Mere Barbarity: Christian Theocracy, the American Far Right, and the Teachings of Douglas Wilson
It is probably just as well that Douglas Wilson addresses his book, Mere Christendom,1 exclusively to evangelical Christians, since his supporters would be as offended by a critical analysis of his ideas as outsiders would be appalled by the ideas themselves. America, he says (and one assumes Western civilisation more generally), is threatened with social and political collapse as a result of the decline of Christianity, and a state restructured on Christian principles is essential to prevent catastrophe. Such ideas have some currency among American and English conservatives, who see religion, culture and nation as intertwined, and individual rights as culturally determined rather than universal, but Wilson has no interest in the established order or the status quo. The secular state, he tells us, by virtue of being a secular state, has rejected God. In rejecting God, it has taken God’s place, meaning that it can impose no limits on its appetite for tyranny. Neither has it any basis for promulgating human rights, since human rights can only arise from a recognition of the immortality of the human soul. It is therefore essential that American democracy be abolished, and that Christians and Christians alone design the constitution that should take its place. The alternative, says Wilson, is the drift towards authoritarianism which he finds at work in social security programmes, in federal taxation, and in the health protection measures imposed during the Covid pandemic, against which he mobilised his followers.
That Wilson fails utterly to distinguish between political and metaphysical systems of thought, that he is oblivious to the difference between a value judgement and a truth claim, that he lumps together and misunderstands every idea, value or belief he regards as godless, is apparent before one has finished reading his introduction. Moreover, mere paragraphs after claiming that there is no basis for human rights outside the Christian belief in immortality, he is expounding the difference between those who will spend eternity in heaven and those will spend it in hell, offering us a society in which the value of the individual person depends on that person’s religious conformity. A humanist might argue that the value of the person is self-evident, just as the supremacy of Christian thought is self-evident to Wilson; while a liberal Christian might ask, with Paul Tillich, on what grounds humans are morally bound to obey God, and why God would desire such obedience anyway.2 Mary Midgeley and Iris Murdoch both show us the gulf between scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism, describing a morality and a sense of the sacred which neither requires the existence of God nor excludes it.3 What exists or does not exist does not determine what should or should not be valued, and these philosophers remove Wilson’s rational basis from under him before he has even begun.
His belief that atheists cannot value life perhaps derives from that evangelical guru of the 1960s, the effective founder of the Christian Right, Francis Schaeffer, who returned from debating philosophy with hippies in Europe to touring America urging Christians to civil disobedience if Roe v. Wade was not overturned.4 Like Schaeffer, Wilson is inspired by the Reformation, which he believes caused the social and political changes from which liberal democracy developed. Historians see a muddier correlation. A developed economy requires an educated workforce with critical, flexible, inventive minds, and skills in social organisation and communication: qualities which necessarily tend towards social democracy.5 As the far-right thinker Mencius Moldbug concedes, policies such as his become unachievable when a well-informed public has the right to reject them. ‘Cthulhu may swim slowly,’ he writes. ‘But he always swims left.’6
But Wilson also relates his ideas specifically to the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony, who in 1973 demanded the ‘reconstruction’ of American society through the application of Old Testament law as a corollary of Christian obedience to God,7 and who played a decisive role in the development of the home-schooling movement where children could be raised in safety from the godless lies of the secular state. A third possible influence, Rushdoony’s son in law, the economist Gary North, hoped to bring about a Christian theocracy in the chaos he expected to follow the Y2K bug. He founded a church based on Reconstructionist principles, but its members found his demands insupportable, and invited him to take his guns and drill his Christian militia elsewhere.8
Rushdoony allowed that his ‘reconstruction’ of Old Testament law could be achieved only by public consent. He was also very clear in his description of the society he envisaged, explaining to a public meeting with a small child on his knee that an American theocracy would execute Hindus. Yet he also insisted that this theocracy could not amount to tyranny because it reduced the power of the federal state and divided its powers between the family and the church. Hence a later reconstructionist, William Einwechter, is at pains to show how a community court could observe a presumption of innocence, a desire for rehabilitation, and a separation of powers, while ordering that a teenage boy be stoned to death for impiety in fulfilment of Biblical law.9 The boy, Einwechter notes, is accused by his family, judged by his local elders, and executed by his community, without involvement from any centralised state in Jerusalem or Washington D.C., and therefore without oppression.10 ‘Oppression,’ in this sense, consists not of torture, bloodshed, the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of community, culture, and environment, but in the existence of a state powerful enough to limit such things, and it is in this sense that Reconstructionists deny that their programme is political.
