essays

Nov 16, 1961

Rothbard against the Christian Reconstructionists

Concerning the fundamentalist author of Intellectual Schizophrenia, Rothbard writes, “The man seems almost incapable of ratiocination.”

Editor’s Note

In 1961, Murray Rothbard was employed by the William Volker Fund as something of a libertarian strategist and talent scout. Rothbard would read books that showed promise for advancing the libertarian cause, and recommend that the Volker Fund support the book and its author, or not. Some of this support was done through the National Book Foundation (not to be confused with the modern organization of the same name), a subsidiary of the Volker Fund that donated books to university libraries.

Rothbard can be scathing in even his more somber, academic work, but in his Volker Fund memos, where he was writing for a private audience, he really pulls no punches. In one such memo, he famously called Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty “surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and, I would even say, evil book.” His review of Rousas John Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis, and Education, with which we are concerned here, makes his treatment of Hayek’s book seem restrained.

Rushdoony was the founder of a peculiar type of fundamentalist Christianity called “Christian Reconstructionism.” Reconstructionists are something like an American Taliban—they want to completely destroy the existing socio-political order and “reconstruct” it around their interpretation of Christianity—including a thoroughgoing and bloodthirsty application of Old Testament law that requires the execution of everyone from homosexuals to “habitual” criminals. Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North, is the most prominent exponent of Christian Reconstructionism today. Despite his authoritarianism, North styles himself a libertarian since he finds certain limits on the size and scope of state authority amenable to his desire to implement “biblical” laws and norms.

Rothbard makes it clear that the Reconstructionists are no true friends of liberty, commenting, “The impression begins to emerge that the Rev. Rushdoony, for much of his diatribes against statism, is perhaps basically opposed to statist public schools only because he sees that there is no possibility of their being Calvinized; while, on the contrary, he would not be amiss to a bit of compulsory Calvinization of our secular society.” We can see Rushdoony’s fundamental hostility to human liberty, Rothbard further argues, in his view of the natural law. Rothbard contrasts Rushdoony’s dismissal of human reason and his commitment to revelation as the final arbiter of, well, everything, to the Thomists’ belief in a natural law accessible to human reason.

Rothbard’s warning—that we must look beyond mere anti-statism in our search for libertarian allies, and insist on a foundational commitment to human liberty animating that anti-statism—is timeless. There has never been a shortage of people opposed to the state for illiberal reasons; what distinguishes libertarians is an anti-statism driven by a fierce commitment to the protection of liberty—other people’s as much as our own.

The memo comes from the archives of the Hoover Institution, which ended up with a fair number of the Volker Fund’s documents in the wake of the Volker Fund’s dissolution. My thanks to Jeffrey Tucker, who came across the memo, recognized its importance, and shared images of the original document. The original typewritten manuscript contains a fair number of handwritten corrections, which I have endeavored to faithfully incorporate into the text below. I have made a few changes to standardize the punctuation and improve the formatting for ease of reading, but none of them are substantive.

Not long after Rothbard wrote this memo, F.A. “Baldy” Harper was dismissed from his position managing the Volker Fund’s affairs, much of the staff was fired, and the organization’s role as the center of the growing libertarian movement effectively ended. Harper’s replacement was a man named Ivan R. Bierly, formerly of the Foundation for Economic Education. Under Bierly’s direction, the Volker Fund was reorganized as a theocratic outfit called the Center for American Studies, and in an ironic twist of fate, Bierly hired on Rushdoony, who in turn recommended Gary North as an intern. For more on that story, see Michael J. McVicar’s book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism.

Grant Babcock
Associate Editor

A Review of R. J. Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis, and Education

By Murray Rothbard

 

November 16, 1961

 

Mr. H. George Resch
William Volker Fund
Box 113
Burlingame, Calif.

 

Dear George:

Rousas J. Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1961) is one of the poorest books that I have read in quite a while. It is true that one of Rushdoony’s central conclusions, a root-and-branch opposition to the public school system as inherently and unfortunately statist, is unexceptionable. But a book, to be worthy of commendation, let alone of recommendation for NBF distribution, needs more than a conclusion with which one could agree: it needs, for one thing, the ability to pursue and develop a reasoned and coherent argument. Rushdoony, particularly in the first half of the book but also throughout, seems to lack this ability: page after page, indeed individual sentence after sentence, follows after each other in whopping and irrelevant non sequitur. The man seems almost incapable of ratiocination.  In many pages, not only does each particular sentence make little sense, but there seems to be no connection whatever between any given sentence and the ones preceding or following. One gets the distinct impression with Rushdoony that any other random distribution of his sentences make as much—or as little—sense as the one he has somehow selected. As a result, the book is a turgid miasma, a patchwork of repetition, miscellaneous harangue, irrelevant biblical quotation, a passage or two on jazz or on Senator Kefauver, etc. Once in a great while a good or even valuable sentence or even paragraph will appear such as his attack on the group-worship mysticism of the public school system, or on the lack of the idea of “calling” in modern life, etc., but these passage are few and far between.

