In Moscow, Idaho, conservative “Reconstructionist Christians” thrive amid evangelical turmoil

(The Conversation) — Evangelical groups in the United States have faced dwindling numbers for years. And a messy cultural fight over the direction of the movement could lead to further defections.

But while some of America’s largest Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, continue to hemorrhage their membership, a small group of conservative evangelicals appear to be bucking the trend – despite numbering only around 1,300. people.

Over the past 30 years, believers from across the United States and beyond have gathered in Moscow, a northern Idaho city of about 25,000 people. Here, as part of the Christ Church congregation, they opposed the cultures of American modernity. Guided by a controversial social theory known as “Christian Reconstruction,” which holds that biblical law should apply in today’s context, they turn to the Bible to understand how they believe American institutions should be reformed. Followers believe abortion rights and same-sex marriage, among other evidence of what they would see as moral decline, will eventually be repealed. Their objective is simple: the conversion of the inhabitants of Moscow to their way of thinking as the first step towards the conversion of the world.

This hope may seem unrealistic. But as the scholar who charted the rise of the movement in my book “Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America,” I know that these believers have already taken steps toward that goal.

Growing influence

In Moscow, the community established churches, a classical Christian school, a liberal arts college, a music conservatory, a publishing house, and the makings of a media empire. With books published by major trade and academic presses and a talk show on Amazon Prime, the community is setting the agenda for theologically vigorous and politically reactionary evangelical revival.

These believers are led by conservative pastor Douglas Wilson, whose views on gender, marriage, and many other topics are controversial even among the most conservative Christians. For more than 30 years, Wilson has campaigned against the influence of everything from atheism to feminism.

In doing so, he attracted significant critical attention – notably from the late journalist and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, with whom he debated whether Christianity was good for the world in a series of exchanges that then turned into a book.

The community that Wilson leads in Moscow is still small. It’s hard to get numbers on the growth of Christ Church in terms of numbers, but my research and conversations with congregation members suggest it is expanding. What is clear is that in just over three decades, Christ Church has grown from a little-known congregation to one garnering media attention and attracting the attention of high-profile political figures.

Pastor Douglas Wilson and his supporters during a demonstration.
Geoff Crimmins/The Moscow-Pullman Daily NewsCC BY-SA

The community established a K-12 school, part of an association of hundreds of classical Christian schools strongly influenced by Wilson’s educational beliefs. A testament to the group’s political reach, in 2019 Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of the speakers at the association’s annual convention.

As I note in my book, the community’s liberal arts college sends students to doctoral programs in various disciplines at the Ivy League and major European universities — it’s not an insular educational world. Its small, closely-knit group of authors has worked with publishers such as Random House and Oxford University Press.

And then there’s the talk show on Amazon Prime.

This talk show, “Man Rampant,” gives an indication of why this community is growing in influence despite evangelical decline. Wilson, as host, uses the platform to lay out the ideas behind his vision for Christian revival – developing a program drawn explicitly from the Bible on the revival of traditional masculinity.

As its title suggests, “Man Rampant” promotes an extremely muscular Christianity. Forget the well-meaning, sweet, gentle Jesus; the first episode condemned the “sin of empathy”. Empathy, says Wilson, “is not a good thing.”

The “Man Rampant” agenda is reinforced on Wilson’s website, which relies on the creative people living in the Moscow community to turn his arguments into striking visual metaphors, and where, while rejecting racism, he supports that “it’s really good to be white.”

Go Local to Convert America

In America’s crowded religious market, Wilson’s message is clearly distinct.

One of Wilson’s most important influences is the late RJ Rushdoony, an Armenian-American Presbyterian theologian who was motivated by protecting Protestants in the United States from the kind of genocide his parents escaped. Frustrated with the otherworldliness of many American Christian denominations, whose adherents he feared who preached more about heaven than earth, and their complacency in what he perceived to be a hostile liberal culture, Rushdoony set about developing biblical principles of how society should be organized.

The Ten Commandments were no longer to be considered an artifact in the history of morality, argued Rushdoony. Instead, they should be understood as setting out the fundamental principles for the functioning of the modern state. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” ruled out the possibility of inflation, which Rushdoony argued devalued monetary assets and was therefore a form of theft. And “Thou shalt have no other gods but me” excluded any possibility of religious pluralism.

Rushdoony promoted these ideals in titles such as 1973’s “Institutes of Biblical Law” – a 1,000-page exposition of the Ten Commandments that argued for both the abolition of the prison system and a massive expansion of capital punishment.

Christians would only be safe in American society when it was shaped by their religious values, he argued. But the Christian America he envisioned would not be secured by revolution or any form of top-down political change—only by the transformation of individual lives, families, cities, and states.

This strategy of promoting beliefs at the local level explains why Christian rebuilders, like those led by Wilson, preferred to concentrate energies in small towns. Moscow reconstructionists believe that they can achieve a much greater cultural impact if they can ensure significant demographic change, either by converting existing inhabitants or by encouraging others to settle in the area.

Avoid the existential crisis

The stated goal of Wilson’s congregation is to make Moscow a Christian city; currently, only about a third of Moscow residents identify as “religious,” according to a 2019 report.

But it’s Wilson’s attitude about public health measures during the pandemic that recently brought him and his church back to the attention of political leaders. Throughout the pandemic, he has argued that mask requirements expose government hypocrisy. In September 2020, Wilson led his congregation in the illegal hymn outside City Hall which led to the arrest of several church members – footage of which was retweeted by President Trump, who suggested that the arrests of the Moscow congregation were emblematic of what would happen to evangelicals if the Democrats took control. “DEMS WANTS TO CLOSE YOUR CHURCHES, PERMANENTLY,” the former president tweeted in all caps.

And yet, whatever the former president’s fears, Wilson’s congregation is growing. As major denominations, like Southern Baptists, split in the debate over critical race theory, Wilson’s church shows how some congregations could respond to the existential crisis of evangelicalism — and possibly thrive.

(Crawford Gribben, Professor of History, Queen’s University Belfast. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The conversation

Barry F. Howard