Book Review: Law and Liberty, by R.J. Rushdoony
More than anyone else, Rousas John Rushdoony (1916–2001) has been responsible for the burgeoning of theonomic thought among a small, but vocal, minority of Reformed Christians. He’s considered the father of reconstructionism and one of the seminal influences in the homeschool movement. In Law and Liberty, we get the seeds of Rushdoony’s ideas on biblical law and political theory, the flower of which came to bloom in his massive Institutes of Biblical Law (1973). Originally delivered as a series of radio addresses in 1966 and 1967 (though written for publication first), these essays are dated, frequently redundant, sometimes disjointed, and put together without much in the way of scholarly apparatus or footnotes. Still, they provide a popular level introduction to Rushdoony’s brand of reconstructionism.
At the heart of Rushdoony’s analysis of American cultural and law (as he saw it in the 1960s) is a twofold prescription for what ails us as a nation.
First, Rushdoony believes that every law is the expression of one’s ultimate allegiance. American law is no longer based on biblical convictions or categories, but on humanistic, statist, and socialist principles. He argues that the only approach to civil law which is truly Christian is to make God’s law the standard. To derive our laws from any other source but God’s revelation in the Scriptures is to commit idolatry.
Second, Rushdoony believes the family holds the central place in divine law. The family is directly responsible to God, in a way that supersedes the state and even the church. The horror of statism, communism, and socialism is not only that they deny God, but that they deliberately undermine the legitimacy and preeminence of the family. Surely it is significant that in no fewer than eight chapters, Rushdoony concludes by quoting Psalm 127:1—“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” For Rushdoony, this verse captures both the centrality of the family and the need for all manmade endeavors, including civil law, to be built explicitly upon the foundation of God’s word.
Conservative Christians will find much to appreciate in Rushdoony’s cultural critiques.
Rushdoony begins by evaluating the notion that “you can’t legislate morality.” In one sense, Rushdoony agrees with this familiar trope: laws can’t change the heart. Laws are not meant to regenerate; they are meant to restrain (6–7). More important, however, is Rushdoony’s keen observation that all legislation is concerned with morality (3). It sounds broadminded to suggest we should not enforce our morality, but all laws—be it tax law or laws against theft and murder—presuppose a moral framework (4).
Throughout 32 chapters, Rushdoony makes a principled case for a limited government of just laws, what he calls on occasion Christian Libertarianism. He defends capital punishment (9–14). He emphasizes the importance of private property as a bulwark against tyranny (83). He denounces all utopian schemes, dreamed up by Marxists and Communists, which envision political machinations ushering in a world free from disease, poverty, crime, war, prejudice, and ignorance (5). He laments the growing expectation found in the American people that government will be our savior (77). He fears we are trading our God-given liberties for promises of security (78).
At the macro-level, Rushdoony is most concerned about the erosion of liberty and the family. Instead of subverting God’s rules and God-given freedom, the law should protect and point out the responsibilities of liberty (18–19). And instead of attacking the basic unit of social order, the law should promote the well-being of the family (108). At his best, Rushdoony gives voice to the long-held belief in this country that religious virtue, family, and liberty are interconnected and all are necessary for a flourishing, free people. Surely in our day with opposition on every one of these fronts, we can appreciate the dangers Rushdoony saw and some of the basic contours of his political philosophy.
BRIDGES TOO FAR, A FEW CURIOSITIES, AND OTHER CRITICISMS
And yet, in my estimation, the best parts of Rushdoony are rendered less useful by a host of stylistic, methodological, and rhetorical problems. Let me mention five areas of concern.
First, Rushdoony is prone to making sweeping statements that are hard to defend and sometimes hard to understand.
At different points, he links our modern problems to chaos, then alchemy, then academic freedom, and often to humanism, all without demonstrating a careful understanding of these concepts. Rushdoony presents his arguments with an air of great learning and erudition, but, at least in this volume, there’s little sense that he has read serious and relevant academic work in the areas he’s addressing. He makes almost no effort, for example, to support his historical claims. On what basis does he maintain that alchemists were closely allied with revolutionaries during the Enlightenment (58)? And what support is there for the claim that Enlightenment rationalism believes in the god-like power of philosopher-kings (65)?
This may sound like nitpicking, but Rushdoony’s penchant for exaggeration becomes a real problem when we get to the areas where he has proved most influential. I have no problem with Christians who think homeschooling is the best option for their children. I don’t have a problem with Christians who want to point out the weaknesses, and in some cases egregious mistakes, of public education. But the first rule of effective and fair polemics is to describe your opponents in ways they would recognize. Rushdoony fails that test when it comes to describing public education.
- “Instead of rebirth by Jesus Christ, they offer rebirth by means of a statist, progressivist curriculum. The public schools are the creatures of the state, and therefore they teach and exalt the authority of the democratic state” (43).
- “State controlled schools have replaced religion with magic, and the goal of education today is the same as that of ancient magicians, the total control of all reality by man” (72).
