Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
    It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It




The New Dominionist Politics
by Seth Dowland

When Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann surged in the race for the Republican presidential nomination last summer, so did news coverage of their religious associations. Reporters, pundits, and scholars wrote dozens of articles and blog posts on the conservative evangelical Christians who supported them. And as the media probed, they discovered an ominous threat: dominionist theology.

Dominionists take their name and their message from the biblical story of creation, in which God gives humans dominion over the earth. They believe Christians hold a divine mandate to control all social and cultural institutions, and have a God-given duty to claim political power.

Quoting sensational statements by some dominionists calling for the establishment of Old Testament civil law, a number of journalists suggested that a President Bachmann or Perry would slowly but inexorably instill theocracy in American laws and courts.

In response, several scholars and conservative columnists contended that taking the most extreme rhetoric of dominionists as a proxy for what Perry or Bachmann would do in office was akin to seeing President Obama as the tool of Jeremiah Wright-style liberation theologians. They pointed to the diversity of theological beliefs within the religious right, arguing that fear-mongering about dominionism ignored the complexity of evangelical Christianity.

Sifting through the back-and-forth suggests the need to bear in mind some religious history.

Since the early twentieth century, most conservative American Protestants have subscribed to premillennial theology. Premillennialists believe Christ will “rapture” his followers at a dramatic moment, after which those “left behind” will have to fight the forces of the Antichrist prior to Christ’s return. This belief theoretically promotes a fortress mentality, in which faithful Christians (which is to say: conservative evangelicals) hunker down and await the end of the world, avoiding secular politics and anything else that might compromise their purity.

In an important Atlantic article from 1995, Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox described a visit to Pat Robertson’s Regent University during which he discovered tension over “the dominion theology” espoused by some members of the faculty. Cox argued that this theology had emerged from postmillennialism, the dominant theological outlook of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which encouraged believers to reform the world in preparation for Christ’s return. (Premillennialists believe the Christ’s return will usher in the millennium, at the end of which the final judgment will occur; postmillennialists believe that Christ will return at the end of the millennium for the final judgment.)

Although most evangelicals had become premillennialists by the middle of the twentieth century, a faction of postmillennialists held on. Many of these came from the Reformed (Calvinist) theological tradition, which places great emphasis on God’s sovereignty over all creation. In particular, theologian Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony championed the notion that Christians ought to re-institute Old Testament law in modern society. This “reconstruction” of politics and law would attest to God’s dominion over society and would prepare the earth for Christ’s return.

Rushdoony and his disciples exercised considerable influence on the homeschooling movement, where curricula based on dominionist thinking still proliferates. Publishers such as A Beka Books have printed both intellectual defenses of dominionism and student textbooks reflecting dominionist influence. Many homeschool students attend “Christian worldview” academies, where they learn dominionist concepts in a week-long summer camp setting. Most of these kids return to families and churches whose theology is ostensibly premillennial.

How to parse the competing theological outlooks within evangelicalism? On the one hand, premillennialist theology promotes spiritual purity and distancing from “the world.” On the other, postmillennialists suggest that Christians should take dominion over society. It would seem that Cox’s 1995 observations captured a theological tension at the heart of contemporary evangelicalism—and contemporary evangelical politics.

In fact, premillennialist evangelicals never withdrew from political activity. But the growth of conservative religious activism in the 1970s called into question their theological worldview and rendered them susceptible to dominionist projects. Has their activism effectively turned premillennial evangelicals into postmillennial dominionists? That was the question underlying last summer’s debate.

In an article for the in August, Michelle Goldberg argued that dominionism was a potent force on the religious right. Where Cox had treated it as a marginal stream in evangelical theology, Goldberg portrayed it as having greater political than theological significance. Indeed, while acknowledging its roots in postmillennial theology, she contended that dominionism had in fact become the defining political vision for conservative Protestants.

Expanding on Goldberg’s view, Grove City College (Pa.) psychology professor Warren Throckmorton wrote a series of blog posts in which he distanced himself from fellow evangelical pundits by portraying dominionism as a significant threat to American democracy. In particular, he worried that dominionists would persecute homosexuals, up to the point of prescribing capital punishment for gays and lesbians.

