On the surface, last week’s defection of Kent Sorenson, Michele Bachmann’s Iowa chair, to Ron Paul might have seemed bizarre. Bachmann, after all, is a hawkish arch-Zionist who has blasted Obama for being soft on Iran and frequently warns of the threat of a global caliphate. Paul, by contrast, wants to end aid to Israel. He argued, in an Iowa debate last month, that the real danger in Iran is one of American overreaction, prompting Bachmann to respond, “I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul.” Bachmann built her career crusading against gay marriage, while Paul voted against a 2006 constitutional amendment limiting marriage to partners of the opposite sex. These are extremely different candidates.
And yet, in the final days of the Iowa campaign, Paul seems to be picking up quite a few of the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann. A Dec. 28 CNN poll found that Paul was second only to Rick Santorum in evangelical support, with 18 percent. “Most Bachmann people would tell you their second choice is either Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, depending on why they’re for her,” says Steve Deace, an influential Iowa evangelical radio host. At the same time, he adds, “every Paul person who is hard core has told me the only other person they’d vote for is Michele.”
Sorenson’s jump, says Drew Ivers, Paul’s Iowa chair, is “a reflection of the Christian right moving toward Ron Paul. The bandwagon, so to speak, has been rolling. He got on it.”
This development is not as surprising as it might appear. Unlike Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, Paul doesn’t demagogue about a putative war on Christianity being waged by the Obama administration. He hasn’t promised, like Rick Santorum, to use his presidency to fight against the evils of birth control.
Though a committed Baptist, Paul writes on his website, “My faith is a deeply private issue to me, and I don’t speak on it in great detail during my speeches because I want to avoid any appearance of exploiting it for political gain.”
Nevertheless, Paul’s support among the country’s most committed theocrats is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when the Paul campaign touted the endorsement of Phil Kayser, a Nebraska pastor with an Iowa following who calls for the execution of homosexuals. Nor was it shocking to learn that Mike Heath, Paul’s Iowa state director, is a former board chairman of “Americans for Truth About Homosexuality,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Should Paul win the Iowa caucuses, it will actually be a triumph for a fundamentalist faction that has until now been considered a fringe even on the Christian right.
To understand Paul’s religious-right support, it’s necessary to wade a bit into the theological weeds. Most American evangelicals are premillennial dispensationalists. They believe that God has a special plan for the nation of Israel, which will play a key role in the end of days and the return of Christ. A smaller segment of evangelicals hews to what’s called reformed or covenant theology, which, as Deace explains, “tends to teach that in this day the church is what Israel was in the Old Testament.” In other words, Christians are the new chosen people. Covenant theologians aren’t necessarily anti-Israel, but they don’t give it any special religious significance.
Covenant theologians, it’s important to stress, aren’t more liberal than mainstream evangelicals. In fact, they’re often much further to the right. While dispensationalists believe that Christ will return imminently and establish a biblical reign on earth, covenant theologians tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back. The most radical faction of covenant theology is called Christian Reconstructionism, a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.
Mainstream figures in the religious right have typically recoiled from Reconstructionists, even as they’ve incorporated ideas that originated in the movement. In 1981, for example, Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law and a key theorist of Christian Reconstructionism, wrote of the need to “smooth the transition to Christian political leadership … Christians must begin to organize politically within the present party structure, and they must begin to infiltrate the existing political order.” That’s exactly what Ralph Reed did when he set out to capture the Republican Party for the Christian Coalition. Nevertheless, writing in his 1996 book, Active Faith, Reed denounced Reconstructionism as “an authoritarian ideology that threatens the most basic civil liberties of a free and democratic society.”
Ron Paul has long been a favorite politician of Christian Reconstructionists. North was a Paul staffer during the Texas congressman’s first term and has called him the “mahatma of self-government.” As Adele Stan reported on Alternet, in 2008, Howard Phillips, a Christian Reconstructionist who founded the Constitution Party, was the keynote speaker at the rally Paul convened in the shadow of the Republican convention. (That year, Paul endorsed the Constitution Party candidate for president over John McCain.) “The people who I know who are big Ron Paul guys are old school Reconstructionists,” says Paul supporter Brian D. Nolder, the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Pella, Iowa.
It might seem that Paul’s libertarianism is the very opposite of theocracy, but that’s true only if you want to impose theocracy at the federal level. In general, Christian Reconstructionists favor a radically decentralized society, with communities ruled by male religious patriarchs. Freed from the power of the Supreme Court and the federal government, they believe that local governments could adopt official religions and enforce biblical law.
“One of the things we forget is that when the Constitution was passed, even though the Bill of Rights said there was going to be no federal religions, every state in the union had basically a state religion and the Constitution was not designed to overturn that,” says Nolder. Among Reconstructionists, he says, “there’s a desire for a theocracy, but it has to be one from the bottom up, not from the top down.”
Reconstructionists take biblical morality far beyond traditional social issues. They believe that the Bible contains specific instructions on every aspect of life, including monetary policy, something they place great emphasis on. Many argue that there’s a biblical mandate for a gold standard. “The constant concern of The Old Testament law with the honesty of weights and measures was equally applicable to honest money,” writes North in his book An Introduction to Christian Economics. He claims that “legal tender laws are immoral; currency debasement is immoral; printed unbacked paper money is immoral.”
If Reconstructionism remains marginal, Deace believes that the broader movement of covenant theology is growing. “The younger generation of American Christians, a lot of them are turning away from premillennial dispensationalism” he says. “The emerging generation does not trust the traditional religious right. They think we’ve largely sold out and have compromised our faith. They’re attracted to the fact that Paul hates all the people they don’t trust and don’t like.”
Thus, Paul has been able to create one of the strangest coalitions in American political history, bringing together libertarian hipsters with those who want to subject the sexually impure to Taliban-style public stonings. (Stoning is Reconstructionists’ preferred method of execution because it is both biblical and fiscally responsible, rocks being, in North’s words, “cheap, plentiful, and convenient.”) “I described it recently as people who are mixing the philosophies espoused in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,” says Deace. We’re about to learn whether that can be a recipe for victory.