. We must not be among them!

3 comments

  1. Chris Pitts

    I have been at the receiving end of those who quote Old Testament scripture at you and ignore the mercy of Christ in the New Testament.

    However, Jesus did say some things that are hard! Luke: 16, 22 -28.
    The thing that confuses me is the vast difference between God of the Old Testament and the incarnation of Christ.
    Without the Old Testament the whole idea of original sin is lost in vagaries. Can the Christian faith survive when personal interpretation has the centre stage?

    I been in this thing since 1969 and every day I get more confused!

    • David Pennant

      Chris,
      this is an important issue, and when I get some time, I want to address it carefully. However, the recession seems to be properly over now, judging by the small flood of extra piano pupils that have come this term. I am full up again. Exhausting! I will look for a window to write something.

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