Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.


McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

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