Gary North is the son-in-law of RJ Rushdoony
R. J. Rushdoony, R.I.P.
by Gary North
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
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.
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
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
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 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."
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