The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy - Part One
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Nov 28, 2005 at 05:29:29 PM EST
In a September 1994 plenary speech to the Christian Coalition national convention, Rev. D. James Kennedy said that "true Christian citizenship" involves an active engagement in society to "take dominion over all things as vice-regents of God."
Kennedy's remarks were reported in February 1995 by sociologist and journalist Sara Diamond, who wrote that Kennedy had "echoed the Reconstructionist line."

More than anyone else, it was Sara Diamond who popularized the use of the term "dominionism" to describe a growing political tendency in the Christian Right. It is a useful term that has, unfortunately, been used in a variety of ways that are neither accurate nor useful. Diamond was careful to discuss how the small Christian Reconstructionist theological movement had helped introduce "dominionism" as a concept into the larger and more diverse social/political movements called the Christian Right.

Dominionism is therefore a tendency among Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that encourages them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but also seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.

This highly politicized concept of dominionism is based on the Bible's text in Genesis 1:26:

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." (King James Version).

"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'" (New International Version).

The vast majority of Christians read this text and conclude that God has appointed them stewards and caretakers of Earth. As Sara Diamond explains, however, some Christian read the text and believe, "that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns--and there is no consensus on when that might be." That, in a nutshell, is the idea of "dominionism."

Just because some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point does not mean we should abandon the term. And while it is true that few participants in the Christian Right Culture War want a theocracy as proposed by the Christian Reconstructionists, many of their battlefield Earth commanders are leading them in that direction. And a number of these leaders have been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism, which is a variant of theocracy called theonomy.

William Martin is the author of the 1996 tome With God on Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series. Martin is a sociologist and professor of religion at Rice university, and he has been critical of the way some critics of the Christian Right have tossed around the terms "dominionism" and "theocracy." Martin has offered some careful writing on the subject. According to Martin:

"It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, 'Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.' "

According to Martin, "several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books."

Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson's 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy, writes Martin.

"Pat Robertson makes frequent use of 'dominion' language" says Martin, "his book, The Secret Kingdom, has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he 'would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,' as well as when he later wrote, '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.' "

Martin also points out that "Jay Grimstead, who leads the Coalition on Revival, which brings Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals, has said, 'I don't call myself [a Reconstructionist],' but 'A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God's standard of morality . . . in all points of history . . . and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike. . . . It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.' He added, 'There are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership James Kennedy is one of them-who don't go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.'"

So let's choose our language carefully, but let's recognize that terms such as "dominionism" and "theocracy," when used cautiously and carefully, are appropriate when describing anti-democratic tendencies in the Christian Right.

The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy: A Series
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
= = =
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

Thanks for outlining this history for us, Chip. The term dominionism has been in common currency in scholarly circles for more than a decade, even if it is new to some. It's unfortunate that some people's first exposure came in less useful and inaccurate uses.  But I want to underscore Chip's point: Readers should be very clear that just because some people have misapplied the word, or distorted its meaning, that the term itself is not invalid. I expect that we will use it often on this site.

The guidelines are very clear that we oppose labeling and demonization and we intend to use care not to confuse descriptive terms with epithets.

Reasonable people will differ about the applicability of terms, and there is plenty of room for discussion. Let's go ahead and have those discussions.

We need to have words and terms that are commonly understood among one another, and definitional discussions can help us get there.

However, I do not anticipate definitional conversations to go on indefinitely. At some point, these become reasonably settled matters, and we move on. Terms allow us to converse. Endless debates about terms obstruct conversation.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Nov 28, 2005 at 08:07:50 PM EST

With some of the variants of dominionism, there  really isn't a good term for it.

The particular flavour of theocratic pushing that I'm most familiar with (which is within certain aspects of the pentecostal and charismatic communities) has been termed "dominion theology" or occasionally (in its postmillenarian variants) "Kingdom Now theology"; however, some blatantly theocratic denominations which claim not to support "dominion theology" practice much the same thing only calling it "spiritual warfare" or "restoring America's Godly Heritage".