Throckmorton, himself an evangelical, had worked for years to carve out a nuanced position on same-sex attraction. He neither endorsed “reparative therapy” (intended to “cure” homosexuals) nor supported most psychologists’ embrace of homosexuality. By encouraging Christian homosexuals to lead fulfilling lives without acting on their sexual desires, he faced an uphill battle in convincing homosexuals and fellow psychologists that his methods were not discriminatory. What he opposed was any societal effort to persecute homosexuals along dominionist lines.

Throckmorton’s concern about dominionist persecution of homosexuals became acute in 2009, when Uganda’s parliament began considering a bill stiffening punishments for homosexual activity, up to and including the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” (Homosexuality had been illegal in Uganda under a colonial era law, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, though it is unclear how recently that law has been enforced.) Throckmorton called attention to the role of a March 2009 conference at which several anti-gay American evangelicals stirred up Ugandan anxiety about Western homosexual influences.

It emerged that the bill’s sponsor, parliamentarian David Bahati, not only was influenced by dominionists in the anti-gay movement but also had attended meetings of the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive group of American evangelicals that has sponsored prayer breakfasts and bible studies for political leaders in Washington, D.C., for decades. In a lengthy piece for Harper’s in 2010, journalist Jeff Sharlet argued that the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, taught Bahati that “homosexuality is only a symptom … [of] a greater plague: government by people, not by God.”

A dominionist threat in Africa was one thing. In a New Yorker profile last August, Ryan Lizza suggested that one of the leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination subscribed to dominionist beliefs.

Lizza claimed that Michele Bachmann had inherited a strain of dominionism from the late Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical intellectual whose books and films in the late 1970s prompted many evangelicals to believe liberal secularists were waging war on traditional Christianity. In Lizza’s view, Schaeffer had disseminated a soft form of dominionism that morphed into the hard-edged version championed by his twenty-first century successors.

This view was disputed by Schaeffer’s biographer, Barry Hankins, who replied in an August article in the American Spectator that to imply Schaeffer was a dominionist was “akin to arguing that since Ho Chi Minh cited the Declaration of Independence when proclaiming Vietnam’s independence in 1945, Thomas Jefferson must have been a communist.”

More plausibly, Lizza—and others—pointed to the influence of dominionists at the (now defunct) Oral Roberts University law school, from which Bachmann graduated in 1986. In a series of well-documented articles on dominionism for Religion Dispatches over the summer journalist Sarah Posner traced Bachmann’s links to two prominent dominionsts active at the school at the time—Herbert Titus and John Eidsmoe. Posner worried that Bachmann’s political philosophy rejected religious freedom and pluralism in favor of a theocratic government that would institute Christian law.

In August, Posner was joined by the Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg, who described Bachmann as part of a dominionist movement that “says Christians should rule the world.” Francis Schaeffer’s son Frank (who had long since rejected his father’s teaching) said in an August essay for AlterNet that Bachmann’s teachers had taught her to “replace the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the Bible.” A Bachmann presidency would, in the minds of these critics, be a huge step towards an American theocracy.

Even as Bachmann was enjoying her day in the campaign sun, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s dominionist ties were also coming under scrutiny. On August 6, Perry kicked off his own presidential campaign by hosting The Response, a massive prayer rally whose key sponsors including a number of prominent dominionists.

The critics called particular attention to the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a charismatic ministry whose leaders included C. Peter Wagner, an NAR leader who in 2008 published an important dominionist tract entitled Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. Wagner, who endorsed and attended the rally though he did not speak from the podium, distanced himself from the Perry campaign and from what he claimed were misinterpretations of dominion theology in an October 3 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.

“We use the word dominion but we wouldn’t want to say that we have dominion as if we’re the owners or we’re the rulers of, let’s say, the arts and entertainment mountain,” he insisted. “We believe in working with any—with whatever political system there is. In America, it’s democracy.” He went on to claim that there were divisions within NAR and that Perry probably had never heard of NAR when he arrived at The Response in August.

The critics weren’t buying. Calling him the “Christocrat favorite for president,” Sarah Posner described Perry as a man whose list of dominionist associations stretched back years. A President Perry would, in her view, be a disaster for anyone opposed to dominionism.

