Operation Potomac

Taking Advantage Of The 'Faith-Based' Atmosphere In Washington, Christian Reconstructionists -- The Most Radical Fringe Of The Religious Right -- Are Marching Into The U.S. Capitol And The White House

The Rev. William Einwechter has a novel solution to the problem of incorrigible juvenile delinquents -- stone them to death.

Einwechter says the stoning penalty is clearly called for in the Bible (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and he's not ashamed to say that the punishment should still apply today.

"Properly understood," the Pennsylvania pastor argued in a January 1999 article, "it displays the wisdom and mercy of God in restraining wickedness so that the righteous might flourish in peace. It is those who reject this case law that should be embarrassed, for they have cast reproach on God and his law, cast aside the testimony of Christ and substituted their own imaginations for the blessed word of God."

Einwechter's piece appeared in Chalcedon Report, a magazine published by Christian Reconstructionists, the most aggressive and extreme wing of the Religious Right. Currently serving as vice president of an organization called the National Reform Association (NRA), Einwechter's writings frequently appear on the group's website (www.natreformassn.org).

Reconstructionists -- also called "theonomists" or advocates of "dominion theology" -- want to impose "biblical law" (or, more accurately, their interpretation of biblical law) on the United States. Under their view, democracy should be scrapped and replaced with a theocratic state based on a literal reading of the Old Testament's legal code.

In a "reconstructed" society, government would be dramatically scaled back. Most government institutions, including public schools and various welfare/social service programs, would be abolished and replaced with church-run efforts. Political leaders would look to the Bible, not the Constitution, as the nation's governing document.

As if this were not controversial enough, Christian Reconstructionists also advocate an extreme vision of social policy. Citing passages from the Old Testament Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, many Reconstructionists would institute the death penalty for a number of offenses, among them striking or cursing a parent, adultery, homosexuality, "unchastity," rape of a betrothed virgin, witchcraft, "incorrigible" juvenile delinquency, blasphemy and propagation of "false" religious doctrines. Some favor stoning as the biblically preferred means of execution.

Reconstructionists also argue that the Bible sanctions some forms of slavery and accords women a second-class status. One Reconstructionist writer, Steve Schlissel, has asserted that the "God-ordained order" places "God above all, man joyfully under God, woman lovingly under man, and the animals at bottom."

Reconstructionists have little use for separation of church and state. Einwechter recently asserted that the separation concept be thrown aside in favor of something he calls "national confessionalism."

Under this principle, Einwechter writes, "First, the church must be planted in a particular nation. Then as the church grows and faithfully disciples the converts, Christian citizens and rulers will see their duty to establish a Christian civil government. When the nation comes to a place of explicitly recognizing the authority of Christ over the state, it will become a Christian nation with both church and state, in their own proper spheres, confessing Christ as Lord."

Einwechter dismisses America's traditional model of a secular government that protects the rights of believers and nonbelievers alike. "Secularism is so patently false," he writes, "that it is amazing that this is the view of church and state that is supported by so many Christians."

Although Reconstructionism may seem so far out as to be easily dismissed, the philosophy has in fact provided the intellectual basis for much of the Religious Right's thinking and political activism. Stripped of its more extreme features, watered-down versions of Reconstructionism are the driving force behind groups like the Christian Coalition, whose leaders, during the group's early years, talked openly of the need for far-right Christians to take control of government from local school boards all the way to the White House.

Not content to be assigned to the lunatic fringe of American politics, Reconstructionists are now making a serious play for the big time. Through their "Operation Potomac" project, Einwechter, NRA president Jeffrey A. Ziegler and other group leaders have made three forays into Washington, D.C., since July 2000, meeting with members of Congress and their staffs. With the help of powerful House Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), they hope next year to host a "biblical worldview" conference for congressional staff on Capitol Hill.

