The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy - Part Two
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:08:10 AM EST
The term "dominionism" is used different ways by different people. When new terms are developed, that is to be expected. If we are to use words and phrases to discuss ideas, however, it pays to be on the same page concerning how we define those terms. This is especially true in public debates.
In her 1989 book Spiritual Warfare, sociologist Sara Diamond discussed how dominionism as an ideological tendency in the Christian Right had been significantly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism. Over the past 20 years the leading proponents of Christian Reconstructionism and dominion theology have included Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Andrew Sandlin.

Diamond explained that "the primary importance of the [Christian Reconstructionist] ideology is its role as a catalyst for what is loosely called 'dominion theology.'" According to Diamond, "Largely through the impact of Rushdoony's and North's writings, the concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to 'occupy' all secular institutions has become the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right." (italics in the original).

In a series of articles and book chapters Diamond expanded on her thesis. She called Reconstructionism "the most intellectually grounded, though esoteric, brand of dominion theology," and observed that "promoters of Reconstructionism see their role as ideological entrepreneurs committed to a long-term struggle."

So Christian Reconstructionism was the most influential form of dominion theology, and it influenced both the theological concepts and political activism of white Protestant conservative evangelicals mobilized by the Christian Right.

But very few evangelicals have even heard of dominion theology, and fewer still embrace Christian Reconstructionism. How do we explain this, especially since our critics are quick to point it out?

The answer lies in teasing apart the terminology and how it is used.

Christian Reconstructionism is a form of theocratic dominion theology. Its leaders challenged evangelicals across a wide swath of theological beliefs to engage in a more muscular and activist form of political participation. The core theme of dominion theology is that the Bible mandates Christians to take over and "occupy" secular institutions.

A number of Christian Right leaders read what the Christian Reconstructionists were writing, and they adopted the idea of taking dominion over the secular institutions of the United States as the "central unifying ideology" of their social movement. They decided to gain political power through the Republican Party.

This does not mean most Christian Right leaders became Christian Reconstructionists. It does mean they were influenced by dominion theology. But they were influenced in a number of different ways, and some promote the theocratic aspects more militantly than others.

It helps to see the terms dominionism, dominion theology, and Christian Reconstructionism as distinct and not interchangeable. While all Christian Reconstructionists are dominionists, not all dominionists are Christian Reconstructionists.

In its generic sense, dominionism is a very broad political tendency within the Christian Right. It ranges from soft to hard versions in terms of its theocratic impulse.

Soft Dominionists are Christian nationalists. They believe that Biblically-defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. They fear that America's greatness as God's chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Their vision has elements of theocracy, but they stop short of calling for supplanting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Hard Dominionists believe all of this, but they want the United States to be a Christian theocracy. For them the Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely addendums to Old Testament Biblical law. They claim that Christian men with specific theological beliefs are ordained by God to run society. Christians and others who do not accept their theological beliefs would be second-class citizens. This sector includes Christian Reconstructionists, but it has a growing number of adherents in the leadership of the Christian Right.

It makes more sense to reserve the term "dominion theology" to describe specific theological currents, while using the term "dominionism" in a generic sense to discuss a tendency toward aggressive political activism by Christians who claim they are mandated by God to take over society. Even then, we need to locate the subject of our criticisms on a scale that ranges from soft to hard versions of dominionism.

As I have written elsewhere, crafting an appropriate response depends on what sector of the Christian Right we are criticizing:

Christian Conservatives - They play by the rules of a democratic republic, and so our response should be to develop better ideas and carry out better grassroots organizing campaigns.
Christian Nationalists - They erode pluralism, and we must defend separation of church and state, but also engage in a discussion of the legitimate boundaries when religious beliefs intersect with participation in a secular civil society.
Christian Theocrats - They want to replace democracy with an authoritarian theocratic society run by a handful of Christian men. They seek to supersede the Constitution and Bill of Rights with Old Testament Biblical law. We must oppose them and not give an inch in our defense of democracy against theocracy.

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, Chip! That's very helpful to clarify the definitions and draw significant distinctions between various sectors of the Christian Right, and then to take it a step further by calling for different responses to different sectors.

by jhutson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:27:00 AM EST

Chip -- with truly greatest respect for Sara Diamond's work -- and, of course, yours -- I see two points I'd question in this otherwise excellent analysis.

First, the idea of taking dominion over secular institutions in the U.S. hardly originates with Reconstructionists. Rather, that's the theocratic strand that goes back to Jonathan Edwards, the first really subtle theocratic thinker in the colonies. When I talk to Christian Right leaders, they always indicate that Edwards is still alive in their hearts.

Even more influential on the contemporary scene is Charles Grandisson Finney, who was a strong advocate of organized Christian control of government. As was Billy Sunday.

Nor should Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed be overlooked just because some liberal Christians find in his work inspiration. Kuyper currently occupies first place in Chuck Colson's rankings.

