There is a world of academic scholarship where historians and researchers do, sometimes, stick with the facts and provide objective reports. As the degradation of the American university would have it, though, there is far more often a recourse to advocacy of certain liberal positions—postmodernism, gender identity studies, race studies, feminism, etc,—masquerading as scholarship. This is especially true when we discuss controversial subjects which cross the lines of culture wars. So, what would you expect when a feminist purports to write an objective study of Christian Reconstruction?
What we have here in Julie J. Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) $29.95, is just such liberal advocacy attempting to present itself as neutral observer, yet failing in a more transparent way than normal. I have had a little correspondence with Ingersoll in the past, and when I heard her book was coming out, from Oxford of all places, I was interested. So I asked for a review copy, and was pressed to make sure I actually posted a review. So, here it is, Oxford: you asked for it.
Ingersoll has a unique angle, it would seem. She was briefly married into the movement, so she assays to provide an insider’s view. As we shall see, this does not seem to help her veracity with either basic facts or the interpretation of them.
Taking over the world, or not?
Like other of our critics (which we shall detail in a separate post), Ingersoll can’t seem to make up her mind: is Reconstruction a dying, fringe movement, or is it about to take over the world? She often prevaricates between the two: on the one hand we’re fringe and no one listens to us, but on the other, we’re a force to be reckoned with and virtually created the Tea Party and the religious right all by ourselves!
For example, she begins her Introduction with the late Reconstructionist Howard Phillips’ assessment that Rushdoony had caused “historic changes in the thinking of countless leaders” (1). She even agrees that Rush was a “intellectual godfather” (1) of the religious right. But she won’t stick with the assessment. She quickly begins describing him in terms of a fringe thinker to whom no one listened. Sometimes this confusion exists within the same sentence. On the first page of her introduction, she says Rushdoony started a movement “that didn’t attract much attention,” then immediately says “the movement’s ideas became the driving force in American politics” (1). But then in the very next paragraph, “the religious right never followed through on the implications of those ideas” (1–2).
Returning to Phillips, she quotes, “the whole Christian conservative political movement had its genesis in Rush.” She demurs, “No doubt the elder Phillips overestimated the influence of Rushdoony” (2). Then, without cognizance of any contradiction, she gives this summary merely a short paragraph later:
As we shall see, well into the twenty-first century, the arguments made by conservative Christians about biblical government that focus on the character and structure of families, free-market economics, the legal status of religion, the critique of public education, care for the poor, the right to own guns, the funding of health care, and more have their roots in the work of R. J. Rushdoony (3).
Well before the establishment of Washington-based political organizations designed to harness the growing dissatisfaction among conservative Christians, Reconstructionists were laying an intellectual foundation that would shape the twenty-first-century conservative Christian subculture, developing what would become the religious right’s critique of the American social order, and plotting strategies to bring about change (5–6).
Wow. Imagine that. On the one hand, Rushdoony starts a movement to which no one pays attention, no one follows through, and which remains small in numbers. And yet, on the hand, Rushdoony influenced every argument made on every conservative topic, and laid the very intellectual foundations of the entire religious right. I don’t see how she can maintain this dissonance intellectually or honestly, yet it is there.
She attempts to make sense of the tension by arguing that Christian Reconstruction has indeed been influential, but only in a “subtle, implicit, and hidden” way (6). Yes, there are few who embrace “the theocratic extremes of Christian Reconstruction” (7), but “the popular translation of Reconstructionist ideas to the broader conservative Protestant subculture is so consistent” (6) as to deserve her in-depth study. The only thing clear in all of this is that Ingersoll thinks Ingersoll’s book fills an important gap in the scholarly literature. As we shall see, Ingersoll is setting up the narrative in such a way as to serve a particular agenda of her own. Whether she has done this consciously or subconsciously is another matter, but it is pretty clear.
