Mere Barbarity: Christian Theocracy, the American Far Right, and the Teachings of Douglas Wilson
Review of Mere Christendom by Douglas Wilson. Moscow, Idaho: Canon, 2023.
For all its wit and intelligence, Mere Christendom, a political treatise by the writer and preacher, Douglas Wilson, is built on quite a simple premise. The Bible is the Word of God. God demands obedience. In the long term, this obedience is due not only from Christian believers, whose religious practice is focused on personal piety, but from secularists, liberals, and those of other faiths as well. Christians are also good. Non-Christians have rejected God and are therefore wicked, which is why we need a theocracy. But if the idea that the government should have the right to stone us to death for apostasy scares us, it is because we don’t understand the brilliance of Wilson’s vision. One feels like the prisoner of some pirate captain, being jovially told one can’t eat one’s liver until one has finished eating one’s tongue.
Wilson draws on the ideas of R. J. Rushdoony, a survivor of the Armenian genocide and an immigrant to America, who in 1973 demanded the ‘reconstruction’ of Old Testament law, combined with a hard economic libertarianism.1 One might also compare his ideas with those of that evangelical guru of the 1960s, Francis Schaeffer, who turned from debating philosophy with hippies in Europe to touring America urging evangelicals to use force if Roe v. Wade was not overturned.2 Rushdoony found himself increasingly marginalised, both for the cruel fanaticism he embraced, and for the vindictiveness and divisiveness he brought to every religious group that tried to employ him. His success is chiefly as the founder of the Christian home-schooling movement, and the imp of those who hanker after ‘Christian laws’ yet conceal, or are unaware of, what ‘Christian laws’ might mean. A third leader of the movement, the economist Gary North, hoped to bring about a Christian theocracy in the chaos he expected to follow the Y2K bug. He founded a church based on Reconstructionist principles, but its members found his demands excessive, and invited him to take his guns and drill his Christian militia elsewhere.3
Wilson claims that liberal democracy is a spent force. It is Christians, he tells us, who invented tolerance, and atheistic regimes that practised totalitarianism. This again goes back to Schaeffer, for whom secular humanism is incapable of ascribing value to human life because it sees life as a product of natural forces only. Mary Midgeley and Iris Murdoch refute such claims, showing the gulf that exists between scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism, and describing a morality and a sense of the sacred which neither excludes nor requires theism.4 For Erich Fromm also, the death camps of the Nazis are ultimately inspired by the Calvinist doctrine of election and the Protestant vision of hell,5 but Wilson refers to the religious and political changes that arose during the Reformation. He sees their simultaneous development as plain, simple cause and effect, while I see a muddier correlation. A developed economy requires an educated workforce with critical, flexible, inventive minds, and skills in social organisation and communication, qualities which necessarily tend towards social democracy. As the far-right thinker Mencius Moldbug concedes, policies such as his become unachievable when a well-informed public has the right to reject them. ‘Cthulhu may swim slowly,’ he writes. ‘But he always swims left.’6
All Old Testament law is good, says Wilson, including the stoning of blasphemers, adulterers, Sabbath breakers, and rebellious children. The execution of Michael Servetus in John Calvin’s Geneva, burnt at the stake as a Unitarian, was also morally justified. In Calvin’s Geneva, capital punishment was used for heresy, adultery, homosexuality and witchcraft, along with lesser punishments for criticising John Calvin, swearing, singing in harmony, disagreeing with John Calvin, dancing, having imaginary friends, laughing at John Calvin’s sermons, and writing poetry, while confessions were extracted by a torturer who ‘treated his prisoners as so many damned souls’ — a belief in hell is not without temporal consequences.7
Rushdoony insisted that his theocracy could not be oppressive because the state would lose its power over the patriarchy and the church. Hindus and other idolaters would be killed, at least if they ‘practised’ their religion, but the state schools would be closed, empowering parents to educate their children, and federal aid would be stripped to a minimum. Wilson also lays out his libertarian credentials, apparently denying the state the right of execution on the grounds that it could be used against ‘the saints.’ One may wonder whether he is lying by omission here. An essay by William Einwechter, another spokesman for the theocratic movement, describes in painstaking detail the due process by which the legal stoning of children would work, and it is apparent that they would be tried and condemned by the community, not the state.8
Wilson tells us repeatedly that his Christendom is not Reconstructionist, yet the Southern Poverty Law Centre, examining his programme in part because of his ideas about slavery, finds it virtually identical to Rushdoony’s.9 But while Rushdoony made the ‘institutes’ of his political system clear, and in consequence suffered hardship and friendlessness, Wilson gives us evasion, obfuscation, self-justification, and mockery. If at some point his theocracy were inclined to put children to death, then this must be set against the current reality of secular oppression of the church, which he finds in abortion rights, Gay Pride marches, the Black Lives Matter movement, and cancel culture. Secular society seeks to impose its beliefs and values, its liberalism and socialism, its ‘religion,’ he says, upon him, so he is entitled to impose his beliefs and values, his theocracy, upon secular society. A Reconstructionist, who believes that those outside the faith are slaves to sin, and incapable of true knowledge or of any morally free act, may claim to respect the liberties of others, and not technically be lying. But for the Reconstructionist, those liberties do not exist, and the promise itself is meaningless.10
I was a member of an evangelical cult during my student years. I lived with a family who were members of the cult, gave much of my time and energy and money to the cult, altered my study plans at its behest, associated with other cult members almost exclusively, and was shocked, at the end of my second year, to realise that a fellow student was less stressed about his final exams than I was by all the daily demands of my religion. Sermons could last for three or four hours, and consist of nothing more than harangues. The mildest, most measured dissent could provoke interventions that lasted well into the night. I found it more stressful to miss one of the cult’s almost-nightly meetings than I now find it to ask my university to cancel a seminar on my behalf.
