In the spirit of Rushdoony Commemoration Day, I have been listening to some of the excellent Rushdoony lectures available at the Pocket College website. In particular I would like to make a few comments on Rushdoony's two part lecture on the Voluntary Church in America (part 1, part 2).
Rushdoony's two books on Americanism, This Independent Republic and The Nature of the American System have greatly influenced my understanding of my own country, and his lectures on the voluntary church are equally insightful and enlightening. In these lectures, Rushdoony traces the distinct American character to the Great Awakening that began in the colonies around 1740. The Great Awakening was a tremendous outburst of Evangelical spirituality in Britain and her colonies in the New World. Men such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and John Wesley fostered a renewed zeal and focus on personal salvation.
Significantly, as Rushdoony points out, this focus on personal salvation had the effect of undermining the importance of the state church and denominational distinctions. For example, Edwards was a Congregationalist, while Whitefield and Wesley were both clergy of the established Church of England. While Edwards and Whitefield were both Calvinists, Wesley was an Arminian. But despite these theological and ecclesiastical differences, these great preachers and their followers often felt more spiritual kinship with the ardent Christians of differing denominations than with the lukewarm members of their own particular sect. More than that, the lukewarm members of their own sect could no longer even be thought of as true Christians. The church was increasingly seen as the body of the faithful, not a bureaucratic insititution. Rushdoony explains that in the old world, even amongst Protestants, the existence and legitimacy of the state instituted church was almost always a given. Nations, not individuals, became Lutheran or Reformed, or remained Catholic. The new focus of the Great Awakening on a personal, direct relationship with God led to the American aversion to state churches. It also led to a radical new phenomenon: the independent, member-funded church became the norm in the colonies and later on in the republic.
Within American Christianity, it became the expectation that churches were congregations of like-minded individuals who came together voluntarily and voluntarily funded their own ministers, buildings, and philanthropic ventures. And this American attitude of voluntarism was not restricted to religious activities. It became the standard American attitude towards all of life, including politics and community. Rushdoony argues that this principle of voluntarism is what distinguishes American civilization from European civilization, which would account for the difficulty that Europeans have when it comes to understanding American politics. To this day, Europeans have difficulty comprehending the American insistence on individual responsibility, limited government, and voluntary charitable organizations. The European mindset, which grew out of the state church mindset, naturally assumes that a nationwide governmental institution should control law enforcement, education, health care, and every other aspect of social and political life. The principle of voluntarism also would account for the radically different results that followed the spread of democracy in Europe. In America, the arrival of democracy meant the decentralization of power and responsibility. When Americans were given the choice of how to run the government, they naturally chose to run the government in the same way that they were already running their churches. In France, on the other hand, when the people were given the choice of how to run the government, they ran it in the same totalitarian fashion that the French king and the catholic church had already been running it.
Gaining this insight into the nature of Americansim is important, especially for those of us on the far-right who strongly oppose the status quo. If our goal is to build a new American nationalism, it is important for us to understand the deepest spiritual and psychological roots of the American people. And upon discovering that Evangelical Protestantism is at the heart of Americanism, it is easy to see why Americanism has fared so poorly over the last 100 years, and what must be done to remedy it. Over the last century Protestantism has been driven from the power centers of American life. While small “WASP” elites remained in the large cities, the bulk of the urban population became overwhelmingly Jewish and Catholic thanks to the foolish immigration policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although these policies were doubtless due to the desire of the WASP business elites for cheap labor). Even though I am a descendant of both Polish and Irish Catholic immigrants, I say without hesitation that the transformation of America's urban centers into Catholic and Jewish strongholds was disastrous for traditional Americanism. While there certainly are Catholics who embrace traditional American values, by and large traditional Americanism only survives in the more rural areas of the country where Evangelical Protestantism has remained the dominant spiritual orientation.
In closing, I echo what Rushdoony himself says about renewing traditional Americanism: it can only be achieved by turning the hearts of the American people back to Christ. Not only must our people repent, but we must work on divorcing ourselves from institutions and power structures that are not based on the principle of Evangelical voluntarism. Either through reform or secession, we must come to live under a system that accurately reflects our national soul.