Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest by Crawford Gribben (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 224 pages, £19.99, (Paperback).
Students of insurgencies, coups, and revolutionary warfare know well the interconnection between establishing safe zones of operation outside of the ruling metropole, consolidating and maintaining power within that safe zone, and projecting dissident power—often soft power—out of the safe zone to attract new adherents or followers. The safe zone, often rural in character, serves as a sanctuary, a laboratory, and a staging area for people actively resisting the current political order and who aim to reconstruct that order along new or different lines. These themes are prevalent in Crawford Gribben’s newly published Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. In the book, Gribben highlights how one particular geographic area in the United States, the Pacific Northwest, has become the destination for Christian Reconstructionist and theonomic “intentional communities” (5); these communities are “skeptical [of the] Religious Right” (4) but are nonetheless desirous of widespread cultural and political renewal along conservative-libertarian Christian lines.
Christian Reconstruction is a niche political theology with its origins in the 1970s–80s, most famously associated with Rousas J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, and a small assortment of U.S.-based, conservative-libertarian Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists. Its high-water mark was probably the early-to-mid-1980s, with the movement already in decline by the time it was getting more publicity in the late 80s and early 90s. The theological-political movement emphasized the “reconstruction” of global society and politics through the outworking of theonomy—God’s complete sovereignty and rule over every aspect of human autonomy—within a postmillennial framework. In Christian Reconstruction, the introduction of theonomic ethics and praxis ends not in Christian cultural and political defeat, but, over time, in the inauguration of Christian rule.
Gribben’s book examines multiple “intentional communities” populating the Pacific Northwest—some more theonomic, others less so—but the lion’s share of Survival and Resistance centers around Pastor Douglas Wilson, Christ Church, Trinity Reformed Church, and the entire Christian education-media complex that has developed in Moscow, Idaho over the last thirty-odd years. Gribben argues that Wilson’s “tempered theonomy” (140) is both a derivation from and an intentional rebranding of late Cold War-era Christian Reconstruction. Christian Reconstruction 1.0 was mainly focused on providing theological literature, Biblical commentaries, journal articles, and legal positions for the embryonic homeschooling movement and 1970s coastal/urban exiles seeking rural self-sufficiency. Wilson’s “Christian Reconstruction 0.5” (75), by contrast, is less about attracting what he calls the “Elijah One-Tooth” prepper family and more about the breeding of young, media-savvy, Christian-classical-schooled-Inklings who smile joyfully as they throw a punch.
The history of Wilson’s “tempered theonomy” can probably be broken into three periods. The first ten or so years involved internal church reformation, including a move away from the congregation’s Baptist/Jesus People origins to its decidedly Confessional and predominantly paedobaptist and postmillennial eldership. Wilson has talked publicly about the influence and impact of Christian Reconstruction authors during this shift. The second phase—the late 1980s through the mid-2010s—is the one most important to Gribben’s analysis. For Gribben, this has been Moscow’s cultural-vanguardist stage. He compares it to Theodor Adorno’s “strategy of hibernation”; that is, an intentional rejection of coalitional movement politics (à la the Religious Right). In the language of revolutionary politics, Wilson’s second phase has instead been all about zone consolidation and attractively broadcasting soft power. Keeping Christian Reconstruction’s earlier emphasis on non-neutrality and Christ’s rule over all creation, the Moscow community has founded and staffed local companies and established a K-12 school, four-year New Saint Andrews College (NSA), a church-based seminary program (Greyfriars Hall), and multiple Christian education spinoffs. Finally, it has adopted various media approaches to export its work, including newsletters, mass print marketing, rapid self-publication, podcasting, pay-for-online-subscription content, and crowdfunding.
Gribben may feel, right now, that he published Survival and Resistance a little too soon. In the wake of the U.S. elections of 2016 and 2020, Moscow has entered a phase shift. Adopting Adorno’s language, if they ever were hibernating (and I’m not sure they were), they certainly aren’t any longer. Wilson and his colleagues talk increasingly pointedly about blue state cultural threats caused by migration to red states, and Wilson even set his new post-human novel, Ride Sally Ride, in a 2024-right-wing-Heartland-has-split-from-the-left-wing-coasts America. During the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson and members of his community held “sing-ins” against perceived government overreach, organized anti-mask “Liberate Moscow” protests against the City Council, performed a mask-free flashmob at a local Moscow store, and traveled to support state-wide “Liberate Idaho” rallies. Recent NSA student recruitment videos lambast the “Fauxpocalypse” and contrast the college’s purported “antifragile” style of Christian education with visual montages of riots, Black Lives Matter protests, and masked “snowflake” undergrads at secular universities. Canon Press has begun dropping new books on Christian resistance theory. The zone has become the staging area for more overt movement politics.
