Book Review: Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America, by Crawford Gribben
Crawford Gribben. Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. Oxford University Press, 2021. 210 pages.
Amidst growing societal pressure and a waning consensus on the best manner of Christian political engagement, American evangelicals face a torrent of suggestions for how to relate to the public square. Some opt for direct action on local, state, and national levels. Others avoid such activism. Some seek to build think tanks, schools, and other institutions in global centers of power. Others call for a strategic retreat in order to build a new society.
Each movement has its arguments and growing body of literature. But it’s this last group that forms the subject of Crawford Gribben’s Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. What’s appealed to survivalists in previous generations has now found a following among American evangelicals. In particular, hundreds of evangelicals have moved northwest in the hopes of building a better society.
The following review will give special attention to Gribben’s description of his subjects’ beliefs. His work should help pastors and Christians better with the assumptions his subjects celebrate.
Gribben doesn’t aim to critique but describe. He writes, “’More school of thought than an organization,’ Christian Reconstruction was developed by R.J. Rushdoony and his son-in-law Gary North in the late 1960s, but it has evolved over time, and has variegated in that evolution” (8). Gribben demonstrates how new challenges over time led to such changes.
Gribben’s description focuses on a few growing communities in the Pacific Northwest. Most notably—and, in Gribben’s view, the most successful—is the one in Moscow, Idaho led by Douglas Wilson and others. Through careful research and personal interviews, Gribben describes some of the history, beliefs, and challenges facing these communities, as well as the troubling past of similar movements.
Unlike the Christian Reconstructionists or theonomists (used synonymously) of the mid-twentieth century, contemporary theonomists find an audience for their views in the cultural mainstream. Their books are distributed by major publishing companies, and other forms of media find substantial followings across several platforms. The invitation to join these communities is not a call to retreat, but a beckoning to build for the future. Their aim is a Christian society.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER SUMMARY
Gribben’s book summarizes common beliefs of these communities in five main chapters—Migration, Eschatology, Government, Education, and Media.
His chapter “Migration” details the variety of organizations, individuals, and groups who have sought haven in the Pacific Northwest. Notably, “Religious migrants have been moving in and out of Idaho for 200 years—and some of their visions have been aggressive” (20), with evangelicals migrating in the 1950s and 60s (22). In the 1970s, more evangelicals took the journey, convinced that they lived in an unstable world awaiting cataclysmic events.
Some were dispensational in their theology, while others were Reformed and postmillennial. As Gribben observes, “Some wished to build a family or a congregation, while others wished to build a fortress. Some were preparing for tribulation while others were pursuing the millennium. All of them wanted to resist, and almost all of them expected to survive” (28). They shared a conviction that American society was declining quickly, and the best chance for survival and resistance would be found in the Pacific Northwest.
The following chapter, “Eschatology,” explains how various views of the end times informed strategies of survival and resistance. Attacking the “sorry tribulation complex” of dispensational premillennialists, R.J. Rushdoony and other postmillennialists pressed Christians to consider the biblical basis for social order and how they could change it. They offered hope. The book of Revelation, Rushdoony argued, was a “declaration of the sovereignty, lordship, and victory of Christ in history.” “Christians,” then, “should be working for a ‘world which has been brought under the discipline of the gospel and evangelized in every area” (42). It would take time, so Christians must be patient.
Although postmillennial theology was overwhelmed by dispensational premillennialism in the 1960s and 70s, it would find a friendlier audience in the 1980s and 90s. Most notably, in Gribben’s telling, it would be accepted and developed by a former dispensational charismatic, Douglas Wilson. In the late 1970s, Doug Wilson became the pastor of a church built from the evangelistic ministry of his father, Jim Wilson. In the 1980s, the younger Wilson would become influenced by Reformed ideas, and in 1988 he published the first issue of Credenda Agenda, which popularized some of the postmillennialism of Rushdoony and others.
For Wilson, this postmillennialism offered surety in the storm. Gribben cites a 1998 essay where Wilson stated, “The medieval period is the closest thing we have to a maturing Christian culture . . . Christians need to start thinking more about plotting the rest of the story, preparing for the death of modernity over the next century . . . The nation which we call the United States has already been lost” (50, emphasis original).
Postmillennialism would also help make sense of Wilson’s success. As his church grew and more people moved to Moscow, Wilson’s rhetoric turned more triumphalist, Gribben recounts. Echoing Abraham Kuyper, Wilson said much later, Jesus Christ is “already king of Idaho . . . We have the task of announcing to the remaining rebels in the hinterlands that their capital city has already fallen, their rulers dethroned, and that resistance is futile” (55). As Wilson and others might see it, the Moscow community provides a picture of a future America. But short-term victory is not the goal; theirs is the long game.
