Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deconstructing Dominionism

By Becky Garrison
This article will appear in the 4th Quarter 2011 issue of American Atheist Magazine

Even before Rick Perry’s Maple syrup slurs in New Hampshire made Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech seem downright normal, the man dubbed by the late Molly Ivins as “The Coiffure” and “Governor Goodhair” espoused views on issues such as economics, human sexuality, foreign policy, and evolutionary science that put him alongside other religious right-wing presidential candidates like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson.  In addition to flaunting Hair-That-Praises-Jesus  personas, these “Christians” espouse a God ʼn’ country rhetoric that seeks to drape the cross on the American flag using the text of Genesis 1:28, whereby their God gave them dominion over the earth.

Those outside the evangelical Christian bubble might see such praiseworthy politics as fodder for late night comics. True, the sight of any political candidate running for office who deep-sixes science by embracing creationism and praying away the gay sounds more like the premise for a Saturday Night Live sketch than an actual presidential campaign platform. But the message behind these megawatt smiles and rather bizarre statements is downright dangerous. One can hear in the lingo of Perry, along with Bachmann, Gingrich and Palin, the stirrings of this Puritan spirit of Christian Dominionism that employ scriptural mandates to bring about Godly rule in every aspect of society including education, business, health care, and government.

As reported by Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates, author Fred Clarkson lists three characteristicsthat define Dominionism

1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
2. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
3. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or biblical law, should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles 

Dominionism breaks down into two main branches: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now Theology.  Rousas John Rushdoony popularized Reconstructionism in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Ross House Books, 1973). This viewpoint continues to be advanced by David Barton of Wallbuilders, who is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel.
Those who fall into this camp espouse “theonomy,” a belief system of three levels of government, which start with the nuclear family, where the man is the head of the household. Next in line is church governance, followed by civil governance. All three levels are subject to Biblical authority, in that their interpretation of God’s word is the sole authority that governs human ethics.

The Kingdom Now theology influenced the New Apostolic Reformation which Religion Dispatches Senior Editor Sarah Posner describes as “one strand of neo-Pentecostalism that draws on the ideas of dominionism and spiritual warfare. Its adherents display gifts of the spirit, the religious expression of Pentecostal and charismatic believers that includes speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and a belief in signs, wonders, and miracles. These evangelists also preach the ‘Seven Mountains’ theory of Dominionism: that Christians need to take control of different sectors of public life, such as government, the media, and the law.”

Posner also offers this succinct analysis of Dominionism: 
For the Christian right, it’s more a political strategy than a secret “plot” to “overthrow” the government, even as some evangelists describe it in terms of “overthrowing” the powers of darkness (i.e. Satan), and even some more radical, militia-minded groups do suggest such a revolution. In general, though, the Christian right has been very open about its strategy and has spent a lot of money on it: in the law, as just one example, there are now two ABA-accredited Christian law schools, at Regent (which absorbed the ORU law school) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. There are a number of Christian law firms, like the Alliance Defense Fund, formed as a Christian counterweight to the ACLU. Yet outsiders don’t notice that this is all an expression of dominionism, until someone from that world, like Bachmann, hits the national stage (ibid.). 
Thanks to the prayer-led entries of Palin, Perry, and Bachman into the presidential race, Dominionism quickly became a political buzz word bandied about by pundits and journalists. In this faith-based frenzy, they tended to run roughshod over the historical antecedents to this movement. So when journalists like Washington Post’s Lisa Miller express concern for her profession to display a certain amount of dispassionate coverage of religion, citing that “'Dominionism' is the paranoid mot du jour,” she downplays the history of Dominionism, as well as its ongoing influence on the contemporary U.S. political landscape.

Jim Wallis, CEO of the social justice advocacy organization, Sojourners, expresses similar sentimentsin his blog, “God’s Politics,” on A. Larry Ross*, publicist to such evangelical powerhouses as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) takes this analogy one step further by penning a piece for “The Daily Beast” website entitled “Chrisitian Dominionism is a Myth.”

Gone are the days when one could simply gauge the religious right's position on a given issue by procuring a sound bite from a spokesman with an established organization like the American Family Association, the Christian Coalition, or Focus on the Family. In Religion Dispatches, religion scholar Athena Butler observes, “If journalists and others want to understand the last ten years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words.”

So, lest anyone feel this represents a new movement in Americana Christianity, any student of U.S. history can easily discern that this 21st-century mantra for the U.S. of A to become a Christian nation has been repeated in various incantations starting with the 16th-century debates between Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island, when Winthrop anointed the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a beacon of light and a Christian “city on the hill” while Williams argued for liberty of conscience. 

In the 20th century, this strand of American exceptionalism could be seen post-Great Depression with the emergence of the right wing organization The Family, sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. In his research of this organization documented in his books The Family and C Street, Jeff Sharlet exposed the Family's ultimate goal as “a government built by God” with laissez-faire economics at the heart of their gospel message. 

Websites like The Revealer, Religion Dispatches, and Alternet post articles which chronicle the alliances between non-charismatic evangelicals and the neo-Pentecostals in a quest to secure God's reign here on earth starting in the late 1970s. Also during this time one saw the rise of more populist groups like the Moral Majority, co-founded in 1979 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic Left Behind fiction series. With the publication of LaHaye's book The Battle for the Mind (Fleming H. Revell, 1980), one can find the beginnings of a battle specifically against the evils of secular humanism with the ultimate aim to create a Christian global worldview. More recently, in early 1990s, Peter Wagner created the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) after he left Fuller Seminary and Ralph Reed led the Christian Coalition to recapture Congress in 1994.