Riddled with inconsistencies
Her inconsistencies are not limited to whether Reconstruction was influential or not. She also contradicts herself in regard to the factual bases of what Reconstruction teaches. In one place, she alerts her readers to the fact that the “invisible” subculture caused by Rushdoony “is so pervasive that there are now adult Americans who were raised in Christian homeschooling families, who believe that America is a Christian nation” (8), and a host of other Reconstructionist beliefs. The implication is that this fact should alarm her readers who see only the “visible” aspect of the Christian right that exists in an isolated way, “alongside the world in which most of us live.” Yet at the beginning of the same section, on the previous page, she had just stated the opposite, in what turns out to be one of those cases where liberals forget themselves and actually end up spilling the truth. She writes:
Many people believe that the religious right is violating a longstanding tradition of separation between church and state when, in fact, there are few things more “American” than political activism rooted in religious conviction. The notion that religion and politics have ever been separate in America is something of an illusion put forth by liberal Protestants who saw their brand of Protestantism as neutral. This is evident in the fact that Protestant prayer and Bible reading were not successfully challenged in the public schools, despite Catholic claims that they inculcated Protestantism, until the 1960s. When the Puritans came to the Americas, it was not to establish freedom of religion but rather to embark on a holy experiment: to build a model of the Kingdom of God on earth. The American Revolution followed on the heels of the First Great Awakening, and the case can be made that the evangelists, traveling the disparate colonies and giving rise to a national consciousness, made the Revolution possible (7).
Bingo. Had she only stopped here and followed these historical facts into logical and spiritual convictions, she would have had a better book.
In other places, her grasp of fundamental intellectual aspects is also lacking. Introducing some core ideas for the first time, she states that “presuppositionalism” is a system in which “all knowledge is derived from presuppositions,” such that all positions, whether Christian or atheist, require a “leap of faith” (9). And while she makes reference to Rushdoony’s By What Standard?, she never quotes it, and indeed, the phrase “leap of faith” never appears in that work. And for good reason. Presuppositionalists have always maintained just the opposite. As Bahnsen later explained, “Christianity that is patterned after the Bible is not fairly represented by what is called a ‘leap of faith.’”1 One would expect a scholar of a religious movement to have a better grasp of the movement’s foundational ideas before assaying to tell the world about it.
Again, in setting up her discussion of the Recon view of continuity between the Old and New Testaments, she cannot help but set us in opposition against “Most contemporary Christians” and “Mainstream Christians.” Instead, Recons have a unique view we call “unity of Scripture” (23). She even says this view is embraced by “only the most extreme branches of Protestantism” (24).
She would probably be surprised, then, by something like, Oh I don’t know, the whole history of Christianity? Just a quick Google search finds something so “most” and “mainstream” as the Vatican’s own Catholic catechism containing a section on “The unity of the Old and New Testaments,” stating: “The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly in her Tradition, has illuminated the unity of the divine plan in the two Testaments. . . .” And here’s a random Evangelical Theological Society article entitled “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today” by . . . J. I. Packer! Extremist!
Ingersoll also then immediately refutes herself by stating on the very next page: “This is a view developed by John Calvin during the Reformation” (24).
Elementary mistakes and confusions such as these bespeak something important. If a scholar does not seem committed to veracity even in elementary aspects, to what is her commitment? Or is there any? I think one shows through in Ingersoll’s work. She admits early in the Preface that she was “born a feminist,” and that even while briefly being married within the broader Reconstructionist movement, her feminism always caused tensions and eventually led her away from any semblance of conservative Christianity altogether. She is now a liberal’s liberal, and the concerns of the left surface throughout her purportedly objective study of Christian Reconstructionism. For example, her first attempt to highlight a particular social issue engaged by Recons is the ascendancy of homosexual bishops in the Episcopal Church (10). Throughout the book, whenever social engagement arises, she frequently defaults to the Christian Right’s opposition to LGBT issues, abortion, feminism, and/or evolution, as well as Christian Reconstruction’s alleged foundational influence behind all the opposition. It doesn’t take long to determine what Ingersoll’s real concerns are, and what filter she is using to tell the narrative.
