Rushdoony and Holocaust Denial

Carl Trueman is one of my favourite writers and historians. In many ways, men like him figure in my life as role models who are doing exactly what I would love to do – that is, teach church history and historical theology. When Dr. Trueman spoke on Puritan Spirituality for TBS this past May, I was thrilled to be able to chauffer him around. It was a privelege and a pleasure to spend time with him. So please don’t take this post as a negative reflection on Trueman or any of his writings.
But I do want to make a point of criticism regarding a recent post he wrote at Reformation 21. It is entitled “Rushdoony, historical incompetence, racism and lunacy” and it focuses on the commonly held notion that Rousas John Rushdoony was a holocaust denier. Of course, the holocaust is a very emotional issue and one that lingers bitterly in the hearts of any who are horrified by the countless millions who perished in Nazi death camps. If Rushdoony were in fact a holocaust denier, I would be filled with the same vitriol as Dr. Trueman. Any who can dismiss this fact of history is worthless as an historian, as Dr. Trueman rightly said.
Although having said that, I don’t believe that Rushdoony was a holocaust denier. So, with the fear and trepidation of one who is about to critique one of his heroes (namely Carl Trueman), I want to offer a brief defense of Rushdoony as well as a criticism.
In his massive Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony sets about a theology of the decalogue. In it, one quickly comes to see that Rushdoony was very well read and a good appropriater of knowledge. While not always agreeing with him, I do have a tremendous amount of respect for his abilities as a writer and thinker. I have benefited greatly from his writings over the years, and his Institutes is one of his many helpful works.
The section that Dr. Trueman has trouble with concerns the ninth commandment and bearing false witness. In section 10 (pages 585-590), entitled “The Lying Tongue,” Rushdoony pays a short time looking at Proverbs 6:16-19 and the Lord’s hatred of lying. As an illustration of such lying, Rushdoony takes recent holocaust scholarship as one of his examples. Relying on the statistics provided by Vicomte Leon de Poncins, Rushdoony argues that one form of false witness is the inflation of numbers regarding how many Jews died in the holocaust. His point was not to comment on the specific numbers but rather to say that our society has become so desensitised to violence and destruction, that small numbers don’t have the same psychological effect as larger ones do.
“Life had become so cheap and meaningless to these heads of state and their camp followers that a murder or two meant nothing. Likewise, a generation schooled to violence in motion pictures, radio, literature, and press could not be expected to react to a murder or two. The result was a desparately twisted mentality which could only appreciate evil as evil on a massive scale” [R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Craig Press, 1973), 588].
Yet, even the inflation of numbers, even to show the heinousness of the death camps, is still false witness. As understandable as that may be, considering the evils of Nazi Germany.
Now, I admit quite freely that Rushdoony is wrong in arguing that the numbers killed in the holocaust was anything less than the estimated 6 million Jews. Historical evidence has shown clearly that vast numbers were tragically sent to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. But, as wrong as he may have been, Rushdoony did not deny the holocaust. In fact, Rushdoony later takes Poncins to task for being “bitterly anti-Jewish” and was “not ready to be distressed that any were brutally murdered” [Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 589]. Poncins was endeavouring to defend the Roman Catholic Church from the evils of knowing about the holocaust. Rushdoony notes that Poncins inflated the truth in order to protect the Roman Church – and this was also against the ninth commandment.
Because the notion of Rushdoony as a holocaust denier has become well-known, The Chalcedon Report printed an issue in 2000 dedicated to this theme called “The Racialist Heresy.” In it was an article by Rushdoony called “Exaggeration and Denial” where he defends himself and what he wrote in his Institutes. The following quotation will hopefully put things in perspective:
“It is difficult to imagine that anyone can deny the reality of the mass slaughter that characterized the twentieth century, whether it be the Armenian millions murdered by the Turks, the Jewish millions murdered by the Nazis, or the untold millions murdered by the communists in China, Russia, and Cambodia.
“In my Institutes of Biblical Law, I noted that the scope of such mass murder had so numbed the modern conscience that the murder of a ‘mere’ thousand, or ten thousand, no longer shocked, tempting some to inflate the scope of lesser atrocities, lest they not seem sufficiently horrific.
“It was not my purpose to enter a debate over numbers, whether millions were killed, or tens of millions, an area which must be left to others with expertise in such matters. My point then and now is that in all such matters what the Ninth Commandment requires is the truth, not exaggeration, irrespective of the cause one seeks to serve. It is as wrong to exaggerate in order to shock as it is now clear happened in early reports of Serbian ‘genocide’ as to deny the reality of what the Nazis did, and in the case of the Communists, what they are still doing.
“Historical revisionism condemns the future to play by the dangerous rules of exaggeration and denial. As I noted then, this will inevitably lead to even greater horrors as the bar of the capacity to shock is continually raised. This is the true danger of the myth of neutrality, where God’s law is viewed as merely ‘one side of the debate'” [R.J. Rushdoony, The Chalcedon Report (Sept. 2000)].
I can’t see how anyone reading this statement could think that Rushdoony denied the holocaust. It may have been wrong of him to suggest that the numbers were lower than they really were. Judging by the context, that of not bearing false witness, we can hope that it was an honest mistake. But we should deal with Rushdoony’s statement as it stands. Taken with the later article and statements like, “It is difficult to imagine that anyone can deny the reality of the…Jewish millions murdered by the Nazis,” we can hope that Rushdoony later came to realise that his original figures were misguided.
We must remember that Rushdoony was a direct descendent of those countless numbers of Armenians who were massacred by the Turks. Genocide was something that Rushdoony wook quite seriously as one who saw first-hand the results of such atrocities in his family and friends. Rushdoony was also a missionary to the native Americans and had a great sympathy for their plight as a displaced people. I would think that these two experiences in Rushdoony’s life would give him a sympathy for the Jewish experience in the holocaust.
I do hope that somehow Dr. Trueman will stumble upon this blogpost and recognise that Rushdoony was not the holocaust denier that he thought. I also hope that others will read this and not be turned off of Rushdoony’s writings. He is a very good resource in the battle against humanism, rationalism and pietism of our day. Both within the church and without.
Peter Leithart has a post on his blog about this issue as well: Me and the Holocaust.


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4 responses to “Rushdoony and Holocaust Denial

  1. David Shedden

    Ian, thanks for this interesting response. I drafted and posted a blog about Trueman’s article too, but I decided to delete it. My point was going to be slightly different from yours. Trueman’s post could be directed to broader targets than Rushdoony and his followers, but I suspected that they were too close to Trueman for comfort. And Trueman, being the smart cookie he is, must be aware that his ideas apply to much of Reformed evangelical theology e.g. why do we read so much 19thC theology when the authors were in favour of a blatant racialist slavery?

  2. Rogers Meredith

    Well done!
    Merry Christmas!

  3. Ian

    I didn’t want to see the name of a brother in Christ wrongly used, so I felt that I needed to write something in his defence. Of course, if Rushdoony had legitimately been a holocaust denier, then let that be known. But because he wasn’t, a better perspective was needed. He gets hammered enough by the unbelieving world, so to have as many Christians on his side as possible is all the better!
    Thanks for the comments guys.

  4. Daniel Ritchie

    Thanks for bringing this up Ian; I read Dr. Trueman’s post and was shocked the way he slandered R.J. Rushdoony. While Rush did make some rash statements he was not a Nazi sympathiser.

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