In Moscow, Idaho, conservative “Christian Reconstructionists” thrive amid evangelical unrest


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(THE CONVERSATION) Evangelical groups in the US have been facing dwindling numbers for years. And a chaotic cultural battle over the direction of movement could serve to drive more defectors.

But while some of the largest Protestant denominations in America, like the Southern Baptists, continue to bleed members, a small group of conservative evangelicals seem to be bucking the trend – despite only numbering around 1,300.

For the past 30 years, believers from all over the United States and beyond have gathered in Moscow, a city in northern Idaho of about 25,000 people. Here, as part of the Christ Church congregation, they stood up against the cultures of American modernism. Guided by a controversial social theory called “Christian Reconstruction,” which says that biblical law should apply in today’s environment, they look to the Bible to understand how they think American institutions should be reformed. Followers believe that abortion rights and same-sex marriages, along with other evidence of what they would view as moral decline, will eventually be overturned. Their goal is simple – converting Muscovites to their way of thinking as the first step in converting the world.

That hope may seem unrealistic. But as a scholar who described the rise of the movement in my book, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America, I know that these believers have already taken steps toward that goal.

Growing influence

In Moscow, the congregation has founded churches, a classical Christian school, a college for the humanities, a music conservatory, a publishing house and what it takes to become a media empire. With books published by major specialist and academic media and a talk show on Amazon Prime, the community sets the agenda for a theologically powerful and politically reactionary evangelical revival.

These believers are led by the conservative pastor Douglas Wilson, whose views on gender, marriage, and many other issues are controversial among even the most conservative of Christians. Wilson has fought against the influence of atheism to feminism for over 30 years.

In doing so, he has attracted considerable critical attention – not least from the late journalist and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, with whom he debated in a series of conversations that were later written in a book about whether Christianity is good for the world.

The community that Wilson leads in Moscow is still small. Numbers on the growth of the Christ Church are hard to come by, but my research and discussions with members of the ward suggests that it is expanding. What is clear is that in just over three decades, Christ Church has grown from a little-known congregation to one that has garnered media attention and the attention of high-ranking politicians.

The community has established a K-12 school that is a member of an association of hundreds of classic Christian schools heavily influenced by Wilson’s educational beliefs. As proof of the group’s political reach, Republican Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska was one of the speakers at the association’s annual meeting in 2019.

As I note in my book, the community’s Liberal Arts College sends students on doctoral programs in various disciplines at the Ivy League and leading European universities – it is not an isolated educational world. His small and close-knit group of authors has worked with publishers such as Random House and Oxford University Press.

And then there’s the talk show on Amazon Prime.

This talk show “Man Rampant” gives a clue as to why this community is growing in influence despite the evangelical decline. Wilson, as the host, uses the platform to present the ideas on which his vision of Christian renewal is based – and develops an agenda explicitly based on the Bible on the revival of traditional masculinity.

As the title suggests, “Man Rampant” promotes an extremely muscular Christianity. Forget Jesus as benevolent, meek, and mild; the first episode condemned the “sin of empathy”. Empathy, says Wilson, “is not a good thing”.

The “Man Rampant” agenda is reinforced on Wilson’s website, which relies on the creative people of the Moscow community to turn his arguments into powerful visual metaphors, and where, while rejecting racism, he argues that “it really is in Order is to be white ”. . “

Go Local to Convert America

In America’s crowded religious marketplace, Wilson’s message is clear.

One of Wilson’s major influences is the late RJ Rushdoony, an Armenian-American Presbyterian theologian who was driven by protecting Protestants in the United States from the genocide his parents escaped. Frustrated by the foreignness of many American Christian denominations, whose adherents he feared, preaching more about heaven than about earth, and their complacency in what he believed to be a hostile liberal culture, Rushdoony set out to develop biblical principles for the organization of society .

The Ten Commandments are no longer an artifact in the history of morality, argued Rushdoony. Rather, they are to be understood as the basic principles for governing the modern state. “You shall not steal” ruled out the possibility of inflation, which Rushdoony described as devalued financial assets and was therefore a form of theft. And “You shall not have any other gods except me” excluded any possibility of religious pluralism.

Rushdoony promoted these ideals in titles such as the 1973 Institutes of Biblical Law – a 1,000-page account of the Ten Commandments that advocated both the abolition of the prison system and a massive expansion of the death penalty.

Christians are only safe in American society if it is shaped by its religious values, he argued. But the Christian America that he awaited would not be secured by revolution or any form of political change from above – only by transforming individual life, families, cities and states.

This strategy of promoting faith at the local level explains why Christian reconstructionists like those led by Wilson prefer to concentrate their energies in small towns. The Reconstructionists in Moscow believe that if they can ensure significant demographic change, either by converting existing residents or by encouraging others to move to the area, they can have a much greater cultural impact.

Avoid the existential crisis

The stated goal of Wilson’s congregation is to make Moscow a Christian city; Currently, according to a 2019 report, only about a third of Muscovites describe themselves as “religious”.

But it is Wilson’s stance on public health action during the pandemic that has most recently brought him and his church back to the attention of political leaders. Throughout the pandemic, he has argued that the mask requirement reveals the government’s hypocrisy. In September 2020, Wilson led his congregation in the illegal hymns singing outside City Hall that resulted in the arrest of several church members – footage of which was retweeted by President Trump, who pointed out that the Moscow congregation’s arrests were symbolic of what would happen to evangelicals when the Democrats take control. “THAT’S WANT TO CLOSE YOUR CHURCHES PERMANENTLY,” tweeted the former president in capital letters.

Yet Wilson’s congregation is growing despite the former president’s fears. As major denominations like the Southern Baptists split in the debate over critical racial theory, Wilson’s Church shows how some congregations could respond – and potentially thrive – to the existential crisis of evangelicalism.

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