As presidential candidate Michele Bachmann chews up scenery in the GOP primaries, the mainstream media is finally digging into her extremist beliefs in a serious way. In a profile published earlier this week, the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza talked about Bachmann's radical right-wing influences, which include the most extremist figures in the history of the religious right movement.
One of these was my evangelical leader father, Francis Schaeffer. Bachmann says in the New Yorker article that she got into politics because she watched a film series I directed called “How Should We Then Live,” written by and featuring my dad.
What the New Yorker article doesn’t do is explain why people like Bachmann, Sarah Palin, et al. turned to the hard reactionary anti-government right. I explain this in my book Sex, Mom and God. I think it’s important to understand this. So let me add what the New Yorker left out.
The Back Story
In 1983 I was the leader of a group of protesters who screamed abuse at Justice Harry Blackmun and made him beat a hasty retreat back into a college building at the University of Nebraska after he’d just been awarded an honorary degree. In the early 1980s my daughter Jessica and I—she was 12—drove into Boston several times to picket abortion clinics, including one where a few years later (in 1994) two people were shot dead and five were seriously wounded by “pro-life” activist John Salvi.
Dad agreed to lead several antiabortion demonstrations, too. He said, “We’re telling everyone else to get out there and picket, and some of our people are getting arrested, so we can’t say no to doing what we’re telling others to do.”
That was then. Today I’m on the “other side.”
America has a problem: It’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously. America has a blessing: It’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously. How does this blessing coexist with the curse derived from the same source: the Bible? The answer is that the Bible is a curse or a blessing depending on who is doing the interpreting. Sometimes belief in the Bible leads to building a hospital. Sometimes it leads to justifying perpetual war and empire building. Same book—different interpretation.
If the history of Christianity proves one thing, it’s that you can make the Bible “say” anything. When you hear words like “We want to take back America for God!” the 21st-century expression of such theocratic ideas can be traced back to some of my old friends: the Reconstructionists.
Most Americans have never heard of the Reconstructionists. But they have felt their impact through the Reconstructionists’ profound (if indirect) influence over the wider (and vast) evangelical community.
Take Michele Bachmann. She is a Reconstructionist schooled – literally – by some of that obscure movement’s leading thinkers, including my father.
The evangelicals have shaped the politics of a secular culture that barely understood the religious right, let alone the forces within that movement that gave it its edge. The Americans inhabiting the wider (and more secular) culture just saw the results of Reconstructionism without understanding where those results had come from—for instance, how the hell George W. Bush got elected and then reelected or why Michele Bachmann was into home schooling long before she was into trying to become president in order to turn America into a homophobic theocracy.
If you feel victimized by modernity, then the Reconstructionists have the answer in their version of biblical interpretation. Reconstructionists want to replace the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the Bible.
The Reconstructionist worldview is ultra-Calvinist but, like all Calvinism has its origins in ancient Israel/Palestine, when vengeful and ignorant tribal lore was written down by frightened men (the nastier authors of the Bible) trying to defend their prerogatives to bully women, murder rival tribes, and steal land. (These justifications may have reflected later thinking: origin myths used as propaganda to justify political and military actions after the fact, such as the brutality the Hebrews said God made them inflict on others and/or their position as the Chosen People.)
In its modern American incarnation, which hardened into a 20th-century movement in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s, Reconstructionism was propagated by people like my father and others I knew and worked with closely when I, too, was both a Jesus Victim and a Jesus Predator claiming God’s special favor.
The leaders of the Reconstructionist movement included the late Rousas Rushdoony (Calvinist theologian, father of modern-era Christian Reconstructionism, patron saint to gold-hoarding haters of the Federal Reserve, haters of the US Government and creator of the modern evangelical home school movement), his son-in-law Gary North (an economist and publisher), and David Chilton (Calvinist pastor and author).
No, the Reconstructionists are not about to take over America, the world, or even most American evangelical institutions. Bachmann – for instance – will likely never be president. But their influence has not abated, however a la Tea Party.
The Reconstructionists have been like a drop of radicalizing flavoring added to a bottle of water: They’ve subtly changed the water’s flavor. And even though most evangelicals, let alone the general public, don’t know the names of the leading Reconstructionist thinkers, the world we live in—where a radicalized, angry government-hating religious right has changed the face of American politics and spun off into movements such as the Tea Party—is a direct result of that “flavoring.”
Anyone who wants to understand American politics, not to mention North American religion, had better get acquainted with the Reconstructionists. For instance these folks just held America hostage in the debt crisis, an attempt to – literally – destroy the government’s ability to function at all a manufactured “crisis” in which Bachmann was a leading proponent of scorched-earth, destroy the system “politics.”
Reconstructionism, also called Theonomism, seeks to reconstruct “our fallen society.” Its worldview is best represented by the publications of the Chalcedon Foundation (which has been classified as an antigay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center).