Thus, even aside from the ideological content of the book, this utterly confused jumble would debar this book from any serious consideration, let alone serious consideration for NBF use. But this is far from all. For the major theme of Rushdoony’s is not opposition to the statism of public school (this is what we could call his minor theme). His major theme is that no reality, no life, no mental health, no knowledge, no culture, etc. can exist apart from an absolute acceptance of the truth and the supremacy of fundamentalist Calvinist Christianity. Typical of Rushdoony is his rabid plunge into fundamentalist eschatology; thus, on page 93, we hear our prophet proclaiming the “end” of our era, the welcome breakdown of our culture, because eschatology decrees that out of this breakdown will emerge the Kingdom of God on earth: “Thus, while the Christian, as a participant in the events, can share in the common dismay at the tragedies and mounting crises of history, he must nevertheless welcome these crises as the necessary and God-ordained shaking of history.” Without wishing to attack either religion or Christianity, I must submit that this is nonsense, that it is also the kind of eschatological determinism and belief in inevitable “laws of history” that probably fed Hegelianism and Marxism. It is also—in its gibberish about the stages of history from “unity” in the Middle Ages, to divided “epistemological self-consciousness” of the modern era, into the vaguely-defined Paradisaical new order a’coming—highly reminiscent of the balderdash of Gerald Heard. 

While he cannot construct an argument, Rushdoony is at least astute enough, in many places in this book, to pose the crucial question squarely. For he recognizes that, in asking us to return to Calvin, he is also asking us to declare war—not only on statism—but also on Thomism. For Thomism, while insisting on the final importance of Revelation for theology, also recognizes that the matters of man’s earthly knowledge are discernible and decipherable by the use of man’s natural reason. Man’s natural reason can discover natural law, in its physical and in its ethical subdivisions. This too, for Rushdoony, is his supreme intellectual enemy; for Rushdoony, in totally rejecting reason and natural law, wants us to believe that no knowledge, no reason, etc. is possible except with and through Christ. Corollary to this view is the famous argument about salvation “through faith” vs. salvation through “good works.” The Calvin-Rushdoony view postulates salvation by faith alone, and hence Rushdoony time and again strongly attacks Christians—including an absurdly intemperate attack on the entire Sunday School movement—for urging men to be “good” because Christ requires goodness. To Rushdoony, this is a vital concession to the Catholic blend of faith and “good works,” and it means something else: it means that these good works are important, and also at least partly discoverable by man’s natural reason and by natural law. Combatting this, Rushdoony states repeatedly that morality and good works are unimportant, that only the “covenant of grace” matters. Rushdoony’s eschatology also comes into to play here, because Calvin’s predestination doctrine is determinist, metaphysically pessimist, and ultimately “subversive” of the emphasis on both free will and natural law morality which Thomism (including the Protestant as well as Catholic versions of Thomism) so well teaches us.

The result of these doctrines is that Rushdoony wishes to sweep aside what he so arrogantly proclaims is the schizophrenia of all modern “secular” culture, and its replacement by the Bible.

“Because Christianity encompasses the totality of life, it must become in its totality the source of culture…Christians can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society.” I can only submit that this is an absurd and intolerably bigoted credo, based on absurd and erroneous philosophical doctrines, doctrines in which theology usurps the fields of philosophy and science.

Rushdoony’s deep and fundamental opposition to Thomism (and with it to any type of rational theology), and his consequent rejection of natural law, leads to a consequent political rejection of what Rushdoony sneeringly refers to as “cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism, which he, once again, sees embodied in the Roman Catholic Church. Natural law is, indeed, “cosmopolite” just as libertarian natural rights are “cosmopolite,” because they apply to all men everywhere, regardless of accidents of time or place. But scorning of reason and natural law leads Rushdoony to scorn such “cosmopolitanism,” and consequently to uphold a narrow and insular nationalism and “patriotism” as the highest political virtue. I have not seen the Roman Church to referred to as the Whore of Babylon in many years, and it is entertaining, if not exactly instructive, to see Rushdoony enter the lists:

Cosmopolitanism was not an ideal; rather, it was a major sin, in that it involved the offense of the tower of Babel, a commonality in which the covenant of grace was destroyed in favor of an indifference to good and evil…and a rebellion against the primacy of faith in favor of a meaningless and dangerous unity. It was a concept they opposed religiously, and hence the Westminster Confession did not hesitate, together with the Reformers, to identify the Church of Rome with the Whore of Babylon and the papacy with the Man of Sin.

Rushdoony also creates caricatures and straw men with abandon. He states at the beginning that the fountainhead of modern decay was John Locke: that Locke’s concept of the tabula rasa (the “clean slate”) was the direct ancestor of the desire of the State and progressive education and modernity to “wipe the slate of the past clean”, and to remould everyone from start to finish. Now this is slanderous nonsense. Locke had no desire to wipe out the past; he was stating a certain view of epistemology—an empiricist view that had many failures, but was certainly at least correct in saying that the individual child was born with no innate ideas lodged in his mind. Certainly a man begins as a tabula rasa, even though we way disagree with Locke as to his passivity in receiving impressions. And, finally, this has nothing to do with atheism (Locke was a Christian) or with contempt of the past. Rushdoony’s pillorying of Locke is not only totally wrong: it is vulgar, crude, and absurd—akin, almost, to Ayn Rand’s ranting at her philosophical adversaries.

How libertarian, in fact, is Rushdoony? We have seen his attack on “cosmopolitanism” and his determinist acceptance of an eschatological view, which does not bode very well. For all of Rushdoony’s hostility towards statism, we find that “the state is an important institution, an indispensable God-ordained institution” (p.61); we find that “coercion has its place in society and is often a needed thing” (p. 57); “The free political order recognizes liberty but within the jurisdiction of responsibility and limitation…True political liberty establishes the restraint of law, insists on liability, cannot tolerate any creed which works to overthrow it [Oh?], and will not confuse freedom of the press, for example, with freedom to libel or slander, but will impose restrictions to guarantee freedom with responsibility.” Freedom “with responsibility”!; what a multitude of sins is covered by that phrase! And so Rushdoony supports the despotic outlawry of the free religious practices of, p.ex., the Mormons, with their peaceful institution of polygamy. “The Supreme Court has recognized only those practices as compatible with religious liberty in America which do not go against Christian standards.” The impression begins to emerge that the Rev. Rushdoony, for much of his diatribes against statism, is perhaps basically opposed to statist public schools only because he sees that there is no possibility of their being Calvinized; while, on the contrary, he would not be amiss to a bit of compulsory Calvinization of our secular society.

One caveat: as I have indicated before, the above world-view of Rushdoony’s is not set forth in a cogent or systematic manner in the book; on the contrary the pieces had to be fitted together by wading through the miasma and jumble in which this book consists.      

In view of his prominence in some libertarian circles, we should take note of the Rev. Edmund A. Opitz’ introduction to this book, which we might set down as the worst piece of writing I have come across since R.J. Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia. Mercifully, it is much shorter. The Rev. Opitz hammers away at the theme that our civilization, our knowledge, our culture, is necessarily and purely Christian. Everything that is good in our civilization and culture comes from Christianity; everything bad emerged from the Enlightenment. Without attempting to denigrate the positive contributions of Christianity, I must remind the Rev. Opitz that Christians slaughtered each other for many centuries in the name of Christianity, until the Enlightenment came along with its ideals and principles of peace and freedom for all.

One would have to travel far to find as many confusions, errors, and self-contradictions, as in this diatribe against the modern world by the Rev. Opitz:

“Our outlook is, in general, man-centered, secularist, and utopian. It is materialistic and rationalistic. It uses majority decision as its criterion of right. It asserts a false individualism against natural associations such as the family and intimate community groupings, and then it turns to nationalism as the principle of social cohesion.” Modern secularism is “nationalist,” but the Rev. Rushdoony attacks it for not being nationalist but cosmopolite. The Rev. Opitz attacks it for being individualistic and ignoring “intimate community groupings,” but also attacks it for worshiping majority decision. By what means does the “intimate community grouping” make its decision. By what means does the “intimate community grouping” make its decisions, one wonders? Rationalistic hardly implies majority will, etc.

I cannot resist concluding with a final example from this nonsensical tract. Ranging all over the intellectual landscape, the Rev. Rushdoony poses also as an expert on jazz, and declaims that music became “schizoid” in the modern world, by dividing into two poles: “atonal, intellectual, and impersonal” modern ‘serious’ music (presumably Schoenberg, Berg, and their innumerable epigones); and jazz, which is purely “an anti-intellectual and completely atomistic personalism” and emotionalism. The purely emotional jazz, says Rushdoony, was a reaction against the purely impersonal “intellectual” modern music.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is almost precisely the reverse. Rushdoony is totally unfamiliar with the fact that jazz was not born recently, in reaction to over-intellectualized modern atonality; on the contrary, the jazz of “feeling” that he talks about was born in New Orleans, about the 1880’s and 1890’s, and was a blend of the elements of harmony, melody, and counterpoint, of classical European music, with the rhythms of Africa. While emotional. This New Orleans, or “hot,” jazz is eminently in the rational-music tradition of Western civilization. On the other hand, the irrational atonalities, the breakdown of melody and harmony of modern serious music, has led, in recent years, to replacement of “hot” jazz by “modern” or “cool” jazz, which apes the atonality and “cool” ‘intellectuality’ of its modern serious music counterpart.

There is no point in cataloguing the puerilities of this work any longer. It clearly does not deserve serious attention by American intellectuals.

 

 Cordially,

Murray

                    

P.S. I worked 10 hours on this book.

M.