There's a useful volume called A Free Church, A Holy Nation, by Christian conservative John Bolt that's stunning in laying out how thoroughly this 19th century thinker anticipated today's Christian Right.

Second: Your analysis assumes nationalism. But what about the major contingents of the Christian Right that are distinctly internationalist or even anti-nationalist? There's an awful lot of overlap with American imperialism, but it's not a perfect match. We on the left want to tag the entire right as nationalist and xenophobic; but the sophisticated elite right is often anything but.

Last point, for Talk 2 Action readers in general: Please don't ignore Christian conservatives. Theocrats, by Chip's taxonomy (which I think is immensely useful) are fascinating and dangerous. But defeat for the left ultimately comes through the much broader movement of Christian conservatives. A lot of these people are perfectly sane, courteous, and even sort of democratically minded. That doesn't mean they won't vote for theocractic policies. Take the fight public: Debate the mainstream of the far right. Don't cede them ground.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:50:29 AM EST

But defeat for the left ultimately comes through the much broader movement of Christian conservatives.

While dominionist leadership is certainly an important target, we need to remember that the followers are not necessarily sophisticated about theological history or nuance. And when looking at religious antecedents of the current "Awakening," it's important to think about social context and the way in which dominionist leaders can "cherry-pick" historical antecedents (in much the same way that they selectively pick biblical verses) to support a political agenda. For example, while abolition and suffrage figured prominently in prior awakening, they are certainly not central now.

We live in a complex and rapidly changing world that's threatening to many people. Commonly accepted norms and the old power structures have been challenged - by technological advances, desegregation, proportional increase in minorities and their power, feminism, gay demands for equal rights, etc. Followers are looking for security and help in understanding this world. Leaders are happy to supply the illusion of security and biblically-based simple answers in exchange for political and economic power.

I wonder if in concentrating on the challenge of dominionism alone, we could miss the very real danger of a drift toward fascism. The notion of the "Authoritarian Personality" has gone out of style but as Wolfe has suggested, it may be time to revisit the concept. There are strong parallels between the beliefs of those identified as having fascistic potential and today's dominionists. I guess what I'm wondering is: Can we effectively debate the "far right" without educating and addressing the concerns of the mass of Christian conservatives?

by Psyche on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 02:10:48 PM EST

great point. he is at least as influential as rushdoony to figures like marvin olasky and howard ahmanson. at least, that's what ahmanson told me.

by Max Blumenthal on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:27:11 PM EST

I really enjoyed your articles in Harpers. Do you have anything new forthcoming, or a book in the works?

Folks, if you haven't read his Jesus Plus Nothing article, go do it right now.

Also, check out his Soldiers of Christ article. If anyone wonders how the USAF Academy became entangled with dominionist Christians, this article is a good backgrounder on the people who are close enough to it to do so.

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:35:09 PM EST

Hi Jeff,

Well your correct, of course, but its a blog, and a series, so if I didn't get back to the colonial period in the first two entries, I have an excuse.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:54:07 PM EST

... when you present a multi-part article, would it be possible to include a link to the earlier (and/or later, as appropriate) parts for those of us who may have come along a little late.  I can't find part 1 of this article.

- Patrick

by PatrickH on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 11:46:49 AM EST

The links should work now.  Thanks for the suggestion.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:43:39 PM EST

Excellent post, Chip. It reinforces the choice I made to use the term 'dominionism' when describing the religious supremacists we are examining on Dark Christianity. It was difficult to find a term that wasn't misleading, and early on, I tossed out any term that could be confused with an actual current of Christianity (like Evangelical or Fundementalist) and all perjoratives. After reading various books, articles, and the like, I settled on "dominionist" because it reflects what the people who took over the GOP want to do: dominate this country and its government.

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:50:36 AM EST

Makes sense, and actually fits with how I've been using the term (in reference to groups practicing "dominion theology" in general).

I would say among hard dominionists there actually may be two clades, there, too:

a) "Spiritual Warfare" hard dominionists (for lack of a better definition)--more common in the pente/charismatic flavoured dominionist groups, has as a goal theocracy but as part of an effort to either essentially perform a national exorcism (to "drive off territorial spirits") or to "secure our blessing as God's chosen people".  Premillenial dispensationalism very common in this group.  Ted Haggard's New Life Church and its activities, and dominionism in general within the Assemblies of God, are textbook examples of this type of hard dominionism (which isn't quite textbook Christian Reconstructionism but has a nearly identical goal--just for slightly different theological reasons).

b) classical "Christian Reconstructionism" of the Rushdoony sort (which is generally postmillenarianist and seeks to establish God's kingdom on earth).

by dogemperor on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 11:40:29 AM EST

Yes, the premillennial dispensationalists picked up on the dominionist ideas of the postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists, but kept their views of the end times.  So dominionism bridges both postmillennial and premillennial - and ranges from soft to hard; with Christian Reconstructionists on the hard end.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:47:31 PM EST

"Christian Theocrats -- We must oppose them and not give an inch in our defense of democracy against theocracy." So this doesn't go for nationalists and conservatives?

by Max Blumenthal on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:24:35 PM EST
What I am arguing is that there are three distinct sectors, and we should oppose them all, but need to use different appraoches to each sector.  One size does not fit all.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 10:51:42 PM EST

Since so many of the top writers in the subject are involved, my hope is that the end result of this thread - which could go on for .....err a while might be a definition of Dominionism that is both expansive enough to cover all the objections and additions to Chip's definition and yet taught enough to be useful as a term.