In my book, Jesus Died for This?, I reflect on how the right wing’s old guard is appearing to fade into the sunset, yet their demise does not indicate that their ideas no longer have any currency. This movement remains embedded at the grassroots level. These Christian cockroaches know how to burrow their way into even the most innocuous-looking church casserole. Through the power of the electronic media, they tug at America’s heartstrings like a well-worn country song pining for the return of an imaginary Americana that only exists in TV Land. 

Here one must be careful not to paint all evangelicals with the same unbiblical brush. Not everyone who spoke at The Response (Rick Perry’s all-day event of prayer and fasting last August, which was repeated so far in Iowa,  South Carolina and Florida with additional cities scheduled) or at the 2011 Values Voter Summit could be classified as a Dominionist. Most members of the Religious Right choose to distance themselves from these more radical views, lest they be tarnished as “Christian crazy” à la Glenn Beck. For example, most godly souls would never advocate the killing of another person—unless they were on death row or fighting to destroy their Christian freedoms. So while they would never come out and say “homosexuals” should die, their rhetoric demonizes LGBT teens to the point where they get bullied to death. 

Examine the flight patterns and funding streams of those orchestrating many of these events, and its utterly creepy to see who functions as the wingmen beside many of these wing nuts. The political players may change, but this Christian chessboard remains the same. Check out People for the American Way's “Right Wing Watch for the latest news on this front. 

Also, while one can find “dominion” language present in the work of more moderate evangelical thought leaders like Gabe Lyons, author of the bestselling book UnChristian:What a New Generation Thinks of Christianity…and Why it Matters, their stances on social justice issues such as poverty and the environment tend to reflect a collaborative stance willing to engage with others that runs counter to Dominionist beliefs. However, these “moderates” utilize scripture to justify an affirming but not welcoming issue towards LGBT people that sex columnist Dan Savage describes as “God Hate Fags with a Smile.” Also, they remain ambivalent toward other sexuality issues relating to gender equality such as reproductive rights.

Unfortunately, in a country where John Winthrop’s view of a Christian nation continues to eclipse Roger Williams’ cries for “soul liberty,” U.S. politicians feel they must play the God game when speaking to specific demographics. In this current socio-political climate, one must distinguish between spin designed to garner votes and belief in a system that will set us back to the 1950s, replete with a resurfacing of McCarthyism. Given the increasingly pluralistic nature of global politics, any presidential candidate's faith must be examined in order to ascertain if they intend to do a reach-around of the U.S. Constitution because they got the A-OK from the Almighty. 

As former presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter demonstrated, someone who professes to believe in God can govern the United States without imposing their personal religious beliefs on the world. Along those lines, one can find a long history of those from liberal religious traditions like the Interfaith Alliance and Believe Out Loud, whose members have taken the road less traveled by following Roger Williams in choosing to actively engage with range of voices, including Atheists. 

However, should Gingrich or someone of his mindset get elected to higher office, they will govern the country according to the laws of their particular brand of the faith, without even scant regard for the liberty and conscience of anyone who subscribes to a different belief system. Hence when politicians strike up the band and start singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” journalists need to illuminate how these leaders march to the beat of a deadly drummer.

While the name A. Larry Ross may not be familiar to most Americans, his client list reads like a who’s who of Purpose Driven power players. Since establishing himself as Billy Graham’s spokesperson in 1981, he’s branded himself as the go-to guy for Bible believers looking to sell their Christ-centered messages to unsaved secular souls. For example, he helped to engineer the negative spin on religion scholar Jeff Sharlet’s research connecting The Family to the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda and other ungodly atrocities.

In fact, Ross is so influential that Mel Gibson's Icon Productions enlisted his help in selling The Passion of the Christ to evangelicals and conservative Catholics, two crowds that don’t frequent mainstream movie theaters. In addition to downplaying the Dominionist influences in the 2012 election and hawking creationist backed ventures like Answers in Genesis, Ross tries to sell a kinder, gentler version of evangelicalism by serving on the steering committee for An Evangelical Manifesto and repping emergent theology guru Peter Rollins. Despite all this responsibility, Ross still finds time to pass off press releases as editorial opinion via “The Huffington Post” and “The Daily Beast.”

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.


  1. These people would be almost funny if they weren't so damn scary.

  2. I have been very slow to pick up on the Dominionists , Christian Nationalist movement. I first became annoyed when I heard Charles Stanley deliver a "America is a Christian Nation" sermon. His proof centered around the claim that the signers of the Constitution were all Christians therefore they intended America to be lead by Christians - that a wall of separation was not really intended. They may or may not have been Christians - they all claimed church affiliations - they had to. Ten of the pre-Constitution "states" had religious tests for the election of politicians. I was lead to believe that the test for Christianity is found in the "fruits" not in the claims. Slavery, genocide (Native Americans), Jim Crow Laws - Stanley ignored these. I'm sure that some of the signers did not want a "wall of separation" but the lack of a religious test was quite clear. I later found that the body of Stanley's sermon came from the "historical" research of David Barton.

    I'm sure my interest in the subject would have died a natural death - if my pastor had not elected to play a David Barton "patriotic" DVD for the July 3rd church service in lieu of one of his quite gifted sermons. The problem - I've actually read some of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. I noticed that Barton pointedly left out the section in Vol. 1 Chapter 17 -

    "I have remarked that the American clergy in general, without even excepting those who do not admit religious liberty, are all in favor of civil freedom; but they do not support any particular political system. They keep aloof from parties and from public affairs. In the United States religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state."

    And also -
    "...they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point."

    I frequently post as Cooper - IfThisGoesOn

  3. Oops my error - the Winthrop v Williams debates transpired in the 1600s, hence the 17th century.