History of The Rutherford Institute


On June 29, 1982 John Whitehead and his wife Carol withdrew $200 from their bank account—their entire savings at the time—and set up a small office in the basement of their home. As a Christian and 60s rebel who considered himself an activist, Whitehead dreamed of creating a legal organization that would defend people who were persecuted or oppressed for their beliefs without charging them for such services. He also hoped to influence American culture by encouraging Christians to play a more active role in the courts and in society as a whole. As Whitehead has said, "The Rutherford Institute exists to ensure that people are treated fairly in the courts and are free to express themselves without fear." At the time it was a radical idea. Given the enormity of the task, and the limited finances, many thought the Whiteheads were chasing windmills.

Fast-forward thirty years…

Against the odds The Rutherford Institute (named after Samuel Rutherford, a 17th century Scottish theologian who believed that no one, not even the King, was above the law.) has emerged as one of the nation's leading advocates of religious freedom and civil liberties. Last year alone over 10,000 requests for legal assistance were handled by Institute staff. And with a national affiliate network of over 700 volunteer attorneys, trained and educated on pertinent case law and provided with sample pleadings, legal research, and support and funding for court expenses, the Institute is equipped to handle hundreds of cases at a time. In addition the Institute’s media department makes sure that the major television news stations and thousands of newspaper outlets and radio stations receive news alerts on Institute cases, as well as public service messages on issues concerning religious freedom and constitutional liberties. Now that the Institute has become a nationally known force to reckon with, important cases get the attention they deserve.

Long ago, in a land far, far away…

In the late 70s the idea of encouraging Christians to get more involved in the courts and in politics was not a popular idea. In fact some believers told Whitehead that Christian involvement in the courts was unbiblical. "Religious people had mostly withdrawn and were not participating in their culture," says Whitehead. "Some of it was due to fear of discrimination; for others it was a conscious choice." But Whitehead believed that Christians needed to be willing to fight court battles to preserve religious freedoms, "otherwise you create a vacuum, and other voices are going to fill it up." In essence Whitehead believed that American society, and the Constitution itself, was under siege by an increasingly cold and inhuman secular view of the world. To counter that, Whitehead believed that Christians had to start becoming activists. In 1981 Whitehead wrote The Second American Revolution, in which he argued that modern humanism had turned the state into a kind of deity, with the Supreme Court making laws that actively rejected God and paved the way for abortion, euthanasia, and an attack on religious liberty. Although he used strong, "fighting words" in the book, Whitehead advocated a peaceful revolution, one "not designed to kill people or tear down and physically destroy society, but a revolution in the minds and souls of human beings." The Second American Revolution sold over 100,000 copies and made Whitehead a minor celebrity in the Christian media. Suddenly his phone began ringing with Christians claiming they had suffered religious discrimination for too long and were now ready to do something about it. By 1982 Christian evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson had caught up with Whitehead’s notion that it was okay, perhaps necessary, for Christians to be involved in the courts and in politics. The revolution had begun.

Keeping the faith…

During the 80s and early 90s, an era of unprecedented wealth and prosperity in American society, many "Christian" movements and organizations succumbed to the temptations of greed and political ambition. As early as 1986 Whitehead began to wonder what had happened to the real Christian message in the modern world. He had seen too many of his "evangelical heroes" make ideological compromises in order to appease their political allies. In addition the inconsistency and hypocrisy of some of the evangelical leaders he had worked with began to disturb him. One well-known leader even made a habit of using Rutherford Institute cases to raise money for his ministry! It was a serious time of questioning for Whitehead and The Rutherford Institute. What was the true essence of being a Christian? Was it an attempted takeover of society, as some evangelicals were saying? Were passing laws and electing the next popular candidate more important than caring for human beings? Gradually Whitehead began to see that some of his more strident beliefs might have been based on some popular evangelical interpretations rather than on Christ’s true teachings. The fruit of this questioning was a small book called True Christianity, in which Whitehead clarified Christ’s teaching as he had begun to understand them, rejected the modern evangelical infatuation with entertainment and various forms of utopianism, and called on individual Christians to become more emotionally and intellectually engaged with their faith. "Equipped with great spiritually and intellectual power," Whitehead wrote, "along with fervent devotion to Jesus Christ, Christians can change the world around them." For the next fifteen years, Whitehead and The Rutherford Institute would do just that. By standing up for the religious freedoms and constitutional rights of countless individuals, provoking those on both sides of the political aisle with its independent and sometimes controversial stance on the issues, setting important legal precedents in several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and creating cultural and educational programs to help people better understand our rapidly changing world, The Rutherford Institute and its supporters have indeed changed the world around them.

An enduring message…

During the last twenty years, The Rutherford Institute has managed never to lose sight of its original vision or its humble beginnings. Even in the blinding glare of national media attention, the moral and religious foundation on which the Institute was built has always remained intact. This remarkable feat is due in large part to Whitehead’s decision to remain independent, to steer clear of political associations, and to keep the message pure and simple. As Whitehead writes in his autobiography Slaying Dragons," the enduring message of my life is not about human rights, religious freedoms, or the law. It is that there is a God who cares about people."