- Education today is not concerned with knowledge, but with techniques of power (167).
- “State supported education is totalitarian education. The essence of totalitarianism is simply this, that it maintains that the state has all the answers to life, and virtually every sphere of human activity should be governed by the state. . . . Common to all forms of totalitarianism is a belief in the state control of education” (178).
I can’t imagine anyone in public education would agree with these descriptions, much less the Christians who teach in our public schools. This isn’t the place to weigh the pros and cons of public versus private versus homeschool, but describing public education with hyper-exaggerated rhetoric is no way to convince the unconvinced or respect those who may come to different conclusions.
Second, having confidence in Rushdoony’s sweeping assertions is made more difficult when he is not very careful with his details.
He claims that “tyranny” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “secular rule,” rule by man instead of rule by God’s law (37), but originally turannos simply referred an authoritarian ruler. Rushdoony says modern science is like magic because it tries to control everything (69–74), but when he then points to the biblical prohibitions against magic to bolster his case, he’s reading an anachronistic definition back into the Old Testament.
Similarly, Rushdoony offers a simplistic view of the common law tradition, suggesting that until recently the courts in America normally looked to the Bible to render their verdicts (111–115). And when he argues that for most of American history, God has been recognized as the source of government—a claim Rushdoony supports with a single quotation from the Connecticut Constitution of 1639—he makes a valid point about the religious foundations of our country, but leaves the impression that the theonomic vision is nothing but a return to the country we once were. Rushdoony shows himself in this volume to be a dabbler. He locates events and ideas from history, without careful attention to detail, context or historical nuance, and then pieces them together to make claims that are as sweeping as they are self-assured. To put the case even more strongly, Carl Trueman has called Rushdoony “historically incompetent,” if not “unhinged,” for his rejection (in The Institutes of Biblical Law) of interracial marriage and his insistence that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust has been exaggerated by the millions.
Third, Rushdoony maximizes the role of the family in a way which minimizes the role of the church.
The family, Rushdoony says, is our first church, first school, and first state (75). Likewise, the family, not the church or the state, is the only institution legitimized in the Ten Commandments (91). “The family,” he writes, “does not belong to either the church or the state; it is a separate institution under God directly” (179). Rushdoony even has an odd chapter defending nepotism, where he concludes that any rules against nepotism are “at war” with Biblical morality and the family (157).
I appreciate his emphasis on the family. I agree that the family is the building block in every society. But in my estimation, Rushdoony fails to appropriate the ways in which natural kinship is relativized in the New Testament by its emphasis on our spiritual family in Christ. Jesus himself scandalized the Jews by redefining what true family meant. It would be difficult to demonstrate from the New Testament that God’s focus in this world is on the nuclear family.
Given Rushdoony’s views, it’s not surprising that he eventually left the OPC and started a home church with members of his family.
Fourth, Rushdoony has no place for natural law and shows little understanding of its historical development.
At first, he says natural law originated in Greek thought (27). Later he says it began with Aristotle or the Enlightenment, which are not exactly the same thing (30). By Rushdoony’s definition, natural law is the idea that there is a higher law in nature which man’s enlightened reason can discover and this higher law is the law by which men and nations must be governed (28). Christians must be opposed to natural law because nature is not normative. Nature is fallen and in rebellion against God. Therefore, our standard must look beyond nature to God (30–31).
It’s true that nature is not a sufficient revelation of God or God’s will, but this is not what natural law posits. Drawing from texts like Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and 2, natural law thinking argues that certain moral truths, informed by reason and apprehended by conscience, can be known by all. Traditional liberalism—in the stream of Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Witherspoon, and many others—could not have held together without a healthy dose of natural law. If you completely reject natural law—either from the left as today’s secularists do, or from the right as Rushdoony does—you will end up with a strikingly different conception of government than what has been typical in American history. This, of course, doesn’t settle the matter, but it does underline the significance of this issue.
It’s worth noting in passing that there is a long line of natural law thinking in the Reformed tradition. Of course, Reformed thinkers are free to argue with that tradition—indeed, there has been a lot of arguing within the tradition itself. But it cannot be reasonably maintained that natural law thinking is anti-Christian or even anti-Reformed. Francis Turretin, to name just one prominent example, had a large role for reason, philosophy, and natural law in his prolegomena.
Fifth, Rushdoony’s principle of no neutrality, though an important epistemological priority, is overwrought as an all-encompassing philosophy for governance and law.
If there is a foundational idea behind reconstructionism it is the presuppositionalism first made prominent by Cornelius Van Til. Though Van Til was not a theonomist, many after him have used his epistemology (intended as an apologetic method) as their starting point for a reconstructionist vision of America.