Kill the Gays
According to the Chalcedon Foundation Web site, the mission of the movement is to apply “the whole Word of God” to all aspects of human life: “It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion. We must live by His Word, not our own.”
Until Rushdoony, founder and late president of the Chalcedon Foundation, began writing in the 1960s, most American fundamentalists (including my parents) didn’t try to apply biblical laws about capital punishment for homosexuality to the United States. Even the most conservative evangelicals said they were “New Testament Christians.” In other words, they believed that after the coming of Jesus, the harsher bits of the Bible had been (at least to some extent) transformed by the “New Covenant” of Jesus’ “Law of Love.”
By contrast, the leaders of Reconstructionism believed that Old Testament teachings—on everything from capital punishment for gays to the virtues of child-beating—were still valid because they were the inerrant Word and Will of God and therefore should be enforced. Not only that, they said that biblical law should be imposed even on nonbelievers. This theology was the American version of the attempt in some Muslim countries to impose Shariah (Islamic law) on all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It was my old friend, the short, stocky, bearded Armenian American Rousas Rushdoony who in 1973 most thoroughly laid out the far right/religious right agenda in his book The Institutes of Biblical Law. Rushdoony changed the definition of salvation from the accepted evangelical idea that it applies to individuals to the claim that salvation is really about politics. With this redefinition, Rushdoony contradicted the usual reading of Jesus’ words by most Christians to mean that Jesus had not come to this earth to be a political leader: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
According to Rushdoony, all nations on earth should be obedient to the ancient Jewish/Christian version of “God’s Law,” so that the world will experience “God’s blessings.” Biblical salvation will then turn back the consequences of the Fall, and we’ll be on our way to the New Eden. To achieve this “turning back,” coercion must be used by the faithful to stop evildoers, who are, by definition, anyone not obeying all of God’s Laws as defined by the Calvinist and Reconstructionist interpretation of the Bible.
Once Christians are in charge, according to Gary North, rather than turning the other cheek to our enemy, we “should either bust him in the chops or haul him before the magistrate, and possibly both.” North adds, “It is only in a period of civil impotence that Christians are under the rule to ‘resist not evil.’”
How far would the Reconstructionists go? North, writes, “The question eventually must be raised: Is it a criminal offence to take the name of the Lord in vain? When people curse their parents, it unquestionably is a capital crime (Exodus. 21:17). The son or daughter is under the lawful jurisdiction of the family. The integrity of the family must be maintained by the threat of death. Clearly, cursing God (blasphemy) is a comparable crime, and is therefore a capital crime (Leviticus. 24:16).”
How might a Reconstructionist version of the Sermon on the Mount read, inclusive of Reconstructionist “inside” theological/political code words like “Law-Word”? Maybe something like this:
Blessed are those who exercise dominion over the earth: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who deport the immigrants: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who agree that the significance of Jesus Christ as the ‘faithful and true witness’ is that He not only witnesses against those who are at war against God, but He also executes them: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His Law-Word: for they shall be filled. Blessed are those who say that those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God must be denied citizenship: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the Calvinist Christians who are the only lawful heirs to the Kingdom: for they shall see God. Blessed are those who know that turning the other cheek is a temporary bribe paid to evil secular rulers: for they shall be called sons of God if they bust their enemies in the chops. Blessed are those who have taken an eye for an eye: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are ye when ye know that the battle for My sake is between the Christian Reconstruction Movement and everyone else. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven. For so we are to make Bible-obeying disciples of anybody who gets in our way, and kill those who resist.
The Movement to 'Take Back America For God'
I remember first meeting Rushdoony at his home in Vallecito, California, in the late 1970s. (That was where I also met Gary North for the first time.) I was accompanied by Jim Buchfuehrer, who had produced the antiabortion documentary series of films with me that featured my father and Dr. C. Everett Koop. (Koop would become Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general.)
The movie series and book project later got Michele Bachamnn to become an ardent clinic picketer. Whatever Happened to the Human Race? was Koop’s and my brainchild. He had seen my dad’s and my first film series—How Should We Then Live? (the series I directed and that Bachmann says got her into politics and that the New Yorker article describes in detail) —and Koop wanted to team up to expand on the last episodes, in which Dad had denounced the “imperial court” for “stripping the unborn” of their right to life.
The impact of the two film series, as well as their companion books, was to give the evangelical community a frame of reference through which to understand the “secularization of American culture” and to point to the “human life issue” as the watershed between a “Christian society” and a utilitarian, relativistic “post-Christian” future. This has become Bachmann’s agenda, and also the agenda of Fox News as they blast her views over America.
By the time the films had been viewed by millions of American evangelicals, Dad had become the leader of those evangelicals who took a “stand” on the “life issues.” And the films made the Reconstructionists believe that perhaps in Francis Schaeffer and his up-and-coming son they might have found new allies. So I began to get messages that Rushdoony urgently wanted to meet me.
