A New Jerusalem is on the horizon in Idaho (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Building a New Jerusalem in Idaho

R. J. Rushdoony’s followers have made more plausible than ever before his vision of the American future

Artillery Row

“When a world disintegrates, nothing more quickly becomes contemptible than its dead values, nothing more dead than its fallen gods, and nothing more offensively fetid than its old necessities. This will be no less true of the values of this dying age.”

Thus spoke R. J. Rushdoony (1916-2001), the principal theorist of Christian Reconstruction, an extremely controversial iteration of Calvinist theology that promotes and expects the rebuilding of American culture around the demands of Old Testament law. In recent years, and in the context of the demographic shifts that mark the “end of white Christian America,” Rushdoony’s arguments have been repurposed and revived. With creative and articulate advocates, with its ideological edges rubbed smooth, with significant intellectual centers in viable communities in the Pacific Northwest, and a growing media reach, the movement of Christian Reconstruction may never have been as important as it is today.

RJ Rushdoony (Photo: Chalcedon Foundation)

Over the last decade, more than ten thousand of those who have been persuaded by Rushdoony’s views, and others like them, have migrated into remote locations in Idaho and surrounding regions. Turning away from the politics of the Christian Right – and in fact from politics in general – these believers have begun to prepare for a significant cultural crisis, when the “dead values” and “fallen gods” of secular modernity will prove unable to preserve traditional American freedoms. These believers have modified and tempered many of Rushdoony’s arguments, which they have adopted as a basis for community life. Their achievements have been extraordinary.

While the first generation of Reconstructionists had to fight for the right to provide a distinctively Christian education in private or home schools, their ideological descendants have established a national network for classical educational programs while supporting a liberal arts college that directs students into graduate studies in elite European universities as well as the Ivy League. While the first generation of Reconstructionists promoted their arguments in a media culture of photocopied newsletters and books that appeared under the auspices of minor evangelical publishers, those who have most successfully modified these views have created a vibrant, generically varied and far-reaching media culture with connections to publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster, with co-authors of the stature of the late Christopher Hitchens, and with programming on vehicles of mass culture such as Amazon Prime video and Netflix.

As these activities suggest, the migration movement has been incredibly successful. The communities that have gathered in the Pacific Northwest are creative, purposeful and resilient. With a strong shared life made possible by adherence to conservative family mores and a common creed, an environment that is enriched by writers, artists, designers and entrepreneurs, these communities have developed a lifecycle that works: Families across the United States consume their cultural products, identify with their message, and send their children to the college or its conservatory. Students graduate, marry and find local employment, often in the very successful technology companies that community members lead. There they raise the children who, in time, are likely to continue this social and cultural mission. And why not? These communities have everything they need to support their continued expansion. And still they continue to grow.

These believers are creating sustainable subcultures out of which they expect a global hegemony of Christian faith to develop

This growth, of course, is in many ways surprising. Even as the Supreme Court moves in a more conservative direction, and the prospect of its striking down Roe vs. Wade no longer seems impossible to imagine, born-again Protestants continue to think of themselves as a vulnerable and beleaguered remnant. But the believers who are migrating into reconstructed communities in the Pacific Northwest are more confident of the future than are many of their peers elsewhere. In the heartland of this migration movement, in northern Idaho, the pursuit by migrating evangelicals of communal self-isolation may look like dis-engagement from the cultural mainstream, but it reflects an effort to achieve a more revolutionary objective than was ever imagined by the Religious Right. These believers are creating credible and sustainable subcultures out of which they expect there to develop a global hegemony of Christian faith.

The success of these communities confirms the plausibility of these expectations. Around ten percent of the permanent population of Moscow, Idaho, for example, is now associated with congregations that teach these views. These believers are gathering into congregations that they expect will expand organically, over generations and through normal democratic means, to determine the shape and size of government, to renew the American Constitution and the system of liberal democracy that it assumes. These are extraordinary objectives, but the success to date of this community shows why the advocates of these ideas do not believe them to be entirely implausible. After all, the migration movement is growing, its ideals are becoming more clearly articulated, and its values, if not always its arguments, are being more widely disseminated than ever before.

Like Rushdoony, these believers reject the “dead values” and “fallen gods” of this “dying age.” Turning away from political action, they reject attempts to achieve top-down social and cultural change. Instead, engaging with popular culture, sometimes in very indirect ways, these believers are building communities that embody their aspiration for the future direction of American life while encouraging those who consume their children’s fiction and educational media to imagine how that kind of world might look. These believers have turned away from the most outlandish of Rushdoony’s claims. But, turning away from political action, while pursuing self-isolation in the Pacific Northwest, they have made more plausible than ever before his vision of the American future.

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