On March 15th, CPAC attendee Scott Terry inadvertently drew media attention to a passionate but little understand faction of Protestant Christianity: Christian reconstructionism, also called theonomy. Terry, who, according to his personal Facebook, ‘ would love to be a prolific writer in defense of the rural and agrarian traditions of Anglo-Saxon Americans,’ attended a panel on diversity run by black Republicans. At this panel, Terry asked a panellist if he supported the ‘separate but equal’ approach to racial relations and objected to the panel’s negativity on slavery.. The panellist attempted to redirect the conversation to reconciliation, and referenced a letter written by Frederick Douglass extending forgiveness to his former owner. But according to Terry, Douglass had nothing to forgive: his owner had, after all, provided him with food and shelter. On his website, Terry further argues that slavery ought not be framed as ‘free labor’ and then lauds the business expertise of the South’s slave-owning class.
These arguments strongly resemble Douglas Wilson’s writings on Southern history and slavery. I’ve deconstructed those writings in previous entries on this blog and so would redirect readers to those entries rather than repeat my criticisms verbatim. To summarize, briefly, my objections to Wilson’s stance, and the stance articulated by Terry: I believe that slavery is intrinsically evil because it represents the ownership of one human by another, and therefore implies the inferiority of one class to another. Strange how these Biblical literalists become cultural relativists when confronted with the issue of race.
Wilson, a Christian reconstructionist, favors the application of Biblical law to contemporary issues. This doesn’t necessarily entail stonings, but on the subject of slavery, the rhetoric is pulled directly from the Old Testament. As a political movement, Christian reconstructionism has its primary origins in the writings of R.J. Rushdoony, who rejected the separation of church and state. Christian reconstructionism and Dominionism are distinct but related: both encourage Christians to reclaim and subsequently transform secular government. Like Rushdoony, Wilson is a Calvinist. This means a strong emphasis on predestination and membership in the elect.
Other than their adherence to Old Testament law on slavery, Christian reconstructionists don’t make obvious partners with Southern white supremacists. But closer examination reveals a common rhetorical narrative: an emphasis on saga and story-telling. The ‘About’ page of Scott Terry’s website is an excerpt from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ Douglas Wilson, a prolific author, is a classicist by education and his writings on Christian life, particularly those concerned with gender and sexuality, invoke an idealized history defined by chivalry and benevolent patriarchy. The Chalcedon Foundation, founded by R.J. Rushdoony, sells Dominionist fantasy novels in its online store. In this, it resembles other fringe Calvinist movements, like Vision Forum.
Why this emphasis on chivalrous saga? I believe that their common reliance on the doctrine of predestination, and the related, shared belief that they belong to the elect, here supports a particularly malicious manifestation of American exceptionalism. It is certainly a fringe belief, but it still retains cultural relevance. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a consistent intensification of white power movements. Wilson has founded a school and college, and his books have earned him a following among conservative Evangelicals. Similarly, Vision Forum and the Chalcedon Foundation have a following among Christian homeschoolers and the Dominionist approach to political participation continues to gain support among right-wing factions. And there are famous adherents: Ron Paul has ties to Christian reconstructionism, and Michelle Bachmann has repeated sentiments similar to Terry’s on the institution of slavery.
Scott Terry’s views are not derived from a mainstream movement. But the fringe he represents is vocal, and merits a strong response from progressive Evangelicals disturbed by Christian reconstructionism’s relationship to Dominionism and white power movements.