Contra Mundum
No. 13 Fall 1994

Interview With
R.J. Rushdoony

Rousas J. Rushdoony spoke at the Appalachian Conference to Rebuild America Conference (ACTRA) in Johnson City, Tennessee in September, 1994. Contra Mundum conducted this interview at the conference, the theme of which was "God's Law and the New Political Order".
CM: How did you first became interested in 'theonomy' and the application of God's law to society?

Rushdoony: First of all, in our part of Armenia, God's law was taken for granted. You were a Christian and you went by the Bible. If you were a Moslem, as the Turks were, you went by the Koran. There was a clear-cut choice, two ways of life. The dietary laws in the old country were maintained. In fact, when the Armenians adopted Christianity, they took the law so seriously that the royal family agreed to provide voluntarily an order of Levi for the church. Out of their own pocket, they would finance a clergy - leaving room of course for others. The only distinction was that those priests which came from the old nobility and the old royal line - of which the Rushdoonys were one - were called "lord father". The others were simply called "father". They had a married clergy. Our family provided a priest for the church from somewhere around the year 315 to the present. And up through my grandfather's day, it was at the family's expense. This was not always father and son; it was sometimes father and brother, or father and nephew. In my case, I am the eigth generation of father and son. Tomorrow when I preach here, my son Mark will be preaching in Vallecito. The belief was that this was a moral duty. Since the government of Armenia by various royal families ended during the Medieval period, it meant that various families provided the government. Thus the old royal families provided the priests without any cost to the church. Other families provided the judge, the mayor, and the police. These were regarded as hereditary duties, which they had to perform and were honored to perform. That's how they survived these many centuries. They were not the only people to do this, but it worked especially well in Armenia.

CM: Is it true that both of your grandfathers were martyred by the Turks?

Rushdoony: A number in the family were killed. My maternal grandfather knew that he was trapped, so he sang a hymn, and went ahead and was killed.

CM: Why do you think so little is said of the ethnic purging of the Armenians under the Turks? We hear so much of genocide in the 20th century but very rarely is the case of the Armenians mentioned. Is there a reason for that?

Rushdoony: Yes. The figures are constantly revised downward, from two million to a million to a few thousand. There is a reason for that. A great deal of history is being rewritten. It is my belief that a man teaching in a smaller school is more likely to be a good historian and a superior historian than a man teaching in a major university. Increasingly the chairs of history in major universities are endowed by various foreign governments. This is to control history-writing in a particular area. One of the most bitter controversies in southern California in recent years was when certain Arab states were going to create a Middle Eastern Studies Center - at the University of Southern California, I think it was. Immediately there was a massive Jewish protest. The whole project was cancelled. This doesn't mean that Arabs aren't funding things - just as Jews are funding things. The Turks are funding a great deal, on the condition that certain subjects are avoided or are twisted as they are dealt with. Recently, one scholar found in the National Archives material that showed how extensive the Armenian massacres were in one out-of-the-way province where it was not normally believed that much had taken place. Her book, published under the title Slaughterhouse Province, was quite revelatory and a surprise to many reviewers. The interesting thing she reported was that even while she was working on this project she found that the Turks were allowed access to the National Archives and were destroying material derogatory to them regarding the massacres. This is the pattern. One major scholar who was an authority on Medieval Armenian architecture was forbidden to give a lecture in which he was going to discuss the architecture and the destruction of some of the great monuments by the Turks. So, the censorship is extreme, the destruction of original source documents is extreme. That is why some of the most stimulating work of late in general history have come out of schools that many people have never heard of. It is because independent scholarship can function in the smaller colleges in a way it can not in the major universities.

CM: I suspect that scholarship is also driven and controlled by federal programs and initiatives. Scholars who are in competition for research grants - say NEH grants - are careful to follow what is in vogue in modern scholarship. Do you see that?

Rushdoony: That is an indirect way of controlling knowledge, or pseudo-knowledge. There are many indirect ways, so that today we know very little about what was going on. For example, I did not know, except for a sentence in one British periodical, that there is a major railroad strike in Great Britain which has cost billions of pounds to be lost from the economy. But has our media carried anything about it? It is sinking Britain to the level of Portugal, one person told me, yet what has our media reported? It is a major world event.

CM: Let me ask another question on the Armenian connection. Christianity Today did an article some years back on Christian Reconstruction. They emphasized the Armenian background of the Monophysite-Chalcedonian controversy and suggested that that might have influenced your own interests in the Council of Chalcedon.

Rushdoony: The church of Armenia was and still is monophysite. There are strands within the church that take that very seriously. In recent years a book was published by one Armenian scholar, who is very strongly monophysite and anti-Chalcedonian. Others regard it as a consequence of the fact that in 451 no one could attend the Counsel of Chalcedon because they were in a life and death struggle with the Persian Zoroastrians, and the struggle lasted about 75 years. They were, for a time, totally out of touch with the West. Afterwards, Byzantium was a persecuting factor, so it gave them a hostility to the Eastern Orthodox churches. And later to Rome also, for other reasons. So, they associated Chalcedon with two persecuting groups. The Church of Armenia was closer to what Anglicanism was at its best - in its years before modernism and deism infected it. So my interest in Chalcedon came from independent studies. George Huntston Williams was influential. So too, later, was Dr. Cornelius Van Til. I saw it as basic to our world today, because Chalcedon was a block in the way of the redivinization, Roman-style, of the state. We are in the process of redivinizing the state.

CM: Why has there been so much hostility to theonomy and your critique of statism? The evangelical community has reacted very sharply to the application of God's law to the whole of society. Is that a pietistic influence?

Rushdoony: Whenever you have had a clear-cut statement of the Reformed faith, you have had hostility. Consider the hostility that Athanasius encountered - venomous to the nth degree. He was charged with raping a virgin. The so-called virgin was a prostitute who had never seen Athanasius. In the courtroom - since he came in at the same time as the prosecutor - Athanasius was pointed out but she mistook the prosecutor for him. She identified the prosecutor as her rapist which blew the trial. He was framed on a murder charge. Anything they could think of they did - but it did not work. The hostility that Calvin created - I have a reproduction in my library of a picture of Calvin, from his own time. His entire head is made up of reptiles. The nose, the eyebrows, the ears, everything, was made of reptiles coiled in every way. The hatred he engendered was such that they were shooting guns off under his window to keep him from sleeping and sicking their dogs on him. Or consider Cyril Lucarus the patriarch in Constantinople. His influence is still not appreciated - it went throughout Central Europe and into the Turkish empire and Armenia. He was thrice jailed. The Jesuits were behind it because they had influence with the Turkish government. And each time he came back he revived everything he had started, so the last time they had him killed. Or the hatred that Van Til engendered, which was so phenomenal. I was newly ordained at the Indian reservation, but even in that out-of-the-way area I knew that somehow this man was regarded as some kind of demonic terror who had come to destroy the Church of Christ. It was venom of an unprecedented character. It almost killed the man. It gave him serious heart trouble and Dr. Gilbert den Dulk was responsible for restoring him to health. When it has been clearly and sharply presented, the faith has always engendered hostilities, no matter how sweetly it has been presented. When so much of the church is made up of compromisers, who try to keep a foot in both camps, then anyone who unequivocally presents the faith is going to be hated. So, its just to be expected.

CM: Can you describe the importance of common law?

Rushdoony: As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy said, English common law is simply Biblical law. It has some additions, but it is basically Biblical law. The common law tradition still exists in almost all the states. In some that have an Hispanic or French origin for their laws, it is virtually nonexistent. But elsewhere it prevails, most notably in New York and California. This is why both states can have extremely liberal and extremely conservative decisions in law, because the judge is capable of overruling the statute law in terms of common law and common equity. Common law is no longer taught in law schools. It has very strong limitations on the powers of attorney and their fees, and so it is not popular. Many lawyers are not too knowledgable where common law is concerned. Herbert Titus, a professor of law, has pointed out that common law calls for prosecution where abortion exists. He has said that if there were a crusading and dedicated district attorney anywhere, he could prosecute these people because of the common law. The common law has not been repealed.

CM: What do you think of the treatment of America's Christian history by the neo-evangelical historians - Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden. They are professing Christians and usually claim to be Calvinistic and Reformed, yet are revisionist in their understanding of America's Christian heritage.

Rushdoony: Such men are traditional Calvinists. Their affiliation is ostensibly Calvinistic, but in reality they are hostile to it. They insist on an impossible standard as constituting Christianity. In terms of their definition - which is similar to Nietzsche and others - there have been no Christians since Christ. As a result, they have imposed perfectionist standards on the definition of a Christian. Well, some of these people have clearly liberal ideas to begin with. Their views on Genesis are usually suspect. And their position is often neo-Thomistic, and they are strong adherents of natural law. As Christians we cannot believe in natural law, because we believe that nature is fallen. We have to see supernatural law as normative; nature is non-normative. Incidentally, the medieval usage of the term "natural law" really means the "law over nature", because it is defined by the medieval scholars as the word of God - because they identify it with God's law.

CM: Usually these historians have collectivist notions and they typically draw their ideas about society and history from Niebuhr and other neo-orthodox theologians. Have you noticed that, too?

Rushdoony: Yes, very definitely. That is emphatically true. In his day, Fred Nymeyer certainly incurred the wrath of those people. Have you ever heard Niebuhr speak? He was a very dynamic lecturer of the old school. When he got worked up he was like Billy Sunday. He was diametrically opposed to the modern idea of a liberal scholar. My father knew him years ago in the 1920s in Detroit, when he was a pastor there. Niebuhr was usually quite agitated. He did make a good remark in his first book, Leaves from the Diary of a Tamed Cynic, when he said that churches too often are comparable to the Red Cross - not in the battle, but on the sidelines to nurse the wounded.

CM: Can you comment on Doug Kelly's book, The Emergence of the Idea of Liberty in the Modern World.

Rushdoony: Doug Kelly used to work with us at Chalcedon. Its a good study. The best work on that topic is by Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, who sees western culture and law as grounded on the doctrine of the atonement. Justice is basic to the being of God. The word righteousness means justice. Because justice is so basic to the nature of God, his law governs us. There must be the fulfillment of his requirement, that wrongs be righted. This means that there is freedom under law. By grounding it in the atonement, we have the heart of the matter most clearly.

CM: Are there other books and scholars that you found influential as a young man as you were developing a world view?

Rushdoony: I had the privilege of studying under George Hunston Williams, later the Harvard Divinity School church historian and one of the greatest medievalists. Also under Ernst Kantorowicz, author of The King's Two Bodies and Frederick II. Kantorowicz, though not a believer, and apparently at the other end of the spectrum as far as faith and morality were concerned, was remarkable in that he saw theology as the key to history. His works make this clear. And in his marvelous lectures on Byzantine history, his emphasis was on the theology of the politics of each era. For example, he and Gerhard Ladner pointed out that in the iconoclastic controversy the issue was not merely icons but the meaning of the icons. Whose image represents God incarnate - the image of the emperor, or the image of Christ? The images of Christ and the saints were finally permitted, but only on a one-dimensional level, so that the primacy belonged to the emperor. In the iconoclastic controversy in Eastern Orthodoxy, the state took priority over the church. Williams and Kantorowicz were exhilarating because they opened up the meaning of history. I had the privilege of reading and coming to know by correspondence Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, whose Out of Revolution is a marvelous study. Harold Berman acknowledges his debt to those three men in his Law and Revolution - which interested me since my debt to those men is so great. I came to those three men with a Calvinistic faith; everything they had to say was a major support for my belief.

CM: Some of the more honest historians of the past, even the liberal ones, have appreciated the culture of the west and have understood that concepts of liberty, justice, and freedom were rooted in Christian theology. Yet in the late 20th century there has been a reaction against that, and the western heritage has been seen as an evil legacy. Can you comment?

Rushdoony: I would say that nine-tenths of the hostility to me has come from within the church. Even when it has come from without, it has relied upon church sources. Christianity Today, because of its importance to the secular media, set the temper. Nine-tenths of what they use against me comes from Christianity Today.

CM: Of your thirty some books, which do you think are the best?

Rushdoony: The next ones.

CM: Do you have any favorites, or ones that you think have been particularly influential?

Rushdoony: A number have been quite influential. Back in the 1950s when I was writing The Messianic Character of American Education, Dorothy thought it was interesting, but wondered why I was so intensely involved in a seemingly hopeless subject since public schools were totally in command. But a great deal has happened since then. So that has been gratifying. The interesting thing is that almost on publication a number of state boards of education asked someone to review the book for them since they were concerned. (The churches paid almost no attention.) In Virginia, the attorney who reviewed it sent me a copy of his report in which he strongly approved of the book, having been converted to Christian education through it. The Politics of Guilt and Pity surprised me. It had a powerful impact on many. Steve Schlissel became Reformed through it, and went to visit Dr. Van Til, together with his elders. The Myth of Overpopulation - even the Wall Street Journal recommended it. It was the beginning of Otto Scott's conversion. Of course The Institutes of Biblical Law had an impact. In some ways I regard volume two as even more important, but a lot of people stop when they finish the first volume. A great deal of what I had to say today is really a development of what I had to say about the meaning of communion in the second volume. I feel very strongly about my systematic theology. And of course the commentaries, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Romans and Galations - which are not yet published because of a lack of funds - I feel are very important because I try to relate my commentary to the real world around us. In other words, what does God have to say, and how does it apply? To illustrate, one of the saddest facts is that we have had generations of commentators dealing with, say, I Cor. 6, where Paul says that they should not go to ungodly judges. Commentary after commentary deals with that, defining the Greek words and explaining the meaning, but never telling you what happened and what it was about. What it was about was that they were going to ungodly judges against one another and getting decisions that were evil, in some instances. What did he tell them to do? To create your own courts. And for centuries after the fall of Rome those were the only courts of Europe. That is a tremendously important fact. There are so many things like that, which created new institutions and created shifts in civilizations, which are in the texts of Scripture. What commentator has touched on that? They are brilliant in some ways, and I don't hesitate to rely on commentaries. But it is as though they don't live in the same world that you and I live in. And that's terrible. It makes me think of a scholar in the Netherlands named Wulf, I think, who wanted to write something definitive. He wanted a great scholarly work in the field and he decided on angelology, in every religion and cult. He did nothing but study angels. He acquired vast linguistic knowledge in order to study the documents in the original. Having tenure, he refused to teach anything other than angelology. Finally, he had no students, which made him glad, since now he could spend all his time and his salary on angelology. Finally his wife left him, which made it easier for him to work. There was nobody there to nag him or bother him. So finally he finished the seventh and last volume of his manuscript, and went to bed happily that night because he had written a work that could not be rivaled. That night God spoke - a fire burned down his house and destroyed his life's work. We don't have scholars quite that abstracted from the world, but too often in their writings and their commentaries they are withdrawn from reality. It's like the scholar who told me that I had done a very fine work in The Institutes, volume one, but that it was a sad and tragic work because it was aimed at laymen when it should have been written for scholars to set up a dialogue. There was no sense of the real world. Scholarly interchange is the goal of scholarship. But that is barren and impotent.

CM: What do you consider your worst work? Are there any that have been flops, or that you wish you could have done differently?

Rushdoony: No, I have been content with them. Of course, every time I finish a work and proofread it, I wish I could start over again. But I have said what I wanted to say and what God wanted me to say, and I move on. The two semi-failures, although I like them both, are the tithing book, because people are not interested in tithing and don't want to be told to do it, and The Roots of Inflation, because people are not interested in practical subjects. So they don't know what is coming or what is happening right now to their money.

CM: There are different nuances in the Reconstructionist movement. Many of these reconstructionist leaders were at one time or another associated with Chalcedon. What has caused all these different theonomic camps?

Rushdoony: I would rather not be specific. I helped a number of young scholars through Chalcedon, sometimes when I didn't have enough for my own salary. I made sure that they had something to help them through seminary or graduate school, as the case may be. They rewarded me with hatred, when I disagreed with what I felt were untenable directions. They have been very hostile. I had the feeling that some of them thought that Reconstruction was something that was going to sweep the church and it was a good bandwagon to get on. When troubles came, they turned on me as though somehow I had caused it. Very often it was their personalities. And they have not in some instances truly been Reconstructionists. They have simply used it, and are stuck with it, and that's the problem. Let me say, they are but two or three individuals. We have a staff well into the twenties, and there are independent movements in many countries that are associated with us, but which we don't control. So really, except on the American scene where they make some kind of impact in some quarters, they are not important as far as the movement.

CM: You spent a lot of time and energy "in the trenches" in the 1960s defending Christian education. It must be rewarding to see the blossoming of Church schools and home schools. It is easy, today, to see Christian education as a major instrument in Christian Reconstruction. But what did the future look like twenty or thirty years ago when you were doing that initial groundwork?

Rushdoony: It has been very gratifying to see what has happened since I wrote Messianic Character, when Christian education was almost nonexistent. The trials were very intense matters. Chalcedon paid my way to these trials. Maybe twice somebody made a contribution to Chalcedon for my services. Mostly these were churches, home-schoolers, and Christian schools which could not afford the money. The authorities would look for a new school which was meeting in a church basement which looked as primitive as a Christian school could, to make an example of it, and to say that this is the crude sort of thing that passes as Christian education. The defendants very often had no money. In one instance, in Alabama, they had chosen two brothers and their wives - very devout, rural people, the kind that were openly being described as "rednecks". They had implied that they were incapable of giving their children a good education since they themselves didn't have one. The trial was interesting, because when a professional educator tested the children from these two families, they were far ahead of the public school children. The families had been very crudely treated by the state. The contempt for them as rednecks was apparent throughout the trial. The judge, a marvelous man, said that "I will give an oral decision now, in favor of the defendants", and went on to express his contempt for the prosecutor and the educators who were involved. It was a marvelous thing to witness. I never encountered a judge the equal of that man. I think it was in Georgia, maybe Alabama.

CM: What advice do you have for Christian parents who want to send their children on college?

Rushdoony: I think the closer to home the better. Keep them at home, even if they go to a secular college. Most Christian colleges are church-related, rather than Christ-related. In many instances, even in very fundamentalist groups, the faculties are evil. I've been astounded at some ostensibly Christian colleges, of ultra-fundamentalist groups, at what appears on their faculties.

CM: H.L. Mencken once said that the best way to reform American higher education was to strangle all the professors and burn down all the colleges. He may have had a point.

Rushdoony: I feel sorry for the Christians in the colleges and universities. There are a great many good men, but what they buck in the way of administrative policy and faculty jealousy is very, very sad. You wonder if someday we shouldn't start designating as Christian martyrs people in such contexts.

CM: A young man wants to go into the ministry and is looking for a good place to study. What would you recommend?

Rushdoony: The denominations are increasingly saying "go to our schools, or else". Some are taking the solution of taking two years where they can trust the teaching, and then go to the denominational school. Whitefield Seminary at Lakefield, Florida is a correspondence school. While I am not agreement with their position on apologetics, it is a very superior school. Its an excellent place for a man who already has a job and a family and cannot afford to drop out and go to a conventional seminary. There are a number of alternatives, and I am only familiar with a limited number.

CM: Is Whitefield Seminary similar in its methods and goals to Valley Christian University, which you were involved with some years ago?

Rushdoony: Yes, in that Valley Christian was trying to help men who, somewhat later in life, decided that they needed a degree for professional reasons, or for academic reasons needed an advanced degree to get a promotion. Because of that fact, its students were of a remarkably high caliber. Ironically, the state of California shut it down because the curriculum director, who had been at the University of California, Berkeley, had refused to employ one scholar who then got a job with the state accreditation committee. He gained his revenge by wiping out Valley University without examining a single record.

CM: Is it true that Morton Downey was a Valley Christian graduate?

Rushdoony: Yes, a very sad case. He was a brilliant man. He was called Sean, because his father was also Morton Downey, and was the great Irish tenor of the twenties. Morton, or Sean, was Catholic, and was very intense and idealistic. His intensity had gotten him into trouble a time or two. He had become intensely involved in the pro-life movement. He was, at that time, on television and radio, and was doing all he could to promote the pro-life movement. But in bitterness he broke with the whole movement when he came to realize that they were more interested in protecting their own turf than in succeeding. For example, there was an antiabortion bill that was going to pass in the Florida legislature. A majority of the men in the legislature favored it, but it was killed by the pro-life people, because it made two exceptions - in cases of incest or rape. The promoters of the bill said that they could only get it through with those exceptions. The pro-life people dropped it. They made clear that if anything against abortion passed, they had to originate it and they had to get credit for it. That kind of thing so embittered Sean Downey that he was almost in a murderous rage - so he broke with them. His attitude was that these so-called Christian groups were only interested in having power and protecting their turf. They want a lifelong job fighting abortion - they don't want to eliminate it. And he was not far wrong in some cases. So he went into a bitter cynicism. It was very sad to see.

