R. J. Rushdoony, R.I.P.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

The
death of Rousas John Rushdoony on February 8 at the age of 84
will not be perceived as newsworthy by the American media, any
more than Ludwig von Mises’s death in 1973 and Murray Rothbard’s
death in 1995 were regarded as newsworthy. But being a newsworthy
event is rarely the same as being a significant event.

Rushdoony’s
writings are the source of many of the core ideas of the New Christian
Right, a voting bloc whose unforeseen arrival in American politics
in 1980 caught the media by surprise. This bloc voted overwhelmingly
for Ronald Reagan. Two weeks after Reagan was inaugurated, Newsweek
(Feb. 2, 1981) accurately but very briefly identified Rushdoony’s
Chalcedon Foundation as the think tank of the Religious Right.
But the mainstream media did not take the hint. They never did
figure out where these ideas were coming from. Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson were on television, and the media’s intellectuals,
such as they are, believe that television is the source of world
transformation. Rushdoony in 1981 was almost unknown outside of
the leadership of New Right/New Christian Right circles. So he
remained at his death.

He
was born in 1916 in New York City. His parents were newly arrived
refugees. They had fled from the northern Armenian city of Van
during the century’s first genocide, the Turks’ slaughter of an
estimated million and a half Armenians, an event still ignored
by most modern history textbooks and officially
ignored
by the British government in its United Kingdom Holocaust
Memorial Day, held last month. Rushdoony’s older brother, a toddler,
had died during the family’s escape across the border into Russia.

His
father had been educated at the University of Edinburgh. As a
farewell gift from Scottish friends, he had been given English
pounds sterling, which he had kept in cash. With this universally
recognized currency, along with money he had saved from his job
as a teacher after his return to Armenia, he was able to buy train
tickets across Russia for himself, his pregnant wife, and her
sister’s family. They reached Archangel and then booked passage
to the United States.

Rushdoony
senior became a Presbyterian minister in America. His forebears
had been priests for at least six generations, son by son. He
ministered to Armenians for the remainder of his life. (With a
photographic memory, he contributed two detailed eyewitness accounts
for Viscount Bryce’s official government volume, edited by a young
Arnold Toynbee, The
Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916
.
His name is spelled Rushdouni in the book.)

R.
J. Rushdoony learned to speak English in public school. He wound
up majoring in English at the University of California, Berkeley,
in the late 1930’s. He attended graduate school there, receiving
a master’s degree in education, and then attended the liberal
Pacific School of Religion, graduating in 1944. He entered the
Presbyterian ministry in the mid-1940’s, where he had a mission
to the Chinese in San Francisco and later to the Western Shoshone
tribe in Idaho.

Writing
Career

It
was on the reservation that he began to write. He wrote for the
Sunday School Times. He also wrote an essay for the Foundation
for Economic Education on the erosion of the Indians’ voluntary
charity traditions under the collectivism of the U.S. government’s
reservation system. This essay was included in one of FEE’s Ideas
on Liberty volumes, back before FEE changed the name of The
Freeman to Ideas on Liberty.

In
1959, his first book appeared, By What Standard? It was
an introduction to the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til of Westminster
Seminary. A shortened paperback version was published in 1960,
Van Til. Then he began writing applied theology. Intellectual
Schizophrenia
(1961) was a short but trenchant
critique of tax-funded, “neutral” public education. FEE’s senior
staff member, Rev. Ed Opitz, wrote the Introduction. Two years
later, his masterpiece on public education appeared, The
Messianic Character of American Education
, a highly
condensed, thoroughly documented, and theologically astute critique
of the educational philosophies of over two dozen of the major
founders and philosophers of American progressive education, from
Horace Mann to John Dewey. Nothing like it had ever been published
before, and nothing equal to it has been published since.

This
book became the academic touchstone for leaders of the independent
(non-parochial) Christian school movement, which was just beginning
to accelerate in 1963. It provided them with both the theological
foundation and the historical ammunition for making their case
against compulsory, tax-funded education.

Then,
in rapid succession, came This
Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American
History
(1964), essays on the conservative Christian roots
of colonial America, and The Nature of the American System
(1965), on the Unitarian takeover of the culture in the nineteenth
century, culminating with the United Nations. Also in 1965, his
remarkable and still little known essay/book appeared, Freud,
which I contend is the most devastating short piece ever written
on that charlatan’s system.

He
moved to the Los Angeles area in 1965 and founded the Chalcedon
Foundation in that year. He began writing the monthly Chalcedon
Report newsletter in October, 1965, which was mimeographed
in the early years. (These newsletters are collected in one large
volume, The
Roots of Reconstruction
.) In quick succession came a string
of books: The Mythology of Science (1967), Foundations
of Social Order: A Study in the Creeds and Councils of the Early
Church
(1968), The Biblical
Philosophy of History
(1969), Myth of Over-Population
(1969), Politics of Guilt and Pity (1970), Thy
Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation
(1970),
Law and Liberty (1971) and The One and the Many: Studies
in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (1971).

