New York Times Columnist Pooh-Poohs His Own Story
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri May 06, 2011 at 03:47:16 PM EST
While many journalists, scholars and activists have done serious writing about the theocratic Christian Reconstructionist movement and its influence on the development of the Religious Right -- others have pooh-poohed it.  In a recent column in The New York Times Mark Oppenheimer placed one foot firmly in the pooh-pooh camp.
Oppenheimer's piece explores the influence of prominent Reconstructionist theorist Gary North on the recent anti-union surge.  Sort of.  He starts out by stating that North is prominent on the Christian Right, but not widely known elsewhere and is an important influence in the recent anti-union surge in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  And then he spends much of the column undermining this idea.

He had read a blog post at Religion Dispatches by Julie Ingersoll, who has written a great deal of excellent material on Christian Reconstructionism.  Ingersoll makes a matter-of-fact argument that Christian Reconstructionist writers have been decidedly anti-union, and that this very likely has has played a role in the wider Christian Right.  She specifically names authors Gary North, David Chilton, and Gary DeMar.  

And yet Oppenheimer, in an interview with Michael McVicar, another scholar of Reconstructionism, makes the matter mostly about just one of them, Gary North.  

Mr. McVicar believes that Professor Ingersoll's attempted connection between Christian economics and the rallies in Madison is a bit tenuous. "Her insight has to be in my mind so heavily qualified as to make it almost nothing," he said. But he concedes that it "has the most basic essence of truth," given how widely Mr. North's teachings have been disseminated on the Christian right.

The problem with this is that Ingersoll was not attempting to make a direct connection, as any reasonable reading of her post would find. What's more, Oppenheimer and McVicar agree with Ingersoll that North is a prolific author; that his works are widely used in conservative Christian educational settings and that his views are widely influential.  

Thus this is a classic case of creating controversy where there actually is none, and undermining the thesis of the piece itself. The unfortunate result is a certain pooh poohing of the role of Christian Reconstructionism. Simply put, Reconstructionism and even Christian economics (North's specialty) is not all about North.  

Here is the relevant section of Ingersoll's post:

There are now families in which multiple generations--grandparents, parents and children--have all been shaped in these contexts; contexts that include "Christian American history," dominionism, creationism, and biblical economics. For Reconstructionist Doug Phillips' organization Vision Forum, cultivating this kind of "multi-generational faithfulness" is an explicit goal. And when you look at tea party rallies and see all those white middle class fifty-somethings you are looking at many of them. Sarah [Posner] has also made the case for this at RD. We're not arguing that this in the only influence... just that it is an important one.

'Reconstructionism as one important influence among others' is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis.  I have no idea why Oppenheimer and McVicar tried to make it seem like it is not.  (On the other hand, Oppenheimer has had trouble discussing the Religious Right accurately in the past.)

The fact is that Reconstructionism's claim that all areas of life must be brought under a decidedly conservative and theocratic "Biblical worldview" plays a deeply influential role on the Religious Right.  While reasonable people may differ on the matter of degree,  I have also argued that Christian Reconstruction is central, rather than peripheral, to the ongoing ideological development of the Christian Right.   So far, I think history is bearing me out.

An excellent example was a 2007 conference organized by Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar, attended by 800 people, and co-sponsored by a number of leading organizations of the Christian Right. Gary North was among the featured speakers.

I wrote at the time:  

The conference, titled "Preparing This Generation to Capture the Future," was organized by the Powder Springs, Georgia-based American Vision, a Christian Reconstructionist think tank and publishing house founded in 1978 and headed by Gary DeMar. The event was sponsored, which is to say, bankrolled by such major organizations as the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal strategy organization which was created by top evangelical broadcasters including James Dobson (Focus on the Family political honcho Tom Minnery is on the board ;  Liberty University School of Law (where Newt Gingrich recent gave the commencement address), Home School Legal Defense Association, Summit Ministries and World magazine, edited by former Bush adviser Marvin Olasky.  Time was, when leaders of the religious right, including the Falwell empire, were afraid to too publicly associate with Reconstructionists like American Vision honcho Gary DeMar and Gary North.  But apparently, the days of worrying about associating with overt advocates of Biblical theocracy are over.

