The current cycle of primary elections has re-ignited old debates about the place of religion in American political life. Those candidates identified as evangelicals, such as Ted Cruz, are often represented as proposing a top-down reconstruction of American society, encouraging a “moral minority” to take power in order to impose its expectations upon the culture at large. To the extent to which this is true – and the assumption can be contested – these candidates are developing some of the most controversial themes in modern evangelical thought.
This ambition to reform American culture shows the extent to which evangelical political thinking has changed. For much of the twentieth century, American evangelicals tended to disavow active political engagement, while praying for cultural reform. This political passivity began to change in the mid-1970s, when both candidates for the White House identified themselves as evangelicals, and especially after the early 1980s, when evangelical leaders began to build the ecumenical coalition that would drive conservative politics into the next decade. This change was informed by the publications and activities of a number of key figures, especially Frances Schaeffer, whose name is well known in histories of the Christian Right, and his less famous, but more controversial, fellow-traveler, R. J. Rushdoony.
The voluminous and demanding publications of Rushdoony did most to underwrite the new culture of evangelical engagement. In such publications as his massive Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), Rushdoony proposed a radical platform for political change. Developing themes latent in his Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, he denied the existence of natural law and argued instead that all government had to be reshaped according to biblical norms. At times that could sound innocuous. “God’s goal is a debt-free society which is also poverty-free,” he suggested. And he argued for lower tax, on the basis that governments should not claim a greater share of their citizen’s property than the tithe demanded by God. But Rushdoony understood that the godly society he imagined would only be made possible by a legal revolution.
Rushdoony argued that crimes – and their punishments – were to be defined by the Bible. That’s why he could consider alternatives to incarceration. Drawing on case law in the Pentateuch, he argued that crimes involving property should be resolved through restitution rather than imprisonment, but breaches of the first seven of the Ten Commandments – including idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, and dishonoring one’s parents – should be punished by death. These positions may seem to be so extreme as to be irrelevant to the contemporary political climate, and Rushdoony’s name has not often been cited in this cycle of primaries, but when candidates propose a flat tax of 10%, or punishment for women who have undergone abortions, they are echoing his ideas. Whatever their similar goals, nevertheless, those evangelicals pursuing the top-down reformation of American society are overlooking Rushdoony’s warning about how these goals should be achieved.
Rushdoony’s hesitation about top-down reform is warranted by the results of a similar experiment in godly society that was attempted almost 400 years ago. In 1649, after a decade of civil war that began in Scotland before engulfing Ireland and England, a radical party of puritans and republicans within the Westminster parliament tried the king, Charles I, for treason. With the support of the army, they sought to re-form England, then Ireland and Scotland, into godly commonwealths. A raft of new legislation highlighted the kind of communities they sought to create: Christmas was banned, while adultery and other forms of sexual deviance were heavily penalized. The reformation was driven by new legislation and its effective implementation. And, by and large, it worked: the number of illegitimate births dropped to its lowest recorded value in English history. But this reformation, made possible by heavy-handed government, could not be sustained.
In 1660, after five hundred Sundays of compulsory church attendance, and too many years of taxation to support an increasingly unpopular military government, the fledgling puritan republic began to fall apart. As the political institutions of the republic crumbled, and as divisions appeared within its leadership, the army that had made the revolution possible brought it to an end. Charles II returned to London, and set about restoring the apparatus of his court. The old revolutionaries were hunted down, many of them suffering horrific and public deaths. When the remaining puritan clergy were ejected from the Church of England, in August 1662, very few of their parishioners went with them. John Owen, one of the most influential religious leaders of the period, had given much of his life to realize the world that the godly had imagined, but understood that the revolution had failed because its reforms had not been internalized: the revolution failed because too few people had been born again.
The end of the English revolution reminds evangelical political leaders to be alert to the limitations of top-down reform. Rushdoony understood that “the key to social renewal is individual regeneration,” for “man must be remade if the world itself is to be saved.” Human beings are not changed by politics alone. Perhaps, as the cycle of primaries continues, the most influential modern theorist of the requirements of biblical law may also become the most telling voice against its imposition.
Featured image credit: ‘Ted Cruz’ by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons