The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church by Rousas John Rushdoony
(P&R Publishing, 1968, 233 pages)
In the final chapter of The Foundations of Social Order Rushdoony, the obscure but influential Presbyterian theologian and political thinker, confidently declares that “Every social order rests on a creed, on a concept of life and law, and represents a religion in action” (219). For Rushdoony, the state is not and cannot be organized according to a neutral set of values. The state makes inherently religious claims on its population. Conversely, religious commitments include inherently political and legal implications. In this study, Rushdoony provides a reading of the early Christian councils and the creeds they produced in an attempt to reveal the basic assumptions behind political order in the West.
There are significant problems with Rushdoony’s reading of the councils. Primarily, this reading is anachronistic in the way that it projects back into the creeds an affirmation of a stringently libertarian and anti-statist understanding of the nature of liberty and the political power. Rushdoony believes that the creeds’ affirmation of the Christian shape of history is a primary influence on the shaping of Western political order, and that “Christian creedalism is thus basic to Western activism, constitutionalism, and hope concerning history” (8). The broad point is surely correct, but Rushdoony seems to read the early conflicts between Christians and the Roman Empire as simply equivalent to the conflicts between political conservatives and progressives in the twentieth century. His recognition of the political nature of the early creeds is helpful, but his commandeering of this point to support radically libertarian ideas about the nature of private property, liberty, and the causes of poverty are pretty appalling.
Rushdoony’s role in the development of the Religious Right has recently been chronicled in Michael McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. While he is an obscure figure, Rushdoony’s widespread, if indirect, influence in conservative political circles is becoming recognized. The Foundations of Social Order is an early work, written before he formulated his notorious proposals for the implementation of Old Testament case laws in civil legislation. It is a fascinating example of how political ideology can warp one’s reading of religious texts.