These
books were the products of his disciplined reading habits: a book
a day — underlined, with a personal index in the back cover —
six days a week for 25 years. He then followed suit with another
25 years of the same schedule. It added up. So did the books he
wrote. In the December issue of the older Chalcedon Report,
Rushdoony would publish his reading and speaking totals for the
year. The volume of work was beyond most scholars’ capacities.

Rushdoony’s
great gift was his ability to pack many ideas and a mass of footnotes
into a short, tightly written essay. He was primarily an essayist.
His books were often subtitled, "Studies." They were
collections of related essays.

The
Institutes of Biblical Law

The
seemingly great exception to this related-essays approach was
in fact not an exception: The
Institutes of Biblical Law
(1973). This was his magnum
opus, a book of over 800 pages. It was the footnoted version of
five years of sermons, 1968-72. This collection of sermons is
like no other in modern publishing history. He will be remembered
most of all because of this book. Harold O. J. Brown named it
the most important Christian book of 1973 in his 1974 Christianity
Today column — an opinion that I suspect was not shared by
the editors.

The
Institutes revived a long-dead discipline among Protestants,
casuistry: the application of biblical legal principles to real-world
situations. The book appeared on the 300th anniversary of the
publication of Richard Baxter’s even longer book, A
Christian Directory
. Only the late-seventeenth-century
Anglican moral philosopher, Jeremy Taylor, produced anything of
consequence in the field after Baxter. After 1700, the Protestant
tradition of casuistry disappeared, succumbing first to Unitarian
social philosophy under the banner of Isaac Newton, and later
to social evolutionism after Darwin.

In
the Institutes — self-consciously named after John
Calvin’s Institutes
of the Christian Religion
(1536) — Rushdoony took
the Ten Commandments as the ordering principle for the whole of
biblical law, Old Testament and New. He analyzed each of the case
laws in terms of the Decalogue. He considered which principles
carried over into the New Testament era and how they should be
applied to modern life. He concluded that civil government must
be shrunk drastically to meet biblical standards, so that the
free market and voluntary social action will flourish. He was
an Austrian School proponent in most of his economic views, as
his footnotes to Mises revealed throughout his career.

The
Institutes launched the Christian Reconstruction movement.
It represented a major transition in his writing career from detailed
negative critical analyses to a detailed positive alternative.
It filled a crucial gap in his previous strategy: “You can’t beat
something with nothing.”

Transmission
Belts

Lenin
believed that revolutionary social transformation comes through
disciplined organizational transmission belts of power and subversion.
He thought that permanent social change must be secretly planned
at the top and implemented hierarchically by means of a cause-and-effect
system of institutional commands and responses. His ideal was
a statist command structure with absolute obedience and predictable,
measurable results.

This
is not the way the world works. The world is far too complex for
any mastermind’s transmission belt to deliver predictable results
on command. The public failure of the Soviet Union in 1991 interred
Lenin’s theory of social causation in his Red Square casket, although,
like Dracula, the monster occasionally climbs out of its casket
and wanders through American college campuses, seeking whom it
may devour.

Historically,
almost every founder of the major religions began to preach his
message on the periphery of society. But the best refutation of
Lenin’s transmission belt theory in modern history is Karl Marx.
Marx was an obscure, unemployed, German-speaking academic in exile
during his adult lifetime, but his ideas spread quietly through
the revolutionary underground. Lenin put flesh on the ideological
skeleton and successfully captured the Russian State in an improbable
coup.

Marxism
seemed to be the wave of the future over the next seven decades.
Marxism was hot stuff. But then, in 1991 and early 1992, the fat,
unreadable tomes on "what Marx really meant" were consigned
unceremoniously to the dustbin of history, or its academic equivalent,
the "books for a buck" tables in college-town bookstores.

The
careers of men who pioneer fringe ideas are testimonies to hope
that flies in the face of politically correct reality. Consider
Rushdoony, Mises, and Rothbard. In terms of the number of books
per title sold, the size of the mailing lists compiled, the votes
in Congress recorded, and similar documentable artifacts suitable
for inclusion in a Ph.D. dissertation on social history, all three
were on the sidelines of history. But, in the long run, when bad
ideas are implemented by civil governments in terms of the statist
casuistry of the Powers That Be, societies begin to shift off-center
in reaction, and move in new directions toward the periphery.
Men who spent their careers marshaling logic and footnotes on
the sidelines of respectable culture are seen in retrospect as
the pioneers.

We
can only guess in advance about who these retroactively successful
pioneers will turn out to be, but we do know this: their intellectual
opponents are strategically short-sighted in ignoring them during
their lifetimes, and their followers are not content to roll over
and play dead at the suggestion of a self-tenured establishment.
The center does not hold. Those who stake their reputations and
their careers on the preservation of the center eventually get
left behind.

February
10, 2001

Gary North is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation
and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can
be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare