This past Tuesday, Richard Mouw published a remembrance of the Christian Reconstructionists at First Things. His basic thesis was that the Reconstructionists’s inability to win the battle “for hearts and minds” was primarily due to their conviction that hearts and minds are won by dominant polemical performance and unrelenting conviction without concern for personal etiquette or social persuasion. They had the logos, and a certain sort of ethos, but essentially no pathos. Along the way, however, Dr. Mouw gives an interesting contrast between Gary North and Greg Bahnsen. Dr. Bahnsen’s reputation is not actually much better than North’s, certainly not in Jackson, MS, the scene of Dr. Mouw’s remembrance. And yet, for Dr. Mouw at least, Dr. Bahnsen was kind and polite, able to extend human collegiality even while disagreeing. Dr. North, on the other hand, was rude, proud, and irreverent.
Entertainingly, Gary North has written a sort of response to Dr. Mouw’s article. It’s classic Gary, beginning with a broad historical narrative and concluding with an ultimate battle between good and evil, all with lots of self-promotion and advertisements for current projects sprinkled about. There’s some genuinely funny yet acid criticisms, some sweeping and inaccurate generalizations, and even a few valid observations. But ultimately Dr. North confirms Dr. Mouw’s telling of their interaction. Dr. North writes:
My critic expected a “hail fellow, well met” response from me. He did not get it… I did not respect him 40 years ago, and I respect him less today. I think he sensed this back then. The incident has stuck in his craw. He remembers that I did not take him seriously. This bothers academics. They expect to be taken seriously because they went through a series of academic hoops that were set up in the late 1940’s to screen out people who are not committed to liberalism, but all in the name of neutrality.
…He writes that, in our first meeting at the airport, I walked away without shaking his hand. I don’t remember it. It doesn’t sound like me. But maybe I did. He adds this: one of the people who had invited us to debate mentioned that he looked forward to the dialogue between us. I don’t like the word dialogue, either as a noun or a verb — especially a verb. I prefer the word “confrontation.” I like the word “debate.” I prefer “no-holds-barred debate.” So, I told the individual who made the statement that we had not come to be in a dialogue. We had come to battle for the hearts and minds of the audience. That sounds exactly like what I would say. But I don’t recall the meeting. He surely does. It made an impression on him.
Dr. North then defends his outlook with the following rationale:
Hard-core people make an impression on soft-core people. Soft-core people rarely make any impression.
…When you debate, debate to win. When you debate, target that portion of the audience which has not yet made up its mind. You debate to convince your followers (10%) that you are hard core. You debate to convince the other guy’s followers (10%) that you are hard core, and he was upended by being soft core. Make them think this: “Why wasn’t he tougher?” Debate to persuade more undecided people in the audience that your position is correct than those who decide that your opponent’s position is correct. This is not the faculty lounge; this is verbal warfare.
…The time for becoming soft core is after you have had a complete victory and are in power. Then, on the basis of noblesse oblige, you can shake hands with the losers.
…When you are trying to lay the foundations of a victory, and trying to recruit hard-core people who will not sell out or run for cover, and you are in the early stages of the conflict, remember this: “Soft core loses every time.” Soft core is for the faculty lounge.
When you see that you are in a war, fight to win. When you are on a battlefield in which you are in a position to persuade an audience that this really is a war, not the faculty lounge, do not hold back. Go for the jugular.
Never give an inch.
Two immediate reactions come from reading this exchange. The first is, no doubt, to note that Dr. North is as recalcitrant as ever and, therefore, to side with Dr. Mouw. The second, coming from a more “realist” view of human relations, is to note that Dr. North is actually correct about how a lot of political “battles” go. Dr. North has, no doubt, read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. Nice guys finish last. Though both have their legitimate points, Christian thinkers need to go farther than either reaction.
I have the benefit (or handicap, depending on one’s perspective) of relative youth, having come up after the “debate” about Christian Reconstructionism was mostly over (the CRs failed to persuade the majority of their initial target audience). But I was also sympathetic towards Reconstructionism as I was first coming into the Reformed faith, being for a time a full-fledged adherent, and now still a fellow intellectual traveler, asking similar questions and having conflicted feelings towards the Reconstructionist answers. I was always told that one has to read Rushdoony in the same way they eat fried catfish, by spitting out the bones. There are countless valuable and interesting, even while eccentric, points to be found in Rushdoony. But even more than catfish, Rushdoony cuts the mouth. North always bordered on simply indulging the baser passions. And yet they were not actually crazy men with nothing but fantasy and angst. Rushdoony often did shine a light on forgotten or hidden aspects of our intellectual and cultural heritage, and many of the knee-jerk responses to Reconstructionism took the form of otherwise conservative Evangelicals parroting progressive criticisms of violence, intolerance, theocracy, and general illiberalism. There was usually not much creative thought being put into such critiques, but rather a series of straw-men attacks and appeals to the sensitivities of the masses. Within Presbyterianism, especially, there was a constant projection going on where the Reconstructionists were made to be the scapegoats who bore the sins of the 17th and 18th century into the wilderness of American fundamentalism while the mainstream (but not mainline) conservative Presbyterians could be still mostly conservative and yet acceptable. There were always, of course, legitimate points of outrage mixed throughout, and this made the duty of honest and slow critique rather challenging. In light of all of that, Dr. North’s commitment to curmudgeonliness is understandable and perhaps, for him, necessary.
And yet it is not clear that Dr. North’s tactical outlook actually obtained the goals he set out. Certainly no one fears a Reconstructionist takeover today the way that such a scenario seemed remote but still somewhat possible in the 1980s. Dr. North has mostly fallen from influence, not being taken seriously by even quasi-theonomic and post-theonomic Calvinists. He seems to have followed a similar course as William Jennings Bryan, whom he says he greatly admires, and association with his name is more or less toxic. Is this truly a victory in the battle for hearts and minds?
The theological and exegetical claims of Christian Reconstructionism can be evaluated without recourse to political strategies. We are confident that they will be found, while intriguing and worthy of private conversation and intellectual wrestling, to be ultimately wrong. But the political point is worth noting as well. Even though the “hard-core” personalities serve as the front line of these kinds of battle, they rarely survive to become the actual shapers of culture, the true leaders of men. Almost always they become a casualty of war or, if victorious, they are assassinated by their handlers. The character of the “statesman” (a strong and principled one in the event of a successful establishment, or a weak and pragmatic one in the event of a failed establishment) inevitably takes their place. But even with this, “the hardcore” must still retain dignity, to the grave if necessary. People still admire and even follow those who “burn out.” But to burn up and burn out is not always the same thing. Though ultimately a failure, Lenin still has a sort of inspirational power. Robespierre does not.
This little memorial also highlights the need and challenge of Reformed Irenicism. Our goal is precisely to be “hard core” in the sense of principled, courageous, and even muscular discourse, debate, and leadership, yet also to be truly persuasive in a way that can endure the battle and actually create something. More importantly still, it ought to help cultivate people who can create. It ought to create creators.