Origins of Dominion Theology in American Politics: Southern Agrarians and the Christian Reconstructionists (1930s-1960s) (Part 3)

Submitted by RWMaster on Sat, 11/26/2016 - 07:11
Rousas Rushdoony

Rousas Rushdoony (1916-2001)

(Note: this is Part 3 in an 8-part series:

See Part 1: Dominion Theology in American Politics: The Radical Right Under Spotlight

Part 2: Roots of Dominion Theology in American Politics: The Theological War Thesis of the American Civil War)

The Scopes Trial, in 1925, of a high school biology teacher (John T. Scopes), who was accused of violating the Butler Act (a Tennessee law which forbade the teaching of the Theory of Evolution in public schools because it was not in agreement with the bible), received international publicity and came to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trials (an allusion, it seems, to the popular but mistaken notion of Evolution that human biological ancestors were monkeys).

The Scopes Trial was a significant turning point in scholarly and intellectual American circles. The farcical aspects of the trial led to widespread questioning and criticism of Southern religiosity, re-assertion of strong anti-conservative intellectual leanings of the progressive left which would soon significantly pervade American scholarly and intellectual culture.

This, however, in turn, fostered a backlash in the form of emergence of the Southern Agrarian movement dedicated to defending the conservative religious culture of the South and rejection of the "New South," that is, the industrialized South that had grown out of the post-war Reconstruction. The Southern Agrarians publication I'll Take My Stand, published in 1930, opposed Northern industrialism, describing it as opposed to God's plan which, in the  understanding of the Southern Agrarians, was submission of man to the created order of nature which industrialization degrades. One may find in the Southern Agrarian position links with the present day environmental death anxiety among conservative Southern Christians express in the tendency to interprete every natural disaster or unexplained natural phenomenon (such as the Arkansas "rain" of dead birds) as end-time apocalyptic signs.

Prominent leaders of the Southern Agrarian movement included John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974). He was a prominent figure in the Southern literary revival of the 1920s and notable literary critic. He taught English at Vanderbilt from 1914 to 1937 and later poetry at KenyonCollege from 1937 to 1958. He was editor of the Kenyon Review from 1939 to 1959. Together with  Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren he founded the literary periodical The Fugitive, and together with the same men contributed to the volume of essays contained inI'll Take My Stand in which the Southern Agrarians opposed the industrialization of the South. The notion of the South as consisting of godly agrarian people in contrast to the "wicked ungodly  Northerners," was embodied in their promotion of a conservative religious worldview hostile to the trend of modernization (especially industrialization).

Another leading voice of the Southern Agrarians was Richard Weaver (1910-1963). In the 1940s, he took up the Theological War thesis of the Civil War era Southern Presbyterian theologians: that the Civil War could be best understood as Holy War between an orthodox Christian South and a heretical North. He was of the opinion that the Confederate Army was an Army of devout Christians. Other writers supported his position. One of such was Gregg Singer a professor at the Atlanta School of Biblical Studies and later Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Singer finally led a schism in the Presbyterian Church. He was prominent in the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in the 1970s, a Church which he claimed was the only legitimate successor to the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America (PCCSA).

Another important figure in the revival of the Southern Presbyterian Theological or Holy War Thesis of the Civil War era was Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001). He founded the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965 and pioneered the movement that came to be known as the Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States. The Christian Reconstructionists were the first Dominionist group in twentieth century United States. They prefer to use the term theonomy rather than theocracy to describe the type of government based on biblical law they recommend.

Theonomy prescribes that civil law should be derived from the principles of biblical law with the different sections of civil society (clergy,laity, government and corporate bodies) each maintaining distinct spheres of authority but all subject to the principles of divine law, particularly as detailed in the Old Testament. Christian Reconstructionsists, thus, advocate the establishment of an American Republic under Biblical law as interpreted and understood by "orthodox" Christians (that is Calvinist Christains).

The Christian Reconstructionists do not accept any notion of religiously pluralistic society. They look forward to a future in which Christianity, without need for political revolutionary action, will gradually dominate society as non-Christians fall into the minority. Commentators have compared their theonomic system to that of Colonial Massachusetts of John Cotton and the Geneva of John Calvin.

In spite of their claim of  rejection of political and military action to the end of theocratic rule, Reconstructionist leaders, including Rushdoony, consider that Union victory in the Civil War was triumph of heretical social gospel over Christian orthodoxy. Rushdoony was also critical of the increasing influence of minority groups in American politics. He wanted an American society based on the old Southern order of racial-ethnic ineqality. Other influential leaders of the Christian Reconstructionist movement are Gary North (Rushdoony's son-in-law), Gary Bahsen, Gary DeMar (author of Last Days Madness: The Folly of Trying to Predict When Christ Will Return), Andrew Sandline, Kenneth Gentry, Howard Ahmanson and Joseph Morecraft. The Christian Reconstructionists are generally conservative Calvinists who hold postmillennialist views.

Rushdoony's recommendations of theonomy recalled the practice of the early Puritan New England settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which allowed only "godly" men (that is, Congregational church members) voting rights, participation in politics and right to hold public office.

Rushdoony advocated religious penal code with capital punishment for a variety of offenses including, not only, murder, but also idolatory, homosexuality, adultery, witchcraft, blasphemy and rebellious children.

Read Part 4: Dominion Theology in American Politics: Influence of  Reconstructionist Dominionism in Christian Right Circles

Further Reading:

1. A Christian reconstructionist primer

2. Moses' Law for Modern Government: The Intellectual and Sociological Origins of the Christian Reconstructionist Movement

3. Sara Diamond: spiritual Warfare(1989)

4. Frederick Clarkson: The Rise of Dominionism–Remaking America as a Christian Nation

5. Sebesta and Hague: The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South

6. Chip Berlet: What is Dominionism? Palin, the Christian Right, & Theocracy

7. Sara Diamond: Dominion Theology:The Truth About the Christian Right's Bid for Power

JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus." (Read a Full Three Chapters Excerpt Here).

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