The Risks of Reconstruction

This week’s interview with Florida State University Assistant Professor Michael McVicar highlights two important, but competing elements of recent work on Christian conservatism in the 20th century United States. On the one hand, McVicar’s scholarship fills an important gap in the existing literature on conservative Christian figures. Despite significant advances in the last decade of scholarship, the networks of influence that lay behind the rise of the Religious Right are not fully established. McVicar does the vital work of connecting theological figures like R. J. Rushdoony to the movement’s figureheads like Pat Robertson. Generally, this kind of scholarship lags behind biographical or cultural approaches documenting the broader shifts in the American context. This delay is caused by something that is easier to identify than the diverse elements of the rise of the Religious Right–the problem of primary scholarship on recent conservative figures. The challenges McVicar experienced and the concessions he made to complete his work on Rushdoony appear natural, but they are also highly reflective of the challenges facing further inquiry in this area. If there is a wealth of scholarship today on the Religious Right, it is also the case that much of it treats its subjects altogether too forgivingly. Thus, the work of reconciling the movement’s rise with elements of its racist and sexist past seems to be forever left to other works and other scholars.

First, let me commend McVicar for giving an excellent overview of the rise of reconstructionism as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist/modernist split of the post WWI era. As we will all soon be able to read in his work Christian Reconstruction (UNC-CH, 2015), McVicar shows how theologian R. J. Rushdoony helped establish critical elements of the theology that Billy Graham, Frank Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others used to promote turning away from secular values toward Christian ones. Unlike their liberal and moderate counterparts who saw cultural compromise as inevitable, conservative American Christians redoubled their efforts to be as Jesus described in John 17:16 and avoid being “of the world.”

Reconstructionism was a religious revolution that sought to overturn secular governance in favor of (selected features of) Biblical law. The Christian homeschool movement, for instance, coalesced as a response to the secularization of the public school system, particularly in the wake of court decisions in the 1940s-1960s that reshaped the boundaries between religion and state in the classroom. McVicar lays the Christian response to these defeats squarely at Rushdoony’s feet: “He challenges a lot of Christians to think in legal terms…. Here he is instrumental in setting up or creating a context in which some of the major Christian public defense advocacy firms begin to develop in the late 1970s.” Thus we get the Rutherford Institute and later Paula Jones’ legal case against President Clinton. It is a multi-faceted network that remains characterized by parachurch leadership, extra-church organizations, and a strong affinity toward the values that were identified with the Republican party by the early 1980s.

Today the influence of these ideas persists. In a recent U.S. election cycle, some argued that the legacy of Rushdoony lay in the way that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry adopted dominionist models that were rooted in the theocratic legalism that reconstructionism brought to the Republican party. (See, for instance, Michelle Goldberg’s work at the Daily Beast, Julie Ingersoll  and Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, or Sarah Posner at Salon). So, the legacy of Rushdoony survives, albeit in heavily modified versions that combine a back-to-basic’s theocratic vision with Republican populist rhetoric. With such widespread roots, McVicar is surely making an important contribution by filling in an otherwise-absent backstory.

However, though McVicar’s stands alongside other recently published works on 20th century U.S. Christianity (see the brief appended bibliography), one thing that stands out regarding Rushdoony are the sacrifices that scholars seem to need to make in order to discuss controversial contemporary figures. McVicar identifies the challenges he had obtaining unfettered access to Rushdoony’s private materials at the Chalcedon Foundation. “Over time I gained a little bit of trust and support from them,” he says, “but they still were nervous that I might be coming in to do a smear job on Rushdoony and were really reluctant to let me see his personal correspondence and his diaries.” Only after McVicar submitted his work-in-progress and had published a relatively neutral piece on Rushdoony did Chalcedon grant him permission to access additional unpublished materials. While we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents, given the inflammatory content of Rushdoony’s public works, we might reasonably expect they could paint him in decidedly negative strokes. So, what do we do when our access to documents is contingent on our neutrality? How much of what we can say about the rise of the Religious Right is similarly hindered by restrictions of speech or limited by access to sensitive personal documents?

I certainly will not fault McVicar for the way Christian Reconstruction turned out. A moderately even-tempered portrayal of Rushdoony in his historical context is no small feat. I would rather have an imperfect portrait to help bridge the gaps in the scholarship than be without one because I insisted on some kind of brutal exposé. And yet I would also expect the Chalcedon’s gate-keeping to inevitably color such a project. The question for the rest of us may be just how much we are willing to be a part of the historical revisionism that sterilizes controversial figures by limiting our ability to discuss their deplorable views on race, sex, colonialism, etc. When we know a figure has been controversial on such topics, are we not obliged to discuss them?

Since McVicar connects Rushdoony directly to the Quiverfull movement that has in recent weeks sent the Internet ablaze with commentary on the Josh Duggar scandal, these questions are also not merely hypothetical nor hyperbole. What should the role of scholars be in interpreting and evaluating these groups? Must we be methodological agnostic about their vices? If we abstain in order to present our subjects neutrally, then what other obligations fall on us. Must we wrestle with Rushdoony’s blatant racism and misogyny? Ignoring them hardly seems neutral, but how does one address them without bias? How can we do so without offending those that hold our primary source documents? As is the case with nearly every figure in the Religious Right, there is ample kindling for the flames. At what point will academic scholarship feel free to raise these issues? And what difference will they make for the study of the Religious Right?