With the particular group I grew up in (and have become familiar with dominionism through, having grown up being indoctrinated in it--this is a pente church in KY that has been active in the dominionist movement since at least the mid-70's, roughly as long as Ted Haggard's New Life Church, is a major "pit stop" on the AOG traveling preacher circuits, etc.) the whole theocratic bent is heavily tied into general beliefs in "spiritual warfare" and "deliverance ministry" to the point that the church is essentially theocratic at its core.  In pente/charismatic groups, most of the dominionist/theocratic movement isn't bound up in "Christian Reconstructionism" so much as, say, extensions of "Latter Rain", "spiritual warfare", and especially the "Brownsville Revival" Third Wave stuff that's been spreading in the AoG and Vineyard and independent charismatic churches for the past fifty years or so.

The origins of dominionist and theocratic thought in "independent Baptist" groups, the SBC, et al are rather different than in the pente and charismatic groups, and there IS a different "feel" to the groups (I've noticed the Baptist-affiliated groups tend to be friendlier towards postmillenial and Christian Reconstructionist stuff, whereas the "God Warrior dominionist" types in the pente and charismatic communities tend to push more of  the angles of either performing a national exorcism on the US or of "securing God's blessing" as they believe the US and Israel are both God's chosen countries--the US's "blessing" being evidenced by being the home of the pentecostal and charismatic movements).

One of the complicating things is that in a lot of these groups dominionists have no real term for themselves.  Pretty much everyone in the group I walked away from would just describe themselves as "born again Christians" or "God warriors" (now you know why that "Trading Spouses" ep gives me the shudders O_o), and only after talking with them or listening in on a few sermons would they start going in on "taking dominion over  your life and taking dominion over this country and away from the demons ruling it now".  (Yeah, they're heavy into the whole "everything outside the church is ungodly and literally demonised" thing.  So is New Life Church, frighteningly, and Ted Haggard has an even better press crew than the group I left)

I'm not sure what I'm writing is making sense to most folks, I can explain more at depth if people need.

by dogemperor on Mon Nov 28, 2005 at 10:56:42 PM EST

Hi, dogemperor,
I found what you wrote very informative and useful. I would say that you can mix dominionism with a variety of forms of religious expression, theology, End Times eschatology, and triumphalism.

So you end up with a myriad of forms depending on the setting.

Some of us are trying to sort out the strains of postmillennialism and Christian Reconstructionism in the Christian Right, which is mostly populated by premillennialists.

It's complicated....

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 12:20:48 PM EST

This term is fairly new to me, but based on the description above, how does dominionism translate to anti-democratic actions? It appears to me as if the movement motivates it's followers to participate in the democratic process.

Seeking to dominate the political process is something that all organized political groups and factions do. While I vehemently oppose the religious Republican right (gotta always use that "R" word... '06 is coming!), I fail to see how dominionism is the root of the problem.

by moses freeman on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 04:49:45 PM EST

to use the tools of democracy to further anti-democratic goals.  As a matter fact, that is exactly the strategy. Reconstructionist theoritst and political strategist Gary North is explicit about it, as I discuss in my book Eternal Hostility.

Pat Robertson. D. James Kennedy and others are cagier about thier goals. But at minimum, they are rabid on the notion that the U.S. once was a Christian nation and should be yet again. (Susan Jacoby debunks the myth that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, here today.) Both Robertson and Kennedy wax nostalgic for pre-constitutional times, when there were Christian oaths of office and education was private and Christian, and citizenship was limited to white male  landowners who were members of the correct sect.

In my view, their versions of dominionism are indeed antidemcratic; rooted in religious supremacism; and about as close to theocratic without actually using the word.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 05:07:04 PM EST

that I am less threatened by their participation than I am by some of their goals.

As a member of the religious left, I think part of our strategy for dealing with them should be to attempt to theologically deflect as many as possible away from the anti-Christian excesses of the Republicans.

by moses freeman on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 06:05:59 PM EST

I am also a member of the religious left, and the term "dominionism" allows us to ask people in the Christian Right what their personal goals are in relation to some of the really triumphalist and authoritarian agendas some of the leaders of the Christian Right articulate.

My argument is that most people who see themselves as part of the Christian Right have no interest in imposing a theocracy.  If that is the agenda of some of their leaders, then we can have a discussion about what that means.