Basic to Rushdoony’s theory of law and liberty is the conviction that we have two religions in violent conflict: humanism and Christianity. Each has its own morality and with that morality its own laws (6). Since every law is an expression of some sort of faith (35), then true government must be according to God’s word and his laws (13). Every religion, every philosophy, and every form of political thought rests on some underlying and absolute authority (40). Wherever we find our authority that is our god. So if the individual is the source of law, then the individual is god. If the people are the source of our authority and maker of our laws, then they are gods. Rushdoony uses the same logic for the courts, the proletariat, and every other form of government. Authority, he argues, is inescapable. That is not in question. The only question is which authority will you choose: God or man (43)?
Since there is no neutrality, Rushdoony sees nothing but apocalyptic conflict in our immediate future: “Because the science and politics of magic openly declare war against God and His government, they invite the collision, and they invite it in the confidence that they shall kill God and abolish Him. . . . We face, then, a conflict between two worlds of law, the law of God, versus the law of magic, of the new politics, science and education, of humanism in its essence. Of this conclusion there can be no doubt” (73). In a reconstructionist cultural hermeneutic, our choices are seen in the sharpest contrasts. Whether it’s education, legislation, or jurisprudence, there are only two options: that of secular false religion and that of God’s holy law. There’s no middle ground, no other choices, no shared convictions.
Rushdoony’s logic has a compelling simplicity to it. Every law is based on a system of morality, and every system morality is based on religious belief. Therefore, if there is only one true religion, the only option is to have government according to man or government according to God. Given those choices, every Christian will opt for the latter, which in Rushdoony’s thinking means (roughly) that the laws of the Old Testament should be the law of the land. So, to cite but one example, if God is Lord over all property, then his laws ought to govern all property (81). Consequently, since the Bible didn’t have property tax, neither should we (82).
This is not the place to offer a full-blown alternative to the theonomist ideal, but it’s worth noting how Rushdoony’s logic may be less than meets the eye. For starters, it presumes that the Bible means to give us a form of government for the modern nation-state. What if many of our laws must be based on prudential reasoning and have no definitive biblical mandate? Along these same lines, reconstructionists must assume almost complete continuity between God’s people as the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and God’s people as strangers and aliens in the New Testament. Which is why Rushdoony maintains that the promise of blessings and curses for the nation of Israel under the Mosaic covenant is still how “God’s law is operative in the world” (127).
Also problematic is that there seems to be no place for common grace in the theonomist logic. It has no room for God-fearing non-Christians like Cornelius or decent pagan rulers like Cyrus. It is never willing to admit that God causes the sun to shine upon the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). One can’t help but speculate that Rushdoony’s rhetoric is so harsh to those outside his camp because, in his estimation, God has not given any kind of grace to anyone else.
Moreover, Rushdoony seems unaware of the theological distinction, employed by many Reformed thinkers, between the essential reign of Christ and the mediatorial reign of Christ. Christ reigns over all and his law is standard for all peoples, but Christ exercises this universal reign differently over the church than he does over the world. Related to this point is Rushdoony’s failure to understand the development of redemptive history and its climax in the declared Lordship of Christ (Acts 2:34–36; Phil. 2:9–11). Though Rushdoony’s whole system depends on applying the Lordship of Christ consistently to all of life, his plan for this application invariably goes back to the Old Testament and shows little sense that the cross and the resurrection have changed anything.
Finally, the reconstructionist vision, at least as represented in this popular level book, does not deal adequately with the many arguments thoughtful Christians have made over the years on the basis of Christian principles for non-theonomic kinds of government, including Western democracies. Many Christians during the 17th and 18th centuries argued that the laws of the Bible should not automatically be the laws of the nation precisely because Christian theology calls for such liberty and toleration. They also had more realistic plans for government, understanding that politics is the stuff of compromise and the art of the possible. The Augustinian view that the best we hope for from government is to restrain wickedness, establish order in an otherwise chaotic world, and provide us with the lesser evil of various bad tradeoffs is not the view of the theonomist hoping for God’s government to be established on earth.
For all the appropriate warnings that can be found in Rushdoony, taken as a whole the good does not outweigh the bad. I don’t say this because there’s necessarily more that’s false than what’s true in Law and Liberty. I say this because what’s good can be found elsewhere, while what’s unique to Rushdoony (and later reconstructionists) is what’s most troubling.
For one to benefit from the appropriate complaints and warnings in Rushdoony, you have to look past hyperbolic rhetoric, uncharitable polemics, dubious scholarship, and an internal logic which leads one to theonomic conclusions out of step with the New Testament’s relative disinterest in full-blown political theory. As Rushdoony and his followers continue to exert influence in conservative Reformed circles, I hope those intrigued or convinced by reconstructionism will make an effort to read other Christian political works from non-theonomic sources and test Rushdoony’s conclusions against the Scriptures and the rest of the Reformed tradition.
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 In Histories and Fallacies, Trueman elaborates on his charge that Rushdoony was a Holocaust denier, concluding, “His sources are atrocious, secondhand, and unverified; that he held this position speaks volumes about this appalling incompetence as a historian, and one can only speculate as to why he held the position from a moral perspective” (p. 30, fn. 4).