In Survival and Resistance, Gribben tries to wrap a three-volume subject into a single book. He provides an easy-to-use overview of the intellectual history behind theonomy, theonomic postmillennialism, and Christian Reconstruction, and gives the beginnings of a historically informed ethnography of Wilson’s “tempered theonom[ic]” community.” However, at the same time, he offers only a truncated comparative analysis of how the Pacific Northwest has been, and continues to be, a “Redoubt”—a physical refuge for groups defined by orthodox or heretical Christianity, libertarian apocalypticism, and conservative flight from perceived urban/coastal decay.
The book also struggles with some category conflation. It is one thing to say that the Pacific Northwest attracts communities “skeptical [of the] Religious Right,” or that “religious and political conservatives” (ix) are migrating to the region, or that an “increasing number of born-again Protestants” are moving to the area to “survive” and “resist” (6). It is something else to label all of these as theonomic or Christian Reconstructionist. Although Gribben gives a nod to these groups’ differing aims and strategies, it is not theologically or intellectually helpful to put Moscow in the same “theonomic” or “Christian Reconstructionist” camp as, for one example, the kinist Occidental Reformed Church of North Idaho. There are very clear distinguishing marks. Unfortunately, not all Gribben’s non-specialist readers will walk away knowing the differences.
Indeed, Wilson’s model has successfully accomplished what many of those other “intentional communities” in the Pacific Northwest consistently fail to: a longevity measured in decades; a recognizable physical presence in the city (either a good or bad thing, depending on which Muscovites you ask); locals employed by their businesses and dining in their eateries. One could argue that it has succeeded because it is very unlike many of the groups Gribben compares it to—it isn’t tiny, it isn’t centered on one or two families, it’s not a survivalist group, and, most importantly, it isn’t white nationalist or white separatist.
Race is one of the most controversial issues intersecting all the three aspects of Crawford’s book. While Randall Balmer’s thesis (and his new book) on race as the ultimate cause of the Religious Right is contestable, race was definitely in the mix in the early days of Christian Reconstruction. Rushdoony’s working relationship with Connie Marshner and the Heritage Foundation stemmed in part from the 1974 textbook protests in Kanawha, West Virginia over the addition of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver to the curriculum. At the end of 1980, Francis Nigel (“Nic”) Lee, a South African Presbyterian who networked among various U.S. Christian Reconstruction communities throughout the 1970s, presented a set of lectures to the Tyler, Texas–based community extolling the positives of South Africa’s then-policy of separate development. Joe Morecraft, a Christian Reconstructionist pastor in the Atlanta suburbs, built his own relationship with the pro-apartheid South African government from the time of his congressional campaign in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Morecraft and his family wrote up many of their trips for newsletters sent out by Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation.
This is why the controversies around Doug Wilson’s positions on race and American slavery have persisted over the years, to the point that he’s added two separate FAQs on his website. Gribben describes how Wilson has been at the forefront when it comes to battling local kinists in the “Redoubt,” but that still doesn’t quash outside suspicions about Wilson’s sustained citations of Southern Presbyterians and Southern Agrarians, his occasional Confederate apologia, and his regular assertion that the United States was called, biblically, to a gradualist approach for ending slavery, as opposed to the Civil War route—a conflict Wilson ties directly to the unfettered growth of the administrative state and contemporary cultural degradation. This is also why Wilson’s critical commentary on “wokeness” and critical race theory will continue to rub certain corners of evangelicalism raw.
In fact, Gribben’s focus on Wilson’s theonomic congregation and education media-complex significantly pulls attention away from how extensively “intentional communities” in the Pacific Northwest have centered on racial separation and anti-Semitism. To be clear, Gribben certainly doesn’t ignore or dismiss this historical fact (20–21), but the aforementioned “Redoubt” has a long racial and anti-Semitic pedigree that Gribben needed to address in greater depth: Aryan Nations’ Richard Butler’s and Robert Miles’s Northwest Territorial Imperative; the Order’s idea of a White American Bastion; and Harold A. Covington’s Northwest Front, to name a few. For the last number of decades, northern Idaho and the surrounding “whitopia” of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and western Montana has been ground zero for American-bred white nationalism and white separatism.
Gribben’s Survival and Resistance will be the second or third book I recommend to people interested in the history of Christian Reconstruction. Gribben would himself agree that Michael McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism comes first. The story of Christian Reconstruction’s evolution remains to be told in full. Using McVicar and Gribben as a springboard, there’s an archive-based intellectual history of the theonomic movement waiting to be written. It’s going to take convincing Mark Rushdoony to make his father’s papers and letters available to more researchers (perhaps even the public), in addition to the collection of oral histories, papers, and correspondence belonging to other prominent Christian Reconstructionists. An anthropologist of American Christianity needs to get on the ground in Moscow sometime in the next five to ten years, as the community there will likely face succession issues and shifts in the education-media ecosystem. The kinist world needs some solid academic work—there has been little in-depth analysis save for a handful of Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League articles and a bit of research by Sarah Posner on “alt-right Christianity.” And lastly, there are brand new Christian Reconstruction zones forming on the horizon. For example, Northern Virginia’s Cross and Crown Church, a member of a new Fellowship of Christian Reconstructionist Churches, has been making recent public waves with its release of the Warrenton Declaration, a statement denying civil jurisdiction over vaccination and masking mandates. Still, for all the work that is yet to be done, Gribben’s Survival and Resistance is a fine addition to an expanding list of historically grounded monographs on Christian Reconstruction.