A transparent agenda
This transparency allows us also to see her agenda. What is achieved highlighting these issues frequently, their alleged root in the “theocratic extremes of Christian Reconstruction,” and the foundational influence of this extremism on every issue upheld by the twenty-first-century religious right? You guessed it: it is the standard hard-left’s mantra that Republicans are nothing less than extreme religious bigots who hate gays and wage a war on women. It is the common tactic of such people to create a foil for their enemy. For liberals like Ingersoll, the “extremism” of Christian Reconstruction is just a foil to embarrass and hinder the rest of the Christian Right. This is precisely why the dichotomy appears from the outset: Recons are marginal and few in number, and yet they are marvelously influential throughout the Right. No one follows these “extremists,” yet beware! These extremists have infiltrated everywhere and laid the intellectual foundations of the entire Right.
That’ll get the leftists out to vote! Among other things.
Thus there are further damning associations that appear in the book—apparently too good to pass up! One such guilt-by-association Ingersoll peddles hard is with the “apologist for slavery” R. L. Dabney (16). In a section entitled “Southern Presbyterianism Survives,” she labors to show Dabney was an “important thinker in Rushdoony’s conceptualization of a biblical society” (16)—by which, it is clear, she means a neoconfederate sympathizer, racist, and whitewasher of Southern slavery, etc. In one clumsy oversimplification, she says, “For Rushdoony, the Civil War was not fought over slavery” (17). Following many scholars and primary sources (Dabney perhaps among them), Rush recognized that slavery was not the only issue, and in some ways not the basic issue, but his multi-page discussion of Alexander Stephens in Nature of the American System makes it clear he believed it was a cause. Likewise, Rushdoony did not stop short of criticizing even the view of Stephens and the theologians of the time as having a “humanistic” view of justice. So much for seeing the South as a whole as a bastion of Christian orthodoxy, as Ingersoll attributes to Rushdoony. Taking the time to weigh such nuances in the discussion would strongly mitigate Ingersoll’s pursuit to associate Reconstructionism and modern white supremacist elements, but scholarly measures are expected even when they bust your agenda.
Without blinking, Ingersoll asserts that Rushdoony was “following Dabney” in asserting an “idealized” antebellum society exemplary of biblical values. While Rushdoony did appreciate limited aspects of Dabney (for example, his view of corporations), the great irony here is that Rushdoony rarely ever mentioned Dabney at all, let alone as support for any of his concepts. Dabney’s name nowhere appears in either Nature of the American System or This Independent Republic—his two main written works on American history. In his massive Institutes of Biblical Law, Dabney’s name appears a paltry once, and that only for a completely benign theological topic.
It is here that Ingersoll’s agenda becomes transparent once again. Ingersoll falls from her scholarly perch into the mire of political opnion when she accuses Rushdoony of “demagoguery” for explaining modern secular governments in terms of “tyranny.” Such language is simply not allowed in scholarly discourse. She then resumes the Southern association as important for this reason: “Many observers have noted that the dividing line in America’s culture wars is roughly the same as the Mason-Dixon line. Red state-blue state divisions follow slave state-free state or Confederacy-Union divisions” (18). It is clear what Ingersoll is trying to get at: modern Republicans and religious right advocates are nothing more than warmed-over Confederates. The concerns of religious conservatives are the same as the concerns of Southern bigots, and liberals are right in dismissing them as such.
The problem here is that it exposes one more of Ingersoll’s dichotomies. On just the page before, she needled Rushdoony for seeing the Civil War as a religious war—the North being motivated by secularistic Unitarianism, and the South largely orthodox Calvinist. This was held up as an example of how Rushdoony stood apart from the mainstream. Yet now she says the culture war lines are the same as those of the Civil War, and put the religious right (red states) on the Southern side against the secularists (blue states). She even says “many observers” see it this way. But this would mean that Rush was firmly within the mainstream of such observers. So which is it? When you’re doing scholarship, you can’t have it both ways. When you’re doing political advocacy and personal rationalization, contradictions like this are common.
