Straw Jeremiads and Apologists for Christian Nationalism
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Aug 29, 2011 at 07:51:06 PM EST

Back in 2007 (Feb. 12) Chip Berlet posted a response to a rash of articles that foreshadowed the current round of attacks on Michelle Goldberg and others of us who have written about dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism over the years, as well as the efforts to downplay the role of dominionism in American public life. (He also separately responded to an essay by Stanley Kurtz in The National Review..) Chip's response provides a helpful context for understanding the current crop of similar attacks, and is reposted with his permission. -- FC

At Talk to Action we try to remain respectful of religious and spiritual beliefs (and secular, agnostic and atheist beliefs), which we feel is the intent and content of the founding documents of our pluralist society. We also try to maintain a distinction between serious concerns over theocratic, dominionist, and Christian Nationalist tendencies, and hyperbolic claims that tend to demonize people of faith and exaggerate the problem in a way that paints all Christians with a broad brush.

Now the backlash against our concerns (and those of others worried about these trends) has reached a new level of sophistication in right-wing intellectual journals. In their recent articles, Ross Douthat in First Things and Mary Eberstadt in Policy Review serve as apologists for Christian Nationalist tendencies by creating what I call Straw Jeremiads, and then easily setting them on fire.

Jeremiah was a Biblical prophet who issued dire warnings. So a Straw Jeremiad is concocted by a critic who misrepresents and exaggerates the actual content of our warnings and concerns so that we can be burned in rhetorical effigy. Straw Jeremiads catch fire easily because they are flimsy and dry.

Since Fred Clarkson and I (and others from Talk 2 Action) participated in a conference on Dominionism in New York in April 2005, writers of the purple prose have saddled their horses for the counterattack. Among the first were Stanley Kurtz, “Dominionist Domination: The Left runs with a wild theory,” National Review, May 02, 2005,; and Jon Ward, “Liberals Gather to Plumb Depths of Christian Right,” Washington Times, May 3, 2005,

Now Ross Douthat in First Things and Mary Eberstadt in Policy Review have raised the stakes.

Ross Douthat penned “Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy, in the August/September 2006, issue of First Things, which dubs itself “The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life.”

According to Douthat, “This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination.” Then Douthat singles out the main target: “Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy.”

Douthat is reviewing four books:

  • Randall Balmar, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament (Basic Books).
  • Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton).
  • Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking).
  • Rabbi James Rudin, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plan for the Rest of Us (Thunder's Mouth Press).

First Things is a weighty journal published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, with Richard John Neuhaus as Editor-In-Chief. Douthat’s reviews serve as the superstructure for the Straw Jeremiad:

This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist “Republic of Gilead,” with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that “moral values” had pushed the president over the top-and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.

Later statistical analysis of state-level polling conducted on Election Day revealed that Christian conservatives, in part motivated by Christian Right campaigns, did help elect Bush in 2004. Solid facts are so inconvenient when you are striking matches to ignite a Straw Jeremiad.

Mary Eberstadt is the author of another journal article that crafts a Straw Jeremiad. In Policy Review for December 2006 & January 2007, Eberstadt writes about "The Scapegoats Among Us: Blame Shifting After 9/11,"

The article covers much ground, but one section is on “ The ‘Christianist’ scapegoating.” in which it is claimed that we and others:

... have turned into a blogging bonanza and cottage publishing industry [a warning about the] overwhelming threat posed by religious fundamentalists . . . again not Islamist fundamentalists, but rather American Christian fundamentalists, known variously in this new canon as “theocrats,” “Christocrats,” “Christianists,” “fundamentalists,” “Christian nationalists,” and the old familiar, “Christian right.”

Eberstadt, like also reviews Balmer, Goldberg, and Rudin; and reviews two other books:

  • Damon Linker, Theocons: Secular America Under Seige (Doubleday).
  • Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? ( Yale University Press).

Policy Review, now published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. It began as the journal of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. In her article, Eberstadt cites the article by Ross Douthat in First Things. Eberstadt takes on the critics of theocratic, dominionist, and Christian Nationalist tendencies, by claiming:

At the heart of their case is an obnoxious positing of moral equivalence among “fundamentalists” and “theocrats” irrespective of religious stripe. Accordingly, anyone believing anything based on any holy writ whatever is suspect, no matter whether the message being received is that two hundred babes must die in Chechnya tomorrow or that two hundred trees should be planted in Tel Aviv by Texan evangelicals to hasten the second coming. As with the example of illegal immigration, this rhetoric all makes perfect sense — or would in a world where Jerry Falwell calls down fatwas on [NARAL] , the 700 Club sends suicide bombers into the Key West Fantasy Fest, and Richard John Neuhaus posts death warrants on [EWTN] whenever he wants the members of decapitated.

Omitted from Eberstadt’s Straw Jeremiad are inconvenient facts like the murders of physicians and staff and bombings at reproductive rights clinics by persons motivated by their belief in a particular militant vision of Christianity. Also omitted is how the relentlessly nasty and bigoted rhetoric from some Christian Right leaders demonizes millions of our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends, and family members. How do we measure the weight of that oppression? How do we tally the lost lives?

Some critics of theocratic, dominionist, and Christian Nationalist tendencies have drifted into hyperbole and demonization, and it is fair to raise criticisms of their claims and rhetoric. But this is not what is happening in these long essays by Douthat and Eberstadt. By erecting Straw Jeremiads they seek to conflate critics of the Christian Right into one undifferentiated mass—exactly what they falsely claim we are doing in our criticism of the Christian Right.

An author needs to be careful when putting that match to a Straw Jeremiads. It’s so easy to get burned.


Ross Douthat, “Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy,” First Things, August/September 2006, pp. 23-30,

Stanley Kurtz, “Dominionist Domination: The Left runs with a wild theory,” National Review, May 02, 2005,

Mary Eberstadt, "The Scapegoats Among Us: Blame Shifting After 9/11," Policy Review, 140, December 2006 & January 2007, pp. 25-46,

Jon Ward, “Liberals Gather to Plumb Depths of Christian Right,” Washington Times, May 3, 2005,

Books being reviewed by Douthat and Eberstadt

Randall Balmar, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament (Basic Books).

Damon Linker, Theocons: Secular America Under Seige (Doubleday).

Michelle Goldberg's recent Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton).

Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking).

Rabbi James Rudin, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plan for the Rest of Us (Thunder's Mouth Press).

Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? ( Yale University Press).

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

The dominionists have done far more than kill abortion providers, attack clinics, and so on.  They've also attacked people who have spoken out against them.  Three names comes to mind immediately: Leah Burton, Darla Kay Wynne, and David Mullin.  Then there are all of the death threats and so on.  I would add the things we have been put through because of the letters I've written (torched workshop, threats to elderly parents, racist graffiti, poisoned and 'vanished' pets).

Talk2Action has other documented situations, like the Jewish family run out of town and things like that.

I've mentioned the (mis)use of the law against Ellenbeth Wachs.

A list of people who had experienced attacks (like in the last decade) would be a powerful tool in exposing how bad the dominionists really are.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 11:50:02 AM EST

I am not entirely sure if hate crimes against members of the LGBT community are to be laid sole at the feet of dominionist, but hate crimes against those groups have been on the rise. I can't cite any reputable source on that, but if anyone can get me those I'd be rather grateful.

by Hirador on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:47:16 PM EST
I would quickly agree that at least in the last few years, if they hadn't been spewing their hate, the LGBT community might not have suffered near as much persecution as it has.

Considering something I read a long time ago - that the RC church used to have a ceremony blessing same-sex relationships, it is possible that if the churches hadn't started demonizing LGBT people throughout the last few centuries, they might not have ever been discriminated against.

I think it boils down to the idea that people have to force their religious ideology on others, rather than using it to just work on themselves (and let the Other take care of their own spirituality/life).

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:52:26 PM EST

I believe the past six years has brought us to a crisis point for the modern 'conservative' movement - their policies have been tested and are failing - and the curtain is being pulled back on a great deal of the spin-machine.  The demagoguery of Christian Nationalism is certainly a very large part of that.   It's very necessary to pillory the critics as alarmist, lest the flock start to question the whole operation and not just the past six years.  I do firmly believe that we'll see a backlash against the 'dominionists' - against their specific brand of intolerance - as people begin to see the fruits of their efforts.  

by montpellier on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 01:54:08 PM EST
They are certainly fighting back, and in a strange sense, that is a sign of our progress. I think the backlash against dominionism has been brewing for several years, and is now gaining strength.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 03:47:43 PM EST
The flimsiness of the arguments of those who pooh pooh what a number of us have been saying for a long time is remarkable.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 04:06:51 PM EST

I know may people who would like to put into law their personal beliefs, dominionism is fine by them, even if they do call it by that name.   I doubt most right-leaning Christians even know what dominionism is, but certainly see no problem locking people up for their "sins" as opposed to crimes.

When does a "sin" become a crime?  When they say it does.  When they vote that it does.  When they run for office, or use their offices to put into policy sanctions, fines, or penal codes that reflect the beliefs of their religion.

They do not separate beliefs from administrative duties.  It is the same and in the interests of their own philosophy.  

The enforcement of such laws is tedious, and creates a marginalized class of people.  The historical track record of such attempts is dismal, and reflects inner wars of competing religious interests.  There will be no dominionism, no matter how grandiose or romantic the notion may appeal to those in the Dominionist movement.  

Ultimately, I am optimistic. Between the lines there will always be competition between religions which will halt such endeavors.  The human spirit has been granted free will by the Creator, and that is something that cannot be squashed by any religion or authority.

by lilorphant on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 04:15:19 PM EST

The number one complaint from the rank and file of evangelicals and their supporters is summed by, "when do we get our rights?"

The average person feels helpless in the face of  big government.  During my lifetime I have witnessed the demoralizing of the electorate by the elected and equally or more so by the would be elected if they could, John Smidtz for example.  Even  Mr Clinton appealed to them with, "I feel your  pain" but certainly didn't satisfy their desires.

Their, the moral majority's first big break came via Regan who promised the world and delivered very little if any of the things they have in mind, ban on abortion, English only ballots, and so on.  The fallout from Regan's successes was to make the moral majority a voting block equal to or greater than labor and others not as well known, teachers, small business folk, medical professionals and the like.

The moral majority has enjoyed free reign that seem to be getting even freeer.  All early presidential candidates so far, 2008 have both noticed and made overtuers.  They're far from dead and will continue to warp the political process as it now stands.

by grunt on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 06:15:36 PM EST

It was an amusing exercise so long as McChurch remained in its ghetto.  The ghetto has, however, gone public, and conspiracy nuts of all stripes, believers or not, are welcome, provided they stand with the Christian ghetto on the wedge issues.

Once the merger between the Christian Right and the Republican Party became official out of expediency for both, an American Theocracy became a realizable goal.  The means of accomplishing that goal is to stir chaos in the Middle East, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Israel loses support among the liberal elite, and as anti-Semitism spreads throughout Europe, they find consolation with Evangelicals who cling to a wholly-future version of the Kingdom of God.  

This represents the ultimate perversion of the faith - erasing the wall between God and Caesar. McChurch gives ground, and Caesar wins because Caesar is blind to anything but power. It happened repeatedly to ancient Israel, and it is happening to the confessing Church.

Do not think for one minute that this phenomenon ebbs and flows with elections.  McChurch has found its voice, it has consolodated its membership, and it will continue to grow in influence in the current vacuum of political leadership.

There is nothing more appealing in a time of uncertainty than people who know exactly what to do, even when that something is insane.


by Stan Moody on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 10:25:05 PM EST

Thanks for taking on Douthat's strange little exercise, Chip. One of the many ironies of that article is that he claims Rushdoony has no influence, ignoring the two strong tributes paid to Rushdoony in recent years in "First Things" itself.

That said, the best defense against such political hackery is, of course, the truth. And some lively debate. Which is to say: "American Theocracy" is a pretty bad book. It does the left no good to leave unchallenged falsehoods on its side.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 06:29:27 PM EST

I agree with Jeff (and others here) that on both the Left and Right there is a lot of bad and uninformed writing about the Christian Right, dominionism, and theocracy.

