Although many pundits think the religious right is waning,
Republican Bob McDonnell, whose political views were shaped by radical
right-wing beliefs–those of Christian Reconstruction–appears poised to win
Virginia’s upcoming gubernatorial election.
McDonnell’s ties to the Christian Right were not an issue
until the late summer when a Washington
Post reporter obtained a copy of McDonnell’s M.A. thesis in public policy
written for the College of Law at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. In a series of articles, the Post–and a good number of liberal
bloggers–reported that McDonnell’s thesis attacks working women, birth control,
and public school education. Critics
pointed out how “conservative” these views are and that McDonnell is associated
with Robertson (McDonnell also served as a Regent trustee until recently)–implying
that such views and associations should discredit his campaign.
Bob McDonnell responded that he wrote the thesis twenty
years ago, that he doesn’t really remember much about it, and that he can’t
really recall the lectures of his thesis supervisor, Regent’s Law School dean
Herb Titus (whose views were so controversial that he was eventually removed
from the faculty). He also claims
to have moderated–pointing to his own family as evidence of his broadmindedness
(he has several successful grown daughters). Mostly, however, he sidesteps the issue, implying that the
press is out to get him, and that he is a genial jobs-and-economy/law-and-order
sort of guy–not a Christian Right culture warrior.
There is, however, a problem with these claims. McDonnell’s thesis is not a benign
Christian intellectual piece or slightly biblically goofy. Rather, it is a detailed argument for
the Republican Party to embrace a specific philosophical worldview called
Christian Reconstruction, an interpretation of the Bible, politics, society,
and the family that has proved so controversial that even some who hold these
ideas will not admit to them in public.
It is difficult to imagine writing a M.A. thesis based on Reconstructionist
thought and not knowing exactly what you are doing.
Christian Reconstruction is, according to Professor Julie
Ingersoll, a leading expert on the topic, “a label for a small group of
conservative Christians who advocate ‘reconstructing’ society to conform with
biblical law.” The founder of this
movement is the late R.J. Rushdoony, whose influence on the Christian Right has
often been minimized by some of its leaders (because he advocated such things
as stoning disobedient children) but whom others claim was the single most
important intellectual influence on conservative Christianity in the twentieth century.
Professor Ingersoll argues that “the ideas of
Reconstructionists helped to frame the worldview of the Christian Right, and helped
weave together the issues that have dominated the Christian Right’s political
agenda while grounding those issues in a specific understanding of the ‘family.'” Indeed, at the center of Rushdoony’s
thinking–and that of his disciples, such as Herb Titus, Bob McDonnell’s thesis
advisor–stands the idea of the authoritative, patriarchal family. McDonnell’s thesis? “The Republican Party’s Vision for the
Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade.”
The Post, the
Virginia Democratic Party, and liberal bloggers have looked at the thesis but have
failed to really understand it–partly because they don’t understand
theology. They see Pat Robertson
(whom they don’t like); they see a lot of anti-feminist language (which they
also don’t like); they see some sort of narrow version of Christianity (that
appears to scare them); and they see conservative politics (and, of course,
they don’t like that).
What they don’t understand is that McDonnell’s work closely
follows that of Ray Sutton, a Rushdoony disciple and the author of Who Owns the Family? God or the State? Published in 1986 by Dominion Press, Sutton’s book is an influential
Reconstructionist work–outlining a “statist” attack on the family through
humanistic education, oppressive taxes, sexual perversion, women’s rights,
abortion, welfare, and national healthcare policies–and arguing that the family
needs to be reconstructed to the biblical image of the Old Testament patriarchs
in order to build a theocratic society.
Indeed, McDonnell’s analysis of the contemporary family follows Sutton
point-by-point (a dependence that is clear in both the body of the thesis and
in the footnotes). If the analysis
is the same, does McDonnell also want to reconstruct the “biblical” family in
order to create a Christian America?
He certainly said that he wanted to “restore” a “proper balance of
church, family, and state authority” to the nation (McDonnell, p. 61)–and
called the separation of church and state “conventional folklore” (McDonnell, p.
I am a Christian–and Christians have every right to bring
their moral convictions into the public sphere. But faith convictions need to be held in tension with the
separation of church and state, laws of equality, and religious diversity. McDonnell’s
thesis does not support separation, is not pro-gender equality, nor is it religiously
inclusive. His thesis outlines a specific theological agenda–that of Christian
Reconstruction, an overt movement to, in the words of Rushdoony, “subdue the
earth and exercise dominion over it . . . Man must bring to all creation God’s
law-order. . . This government is particularly the calling of the man as
husband and father, and of the family as an institution.”
Is this the sort of government Virginians really want? Do they understand or care about the implications of McDonnell’s own writings? Whether McDonnell still holds these
convictions–whether or not he will completely denounce and renounce (and not just avoid) them–is
an important matter for both Virginia and the nation.
quotes about Reconstruction and Rushdoony are from Julie Ingersoll, “Mobilizing
Reconstruction and the Roots of the Christian Right,” in Brint and Schroedel,
eds., Evangelicals and Democracy in
America, Volume II: Religion and