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The Return of Christian Terrorism

Threats of right-wing violence have doubled in the past year. What is behind the latest upsurge in the movement to create a Christian theocratic state?

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Leaders of the Reconstruction movement trace their ideas, which they sometimes called “ theonomy,” to Cornelius Van Til, a twentieth-century Presbyterian professor of theology at Princeton Seminary who took seriously the sixteenth-century ideas of the Reformation theologian John Calvin regarding the necessity for presupposing the authority of God in all worldly matters. Followers of Van Til (including his former students Bahnsen and Rousas John Rushdoony, and Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North) adopted this “presuppositionalism” as a doctrine, with all its implications for the role of religion in political life.

Recapturing Institutions for Jesus

Reconstruction writers regard the history of Protestant politics since the early years of the Reformation as having taken a bad turn, and they are especially unhappy with the Enlightenment formulation of church-state separation. They feel it necessary to “reconstruct” Christian society by turning to the Bible as the basis for a nation’s law and social order. To propagate these views, the Reconstructionists established the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas, and the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, California. They have published a journal and a steady stream of books and booklets on the theological justification for interjecting Christian ideas into economic, legal, and political life.

According to the most prolific Reconstruction writer, Gary North, it is “the moral obligation of Christians to recapture every institution for Jesus Christ." He feels this to be especially so in the United States, where secular law as construed by the Supreme Court and defended by liberal politicians is moving in what Rushdoony and others regard as a decidedly un-Christian direction; particularly in matters regarding abortion and homosexuality. What the Reconstructionists ultimately want, however, is more than the rejection of secularism. Like other theologians who utilize the biblical concept of “dominion,” they reason that Christians, as the new chosen people of God, are destined to dominate the world.

The Reconstructionists possess a “postmillennial” view of history. That is, they believe that Christ will return to earth only after the thousand years of religious rule that characterizes the Christian idea of the millennium, and therefore Christians have an obligation to provide the political and social conditions that will make Christ’s return possible. “Premillennialists,” on the other hand, hold the view that the thousand years of Christendom will come only after Christ returns, an event that will occur in a cataclysmic moment of world history. Therefore they tend to be much less active politically.

Rev. Paul Hill, Rev. Michael Bray, and other Reconstructionists—along with Dominion theologians such as the American politician and television host Pat Robertson and many other right-wing Christian activists today—are postmillenialists. Hence they believe that a Christian kingdom must be established on Earth before Christ’s return. They take  seriously the idea of a Christian society and a form of religious politics that will make biblical code the law of the United States.

These activists are quite serious about bringing Christian politics into power. Bray said that it is possible, under the right conditions, for a Christian revolution to sweep across the United States and bring in its wake Constitutional changes that would allow for biblical law to be the basis of social legislation. Failing that, Bray envisaged a new federalism that would allow individual states to experiment with religious politics on their own. When I asked Bray what state might be ready for such an experiment, he hesitated and then suggested Louisiana and Mississippi, or, he added, “maybe one of the Dakotas.”

Not all Reconstruction thinkers have endorsed the  use of violence, especially the kind that Bray and Hill have justified. As Reconstruction author Gary North admitted, “there is a division in the theonomic camp” over violence, especially with regard to anti-abortion activities. Some months before Paul Hill killed Dr. Britton and his escort, Hill (apparently hoping for Gary North’s approval in advance) sent a letter to North along with a draft of an essay he had written justifying the possibility of such killings in part on theonomic grounds. North ultimately responded, but only after the murders had been committed.