In Gribben’s description, as Christian Reconstructionists grew disaffected with evangelical dispensationalism, they joined the program of the Religious Right. Gribben claims, “Large pandenominational and politically pragmatic religious coalitions that dominated an earlier phase of evangelical political engagement have fractured, and have given way to a much more vigorous, variegated, and entrepreneurial evangelical political landscape” (63). It’s among this balkanization, argues Gribben, that the Christian Reconstructionists have gained ground.
The vision of government espoused by Wilson and others finds its growing audience amongst those who find the public square hostile to Christian claims, making a Christian approach to politics untenable in the current system. The editors of Credenda Agenda argued, “The fulfillment of the Great Commission . . . requires the establishment of a global Christendom.”
Additionally, Wilson saw his work as contributing to a “network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgement of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the fundamental truth of the Apostles’ Creed.” Wilson continues, “Christian ministers must proclaim the crown rights of King Jesus everywhere, and over everything” (82). Gribben summarizes that this achieves a “baptized civilization” or theocracy where “the practice of non-Christian religion would be permissible only within private homes” (82).
According to Gribben, Christian Reconstructionists aim for a new education paradigm. Perhaps surprisingly, they agree that Christian teaching has no place in public schools (91). Instead, their task is to build a thoroughly Christian education system where Christian families can educate their children according to their practices and beliefs. This led to calls by some for new institutions that would be viable alternatives to the “humanistically controlled institutions of the secular state” (103). And as Gribben notes, the Moscow community succeeds where others fail.
The Moscow community established a school in the 1970s and later a university. Due to the latter’s engagement with Western literature and academic rigor, Gribben says, “It is hardly surprising that its graduates enter programs in elite European universities and the Ivy League” (112). Considering its history, the Moscow community has realized the hopes of former theonomists who saw Christian education as instilling the virtues and values that would shape society for generations to come.
So far it could seem that these theonomists possess an interesting ideology, albeit provincial. How is it relevant for others? What helps fuel the migration mentioned in chapter one?
As Gribben conveys, it’s the new use of media that gives the modern theonomist a growing audience. Particularly print and online media, Gribben says, have been primary tools. In Moscow, Canon Press publishes for readers who already accept their premises. Many theonomists publish more broadly, largely bypassing evangelical publishers and choosing instead more mainstream brands. Authors publish with HarperCollins, Random House, Oxford University Press, and more. Their success with mainstream publishers shows the allure of their ideas, and for adherents, the success of their program. Gribben summarizes, “The Moscow community has survived, and has successfully resisted American modernity, and its greatest success may be found in its members’ creative work” (143).
Rather than evaluating the claims of these theonomists, Gribben concludes by reflecting on how his subjects are positioned to answer questions many American Christians are considering. Amidst evangelicalism’s balkanization, Gribben demonstrates that those in Moscow have been building and refining a program for decades. Their foundation is well-established, and their reach is broad. Historically rough edges have been smoothed, and their success can be measured.
After reading Gribben’s account, one matter is clear—these are not your father’s (or grandfather’s) theonomists.
FOR FURTHER ANALYSIS
Pastors will be well served by reading Gribben’s work. Though he doesn’t evaluate the claims or ideology of his subjects, his descriptions help pastors understand where all these theonomists come from and what parts of their views may appeal to fellow church members.
This review, like Gribben’s book, has aimed to be more descriptive and less evaluative to prompt readers to consider the appeal of Gribben’s study and the arguments of his subjects. However, permit me to raise a few questions to provoke further thought.
Is the theonomic vision of a society biblically faithful? Does the Bible call Christians to work for an explicitly Christian society? If so, in what ways? And if not, what and how should Christians seek to build as parts of society grow more hostile to belief?
Furthermore, is the migration pattern toward the Pacific Northwest anti-Great Commission? Under the Old Covenant, God called his people out of Egypt north and eastward to the land of Canaan. In exile, his Old Covenant people felt that same centripetal draw toward the land, only now the pull was south and westward. Think of Daniel opening his windows and praying toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10). All this changes with the New Covenant and Christ’s Great Commission. The book of Acts begins with Jews “from every nation under heaven” showing up in Jerusalem for Pentecost (2:5). There’s the centripetal pull. Yet then Acts spends the rest of the book reversing course with a centrifugal push toward Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth for the purpose of making disciples. In other words, does the migration pattern toward Idaho recounted by Gribben represent a reverse Great Commission, an exchange of the centrifugal for the centripetal once again, and the attempt to rebuild ancient Israel?
Now that Tim Keller is retired from his pastoral work in Manhattan, would the pastors of Moscow consider moving to Manhattan and picking up the work there? Or are secular hubs like Manhattan not a place where Christians who really care about the nation should go? Is there something about the Moscow program that would make a move to Manhattan unlikely, and, if so, doesn’t that suggest that something about the Great Commission has been lost?
Answering these and other questions will require pastors and Christians to revisit our assumptions about the mission of the church and what hope for the future Christians possess. For those attempting to challenge such a vision summarized here, Gribben’s work is a helpful starting place. It will take carefully considering such claims with an open Bible.