Now, in 2011, there is a repeat of uninformed and overly simplistic writing that dismisses over a decade of our research on dominionism as a significant tendency in the Christian Right.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 09:03:23 AM EST

Richard Land sold Reconstructionist books on his web site.  The past head of the publishing house of the SBC admitted he was greatly influenced by R. J. Rushdoony.  One of the laymen who headed the takeover of the SBC was interviewed by Rushdoony's son in law, Gary North on North's radio program on how to take over a denomination.  Jery Falwell hired an active Reconsturction advocate as one of his faculty.  He still writes for what was Chalcedon Magazine.  The SBC national camp and Georgia Baptist state camp hosted homeschool conferences with leaders of the Reconstruction movement leading the conferences.
     The SBC published an article a decade ago denouncing Reconstruction and Rushdoony.  Unofficially the influence is still there. R. J. Rushdoony is noted as the father of the homeschool movement.  R. J. never wanted a headquarters, building or official national movement.  He wanted the ideas to be spread.  Those ideas are still circulating.  The ABC journalist I met at the Houston/Perry rally found the movement a bit  humorous....didn't appear to take it seriously.  It has historically been underestimated.  Projections for Houston (I am not calling it a Reconstruction rally) were to be about 6,000.   36,000 showed up.

by wilkyjr on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 10:39:38 AM EST
The Assemblies of God publicly renounced the NAR, but then purged non-NAR members from their ranks (per dogemperor).  This sounds like more of the same  - deny it publicly, but spread the practice as widely as possible within their ranks and force its acceptance and use.

With all of the recent exposure, others have said that they are expecting a major rebranding of the whole movement, in order to try to deflect attention and being stopped.  I totally agree.

(Some Assemblies have already started rebranding themselves, and they have a great many stealthed churches and front organizations... showing that deception and misdirection is part and parcel of their entire movement.)

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 12:45:17 PM EST

A**hat, oops, Douthat.  Heinlein's and Atwood's works are classified as "fiction", more specifically, "science fiction / speculative fiction".  Douthat's rhetorical strategy would get an F in any reasonably stringent writing or debate course in high school or college.

For what it is worth, Atwood lived in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s just before or during the time that she wrote The Handmaid's Tale.

Eberhardt portrays a battle between the godly and the godless, ignoring the fact that a significant proportion of the opposition to American fundamentalist Christian power-seeking comes from members of "mainstream"  Christian churches who wish to maintain religious neutrality in government.

by NancyP on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 10:56:49 AM EST

When we left the mainstream churches, at least the ones in this area were the biggest supporters of the dominionists.  They insisted that the churches who were dominionist were just "another denomination", and had bought into the "Christians are persecuted in the USA" lie.  I clearly remember hearing "Taking back America" many times.

(The night we walked out of the most moderate/liberal Episcopal church in town, one church leader advocated murdering gays, and another informed me that I couldn't claim to be Christian if I accepted evolution.)

As long as things like that are found in the Mainstream churches, it is unlikely that they will also support the separation of church and state.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 11:34:13 AM EST

The rank and file of "mainstream" denominations are as split as the leadership.

Granted, in some locations, the fundamentalists dominate within the congregations as well as the leadership. The Pensacola area has a long history of fringe activity by fundamentalists.

by NancyP on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 03:45:45 PM EST

I wonder how much the U.S. Military figures into this equation? MRFF continually assists service members who are alarmed enough to contact them.
Our myriad wars on the other side of the world are not supported by the bulk of the population... but they are supported by all manner of Christian Rightists. As has been pointed out, there is a marriage of convenience between the theocrats and the war profiteers/corporations. These two groups seem to be driving foreign policy, each for their own reasons.
As the economy continues to swirl down the drain and 'churches' step in to provide more basic neccesities, their influence will only grow. The worship of the troops and the military ensure  that vital funds are funneled into warmaking instead of going to domestic needs at home.
My concern is that as the military gets more and more power, money and religiosity they will have a larger role in domestic decisions. It is the one institution trusted by more Americans than any other.
If there ever is another 9/11 type of event, it might be used to cement the control of the military over the civilian sector of our country, and since there are theocrats at the upper levels of the military, this would be a 'golden moment' for them to impose the theocrats agenda, at the point of a gun.
Okay, I know, farfetched. But maybe not so much after all.

by COinMS on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 08:59:30 AM EST

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