CM: Do you anticipate continuing global fragmentation? Some suggest that regionalism and the breakdown of countries, as we have seen recently in the old USSR and Yugoslavia, will be the wave of the future. Do you have any feelings about this?

Rushdoony: One scholar has said that the United States may well break up into nine regions, or states. I am not ready to see that yet, but his arguments made some sense. Certainly you are seeing major steps towards trying to break federal power. The states rights rebellion of a few years ago has revived in another form, in Nevada and other states as well. They are fighting the limitations and abolition in some cases of grazing permits. We have seen devastating forest fires in our area and throughout the west. There have always been forest fires, but more now than ever before. Granted that a high percentage of these have been arson. But federal policy have made arson more viable. It used to be that ranchers were given grazing permits to take their herds into federal forests. This served a very good purpose. First, it meant that the grass on the forest floor was eaten. Now the dead grass piles up, year after year, and when there is a fire it is almost unstoppable. Then, the cows broke down the greasewood-type of brush, but at the same time they didn't eat the young trees. So, they furthered growth on the forest floor and helped eliminate the threat of fires. The new policy is that this creates an unnatural condition. So fires are also seen as natural. It has reached the point that, as one scholar put it, it is all right for Australian aborigines to set fires, but not for white men. Somehow the white man is unnatural, and the aborigine is. So we have all kinds of absurdities. The hostility to policy out of Washington is intense. My son Mark has a position in the volunteer fire crew. He loves the work and will often be called to emergency duty on the forest line. One of the crazy things, is that the state of California has said that one way of preventing trees - such as pines and cedars - from exploding into flames is to cut all the lower branches up to twenty feet. Then a grass fire on the surface won't set the trees on fire. (The bull pine that catches fires explodes because it has so much pitch in it and it can hurl burning branches a hundred feet.) But the federal government says that you cannot do this to trees. This means that the possibilities of fires of a major scale increase.

CM: What do you expect in the future - twenty or fifty years? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Rushdoony: In the short term - say the next ten, fifteen, twenty years - its going to be grim. Long-term, very good, because I believe the Word of God. It tells us that the wages of sin are always death. And all they that hate me, God says, love death. It is ridiculous for Christians to believe that the opposition can win. They have been destroying - through state education - the Christian character of this country, and therefore have been destroying themselves. As long as they left that Christian character untouched, they were successful. But they are suicidal. They are kicking the sleeping Christian in the teeth. And he is waking up slowly - so they are going to lose. They are going to die. We are going to see grim days ahead; we are going to see the economy collapse; we are going to see disasters all over the world - which we are already seeing; we are going to see nations collapse. It's going to be a time of trouble. Its also going to be a great opportunity. A great many historians saw the era after the fall of Rome as the Dark Ages. They saw it as such because they were statists, and Rome and Greece were their ideals. They were times of political instability but not as bad as the horrors under Rome. The Roman tax collectors had the power to torture, and they did torture, because they wanted every last penny they could get out of you. The so-called Dark Ages, as William Carroll Bark described in his The Origins of the Medieval World, were a time of the frontier thinkers - the church fathers - who laid down the foundations of western freedom. He saw it as a tremendously stimulating period. Incidentally, he told me in the sixties, that the history department at Stanford now began with the Renaissance, and that medieval and Roman history was banished to the classics department. I think that people will soon feel that they are in a new Dark Age. But it will be the death of humanistic statism, and the throes of birth for Christian freedom. So I am hopeful in long run and know that ours is the victory. "This is the victory that overcometh the world even our faith". CM

cut and paste from Pursuit of Liberty: Interview With R.J. Rushdoony [Free Republic]

Original here:  Contra Mundum: A Reformed Cultural Review, No. 13, Fall 1994, Law & the Nations (pdf, 2.5 MB)