Wilson likewise denies that his ‘mere Christendom’ is Reconstructionist, though the Southern Poverty Law Centre, examining his programme in part because of his views on race, concludes that it is ‘in most ways indistinguishable from basic tenets of Reconstruction.’11 But while Rushdoony and North made their objectives clear, and paid the price in loneliness and financial hardship as the wider church made clear its repudiation of their views, Wilson prefers to tease us with the possibilities of his theocracy, demanding absolutist powers whilst denying the intention to use them. All Old Testament law is good, he tells us, including the stoning of blasphemers, adulterers, and Sabbath breakers, and including the law discussed by Einwechter above. The execution of Michael Servetus in John Calvin’s Geneva, burnt at the stake for his Unitarian views, was also morally justified. Yet a state with the power of the death penalty might come to use it ‘against the saints,’ and we must never ‘mow down the law to get at the devil’ — except in the case of laws, among which he cites the right to abortion, which are not truly laws at all.
From a man who presents himself as a Christian intellectual, a cultured champion of Western civilisation and classical learning, this is surprisingly facile, feeble stuff. Wilson is, again, echoing Schaeffer, who cited Christian resistance to Nazi laws in his call to use force in response to Roe v. Wade; but Schaeffer overlooked the fact that Christians were part of a wider movement, expressing their moral revulsion against Nazism alongside Marxists, socialists, liberals, democrats, anarchists, nationalists and conservatives, and were not, like Wilson, seeking to impose their authority on a society which was slipping out of their control. Moreover, many Christian leaders embraced Nazism whole-heartedly, and remained in positions of church leadership long after the Third Reich had collapsed; and even such heroes of the Confessing Church as Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr were less motivated by a concern for human dignity than by a desire to protect ecclesiastical independence, and were morally hamstrung by their own pronounced antisemitic views.12 There is nothing of any moral substance in Wilson’s understanding of law. There is none of Socrates’ scrupulous description of conscientious objectors who (like the Penyberth Three) break individual laws yet demonstrate their respect for the law as a whole by willingly surrendering to judgement. Neither can there be, for while Socrates in his death cell refused the chance to escape, preferring to use his execution to demonstrate that a philosopher need not fear death,13 Wilson encouraged his followers to use fraudulent vaccination certificates during the Covid-19 pandemic.14 There is no awareness of Ronald Dworkin’s conception of the law as a self-correcting and living thing, moving, despite its own fallibility, towards a justice based on human rights;15 and again, there can be no such admission, since Wilson defended American slavery on the grounds of the ‘affection’ it fostered between the races, and backtracked when his views were exposed.16 Neither is there any awareness of Lon Fuller’s tests for the validity of a law, which must be universal, not retrospective, and possible to obey — requirements which, as Fuller argued, voided the laws of Nazi Germany which made a person’s ancestry or race illegal,17 and which would void any laws reflecting Wilson’s hatred of homosexuals (‘sodomites… foul’) or the children of non-Christian parents (‘foul — unclean… displeasing to God’).18 We are left at best with H. L. A. Hart’s equivocal views on obedience to the law,19 and at worst with the law of the totalitarian state or the mob.
But if Wilson lacks any meaningful learning to support his beliefs, he is more than capable of expressing scorn. His mockery is targeted especially at the ‘black-robed Nazgul’ who provide abortions in the face of murder, kidnap, threats, and abuse, in some cases pro bono and as an expression of their Christian faith;20 at the ‘dignity dumpsters’ where he claims that dismembered foetuses are left to rot; and at Christians who are too cowed, as he sees it, by the moral claims of secular democracy to embrace his authoritarian programme. Secular society seeks to impose its beliefs and values, its liberalism and socialism, its ‘religion,’ he says, upon him, so he is entitled to impose his beliefs and values, his theocracy, upon secular society. And if at some point his theocracy were inclined to put children to death, then this risk must be weighed against the current secular oppression of the church, which he finds in abortion rights, Gay Pride marches, the Black Lives Matter movement, and cancel culture.21
I was a member of an evangelical cult during my student years. I lived with a family who were members of the cult, gave much of my time and energy and money to the cult, altered my study plans at its behest, associated with other cult members almost exclusively, and was shocked, at the end of my second year, to realise that a fellow student was less stressed about his final exams than I was by all the daily demands of my religion. Sermons could last for three or four hours, and consist of nothing more than harangues. The mildest, most reasonable dissent could provoke gruelling interventions that lasted well into the night. I found it more stressful to miss one of the cult’s almost-nightly meetings than I now find it to ask my university to cancel a seminar on my behalf.
