Doug Wilson’s Religious Empire Expanding in the Northwest

A religious empire based in Idaho is part of the far-right theological movement fueling neo-Confederate groups

MOSCOW, Idaho -- The fliers showed up one day last fall, scattered around the sprawling campus of the University of Idaho at Moscow and looking for all the world like a routine advertisement for a couple of visiting scholars.

"Meet the Authors!" the one-page announcements shouted, referring readers to an upcoming February conference on campus that would be featuring speakers Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins, the co-authors of Southern Slavery, As It Was. There followed five excerpted "highlights" from their book.

"Slavery as it existed in the South ... was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence," the excerpts read in part. "There has never been a multiracial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. ...

"Slave life was to them [slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care."

This flier was no advertisement. It was a call to arms.

In the months that followed, sparked by the fliers anonymously distributed by antiracist activists, an uproar erupted that convulsed the campus, the town, and even the community around Washington State University, another huge school some eight miles away in Pullman, Wash.

Before it was over, the presidents of both universities had condemned Wilson and Wilkins' book in unsparing terms, dozens of newspaper articles, editorials, advertisements and letters to the editor had been printed, major demonstrations had been held, new antiracist groups had formed, and a whole array of counter-events had been organized for the Wilson/Wilkins event.

Few who lived on the Palouse, as the region is known, avoided the boiling controversy.

The reason for the powerful reaction wasn't just that the two men had written a repulsive apologia for slavery and the antebellum South. More important was the fact that one of them, Doug Wilson, had been in Moscow for 30 years.

And during those three decades, largely beneath the radar of his neighbors, Wilson had built a far-flung, far-right religious empire that included a college, an array of lower schools, an entire denomination of churches, and more.

At the same time, with longtime collaborator Wilkins, Wilson was developing a theology that married an enthusiastic endorsement of the antebellum South with ideas of religious government — an ideology now at the center of the neo-Confederate movement.

Doug Wilson, it seems, was raising a religious army.

Back to the Future
The racism and sorry scholarship that informed Southern Slavery, As It Was — and that set off the recent hullabaloo in Idaho — did not spring full-blown from the minds of Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins. In fact, these ideas were born long before.

During the 1960s, as part of a backlash against the civil rights movement, a theologian named Gregg Singer rediscovered the work of Robert L. Dabney, the chaplain to Civil War Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Soon, he was joined by another far-right theologian, Rousas John Rushdoony, who also came across Dabney, a man who had spent the 30 years after the Civil War popularizing the idea that the "godly" South had been victimized by godless Yankees.

Both Singer and Rushdoony admired Dabney's ideas, which included a view of the South as a religiously ordered society, an "orthodox" Christian remnant in a nation increasingly overtaken by rationalist and anti-religious thought.

Dabney's virulent racism — he saw blacks as a "morally inferior race," a "sordid, alien taint" marked by "lying, theft, drunkenness, laziness, waste" — also supported Rushdoony's dislike for the civil rights movement and ongoing desegregation. Dabney explicitly defended slavery as godly, a theme Wilson and Wilkins would later repeat.

In 1973, Rushdoony published Institutes of Biblical Law, a book that established him as the founding thinker of a radical theology that came to be known as Christian Reconstruction.

The book fleshed out Rushdoony's vision of a society "reconstructed" along Old Testament lines — a world in which religious governors would mete out biblical punishments like the stoning to death of gays, adulteresses, "incorrigible" children and many others. Relying on a literal reading of the Bible, Rushdoony espoused a society of classes with differing rights, opposed interracial marriage, and scoffed at egalitarianism.

Even Ralph Reed, then the highly conservative executive director of the Christian Coalition, warned that Christian Reconstruction represented a threat to the "most basic liberties ... of a free society."

Rushdoony also developed a strategic plan. The most effective way of implementing his vision, he said, would be to develop Christian homeschooling and private schools in order to train up a generation to take the reins of society. So vigorous was his pursuit of this strategy that Rushdoony would eventually come to be known to many as the father of the Christian homeschooling movement.

It was an exciting time for Rushdoony. Some of his principal co-religionists and followers became active in the 1970s, and his influence began to extend to some of America's leading evangelical churches.

And it marked the start of an important collaboration between people who viewed themselves as "orthodox Christians" and "Confederate nationalists," a merging of the theocratic idea of religious government and a view of the 19th-century Confederate cause as fundamentally right.