A Revitalized Yet Tempered Christian Reconstruction

6 February 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest, Crawford Gribben.  New York: Oxford UP, 2021.  Hardcover, 210 pages.

Back in the 1990s, theonomy and Christian Reconstruction were hot topics in the Canadian Reformed Churches, particularly in northern Alberta.  Theonomy is the view that contemporary governments are obligated to uphold the Mosaic civil laws.  Christian Reconstruction includes theonomy as one of its tenets, but more broadly promotes the reformation of civil society according to biblical norms.  Richard Aasman and others wrote compelling critiques of these views and it seems that its popularity was soon exhausted.[i]

However, Crawford Gribben’s study of developments in the Pacific Northwest of the United States proves such a conclusion premature.  What’s more, one just has to note the ongoing popularity of Douglas Wilson in some corners of the Canadian Reformed Churches to see how the movement is still alive.  It’s not the same as it was in the 1990s, though.  It’s now tempered, much more subtle, and far more creative.

Dr. Crawford Gribben teaches history at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  His previous writings, like this one, focus on the history of Christian movements.  Throughout this book, it’s evident that Gribben has an insider’s understanding of Reformed Christianity.  This is essential for properly situating Christian Reconstruction in its context.

Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America is history written by an academic in a responsible scholarly fashion.  It’s backed up by research in interviews and careful reading of primary sources.  Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing, pleasurable, and easy read.  Should you get tripped up on any of the technical vocabulary, Gribben has included a short glossary.

The book surveys the origins of Christian Reconstruction with its first generation of leaders – R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, and others.  Previous research by others suggested the movement was dead by the turn of the millennium.  Gribben’s argument is that Christian Reconstruction has found new life in “the American Redoubt.”  This is area of the Pacific Northwest includes eastern Washington and Oregon, and all of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.  Gribben lays out the history of how this revitalization took place through migration.  Men like Douglas Wilson creatively used tools such as education and media to draw increasing numbers of like-minded people to the Redoubt, and especially to Moscow, Idaho.  This would become a place to withdraw and begin the reconstruction of American society from the ground up.  Gribben notes that there has been considerable diversity amongst those drawn to the Redoubt.  Some are Christians drawn to Wilson’s brand of reconstruction.  Others are anti-government survivalist types, including racists and kinists.[ii] 

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why Moscow and Douglas Wilson are so influential.  For me it also raises questions of how this influence should be assessed.  For example, Gribben fairly presents Wilson’s controversial take on American slavery.  Wilson has argued that Southern Slavery was mutually beneficial to blacks and whites.  Gribben correctly describes that as a “revisionist account” (p.55). 

Gribben mentions in passing a “controversy about pastoral care” (p.146) in Wilson’s church in Moscow.  He refers to how Rod Dreher had planned to include Moscow in his book The Benedict Option, but changed his mind after this “serious pastoral problem” arose (p.7).  What Gribben doesn’t say, and what is a matter of historical record, is that there’s not just one pastoral problem.  There’s a pattern and readers can learn about that for themselves from public primary source documents at a website, “The Truth About Moscow”.  There are some weighty issues there.

The author also mentions in passing that there’s been controversy “about that community’s proposals regarding the meaning and effect of baptism and its consequences for the Reformed doctrine of justification…” (p.147).  That’s referring to the connection between Federal Vision theology and pastors such as Doug Wilson.  Though I don’t fault Gribben for this, what’s left unexplored is the connection between theonomy and Federal Vision theology.[iii]

Back in the 1990s and into the 2000s, I was a subscriber to a free magazine coming out of Moscow, Credenda Agenda.  I was intrigued by Wilson and the other writers.  Though I’ve since lost respect for Wilson and co., I’m still fascinated by their story.  It’s a story not yet finished.  When it is, Gribben’s book will be an essential resource.

Originally published in Clarion 72.1 (January 13, 2023).

[i] Richard Aasman, “Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism” in Clarion 43.5-7 (March, 11, March 25, April 8, 1994).  Also see Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1990).   

[ii] “Kinists” believe that racial and ethnic differences should be maintained.  They’re therefore against so-called interracial marriage.  Sadly, there are also kinists who claim to be Reformed Christians. 

[iii] For more on that, see my booklet Federal Vision: A Canadian Reformed Pastor’s Perspective (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2014), pp.11-13.