Brian Auten is employed by the federal government and is an independent scholar of Cold War strategy, politics, and religion. He is the author of Carter’s Conversion: The Hardening of American Defense Policy (University of Missouri Press, 2008). All views, opinions, and conclusions are solely those of the author and not the U.S. government.
Randall Balmer, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021); also see Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2014, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/. ↑
On the relationship between Rushdoony, the Heritage Foundation (including Connie Marshner and her colleague James McKenna), and the 1974 Kanawha textbook battle, see Carol Mason, Reading Appalachia from Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); and also, Mason, “From Textbooks to Tea Parties: An Appalachian Antecedent of Anti-Obama Rebellion,” West Virginia History 5, no. 2 (2011): https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/wvhistory/files/html/16_wv_history_reader_mason/. ↑
Francis Nigel Lee, “The Christian Afrikaners: A Brief History of Calvinist Afrikanerdom from 1652 to 1980.” The lectures were presented to Geneva Divinity School in Tyler, Texas, in late December 1980. ↑
On Joe Morecraft and visits to South Africa, see Rebecca Morecraft, “Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia: God’s Claim on Southern Africa,” Chalcedon Magazine, December 1, 1999, https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/beyond-the-rivers-of-ethiopia-gods-claim-on-southern-africa; and also Becky Morecraft, “Personal Diary from South Africa, Part I, “ The Counsel of Chalcedon, May 1990, https://w.chalcedon.org/resources/counsel-of-chalcedon-magazine/1990-issue-4/personal-diary-from-south-africa-part-1. In the late 1970s, Morecraft’s church hosted Rushdoony and other Christian Reconstructionists in his Atlanta Christian Training Seminars (ACTS). See, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dZTYRxxVh8. ↑
Doug Wilson, “Controversy Library,” Blog & Mablog, accessed October 16, 2021, https://dougwils.com/controversy#2_I_deny_that_slavery_was_a_positive_good; and Wilson, “Critical Questions,” Blog & Mablog, accessed October 16, 2021, https://dougwils.com/critical-questions. ↑
To get a sense of Wilson’s views on Southern Presbyterianism, the Southern Agrarian tradition, and his concept of “paleo-Confederate,” search for the latter term on his blog (dougwils.com), or use others like “[Robert Lewis] Dabney,” “[Richard] Weaver,” and/or “[Eugene] Genovese.” Dabney has been a long-standing influence on Wilson —one of the earlier pamphlets published by the predecessor to Canon Press was Dabney’s On Secular Education (Ransom Press, 1989). For Wilson’s arguments about the biblical requirement of gradualism versus civil war in the 1860s, and what he considers the downstream consequences of the Civil War for the twentieth-century administrative state, federal government overreach, and Roe v. Wade, see chapter five of Wilson, Black and Tan (Canon Press, 2005), and also Wilson, “A Final Wrap-Up: Thabiti Anyabwile and Douglas Wilson,” Blog & Mablog, April 19, 2013, https://dougwils.com/books/a-final-wrap-up-thabiti-anyabwile-and-douglas-wilson.html. ↑
Rich Benjamin, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (Hyperion Books, 2009). ↑
Anti-Defamation League, “Kinism: A Racist and Anti-Semitic Religious Movement” (2013), https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Kinism-Racist-and-Anti-Semitic-Religionfinal2.pdf. For a list of Southern Poverty Law Center articles on Kinism, see https://www.splcenter.org/search?keyword=Kinism. For Sarah Posner’s discussion of the “new, alt-right version of Christianity,” Nathaniel Strickland, and the now-defunct kinist Faith and Heritage blog, see “Amazing Disgrace,” The New Republic, March 20, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/140961/amazing-disgrace-donald-trump-hijacked-religious-right; and Posner, Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind (New York: Random House, 2020). ↑
“The Warrenton Declaration on Medical Mandates, Biblical Ethics, and Authority,” June 23, 2021, warrentondeclaration.com. An examination of the signers and their listed congregations gives a good sense of the newer Christian Reconstructionist communities. For Cross and Crown’s press release of the Warrenton Declaration, see https://crosscrownchurch.com/2021/06/23/press-release-the-warrenton-declaration-on-medical-mandates-biblical-ethics-and-authority/. ↑