The future promises even more political activism. In January Ziegler, a Presbyterian minister, announced plans for a dramatic expansion into the political realm. "NRA Board Member and author John Fielding III has been tasked with gathering all information needed to expand NRA operations beyond its current educational efforts," he wrote, "creating an official lobbying arm through the concurrent formation of a Political Action Committee and a separate 501 (c4) organization."

"My goal is to get [the National Reform Association] back to its original avocation and have a political arm," the 41-year-old Ziegler said in an interview with Church & State. "In that context, we have had 'Operation Potomac' missions. We meet with congressman and senators. We go there to disciple, not to lobby on issues."

Continued Ziegler, "There will be a separate overtly political arm. It will develop campaigns, the candidacies and actually run those campaigns....We want to see an overtly political arm of the NRA develop so that we have that two-track agenda. One, we have the think tank, and two, we're actually doing the business of politics."

The National Reform Association, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based group, represents a new wave of Reconstructionist thinking. Christian Reconstructionists trace their roots to 16th-century French church reformer John Calvin, but their modern spiritual grandfather was Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), an American theologian and author whose ideas laid the philosophical foundations of Reconstructionism -- but did not necessarily call for full-blown political activism.

In 1959, ex-missionary Rousas John Rushdoony began popularizing Van Til's ideas when he published a seminal work of Reconstructionism titled By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til. Rushdoony subsequently coined the term "Christian Reconstructionism" and in 1966 founded the Chalcedon Foundation, the first Reconstructionist think tank.

According to Reconstructionist theology, believers of their stripe have to take control sooner or later -- the Bible mandates it. Unlike many modern fundamentalists, Reconstructionists believe that Jesus Christ will not return until society has been rebuilt to their liking. Their "purification" of an ungodly America, they assert, will pave the way for the Second Coming. (This view, called "post-millennialism," was common among 19th-century Christians. It conflicts with the more widespread evangelical belief that Jesus will return only after a period of chaos and then impose a reign of peace and order, a view known as "premillennialism.")

From the Foundation's headquarters in Vallecito, Calif., a small town west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California, Rushdoony spent nearly four decades issuing books, reports and white papers that attracted a small but enthusiastic group of followers, most of them ultra-conservative Presbyterians or others in the Reformed camp.

But Rushdoony, tucked away in an overlooked corner of rural California, never had much of a direct impact on national politics. Nor did he seem to want to. Rushdoony, who died last year at the age of 84, was content to issue dense tomes arguing about the proper "biblical" way to order a reconstructed society, literally obsessing over every jot and tittle in the law.

By contrast, the new breed of Christian Reconstructionists are eager to jump head first into politics, and increasingly they are finding the doors of Congress and the White House wide open to them.

NRA activists made their first venture to Washington on March 1, 2000, where they met with a number of Republican lawmakers. Ziegler, Einwechter and two others "reestablished the lobbying arm of the National Reform Association in the nation's capital" during the visit, Ziegler reported.

The four met personally with Reps. Asa Hutchison (R-Ark.), John Hostettler (R-Ind.), J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) and met with staffers of other House and Senate members, including Ohio senators George Voinovich and Mike DeWine and Don Nickels of Oklahoma, all Republicans.

Five months later, Ziegler, Einwechter and other group leaders returned to Capitol Hill. Reporting on the July 13, 2000, visit, Einwechter and Ziegler proudly noted that they had met with staffers from the offices of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sens. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Ben Campbell (R-Colo.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Tim Hutchison (R-Ark.), Bob Smith (R-N.H.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

During the second meeting, NRA representatives met personally with several House members, including Reps. James Traficant (D-Ohio), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Steve Buyer (R-Ind.). They met with staffers from other offices, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.)

Following the November elections, with the landscape in Washington greatly changed, the Reconstructionists came back. On April 25, 2001, the group again met with several House members, including Majority Whip DeLay, House Republican Conference Chair J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Reps. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and LaTourette.

