In Moscow, Idaho, Conservative “Christian Reconstructionists” Thrive Amid Gospel Unrest

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(THE CONVERSATION) Evangelical groups in the United States have been facing a decline in numbers for years. And a disorderly cultural struggle over the direction of the movement could serve to lead to further defections.

But while some of America’s largest Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, continue to undermine members, a small group of conservative evangelicals appear to be counteracting the trend – though they number only around 1,300.

Over the past 30 years, believers from across the United States and beyond have gathered in Moscow, a city in northern Idaho with a population of approximately 25,000. Here, as members of the Christ Church congregation, they opposed the cultures of modern America. Guided by a controversial social theory known as “Christian Reconstruction,” which argues that Biblical law should apply in today’s context, they turn to the Bible to understand how they believe American institutions should be reformed. Followers believe abortion rights and same-sex marriage, among other evidence of what they would see as moral decline, will ultimately be repealed. Their objective is simple: the conversion of the people of Moscow to their way of thinking as the first step towards the conversion of the world.

This hope may seem unrealistic. But as an academic who has traced the rise of the movement in my book “Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America,” I know these believers have already taken steps toward this goal.

Growing influence

In Moscow, the community established churches, a classical Christian school, a liberal arts college, a music conservatory, a publishing house, and the ingredients of a media empire. With books published by major professional and academic presses, and an Amazon Prime talk show, the community is setting the agenda for a theologically vigorous and politically reactionary evangelical revival.

These believers are led by Conservative Pastor Douglas Wilson, whose views on gender, marriage and many other topics are controversial even among the most conservative Christians. For over 30 years Wilson has campaigned against the influence of everything from atheism to feminism.

In doing so, he attracted significant critical attention – notably from the late journalist and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, with whom he debated whether Christianity was good for the world in a series of exchanges that were subsequently transformed. in a book.

The community Wilson leads in Moscow is still small. It is difficult to get figures on the growth of Christ Church in terms of numbers, but my research and conversations with members of the congregation suggest that it is expanding. What is clear is that in just over three decades, Christ Church has grown from a little-known congregation to a congregation generating media attention and attracting the attention of prominent political figures.

The community established a K-12 school, part of an association of hundreds of classical Christian schools strongly influenced by Wilson’s educational beliefs. Testifying to the group’s political reach, in 2019, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of the speakers at the association’s annual convention.

As I note in my book, the community liberal arts college sends students to doctoral programs in various disciplines at the Ivy League and at major European universities – this is not an island educational world. His small group of closely related authors have worked with publishers such as Random House and Oxford University Press.

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

This talk show, “Rampant Man,” gives an indication of why this community is gaining influence despite evangelical decline. Wilson, as the host, uses the platform to expose the ideas that underpin his vision for Christian renewal – developing an explicitly Bible-based agenda on the revival of traditional masculinity.

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

The “Rampant Man” agenda is bolstered on Wilson’s website, which draws on the creative people living in the Moscow community to turn his arguments into vivid visual metaphors, and where, while rejecting racism, he supports that “it’s really good to be white.”

Go local to convert America

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

One of Wilson’s most important influences is the late RJ Rushdoony, an Armenian-American Presbyterian theologian who was pushed by protecting Protestants in the United States from the kind of genocide his parents escaped. Frustrated with the otherworldly spirit of many American Christian denominations, whose adherents he feared would preach more on heaven than on earth, and their indulgence in what he perceived to be a hostile liberal culture, Rushdoony set about to develop biblical principles on how society should be organized.

The Ten Commandments should no longer be seen as an artifact in the history of morality, argued Rushdoony. Instead, they should be understood as spelling out the fundamentals of how the modern state works. “Thou shalt not steal” ruled out the possibility of inflation, which Rushdoony said devalued monetary assets and was therefore a form of theft. And “You will have no other gods than me” excluded any possibility of religious pluralism.

Rushdoony promoted these ideals in titles such as 1973’s “Institutes of Biblical Law” – a 1,000-page exhibit of the Ten Commandments that called for both the abolition of the prison system and a massive extension of the death penalty.

Christians would only be safe in American society if it was shaped by their religious values, he argued. But the Christian America he foresaw would not be secured by revolution or any form of top-down political change – only by the transformation of individual lives, families, cities and states.

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

Avoid the existential crisis

The stated goal of Wilson’s congregation is to make Moscow a Christian city; At present, only about a third of Moscow residents identify as “religious,” according to a 2019 report.

But it was Wilson’s attitude about public health measures during the pandemic that recently brought him and his church back to the attention of political leaders. Throughout the pandemic, he has argued that mask requirements reveal the government’s hypocrisy. In September 2020, Wilson led his congregation in the illegal anthem outside City Hall that led to the arrest of several church members – images of which were retweeted by President Trump, who suggested that the arrests of the Moscow congregation were emblematic of what would happen to evangelicals if the Democrats took control. “DEMS WANTS TO CLOSE YOUR CHURCHES PERMANENTLY,” the former president tweeted in all caps.

And yet, whatever the fears of the former president, Wilson’s congregation is growing. As large denominations, like the Southern Baptists, divide in the debate over critical race theory, Wilson’s Church shows how some congregations might respond to the existential crisis of evangelism – and eventually prosper.

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