The truth is that both views are terribly oversimplified and unscholarly. Ingersoll is not writing a study here. She is pressing a particular agenda designed to associate the entire religious right with racism by associating its alleged extremist roots (Rushdoony) with those views. The red state-blue state observation makes that job quite easy—in fact, too easy, because it is such a façade.
What is so tragic about this type of propaganda is that it commits the very sin which it would purport to oppose. It hypes the bigoted fears and prejudices of its own narrow-minded base with caricatured stereotypes, and frankly dishonest associations. Liberals may gasp and react predictably, but the writer has accomplished nothing much in the endeavor.
She is at pains to uphold those LGBT and feminist ideals against conservatism, and so portrays Rushdoony’s teachings on family to be as stark as possible. To this end, she employs a third-party linguist who psychologizes views of government based on language. Conservatives, she relates, have a “strict father” view of government rather than the liberals’ “nurturing parent” (41). Rushdoony is quickly categorized as “strict father” (42), thereby cementing the opposition for her liberal audience.
From this association, predictably, Ingersoll highlights how this “strict father” rules by “dominion,” glossing our views of Genesis 1:26–28 as allegedly meaning “submission” (43). She makes sure to note how our views of family-based education are in opposition to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (45). She then closes the section once again returning to a favorite theme: our views of family dictate that we must also oppose abortion (46).
When Recons argue extensively and continually that we believe in limited government and put a tertiary emphasis on politics, Ingersoll cannot take that at face value. Instead of relating Recon teachings as they are, she must impose her own broader definition of “political” upon us in order to argue we are being deceptive (48–53). Again, this is not scholarship, but argumentative advocacy.
To be fair, there are sections of the book that are more objective and simply relate facts as they are, but they tend to be the more mundane issues. For example, she relates the contents of Gary North’s Biblical Blueprints Series fairly accurately. But then again, these sections of the book, and others like them, do not rise above the level of a high school book report. And should one desire to know what these tomes actually teach on their own terms, they can simply skip the liberal middle-man (sorry for the non-gender-inclusive phrase) and download them for free from GaryNorth.com/freebooks.
In other places, however, even her gift for book reports fails and she ends up repeating herself on several points in certain chapters. Again, there are places where she passes judgment on content from certain Recon works only to contradict herself later and not even notice it (for example, compare her complaint on page 62 that Gary North’s free market economics does not account for the corruption that occurs in “unrestrained global corporate capitalism” with her admission on page 77 that Recons oppose corporate subsidies). Elsewhere, she is so repetitive as to introduce certain names and catchphrases more than once, each time as if it was the first (compare her references to homeschool blogger Julie Ann Smith’s battle with the “Reconstructionist agenda” repeated awkwardly on pages 114 and 117).
It seems that even in the mundane parts Ingersoll cannot keep her agenda suppressed. In fact, it appears awkwardly in places with no connection to the narrative or context. On page 88, after discussing the background of Rocky Bay Christian School for a couple pages, she interjects a discussion of racism and schooling which had no connection whatsoever to the school or any aspect of it, and for which she had adduced no evidence or context whatsoever. Just out of the blue she states, “Many Christian schools were founded in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, and many people believe that support for segregation was a motivating factor” (88). She even noted that she had observed racial diversity at Rocky Bay while visiting there, yet apparently found it suspicious enough to make an issue of it because the founders could not recall what year the first blacks enrolled. This kind of completely unfounded guilt-by-association fallacy is totally unwarranted in anything that purports objectivity.
