Aug 14, 2011 10:51 PM EDT
With Tim Pawlenty out of the presidential race, it is now fairly clear that the GOP candidate will either be Mitt Romney or someone who makes George W. Bush look like Tom Paine. Of the three most plausible candidates for the Republican nomination, two are deeply associated with a theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism. If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn’t optional.
Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid. In a contemptuous 2006 First Things review of several books, including Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and my own Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era.”
Now, however, we have the most theocratic Republican field in American history, and suddenly, the concept of Dominionism is reaching mainstream audiences. Writing about Bachmann in The New Yorker this month, Ryan Lizza spent several paragraphs explaining how the premise fit into the Minnesota congresswoman’s intellectual and theological development. And a recent Texas Observer cover story on Rick Perry examined his relationship with the New Apostolic Reformation, a Dominionist variant of Pentecostalism that coalesced about a decade ago. “[W]hat makes the New Apostolic Reformation movement so potent is its growing fascination with infiltrating politics and government,” wrote Forrest Wilder. Its members “believe Christians—certain Christians—are destined to not just take ‘dominion’ over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the ‘Seven Mountains’ of society, including the media and the arts and entertainment world.”
In many ways, Dominionism is more a political phenomenon than a theological one. It cuts across Christian denominations, from stern, austere sects to the signs-and-wonders culture of modern megachurches. Think of it like political Islamism, which shapes the activism of a number of antagonistic fundamentalist movements, from Sunni Wahabis in the Arab world to Shiite fundamentalists in Iran.
Dominionism derives from a small fringe sect called Christian Reconstructionism, founded by a Calvinist theologian named R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s. Christian Reconstructionism openly advocates replacing American law with the strictures of the Old Testament, replete with the death penalty for homosexuality, abortion, and even apostasy. The appeal of Christian Reconstructionism is, obviously, limited, and mainstream Christian right figures like Ralph Reed have denounced it.
But while Rushdoony was a totalitarian, he was a prolific and influential one—he elaborated his theories in a number of books, including the massive, three-volume Institutes of Biblical Law. And his ideas, along with those of his followers, have had an incalculable impact on the milieu that spawned both Bachmann and Perry.
Rushdoony pioneered the Christian homeschooling movement, as well as the revisionist history, ubiquitous on the religious right, that paints the U.S. as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. He consistently defended Southern slavery and contrasted it with the greater evils of socialism: “The law here is humane and also unsentimental,” he wrote. “It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so … Socialism, on the contrary, tries to give the slave all the advantages of his security together with the benefits of freedom, and in the process, destroys both the free and the enslaved.”
Rushdoony’s most influential idea was the concept of Dominionism, which spread far beyond the Christian Reconstructionist fringe. “‘Dominion theologians,’ as they are called, lay great emphasis on Genesis 1:26–7, where God tells Adam to assume dominion over the animate and inanimate world,” wrote the scholar Garry Wills in his book Under God: Religion and American Politics, describing the influence of the ideology on Pat Robertson. “When man fell, his control over creation was forfeited; but the saved, who are restored by baptism, can claim again the rights given Adam.”
- Michele Bachmann Wins Ames Straw Poll as Rick Perry Looms Large Over the Race (swampland.time.com)
- Christian Right War on America (maboulette.wordpress.com)
- Maddow: Rick Perry Could Be Part Of A Shadowy Christian Conspiracy (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sarah Palin, Joel’s Army, Dominionism (israelific.wordpress.com)
- Onward Christian Governor (duanegraham.wordpress.com)
- Michele Bachmann, Christian Reconstructionism and the Law (jonathanturley.org)
- The Scary Religious Ideology Behind Michele Bachmann’s Anti-Gay Crusade (censorshipinamerica.com)