In a recent ethics course I taught, I relied on Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters to discuss the intersection of Catholic religious obligations and environmentalism. Taylor retells the story of Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who supposedly gave a commencement speech at a high school in New York whose only lines were “Know where you stand and stand there.” In the moments where the rubber meets the road, I wonder whether more of us as scholars are becoming unable to know where we stand, unable to stand where we feel we should, and even unable to feel like we can stand where we are. The climate of academic crisis in the United States makes scholarship itself feel at risk. Who among us in the future will still feel secure enough to wrestle with the obvious spectres that haunt our work, but which speaking about brings risks to us and to our continued access to sources?

Selected Recent Scholarship on the Rise of the Religious Right

1 reply
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    Michael J. McVicar says:

    David, thanks for this thoughtful response to Brad Stoddard’s interview. I should thank you, Brad, and everyone at the RSP for taking my work seriously.

    I agree with nearly all of the issues that you raise regarding the troubles of studying a controversial figure such as Rushdoony. I thought I’d respond to your post because it might help others who are studying contemporary movements and trying to navigate the tricky problem of gaining access to restricted or otherwise non-public archival material.

    First, unlike many of the recent works on the Religious Right in the U.S. (which your bibliography helpfully lists), my project required access to non-public resources. Public archives dematerialize community connections through bureaucratic infrastructure and a high-modernist cultural aesthetic of transparency and open access. The assumption underlying such a routinized and formalized system of information management is that the content of the archive is open to many different kinds of patrons—scholars, journalists, genealogical hobbyists, the generally curious, etc.—and the competing interests and critical frameworks they bring to the material. In contrast, much my research relied on access to privately held material. The owners of this material do not share the aesthetic and bureaucratic sensibilities that undergird state archival systems and professional historical research. As a result, I had to work closely with a community of Christians who, rightly or wrongly, believe that they have been systematically misrepresented by scholars and journalists. Making things more tricky, they are also folks who run blogs and publishing houses, engage in heated invective and aggressive public debate, and spread information quickly. Consequently, I had to enter into a dialogue with my informants in order to do viable, original research. I not only needed to earn their respect and trust, but they also had to earn mine. I needed to know that I wouldn’t be attacked me in print, on the internet, or through litigation if I pursued the project. The point here is that this was not unlike ethnographic research: I had to build a positive, constructive relationship with Reconstructionists in order to do this work. I also had to recognize that my subjects were going to “write back;” they were going to for anything I wrote and any and all errors or ostensible . This awareness made me thoughtful and reflexive in my interactions with my subjects.

    Second, David’s post notes that “we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents.” This is a fair point and I feel I should be very clear about the limits that the Chalcedon Foundation placed on my research in Rushdoony’s library. I have a written agreement with Mark Rushdoony, R. J. Rushdoony’s son and President of the Chalcedon Foundation, that stated I would neither publish any of Rushdoony’s unpublished material in its entirety, nor would I place any of the material I collected in a public archive without written consent of Chalcedon. I based the restrictions of the agreement on standard language used by many public archives. Otherwise, the statement explicitly allowed me total freedom to use any and all material that I collected in a dissertation and any subsequent publications. I can also share material with other scholars in some limited circumstances. The only limit placed on my access to material was that I would not to photograph or take notes on any of the legal material related to his father’s divorce. I respected this request because many of the parties are still living and publishing the material might have had legal implications for me or any subsequent publisher. Further, aside from very sensitive personal material related to the legal maneuvering behind the divorce, most of the records for the divorce proceedings that I needed were publicly available documents—court records, newspaper articles, correspondence in other archives, etc.—that I collected through other channels. Rushdoony also made some comments about the divorce in his journals, which I was allowed to consult. The public material and the limited material in the journals could be used freely without legal issues. I offer this to readers so that they can understand that Chalcedon gave me what amounted to total access to Rushdoony’s papers. They did so knowing that I was not a Reconstructionist and that I was not sympathetic to Rushdoony’s ideas. I didn’t compromise anything I wrote and was not censored in any way by my agreement with Chalcedon. The only limit I voluntarily accepted related to respecting the privacy of Rushdoony’s living family members.

    Finally, David’s comments about the fraught environment of studying and writing about controversial issues in the U.S. academy are important. In this project I felt no need to equivocate in my presentation of Rushdoony. And I did not feel hindered in my research beyond the need to respectfully engage my subjects. However, given the hostile environment faced by the humanities and the university more generally in states such as Wisconsin and Florida and North Carolina (really, just about every state in the Union), I am acutely aware of the precariousness of my position in the academy. Although I do have the potential shield of a tenure-track position, as a historian of conservatism as an intellectual and political movement, I am very cautious about what I write, how I write it, and where I publish it. I’m not exactly working in a growth industry, and the rise of contingent employment and the erosion of tenure protections create strong incentives to measure one’s words and think carefully before engaging in certain kinds of public debate.


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