Review: Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America

About two years ago, New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat gave a talk at the University of Dallas that served as the basis for a first things article entitled “Catholic Ideas and Catholic Realities”. The talk and subsequent essay described the different political camps forming in American Catholic circles—populists who sought to reform the American order from within; infamous Integralists like Adrian Vermuele; the Benedictines inspired by the work of Rod Dreher the Benedict option, and the odd group called “the Tradanists”, which gave a distinct left-wing twist to the fundamentalist position.

At the time, I assumed it was a purely Catholic conversation. Yet on reading Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest, I realized that was not the case. Written by Crawford Gribben and published by Oxford University Press, the book details recent migrations of conservative Christian communities to various pockets of the Pacific Northwest. Although there are distinct ideologies and denominations motivating each movement—fears of decline, eschatological prediction, and a desire for Christian community—the book chooses to focus on the largest group centered in Moscow, Idaho. There, famous – or infamous – Reform pastor Doug Wilson leads the Christ Church congregation. Wilson is controversial in many circles, but his community has steadily grown and gained popularity, suggesting that his ideas have a greater influence on American Protestants than many would like to admit.

The book traces the history of the politics and theology that motivate these groups to pack up their business and start a new life in the desert northwest. The central figure in this historic dive is Rousas Rushdoony, whose massive three-volume series titled Biblical Law Institutes, which is credited with giving birth to Christian Reconstructionism, which advocates for governments to make the Ten Commandments the foundation of civil law and for certain libertarian themes of economics, otherwise known as theonomy. Rushdoony in his work lists several examples of how this law would be enforced; it is curiously progressive in some respects, such as the abolition of prisons and limits on money lending, while also calling for the extension of the death penalty to cover a multitude of offenses (Gribben, 8). While many of those who move to the North West don’t hold on to these ideas, some definitely do, and many educated in the educational institutions of these communities adhere to a host of illiberal tenets that are in diametric opposition with the values ​​espoused by the American tradition.

Although not adopting Rushdoony’s platform, many of the subjects interviewed in the book expressed goals and ambitions aligned with Christian Reconstructionism. Gribben interviewed several students at New Saint Andrews College, a Calvinist liberal arts college that educates students in the classical tradition with a Great Books program. Several expressed a desire to make Moscow a “Christian city” that would serve as the capital of true Reformed Christians. Some even considered the possibility of national and then global influence as their community expanded and its members left for new lands to evangelize (54).

Yet they hope not to accomplish this mission with some sort of government takeover and establishment of a Christian theocracy. Rather than take a top-down approach, Moscow residents and others are hoping for an organic, grassroots movement that spreads locally, from county to county and across states. As one NSA faculty member put it, “we preach the Bible and see what happens next” (55). In a post-Christian nation like the United States, these Christians recognize that the federal government imposing laws on an ungodly nation will solve nothing. Instead, change must begin in the individual heart of a man who has accepted Jesus as Lord and seeks to establish His Kingdom on earth.

The book itself is a great read. Not only is it entertaining and highly informative, but Gribben does a wonderful job of letting the ideas of theonomy and Christian reconstruction and the people who hold them speak for themselves. He does not inject his prejudices into his analysis and does not dismiss his interlocutors as naive theocrats. Rather, he approaches these ideas on their own terms, accurately stating their principles and beliefs and allowing the reader to decide for themselves what they are worth.

What I found most intriguing about this book were the many parallels between the conversations taking place in the Catholic world and what is happening simultaneously in the Protestant world. It is as if the camps as described by Douthat manifested themselves more or less identically in certain reformed circles, but with different labels. We Catholics have fundamentalists, while the Reformed have theonomists; we have Dreher’s idea of ​​the “Benedict option”, while the Protestants have the American redoubt; and Protestants in this debate see major players like Doug Wilson and the work of Rouasas Rushdoony, while Catholics see debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari, among others. Gribben even refers to certain thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Alasdair Macintyre, who are prominent Catholic critics of American liberalism.

Regardless of what one thinks of the tenets of Christian reconstructionism and other forms of illiberalism, it would be unwise to ignore or dismiss them. Like it or not, these ideas are only growing in popularity, and as America becomes more secularized, more and more people will find these types of ideas appealing. We must avoid the temptation of contempt and reject this movement from the outset. Instead, we should emulate Gribben’s work and seriously engage with adherents of Christian Reconstructionism if we are to provide an alternative.

But more importantly, regardless of where Christians of any denomination stand in this debate, we can at least agree with a sentiment espoused by theonomists; politics will not save anyone or any nation. Only Jesus Christ can do that. If we desire, in the words of the IRD mission statement, “to reaffirm the biblical and historical teachings of the Church, to strengthen and reform its role in public life, to protect religious freedom and to renew democracy at home and abroad”, then we have to start at the individual level. Only by converting man can we then cover society.

Barry F. Howard