And yet, as evangelical insiders and knowledgeable scholars pointed out, the opponents of dominionism included the vast majority of evangelicals themselves.

“Evangelicals do not generally want to take over the world,” wrote Washington Post reporter Lisa Miller August 18. “[E]vangelicals aren’t generally of one mind.” Miller quoted Christian PR man Mark DeMoss saying one would be “hard-pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians in America who could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.” Miller also noted religious historian Molly Worthen’s characterization of dominionism as “a pretty small world.”

In a September 17 article for the Spectator, Emory University religion scholar Patrick Allitt  was less dismissive, describing dominionism as “real, though more of a tendency than a sharply defined movement.” Allitt predicted that Bachmann and Perry (“possibly even ‘dominionists’”) would founder since “Americans certainly like their presidents to be religious, but they mustn’t be too religious.”

Allitt’s reading of the situation confirmed the academic analysis of evangelicals’ influence on contemporary American politics. For years scholars have emphasized the limited success of the religious right in achieving its goals since its emergence on the national stage the late 1970s. They point out that conservative evangelicals have failed to overturn Roe v. Wade, to stem the normalization of homosexuality in American society, and to restore prayer in the public schools. Evangelicals have been repeatedly disappointed by a series of Republican presidents—even their homegrown hero, George W. Bush.

The scholars have also argued that evangelicals are not theocrats. Notre Dame’s Christian Smith gently mocked journalistic fear-mongering in the title of his important 2000 book, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. In it, Smith contended that evangelicals were far more disparate and ambivalent than their foes believed.

In Faith in the Halls of Power (2008), one of the most important books on contemporary evangelicalism to date, D. Michael Lindsay—a sociologist who became president of Gordon College in September—rejected the notion that dominionists posed a threat to the republic. In his view, the evangelicals who had achieved real power in contemporary American culture were establishment insiders who shared few goals with the dominionists who argued for the overthrow of religious pluralism. In Lindsay’s view, the very act of achieving power required evangelicals to abandon some of their co-religionists’ claims about taking dominion.

In 2009, Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College added another dimension in his provocative study, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. Based on a careful study of anti-abortion activists, the book showed that conservative evangelicals were thoroughly democratic in their approach to activism, embracing high school civics lessons to engage with American politics through voter registration, targeted fund-raising, and legitimate persuasion.

These and other careful studies of evangelicalism— to be sure, produced mostly by evangelical scholars—made other academic students of religion react cautiously to last summer’s alarms. When AP religion reporter Rachel Zoll asked University of Pennsylvania scholar and Religion Dispatches blogger Anthea Butler in October if dominionism was a threat, Butler said, “I don’t know if ‘threat’ is the right word. I think ‘problem’ is the better word.”

So what gives? Are dominionists a force to be reckoned with or a figment of hyperactive liberal imaginations?

The key to assessing the movement’s strength lies in assessing the capacity of evangelical rhetoric to affect public policy. Just as Jerry Falwell scared secularists with his bombastic predictions of a moral majority retaking control of the country in the 1980s, so C. Peter Wagner is frightening his foes by advocating Christian dominion today.

To be sure, Falwell and Wagner represent different streams of evangelicalism. Falwell’s Baptist heritage made him wary of theocracy, while Wagner has openly advocated dominionism. But the two share a key similarity: their rhetoric has always been more aspirational than realistic. Evangelicalism’s diversity, not to mention the checks and balances of the U.S. political system, means that true dominionism is best seen as a fundamentalist dream, not a plausible American future.

Yet over the course of the religious right’s three decades, dominionist rhetoric has shifted American evangelicals’ understanding of politics and culture. It is especially influential in home schools, which now educate over one million American children.

These children learn about a world where the state of Israel is an example of God’s work in the world, and where demonic forces combat believers around the globe. Such views filter into politics, where opposition to Israel or denial of the supernatural can spell doom for Republican candidates.

The real “threat”—if one opposes evangelical politics—is not theocracy but misguided policy. American evangelicals have proven time and again to be as American as they are Christian, and that means they adore the Bible and the Constitution together. Dominionists will never convince them to get rid of the latter. But they have gotten many to accept their interpretations of the former.



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