By Alan Bean
Lisa Miller is right to be concerned about anti-evangelical bigotry. Most evangelical Christians, she notes, aren’t “dominionists” and very know anything about the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement with close ties to presidential hopeful Rick Perry.
Even if Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann make it to the White House, they won’t be trying to replace the US Constitution with the Bible or setting up the 10 Commandments in the courthouses of America. The separation of church and state isn’t going to disappear simply because America elects a president who doesn’t care for the concept.
But why, if it is such an esoteric and eccentric philosophy, are Rick and Michelle hitching their wagons to the dominionist star?
It’s simple. People who want to transform America into a Christian theocracy are, like the Tea Party people, a passionate minority with a clear blueprint for success. (A ‘theocracy’, for the uninitiated, is a nation ruled by religious leaders.)
Most American conservatives don’t attend Tea Party events and are pretty fuzzy on the details of small government orthodoxy. But the true believers exercise far more influence than their modest numbers would suggest. For one thing, they are willing to throw themselves into the political process on behalf of a sympathetic candidate. More to the point, movement people represent a clear and systematized version of ideas that resonate broadly within conservative circles.
Few Republicans call themselves dominionists (or even grasp what the term implies); but a large majority think the country has gone down hill since we took prayer out of the schools and scratch their heads in amazement when the ACLU challenges a judge’s right to display the 10 commandments in a courthouse. There is strong support, especially in the South, for teaching creationism alongside evolution in high school biology classes. Christianity is widely perceived to be the unofficially official religion of America and non-Christians are commonly viewed as asterisk-Americans.
So, while Lisa Miller is right to call dominionism a minority movement within the evangelical world; most American evangelicals are in fundamental agreement with the basic tents of dominionist thought. Here’s the right question: If evangelical voters knew that Perry and Bachmann were allied with people committed to transforming America into a Christian theocracy, would they be turned on or turned off?
A little of both, I suspect; but Rick and Michelle are betting that their unconventional religious convictions will help them at the polls. If they didn’t, they’d be keeping their religious convictions to themselves.
Since this piece was posted, Peter Montgomery at Religious Dispatches has written a stinging response to Lisa Miller’s article. Here is his take on the popularity of “dominionist” teaching:
So, as background: dominionism refers to a theological tenet at the core of the religious right movement—that Christians are meant to exercise dominion over the earth. As RD readers know, dominionist thought is not a new phenomenon. It may be true, as evangelical leader Mark DeMoss says in Miller’s story, that “you would be hard-pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians in America would could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.” But it’s certainly not true of the leaders of the religious right political movement. Their followers are hearing dominionist teaching whether they know it or not.
In recent years, there has been a very visible embrace by traditional religious right leaders of the rhetoric of “Seven Mountains,” a framework attributed to former Campus Crusade for Christ director Bill Bright. It puts dominionist thinking in clear, user-friendly lay language. The “Seven Mountains” of culture over which the right kind of Christians are meant to have dominion are business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family, and religion. (Some folks rearrange the categories a bit to explicitly include the military.)
The language has been used by Pentecostal leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, a group that sees itself creating a new church and an army of spiritual warriors who will hasten the return of Christ by taking dominion over the earth. But the Seven Mountains framework has also become a sort of lingua franca among the religious right, forming the basis for Janet Porter’s May Day rally on the mall last year as well as the National Day of Prayer and Jim Garlow’s Pray and Act campaign. The Family Research Council and prominent religious right figures like Harry Jackson and David Barton all use the language.
In other words, this is not a movement dreamed up by people with no understanding of Christianity who simply want to stir up fear of conservative evangelicals. The increasingly widespread use of “Seven Mountains” rhetoric reflects an effort by a broad swath of conservative evangelical leadership to adopt a shared set of talking points, if you will, to unite theologically disparate elements in common political cause to defeat the Satanic/demonic enemies of faith and freedom: secularists, gays, liberals, and the Obama administration.
C. Peter Wagner is the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation and author of Dominion!: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. His official bio says “In the 2000s, he began to move strongly in promoting the Dominion Mandate for social transformation, adopting the template of the Seven Mountains or the 7-M Mandate for practical implementation.” Wagner was an endorser of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer-rally-cum-presidential launch and dozens of members of the New Apostolic Reformation were involved in organizing and speaking at the event.
AP Photos – Texas Gov. Rick Perry bows his head as he leads a prayer at The Response event Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, in Houston. Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. prays after she spoke at the Christ Central Ministries in Columbia, S.C., Monday, July 19, 2011
The stories raise real concerns about the world views of two prospective Republican nominees. But their echo-chamber effect reignites old anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians. Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world. (Some extremist Christians leveled a similar charge against Barack Obama in 2008, that he was the antichrist aiming to take over world governments.)
This isn’t a defense of the religious beliefs of Bachmann or Perry, whatever they are. It’s a plea, given the acrimonious tone of our political discourse, for a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion. Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they’re Christian. One-third of Americans call themselves “evangelical.” When millions of voters get lumped together and associated with the fringe views of a few, divisions will grow. Here, then, are some clarifying points.
Evangelicals generally do not want to take over the world. “Dominionism” is the paranoid mot du jour. In its broadest sense, the term describes a Christian’s obligation to be active in the world, including in politics and government. More narrowly, some view it as Christian nationalism. You could argue that the 19th- and early 20th-century reformers – abolitionists, suffragists and temperance activists, for example – were dominionists, says Molly Worthen, who teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.
Extremist dominionists do exist, as theocrats who hope to transform our democracy into something that looks like ancient Israel, complete with stoning as punishment. But “it’s a pretty small world,” says Worthen, who studies these groups.
Mark DeMoss, whose Atlanta-based public relations firm represents several Christian groups, put it this way: “You would be hard-pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians in America who could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.”
Certain journalists use “dominionist” the way some folks on Fox News use the word “sharia.” Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which“we” need to guard against “them.”
Evangelicals aren’t of one mind. It’s true that in a general election, white evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Republican. But they are an increasingly complex blend of social and fiscal conservatives, and thus, are all over the map in the upcoming primaries. DeMoss, for one, is working to persuade evangelicals to vote for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Doug Wead, an insider in the George H.W. Bush White House, who allegedly coined the phrase “Compassionate Conservative,” is spinning for libertarian candidate Ron Paul.
Perry and Bachmann, in other words, can’t just assume the support of America’s evangelicals. And evangelicals, more likely than ever to have friends and relatives who are of other denomination, won’t automatically buy into a narrow world view.
Christian conservatives in America are not more militant than ever. Pat Robertson, a Christian minister, ran for president in 1988. Robertson was, actually, a dominionist. “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world,” he wrote.
Religious fervor waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. Election season mobilizes all interest groups. That includes Christian conservatives, who “thrive in a mindset of persecution,” says professor Worthen. The more their opponents paint them as freaky and dangerous, the more they see themselves as political activists on behalf of God.