Our leader — our gwrw cwrw as we came to call him in Welsh, our beer seer — was kept in great comfort at our expense, and with minimal demands on his energies and time. When at last we dismissed him from leadership, the woman of the family with whom I was living began to tell me the cult’s history. For three or four hours each evening over the space of about a week, she described the extortion and bullying, the intimidation and spying, the fear, loneliness, guilt and shame, the corruption of intimacy, the erosion of trust, the relentless destruction of the personality and conscience, to which the cult’s first members had been subjected. A teenage girl was found to be ‘stubborn,’ and spent several months confined to her room. A man who had given everything he owned to the cult was found to be no longer worthy of membership, and left with nothing but his clothes and his car. There was no doubt in this woman’s mind that if she had been ordered to kill herself or others she would have done so.
Yet this ignorant, vulgar, venal thug who had founded our cult was not the worst danger within it. That greater danger appeared towards the end of my time there, bringing with him intelligence, theological knowledge, a curious obsession with Old Testament law, and, of course, a perfect, obedient Christian family. He was attracted to the cult by the Christian school that we ran, the Christian university that our leaders had hopes one day of founding, and the theocratic ‘dominion,’ as they called it, that its graduates would be able to form. He seemed, if anything, rather disappointed when we dismissed our leader and abandoned his programme in favour of happy-clappy mediocrity. Before we mutinied, I asked an elder how this theocracy would treat those, like me, who felt a moral necessity to oppose it, and whether we would be merely imprisoned or actually killed. The response was not especially reassuring.
But the evils presented by such people are worse even than post-Christian societies restructured to abolish human rights. For Robert Wright it is human history itself — the discovery of agriculture, the foundation of cities, nations and empires, the expansion of communication and trade — which has shaped the evolution of our morals and religions, giving us more powerful yet more ethical and compassionate creator-gods which have sometimes displaced each other and sometimes merged, while admitting other nations, races and religions to their care and concern, even as we have been forced by circumstance to live peacefully with those who are different from ourselves.11 As climate chaos becomes a pressing reality, as floods and fires threaten agricultural production, and as famines lead to mass-migrations and wars fought for diminishing natural resources, it is leaders like Wilson — whose Christian theocracy would abolish the EPA — that threaten our extinction. Gary North wanted to see civilisation collapse because he believed it would give him power. Scientists and technicians whose contributions have been forgotten worked quietly and selflessly to save it.12
The social psychologist, Bob Altemeyer, ran a number of simulations with undergraduate students, using an established model of the future of the earth over half a century or more, with groups exclusively of liberals and left-wingers, and groups of authoritarian conservatives. This model was designed to consider ways of meeting the climate crisis, and left-wing groups were able to prevent its worst effects through international cooperation and government action, eventually achieving a juster and more peaceful better world. The authoritarians were less fortunate, and over decades saw rising poverty and chaos, and eventual nuclear war.13 Wilson has nothing to say about the genuine crises that threaten our future, and nothing to offer but the pride and greed and thuggishness that have led us here. To let such people lead us further would be mere barbarity.
His manifesto is laid out in his book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, published by Craig Press in 1973. ↩
See Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1981. pp. 467-491. ↩
My biographies of Rushdoony and North are informed by Michael McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: UNCP, 2015. Francis Schaeffer’s complex personal life and career are described his son in Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, And Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Cambridge, Massachussets: Da Capo, 2008. Despite the awful title, this last book is rather a good one, being incisive, funny, wise, and at times moving. ↩
Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Revised edition. London: Routledge, 2002. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970. ↩
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. 1941. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. pp. 89-90, 110-111. ↩
Mencius Moldbug, A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations. Ebook. Unqualified Reservations, 2015. Cthulhu, a monstrous tyrant of alien origin long imprisoned beneath the waves, is a symbol of evil in the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. ↩
Quotations from a number of historic documents and academic sources dealing with religious crime and punishment are to be found at ‘Execution in Calvin’s Geneva.’ Radical Resurgence, 14th July 2016. ↩
See Julia Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism. Oxford: OUP, 2015, which explores the movement’s beliefs concerning the nature of understanding and knowledge, or Frederick Clarkson, ‘Christian Reconstruction: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.’ In Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash. Ed. by Chip Berlet. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1995, which explores its use of deceit. ↩
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009. ↩
Bob Altemeyer, ‘What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth?’ Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 3: 1 (2003), pp. 161-169. ↩
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