During the last visit, the Christian Reconstructionist delegation also stopped at the White House, where it was warmly received by an official in the Office of Public Policy and Liaison; they also stopped in to visit with the staff of Ashcroft, now serving as attorney general.

While meeting with DeLay, Ziegler reported, the NRA officials made plans to sponsor a "biblical worldview seminar to be conducted at the Capitol" for congressional staffers. Although a date for the event has yet to be announced, Ziegler says it will occur next year. He also hopes to meet with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney later this year or next.

This type of access and influence is nothing short of remarkable, considering the extreme views taken by some Reconstructionists. Some activists in the movement, including Rushdoony and Atlanta-area leader Gary DeMar, who runs a group called American Vision (www.americanvision.org), have asserted that the Bible mandates the death penalty for homosexuals and doctors who provide abortions. Asked about the matter on Atlanta radio station WSB in 1991, DeMar offered cold comfort by saying that gays would be executed only if two witnesses had observed them engaging in homosexual acts.

Ziegler denies that he goes that far. He told Church & State that the NRA advocates a type of political libertarianism with a small federal government and power based in the states. Under this model, he insisted, local control would prevail.

"If you're asking me if a homosexual should be executed just for being a homosexual, I would say no," Ziegler said. "But if he is harming individuals through actions like rape, then there should be some penalty."

Zielger conceded that under "national confessionalism," states could legally apply the death penalty for certain offenses, such as homosexuality or providing abortions. But other states, he said, would retain the right to go in the opposite direction.

Will this more moderate form of Reconstructionism provide a suitable platform for political activism? Ziegler thinks so. In an article titled "Take Me Out to the Ball Game: How to Build a Christian Political Farm Team," Ziegler outlined his vision -- a political plan that relies more on old-fashioned grassroots organizing than divine intervention.

Swiping a page from the Christian Coalition's political handbook, Ziegler recommends that Reconstructionists infiltrate local party units and take them over. "Concentration is on trained Christians who look to control the executive committees and various other committees (finance, public relations, candidate recruitment, etc) with an eventual Christian party chairman," he wrote. He goes on to say that once "sufficient control is established in one local county party" the goal should be "branching out into the contiguous counties within the same congressional district."

Ziegler, who serves as a staff minister at Shiloh Christian Church in Leroy Township, Ohio, has little patience for pessimists who say the task is too daunting. "A dominion attitude," he writes, "rejects defeatist notions, and embraces long term biblical strategies which ensure a 'little by little' conversion, or defeat, of entrenched political adversaries."

In duplicating a model that worked so well for the Christian Coalition for many years, Ziegler unintentionally underscores just how much influence the Reconstructionists have had on the nation's leading Religious Right groups. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the Religious Right would have become as powerful as it did without the intellectual platform built for it by Reconstructionists.

In the late 1970s and '80s, a large number of conservative evangelicals entered politics and sought a biblical basis for their actions. Reconstructionists had already provided that justification.

Robert Billings, an early Religious Right strategist and one of the founders of the Moral Majority, said it best in 1980 when he stated bluntly, "If it weren't for [Rushdoony's] books, none of us would be here."

More recently, Reconstructionist writer Gary North, Rushdoony's son-in-law, commenting on Rushdoony's death, told the Los Angeles Times, "Rushdoony's writings are the source of many of the core ideas of the New Christian Right's political activism."

Television preacher Pat Robertson also owes a debt to the Reconstructionists. Although Robertson has always denied being a Reconstructionist, Rushdoony once made an appearance on Robertson's show and much of the televangelist's rhetoric about Christians taking control echoes theonomist rhetoric. In 1999 Robertson told his "700 Club" audience that he reads a newsletter produced by North.

(Although North, a prolific writer and founder of the Institute for Christian Economics, married Rushdoony's daughter, the two men became estranged. North spent much of 1999 predicting the collapse of American society over the "Y2K" problem and relocated to an isolated compound in rural Arkansas to ride out the expected civil unrest. Despite the failed prediction, he still publishes investment newsletters and pontificates on other matters. The Dallas Morning News on Feb 3 published a North opinion piece criticizing the film version of Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" novel.)

D. James Kennedy, the TV preacher who runs Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also has Reconstructionist ties. In May of 1996, Kennedy addressed a banquet sponsored by DeMar's American Vision. The group's newsletter noted that "American Vision has enjoyed a wonderful friendship and working relationship with Dr. Kennedy and others at Coral Ridge for many years."

In addition, George Grant, one of the most vociferous and anti-gay of the Reconstructionists, is a former vice president at Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries and still lectures at Kennedy's Knox Theological Seminary. Both Kennedy's ministry and the Christian Coalition have sold copies of a Grant book, Legislating Immorality, which laments the fact that legal codes calling for the death penalty for gay people have been abandoned.

Grant also speaks regularly at events sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, an umbrella legal group created by prominent Religious Right leaders (Kennedy, James Dobson and Donald Wildmon among them). Grant addresses law students every summer as part of the Alliance's "Blackstone Fellowship" program.

Dobson's Focus on the Family currently sells Grant's Grand Illusions: The Legacy of Planned Parenthood, a book that attacks reproductive rights and calls the separation of church and state "a myth." FOF also sells a taped interview with Grant. (Dobson has stated that in 1996 he voted for Howard Phillips, the presidential candidate of the Reconstructionist-oriented U.S. Taxpayers Party.)

Reconstructionists have also influenced various ultra-conservative forces that oppose public education. Several high profile attacks against public schools and teachers unions, especially the National Education Association, have come from the pen of Reconstructionist Samuel L. Blumenfeld. His books, including N.E.A.: Trojan Horse in American Education, which labels the NEA an "educational Mafia," are frequently sold on right-wing websites.

Even allegedly intellectual conservative writers have lauded the movement. Following Rushdoony's death, Peter J. Leithart, a professor of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, wrote a fawning piece in The Weekly Standard saluting Rushdoony and asserting that he had "as great an impact on American life as other, better known American theologians of the past century."

It's not surprising that far-right publications and television evangelists like Robertson and Kennedy, who take extreme views on many social issues, would not hesitate to laud the Reconstructionists. What's more alarming is that some influential politicians are starting to do the same.

Although it's not well known, President George W. Bush's former welfare guru, Marvin Olasky, has clearly been influenced by Reconstructionists. Olasky, who coined the term "compassionate conservatism," has written several books over the years studded with references to Reconstructionist writers like Rushdoony, North, DeMar and Grant. (Grant, is a former columnist for Olasky's World magazine.)

Olasky has never publicly admitted that he is a Reconstructionist. But his books and articles often parrot Reconstructionist views, including his belief that churches, not the government, should provide for the poor. Olasky also agrees with the Reconstructionists on some social issues. In one tome, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (1995), he goes so far as to adopt the Reconstructionist view defending slavery, noting that Scripture "does not simply ban all of its modes."

Ironically, Olasky's influence in Washington may be waning at the same time more overt Reconstructionists are winning new entr\xe9e. He has become disenchanted with the first major religious thrust of the Bush administration -- the so-called "faith-based initiative." Olasky believes that the Bush approach would foster too much government interference in church affairs and lead to state control.

In Washington, the Reconstructionists' outreach has been almost exclusively focused on the Republican Party. This is especially noteworthy, considering that the movement has in the past tried to form a political unit -- the Constitution Party (formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party), headed by Howard Phillips, a Jewish convert to Reconstructionism and former Nixon administration official. (Grant was also instrumental in the formation of the party.)

Although Phillips sits on the National Reform Association's advisory board, Ziegler bluntly admits that his party is not a viable vehicle for political action. (The party has run Phillips for president three times since 1992, in 2000 garnering only 98,020 votes nationwide, less then one-tenth of 1 percent.)

