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

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.