Jeremy Leaming reported in Church & State magazine:  

The event was promoted heavily by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, and it was held in a facility owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination and a religious body closely aligned with the Bush administration.

For his part, Gary North writes at that when Oppenheimer got him on the line at his unlisted phone number, he refused to talk to him. North was concerned about the risks of "selective quotation."

I choose not to give interviews, except on rare occasions...

If he has some published quotations from me, he can cite them. They are public. They are for citing. But the "phone interview" game I will not tolerate. I would have no record of what I said. The reader has no way to be sure I said it. The writer will not run the article by me to make sure that I approve.

He said he would say I refused to talk. Fair enough. I surely did.

He had to invade my privacy to get even that much out of me. He has the ethics of a telemarketer, but without the respect for sales.

The Times is slowly going bankrupt. Print media are dying. The Times is flailing around, desperately trying to find a revenue model that will work. It won't find it.

I can't speak to the relative fortunes of the Times' business model. And in fairness, Oppenheimer by addressing it at all, has flagged as an important matter the role of Christian Reconstructionism and how it relates to the wider politics and economics of the Religious Right and of the Tea Party -- even though his journalism got shaky with a little too much 'on the one hand, but on the other hand', hesitancy.

Fred, were you aware that C. Peter Wagner, in his 2008 book "Dominion: How Kingdom Action Can Change The World", traces his movement's social and political "transformation" program directly back to Rushdoony?

"The practical theology that best builds a foundation for social transformation is dominion theology, sometimes called "Kingdom now." Its history can be traced back through R.J. Rushdoony and Abraham Kuyper to John Calvin." (C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! - How kingdom Action Can Change the World, page 59, Chosen Books, 2008)

It has become as you predicted, although I'm not sure that Wagner and his crew would consider themselves "sheep"--rather, they are wolves, howling along to Rushdoony's song.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri May 06, 2011 at 07:27:59 PM EST

I didn't know that Wagner acknowledged Rushdoony in this way. But it certainly makes sense given the role of Wagner and others of his ilk in the Coalition on Revival.  

This is certainly an important acknowledgment of the historic role of Reconstructionism in the development of contemporary neo-Pentecostal thought.


by Frederick Clarkson on Fri May 06, 2011 at 10:28:56 PM EST

He's got an autobiography out that's newer, but I think "Dominion!" may be Wagner's final book oriented towards shaping the movement he's helped to spawn (Wagner's latest estimate is that the Third wave has influenced 420 million people worldwide.) Peter Wagner's now over eighty, and he's backing off active leadership.

Also in the book, on page 166, Wagner holds up the 14th Century fin-de-siecle exploits of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence (including the "bonfire of the vanities") as a positive example of "social transformation." Wagner may feel he's being sly, but one of the first legislative measures of Savonarola's short-lived Florentian republic was to make sodomy a capital offense.

I've got a piece in the works to update my last one on the New Apostolic doctrine on the need to destroy allegedly "idolatrous" and "blashphemous" art, books, and other cultural artifacts. The terrible troika of Wagner, Ed Silvoso, and Cindy Jacobs each have advocated this in their books. They can't run away from it, because there are too many of these in circulation.

by Bruce Wilson on Sat May 07, 2011 at 08:37:04 AM EST

It's how North and his allies attack anyone who attempt to investigate him or how influential these dominion-reconstructionists are. Yes, you can feel it among the teabagger set, as I've gotten a firsthand look at one of their larger rallies in St. Louis. The quote from North is priceless. My response to him is if you don't want media scrutiny, then stop your unconstitutional actions. It's also interesting thatthis type of evangelical always attacks unions first, from the days of Vereide to today. Ah, so many thoughts, so little time. Great work Frederick, as always.

by Da Rat Bastid on Sat May 07, 2011 at 12:24:31 PM EST

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