Hating America to 'Save' It
When we talked, Rushdoony talked about “secular America” as if it were an enemy state, not our country. He talked about how “we” should all use cash, never credit cards, since cards would make it “easy for the government to track us.” Rushdoony spoke passionately about the virtues of gold, how very soon the conflict between the Soviet Union and America would lead to war. Rushdoony also noted that Vallecito was “well located to survive the next war” given “the prevailing wind directions” and its water supply.
The message of Rushdoony’s work is best summed up in one of his innumerable Chalcedon Foundation position papers, “The Increase of His Government and Peace.” He writes, “The ultimate and absolute government of all things shall belong to Christ.” In his book Thy Kingdom Come—using words that are similar to those the leaders of al Qaida would use decades later in reference to “true Islam”—Rushdoony argues that democracy and Christianity are incompatible: “Democracy is the great love of the failures and cowards of life,” he writes. “One [biblical] faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state.Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”
The impact of Reconstructionism (often under other names) has grown even though Rushdoony has largely been forgotten even in evangelical circles, let alone the wider world. He made the evangelical world more susceptible to being politicized—and manipulated by some very smart people like Bachmann.
Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell who once had nothing to do with politics per se were influenced by the Reconstructionists. That in turn moved the whole evangelical movement to the right and then into the political arena, where it became “normal” for evangelical leaders to jump head first into politics with little-to-no regard for the separation of church and state.
Extremists For Jesus
Without the work of the Reconstructionists, the next generation of religious activists (trying to use the courts, politics, and/or civil disobedience to impose their narrow theology on the majority of Americans) may have been relegated to some lonely street corner where they could gather to howl at the moon. Instead, the 21st century’s theocrats (though they’d never so identify themselves) enjoyed the backing of Fox News, were tolerated at places like Princeton University, and could be found running many evangelical organizations. And now in Bachmann they have their champion: a full fledged Reconstructionist radical.
From Puritans To Government Haters
The Puritans’ theology of government was formed in the context of an embrace of all Christians’ duty to demand the “public good.” This was exemplified by such unquestioned well-established concepts as the “king’s highway,” a common road system protected by the crown (government) and a common law that applied to all. One’s common duty to others was accepted as the essential message of Christian civilization. Public spaces were defended by government in the early New England settlements, just as they had been in England.
What’s so curious is that in this religion-inflicted country of ours, the same evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and others like George and Bachmann who had been running around post-Roe insisting that America had a “Christian foundation” and demanding a “return to our heritage” and/or more recently trashing health care reform as “communist” ignored the fact that one great contribution of Christianity was a commitment to strong central government. For instance, this included church support for state-funded, or state-church-funded, charities, including hospitals, as early as the fourth century.
Government was seen as part of God’s plan for creating social justice and defending the common good. Christians were once culture-forming and culture-embracing people. Even the humanism preached by the supposedly “anti-Christian” Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century was, in fact, a Deist/Christian “heresy,” with a value system espousing human dignity borrowed wholesale from the Sermon on the Mount.
In the scorched-earth post-Roe era of the “health care reform debates” of 2009 and beyond, evangelicals seemed to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals (and everything else) should be run by corporations for profit, just because corporations weren’t the evil government. The right even decided that it was “normal” for the state to hand over its age-old public and patriotic duties to private companies—even for military operations (“contractors”), prisons, health care, public transport, and all the rest.
The religious right/far right et al. favored private “facts,” too. They claimed that global warming wasn’t real. They asserted this because scientists (those same agents of Satan who insisted that evolution was real) were the ones who said human actions were changing the climate. Worse, the government said so, too!
“Global warming is a left-wing plot to take away our freedom!”
“Amtrak must make a profit!”
Even the word “infrastructure” lost its respectability when government had a hand in maintaining roads, bridges and trains.
In denial of the West’s civic-minded, government-supporting heritage, evangelicals (and the rest of the right) wound up defending private oil companies but not God’s creation, private cars instead of public transport, private insurance conglomerates rather than government care of individuals. The price for the religious right’s wholesale idolatry of private everything was that Christ’s reputation was tied to a cynical political party “owned” by billionaires. It only remained for a far right Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that unlimited corporate money could pour into political campaigns—anonymously—in a way that clearly favored corporate America and the superwealthy, who were now the only entities served by the Republican Party.
The evangelical rubes who are Bachmann's foot soldiers never realized that the logic of their “stand” against government had played into the hands of people who never cared about human lives beyond the fact that people could be sold products. By the 21st century, Ma and Pa No-name were still out in the rain holding an “Abortion is Murder!” sign in Peoria and/or standing in line all night in some godforsaken mall in Kansas City to buy a book by Sarah Palin and have it signed. But it was the denizens of the corner offices at Goldman Sachs, the News Corporation, Exxon, and Halliburton who were laughing.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back."