"My mantra is, there are two trains going to Washington -- it's the Republican and Democratic parties, and we have to look at them," said Ziegler. "They are the vehicles....I support Howard and what he does, but I look at his party as kind of a lobbying operation. At the end of the day, if you really want to be effective in electing people you've got to be dealing with the major parties."

Ziegler clearly puts more emphasis on the GOP. In late 1999 he threatened to run for Congress against LaTourette in the Republican primary, charging that the congressman was too moderate. He later dropped the idea after a county GOP official convinced him that a hard-right candidate could not carry the district. Ziegler now says the move was just an attempt to get LaTourette to take his movement seriously, and notes that he has since met with the congressman.

A Ziegler run would not have been unprecedented. Reconstructionists have had some success in state politics. In California and Texas, well-heeled far-right activists Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Steven Hotze, both of whom have ties to Reconstructionist groups, have successfully assisted candidates seeking state and local offices.

Ahmanson, a muti-millionaire, served for many years on the board of the Chalcedon Foundation and was a major funder of that organization. He left the board in 1996, and now claims he does not agree with all of Rushdoony's teachings. Hotze has served on the board of American Vision and was active in the Coalition on Revival, another Reconstructionist-oriented outfit. (Hotze denies being a Reconstructionist, calling himself a "restorationist," but he has called on both church and state to conform to "God's Law-Word.")

Reconstructionists have also been politically active in Ziegler's home base of Ohio. In 1996 they helped elect Ron Young to the Ohio House of Representatives, and Zielger boasts that his activists knocked off an entrenched Republican in the primary to do it. Young had previously run for Congress on the U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket and, during that race, brought Atlanta Reconstructionist DeMar to speak on his behalf at local appearances.

James W. Watkins, a United Church of Christ minister in northeastern Ohio who has opposed the Reconstructionists' political efforts, notes that movement backers have learned to downplay the more controversial aspects of their platform and focus instead on more palatable pocketbook positions that may resonate with many voters.

For example, Watkins recalls that during Young's campaign, the Reconstructionists steered clear of controversial religious issues. Instead, they highlighted Young's opposition to a highly unpopular vehicle emissions test.

"They actually ran a very good, carefully organized telephone campaign through the entire district," said Watkins. "Every registered voter was called; I even got a call....They know what it takes to win, at least to people around here on a local legislative level. They put in the resources and the time and effort to do that."

Watkins said he encountered difficulty convincing people that the Reconstructionists are extreme. "If you read the books and the stuff they have written, when they talk about freedom or other American concepts they are talking about it inside their theocratic framework," said Watkins. "They don't really believe that true democracy exists outside their theocratic framework. It's like talking to the communists. They could talk about elections and democracy, but they had their own definition for that kind of thing. You had to be careful because you would think they were talking about the same kind of things you were. You always have to bear that in mind when you're talking to Reconstructionists."

Watkins urged people to not sell the Reconstructionists short in the political arena. "On the one hand, they are an insignificant little group," he said. "On the other hand, from the standpoint of laying an intellectual framework, they are a very important group. When they choose to use their resources in a state legislative or even congressional race they are formidable."

What lies ahead for the Reconstructionists? Ziegler says the National Reform Association has five state chapters and aims to create more. He notes that the plans to form a separate 501(c)(4) organization and a PAC are proceeding apace and told Church & State that an activist in northern Virginia has agreed to be the group's full-time lobbyist.

Ziegler insists Americans should not be alarmed by this activity and says people have nothing to fear from his brand of "reconstructed" politics. He admits favoring theocracy but asserts that an officially "Christian" government is the best vehicle to protect everyone's rights. In addition, he says, all Americans will benefit from a smaller federal government.

"I am very suspicious of government," asserts Ziegler. "I'm very suspicious of a monarchial, oligarchical state. That goes for a theocratic state as well. I'm for theocracy with a small 't,' from the bottom up."