Sharron Angle, the Republican challenger to Majority Leader Harry Reid's Nevada Senate seat, has also emerged this election season to challenge Sarah Palin's throne as the conservative leader most likely to say baffling things in public.
Angle grabbed headlines in June when a radio interview surfaced, during which she suggested that if conservative Republicans can't take back Congress, they may resort to "Second Amendment remedies" to fix the problem. When pressed on what exactly a Second Amendment remedy was, she dodged the issue and said her quote was taken out of context. In the past, Angle has gone beyond the usual vague talk about limiting federal government, suggesting we eliminate the Department of Education, Social Security, and Medicare.
In discussing religion, Angle often edges into the prophetic. When she was confronted about her unwillingness to support exceptions to an abortion ban even in the case of rape and incest, she said straightforwardly, "God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives." She objects to laws that prevent pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Most interestingly, she claimed that entitlement programs of all sorts violate "the First Commandment," and in case her point wasn't clear, she elaborated in biblical talk: "We have become a country entrenched in idolatry, and that idolatry is the dependency upon our government. We're supposed to depend upon God for our protection and our provision and for our daily bread, not for our government."
Any casual observer of the Christian right might feel puzzled. Since George Bush, candidates have mastered a certain innocuous way to send a shout-out to their religious brethren, referring more vaguely to "struggles" or a "relationship" with God—the standard stuff of the average American megachurch. But Angle's way of talking picks up accents from another movement that is usually muzzled in American politics but occasionally finds voice in a Southern candidate or two. It's called the Christian Reconstructionist movement and was started in the '60s and '70s by Calvinist theologian Rousas John Rushdoony. Indeed, Angle used to be a member of the Independent American Party, an offshoot of the Constitution Party, which was started by avowed Christian Reconstructionist Howard Phillips. *
Christian Reconstructionism, on its own, is a fringe movement in the Christian right. Most of the Christian right is comprised of pre-millennial evangelicals who believe Christ will return to Earth to kick-start the 1,000 years of the Kingdom of God. Christian Reconstructionists, on the other hand, believe the world is already the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus will return after they have transformed society and government into one that follows Biblical law. Because of this, Reconstructionists prioritize reforming America into what they consider a godly country and bringing the legal structures of our country in line with Old Testament law, with a specific eye toward pushing the government out of all arenas they consider the sole province of church and family.
This view leads Christian Reconstructionists to take extreme positions, which in turn makes finding people willing to speak about the influence of Christian Reconstructionism on their views rare indeed. "Most people don't admit to it, because there's a lot of things in Christian Reconstruction that they'd rather not get associated with," explained Sarah Posner, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and expert on the Christian right. "For example, the death penalty for homosexuality. Or they think that certain types of slavery were permitted by the Bible."
As Christian Reconstructionists' views got absorbed into the home-schooling movement and entered American politics more broadly, their dark roots have been largely forgotten. By now, politicians who parrot the ideology might have no idea from whence it originated, Posner points out. But over the years, it's had a strong influence on mainstream evangelicals. And lately, it is dovetailing with the ideology of the Tea Party in a whole new way.
Once, evangelicals were encouraged to stick to their own and ignore the world, but Reconstructionists pushed the movement to change those tactics and start trying to change the world through politics, says Julie Ingersoll, an associate professor at the University of North Florida who is writing a book on Christian Reconstructionism. Because of this, Reconstructionist political ideas were tacked on to the pre-millennial evangelical worldview, creating a whole-cloth, religious-right libertarianism of exactly the sort that you hear Sharron Angle—and many Tea Party members—spouting now.
Mike Huckabee, the friendly face of the Christian right, has used its leadership for fund-raising, as Robert Novak reported in late 2007. The Constitution Party attached itself to its fair share of big names: Pat Buchanan considered running for president under its banner, former Sen. Bob Smith aligned himself with it after losing his seat, and Rep. Ron Paul endorsed the Constitution Party candidate after dropping out of the presidential race. The fringe movement became a thorn in the side of the Republican Party in 2008, when vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's links to the Alaskan Independence Party, a state party that's been absorbed by the Constitution Party, were outed.
Christian Reconstructionist views are felt even more strongly on a local level. As Ingersoll explained, the entire Christian-right obsession with education, and particularly with home-schooling, traces back to the work of Rushdoony, who singled out government-based education as particularly offensive to God. The epic battles for dominance of the Texas State School Board have Reconstructionist fingerprints all over them. The conservatives on the board have adamantly pushed for textbooks with Reconstructionist-influenced ideas (such as the argument that the Founders intended for America to be a Christian nation). School-board member Cynthia Dunbar has railed against the very existence of state-run schools, implying in Rushdoony-tinged language that government education usurps family authority.
Sharron Angle came to politics because of her opposition to state-run schools and her interest in home-schooling. Even as the Republican Party bigwigs have coaxed her into easing off her language denouncing Medicare and Social Security, she continues to hold fast to her objections to any federal hand in education. In fact, Angle's strong stances against federal entitlement programs and objections to the idea that the federal government should concern itself with job creation demonstrate the impact Reconstructionism has had on the Christian right, helping create the kinds of alliances with secular libertarians that fuel the Tea Party.
Angle's surprising comments about how a strong federal government equals "idolatry" particularly point to the impact Christian Reconstructionism has had on her thinking, even if she doesn't directly identify with the movement or has received these ideas secondhand. That quote particularly captures Rushdoony's philosophy in a nutshell: "Trying to organize civil society in ways that violate God's clear demarcation of authority is this fundamental sin of humanism," explains Ingersoll. "It's making humans and human reason the measure of what is appropriate." Just a few years ago, a candidate who uses the word "idolatry" in a political speech might quickly become a pariah. But now, it's all the rage again.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2010: In the original version of this piece, Howard Phillips' name was misspelled. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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