Likewise, on page 115, after discussing the obvious role of Recons in homeschooling, she immediately interjects a damning opinion without any substantiation. She writes, “Ultimately they seek the transformation of homeschooling” including “limiting the education of girls to that which prepares them for homemaking and motherhood.” If she has truly canvassed the works of Christian Reconstructionists, she has to know that this view is a vast minority and cannot stand as anything like a characterization of Reconstruction in general. She also provides no documentation for her alarm. You would expect a scholar to mitigate their claims according to reality. The anti-girl alarmism here is more predictable from a feminist advocate.
The agenda of associating Republican politics with scary fringe and “extreme” elements appears readily in her treatment of yours truly. In a chapter dedicated to American Vision, she again associates us with neoconfederacy on the thin tie that we all believe in decentralized government (170). She then alerts her audience to the fact that both I and Nathaniel Darnell were serving on the Georgia Republican State Committee (I no longer do), and sounds the Reconstructionist-takeover alarm: “If one wanted to assess whether a generation of homeschoolers raised on Christian Reconstruction have any influence, the Georgia State Republican Party might be a good place to start” (170).
For the record, there are, to my recollection, a couple hundred members of the GOP state committee in Georgia. As one of about three Reconstructionists who served briefly, if there was any influence, I think I would have known about it. When they even noticed we were in the room, we tended to lumped with the Ron Paul faction and treated accordingly.
She then makes a bizarre stretch, again out of the blue, raising the specter the Cliven Bundy standoff. She tries to associate the armed standoff with Reconstruction, stating that Bundy’s views, including his racist statements, were “promoted by Rushdoony” and “promoted in Tea Party circles by McDurmon” (170–171). This is pitiful sloppiness at best, a lie at worst. Had she paid attention, or cared to, she would have found that I had written in opposition to the standoff, and so had Gary North.
She is also factually incorrect as she attempts to show the nefarious connections and influence of Christian Reconstruction in nearly every Reformed ministry out there today, her narrative is fraught with strains and stretches and accomplishes little but error: she calls Michael O’Fallon’s ministry “Sovereign Seas” instead of Sovereign Cruises, and wrongly states that it is an “arm” of James White’s Alpha & Omega, when in fact it is an independently-owned business. She also manages to misspell the name of the company’s president, Michael O’Fallon as “O’Fallen.” C’mon!
As bad as all of this is, Ingersoll saves her worst for last. The chapter “Christian Reconstruction and Violence” is perhaps the most irresponsible piece of literature purporting to be scholarship I have seen in a long time. In the expanse of 23 pages, Ingersoll tries her best to portray us as a violent and bloodthirsty movement, and even though we have written so much to the contrary, she again has to imply we are lying and that the logic of Reconstruction demands violence. Yet she spends half of the chapter not talking about violence, but about racism (again with strained and acontextual examples). When she finally does get to the topic of actual violence, she spends the rest of the space highlighting abortion activists whom, she admits, are not Reconstructionists and have been rejected by Recon writers like Gary North. She admits that even groups like Operation Rescue required a written pledge to non-violence, but she argues this was further deception: they were only creating cover so they would have deniability for whatever violence they engaged in. Again, this type of conspiratorial fear-mongering, which looks the facts straight in the face and calls them a liar, has no place in scholarly discourse and should be laughed out of the academy. But, for activists, this type of guilt-by-association is too good to pass up.
In the end, here’s the basic fact about Rushdoony and Reconstruction that makes Ingersoll’s narrative so impossible to maintain:
Rushdoony was a liberal who came to his senses, and Ingersoll is a liberal who has not. Rushdoony early-on replaced his liberal miseducation by seeking answers to social issues in God’s word. Ingersoll was a feminist claiming to be a Christian who has sought to replace God’s word with her feminism. These simple truths more than any others are evident throughout Ingersoll’s unfortunate book.
One wonders why such a prestigious publishing house as Oxford University Press would publish such an intellectual shambles. But then again, you recall that OUP’s first flagship publication in the United States was the Scofield Reference Bible, and you’re on your way to an answer. The pietist-humanist alliance has never had a better friend.
- See Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 70.(↩)