I allows us to assert that the problem is not religion, or Christianity, or even political participation by conservative Christians--the problem is when dominionism steps over the line into Christian Nationalism and Christian Theocracy.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 06:15:03 PM EST

in electoral democracy. Thats not the point.

Addressing theological issues is for the theologically inclined and is certainly one area worth discussion in detail. In fact, it already is on this site.

Democracy is for everyone, and again, there are those that are using the tools of democracy in order to end it. I will be writing more on this point in the near future.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Nov 29, 2005 at 06:15:49 PM EST

in terms of both ideological and theological opposition to the religious right, but I find the emphasis on dominion(ism?) rather tenuous and vague.

From what I've read so far, I see that the fundamentalists have effectively organized and used their political clout, but I haven't seen much that would lead me to conclude that they are necessarily undemocratic, or using the tools of democracy to end it.

I'm not sure that dominionism per se is the Achilles heel of the religious right. I think we'd be more effective framing our issues as Progressives have for generations... by using religious references if and when they benefit us, and by pointing out how poor religious folks are voting against their own economic interests.

Woodie Guthrie and William Jennings Bryan both knew how to deal with the fundamentalists... we should take a lesson from them.

by moses freeman on Wed Nov 30, 2005 at 02:05:32 AM EST

I'm not sure that's a claim that's been made. But some would hold up Dominionism as an antidemocratic doctrine, yes.

For more on Dominionism, see especially the history of the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, and also the state by state battles for control of the GOP - beginning in Texas.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Nov 30, 2005 at 02:31:57 AM EST

And I have yet to hear anyone make that argument. It is a matter of understanding the nature of the movement that is striving for power, and dominionism is one way of fairly and accurately describing the most dynamic element of this movement.

The situation now is rather different than that faced by Bryan and Guthrie, and one of those differences is the existence of the virulent ideology of dominionism, and its rapid growth across a wide swath of conservative Christianity.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Nov 30, 2005 at 01:24:47 PM EST

So when we talk about dominionism as a tendency, we need to make distinctions as to how far each individual takes it: Christian Conservatism Christian Nationalism Christian Theocracy More on this later. Fred has an article in the Public Eye magazine coming out this week that explains how dominionism has spread very clearly. When it goes online, I will post a note here on Tal2Action! Meanwhile the Mother Jones articles are really a terrific resource.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Nov 30, 2005 at 11:12:44 PM EST

For people's information, Bill Martin has just published an updated paperback version of "With God on Our Side."

by larry jones on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 06:12:54 PM EST

As I am again revisiting this great series, I realize the original thread is old but feel this might be the best place to address the issue, if anyone else notices, and the notes of last May suggests that they might.

In dealing with "What is dominionism?" as I gain increasing awareness of the issue I find the need to find words both more and less precise and feel a need for a three or more dimensional map to plot it all out.

There are the classic Reconstructionists of Gary North/Rushadoony group. I presume that there is close connections to DeVoss, Prince, and Blackwater, and I presume many steeplejacked churches though the outer edges of this seem quite fuzzy.

Then there are the more obvious outliers for which Rev Phelps is the posterboy, who though there might be few theological differences, is almost totally marginalized from power. I would include also many white power groups here but again fuzzy edges start to emerge, particularly with Sara Palin's crew.

And speaking of Palin , Muthee, et. al. and their seven mountains, faith warrior, program, they appear to be seperate from Gary North's group, though embarked on the same or very similar program. Also there is the Military issues that Mikey Wienstein has been fighting that I presume Rev Haggard was a part of, and other triumphalist groups that verge to the point of not being actually theocratic or at least not more antidemocratic than most Republicans.

Then there are the groups like Doug Coe who seem less bent on the open theocracy and more into "behind the scenes" power that seems at least as much a threat as the Gary North crowd.

And lets not forget folk like the Moonies that seem bent on subverting the subverters.

All of these groups are to some extent subversive and therefore secretive, and therefore hard to trace under the best of circumstances, but a clear map of what is known and what front groups each operates under, and perhaps even divisions among them that might be promoted to drive them apart, and mostly to shine a spotlight on the whole can of worms would be useful.

And of course a means of separating them from Christians of all stripes who actually believe that a pluralistic secular society is their own best protection is the ultimate goal.

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