I'm interested in that because there was originally a glossary of key terms prepared for this site but the issue of definitions was far, far too problematic - a morass in fact. And defining Dominionism may have been the stickiest morass and the slipperiest beast of all.  

So here's hoping.....

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 03:12:07 PM EST

getting an agreed upon definition out of a comment thread may be more than one can reasonably expect. But I agree that it is good to surface these issues and have these conversations to help us along the way.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 03:19:22 PM EST
I heard last night of a man who'd had three houses in succession destroyed by tornadoes.

Anyway, back to Dominionism.....

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 03:50:34 PM EST

We need to build a glossary or something that will make it easy for us to all get on the same page in our terminology.

Thanks for refining the vocabulary.

by Mainstream Baptist on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 02:01:08 AM EST

As I mentioned, the glossary already exists. It merely needs to be vetted by, well.... many of those commenting on this thread. Hmmm : I have an idea..... heh.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 09:12:42 AM EST

There is not nearly enough education & discussion of this in mainstream protestant or Catholic churches. Most Methodists could not imagine such a tilt to the right that a literalist view of the Bible would prevail in the denomination or the ordination of women  be ended. Yet, there are right wing UMC factions that would welcome these. The UMC has been a restless, anxious church for over sixty years, since the reunification of north & south, but has usually managed to gloss over broad & sometimes extreme differences. Still, many protestants look at the the Southern Baptist Convention with naivete, & say, "It can't happen here." But it can, & it might.

by HorseshoeCrab on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 02:22:20 AM EST

I'd like to know where you fit in the hardline Catholic bishops, especially those that refuse to permit Catholic politicians who do not toe the Vatican line on abortion and contraception and gay-lesbian issues to have communion, or even to speak at Catholic institutions.  

For many segments of society, women and gays among them, the policies that will oppress them exist no matter the category.  

by cyncooper on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 11:54:47 AM EST

. . . I still don't feel I understand the distinctions.  I understand that Christian Reconstructionists are a subset of the larger group of dominionists, and I sort of understand the difference you describe between and hard and soft dominionists, which I gather is relevant to the distinction between dominionists and Reconstructionists although it isn't labeled as such, but my mind still fogs.

     If Christian Reconstructionists are a subset of the larger group of dominionists, there must be certain specific characteristics (political beliefs, religious beliefs, personal traits, sexual proclivities -- something) which they possess but the rest of the dominionists do not.  It would help me if you could provide a simple list of those characteristics.  I understand that there is some uncertainty in this area, but surely you have an informed opinion of what the characteristics most worthy of inclusion on that list are.

     For example, when I was in college, one might describe the difference between "frat boy" and "college student" by explaining that (in addition to the definitional difference that fraternity members belonged to a fraternity and the rest of the student body did not) fraternity members were all male, were more politically conservative, and in most cases had wealthier parents and were more likely to participate in major college sports and sports-related (cheerleading, mascots) activity.  Some might posit other differences or challenge mine, but that's my list and I'm sticking to it.  I'd like to see your list on the Reconstructionists.

by Theovanna on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 08:51:13 AM EST

Part of the idea behind this site is to spark a conversation among writers who study the Christian Right, in the hopes of struggling through some concepts and definitions. At this point, I am trying to write a series that looks at specific elements.

Eventually, together, we will probably develop a glossary and some more precise definitions. These comments and questions helpt that process, but I am not sure I can produce anything better than essays at this point.

I still have to get back to the colonial period to make Jeff happy.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 06:06:11 PM EST

Wow, that was what I needed. I kept on seeing articles on dominionism, yet no one actually bothers to explain what the term is. Thus causeing me not knowing exactly what it is all about. Thanks for the clear explanation, I've learnt a lot here.

by stewiegriffin on Sun Jan 08, 2006 at 01:41:18 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by Chip Berlet

by libe on Tue Apr 25, 2006 at 06:24:42 PM EST

Thank you for writing this article and clearing up the definitions. I had no good idea about dominionism and theocracy so this was really interesting.
Desiree, Web Designer currently working on the hair loss cure project.
by Desiree on Fri Feb 29, 2008 at 08:27:48 AM EST

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