Our leader — our gwrw cwrw as we came to call him in Welsh, our beer seer — was kept in great comfort at our expense, and with minimal demands on his energies and time. When at last we dismissed him from leadership, the woman of the family with whom I was living began to tell me the cult’s history. For three or four hours each evening over the space of about a week, she described the extortion and bullying, the intimidation and spying, the fear, loneliness, guilt and shame, the corruption of intimacy, the erosion of trust, the relentless destruction of the personality and conscience, to which the cult’s first members had been subjected. A teenage girl was found to be ‘stubborn,’ and spent several months confined to her room. A man who had given everything he owned to the cult was found to be no longer worthy of membership, and left with nothing but his clothes and his car. There was no doubt in this woman’s mind that if she had been ordered to kill herself or others she would have done so without question.
Yet this ignorant, vulgar, venal thug who had founded our cult was not the worst danger within it. That greater danger appeared towards the end of my time there, bringing with him intelligence, theological knowledge, a curious obsession with Old Testament law, and, of course, a perfect, obedient Christian family. He was attracted to the cult by the Christian school that we ran, the Christian university that our leaders had hopes one day of founding, and the theocratic ‘dominion,’ as they called it, that its graduates would be able to form. He seemed, if anything, rather disappointed when we dismissed our leader and abandoned his programme in favour of happy-clappy mediocrity. Before we mutinied, I asked an elder how this theocracy would treat those, like me, who felt a moral necessity to oppose it, and whether we would be merely imprisoned for our dissidence, or actually killed. His response was not especially reassuring.
But the evils presented by such people are worse even than post-Christian societies restructured to abolish human rights. For Robert Wright it is human history itself — the discovery of agriculture, the foundation of cities, nations and empires, the expansion of communications and trade — which has shaped the evolution of our morals and religions, giving us more powerful yet more ethical and compassionate creator-gods which have sometimes displaced each other and sometimes merged, while admitting other nations, races and religions to their care and concern, even as we have been forced by circumstance to live peacefully with those who are increasingly different from ourselves.22 As climate chaos becomes a pressing reality, as floods and fires threaten agricultural production, and as famines lead to mass-migrations and wars fought over diminishing natural resources, it is leaders like Wilson — whose Christian theocracy would abolish environmental protections — that threaten our extinction. Gary North wanted to see civilisation collapse because he believed it would give his religion power. Scientists and technicians whose contributions have been forgotten worked quietly and selflessly to save it.23
The social psychologist, Bob Altemeyer, ran a number of simulations with undergraduate students, using an established model of the future of the earth over half a century or more, with groups exclusively of liberals and left-wingers, and groups of authoritarian conservatives. This model was designed to consider ways of meeting the climate crisis, and left-wing groups were able to prevent its worst effects through international cooperation and government action, eventually achieving a juster and more peaceful world. Authoritarian groups retreated into nationalism, denialism, and political oppression, and over decades saw rising hunger, social breakdown, international tension, and nuclear war.24 Wilson has nothing to say about the genuine crises that threaten our future, and nothing to offer but the pride and greed and selfish brutality that have led us here. To let such people lead us further would be mere barbarity.
Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2023. ↩
Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. London: Fontana, 1962. p. 178, and the surrounding chapter, discuss the ‘bad theology’ of God as a being and as a subject who reduces the believer to an object, becoming a tyrant against whom the believer must necessarily rebel. ↩
Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Revised edition. London: Routledge, 2002. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970. ↩
See Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1981. pp. 467-491. ↩
For example, see Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), which explores the relationship between education, democracy, and industrial conditions in 19th and 20th century Europe. ↩
Mencius Moldbug, A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations. Ebook. Unqualified Reservations, 2015. Cthulhu, a monstrous tyrant of alien origin long imprisoned beneath the waves, is a symbol of evil in the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. ↩
His manifesto is laid out in his book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, published by Craig Press in 1973. ↩
My biographies of Rushdoony and North are informed by Michael McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: UNCP, 2015. Francis Schaeffer’s complex personal life and career are described his son in Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, And Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Cambridge, Massachussets: Da Capo, 2008. Despite the awful title, this last book is rather a good one, being incisive, funny, wise, and at times moving. ↩
The case is taken from Deuteronomy 21: 18-21: ‘If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear’ (KJV). ↩
William Einwechter, ‘Stoning Disobedient Children?’ Chalcedon Foundation, 1st January 1999 (archived). Accessed 9th February 2024. ‘“Stoning Disobedient Children?” Revisited.’ The Christian Statesman. Accessed 29th July 2023, and subsequently withdrawn, although briefly discussed and quoted here. ↩
See Henry Munsion, ‘Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust.’ Religions, 16th January 2018. In particular, Munson quotes a sermon given by Niemöller in 1935, when he says of the Jewish people that ‘whatever it takes up becomes poisoned, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred, because ever and anon the world notices the deception and avenges itself in its own way’ (p. 9), and Bonhoeffer, who in 1933 defended the Nazi government’s response to ‘the Jewish question,’ and related even the murder of Jews to the fact that their ancestors had killed God. ↩
Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977. ↩
Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson, Southern Slavery as it Was (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996). Accessed at archive.org, 9th February 2024. See also Libby Anne, ‘Was Slavery A Good Thing? Examining Doug Wilson.’ Patheos, 15th October 2012. Accessed 9th February 2024. ↩
Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law. Revised edition. New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1969. ↩
See Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2005) p. 49: ‘Sodomites parade in the streets, claiming that if we do not appropriate more money to study why people with foul sexual habits get sick, we are somehow violating their civil rights. Feminists, in rebellion against God, invert the order of the family home established by God…’ See also Douglas Wilson, Standing on the Promises of God: A Handbook of Biblical Childrearing (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1997) pp. 169-170: ‘The children of our culture are growing up under the wrath and anger of God. His judgment on them is manifest in the insolent way they walk, the sullen look on their faces, the arrogant ignorance of their speech, the moral idiocy of their sexual lives. Clearly these children are hated and rejected by God — He has delivered them over to the suicidal pattern of sin. Why is God destroying them? The biblical answer is that their parents hated Him, and He is visiting that iniquity downstream. Because they are children of disobedience, they will die. The apostle Paul teaches that if neither parent believes in Jesus Christ, then the children are foul — unclean.’
That Wilson holds such negative views of others reminds me of a fable of Aesop, which I narrate from memory here: ‘An old man once sat under an olive tree outside a city gate, when a traveller approached him asked him what kind of people lived within. “And what kind of people have you come from?” asked the old man. “Oh,” replied the traveller, “they were without exception lazy, untrustworthy, ungenerous and rude, and that is why I had to leave.” “Then I’m sorry,” said the old man, “but you will find the people here no better.”
‘The traveller went his way, but some time later another traveller approached, and asked the old man what kind of city he had arrived at. “And what kind of city have you left?” asked the old man. “I miss it,” replied the traveller, “for it was filled with the most generous, hospitable and good-hearted people that anyone could know.” “Then you are indeed fortunate,” replied the old man. “For having left one city full of admirable people, you have arrived quite by chance at another.”’ ↩
H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon, 1961. ↩
See Emma Green, ‘A Pastor’s Case for the Morality of Abortion.’ The Atlantic, 26th May 2019 and Alice Park, ‘Abortion Provider Dr. Willie Parker Talks About His Deep Christian Faith.’ Time, 13th April 2017. See also Alex Morris, ‘Think Christianity Is Anti-Abortion? Think Again.’ Rolling Stone, 27th June 2022 and Melanie A. Howard, ‘What the Bible actually says about abortion may surprise you.’ The Conversation, 20th July 2022. All accessed 14th February 2022. ↩
See Julia Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism. Oxford: OUP, 2015, which explores the movement’s beliefs concerning the nature of understanding and knowledge, or Frederick Clarkson, ‘Christian Reconstruction: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.’ In Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash. Ed. by Chip Berlet. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1995, which explores its use of deceit. ↩
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009. ↩
Bob Altemeyer, ‘What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth?’ Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 3: 1 (2003), pp. 161-169. ↩
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