How We Coined the Term "Dominionism"
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 05:00:47 PM EST
[Updated Sept. 1, 2011]

A recent note from Sara Diamond read “something circulating to the effect that Sara Diamond  invented the term 'dominion theology?' I've fended off a couple of  reporters re a quote in the New Yorker.” Sorry Sara, Fred Clarkson and I are partly to blame.

In the 1980s Sara Diamond researched how the small Christian Reconstructionist theological movement was significantly influencing the much larger and more diverse sociopolitical movements called the Christian Right. She did not, however, coin the term "Dominionism." When Diamond wrote about the influence of "Dominionist thinking" on the Christian Right she was referring to the ideas of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

It was Fred Clarkson and I who began urging the use of the term "Dominionism" to describe the broad group inside the Christian Right influenced by Christian Reconstructionism and other forms of "Dominion Theology." At the time we were trying to find a way to explain to a general audience the difference between the terms "Theocracy" and "Theonomy."
Let me explain in a chronological way.

In her 1989 book Spiritual Warfare, Sara Diamond  discussed how the Christian Right had been significantly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism and two of its major theologues: Gary North and the  late R.J. Rushdoony. The term “Dominion Theology” was already in use to describe Christian Reconstructionism.

Diamond, who would earn her PhD for her dissertation on  right-wing social movements in the United States, 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." (Spiritual Warfare, p. 138, italics in  the original).

Fred Clarkson, the late Margaret Quigley, and I read Diamond’s  1989 Spiritual Warfare, and began  talking about what we should call Christian Right socio-political movements  influenced in some way by Christian Reconstructionism. Margaret and I had used  “Theocracy” for the broader concept while Fred used “Theonomy,” to describe  Dominion Theology. We agreed it was too confusing.

Diamond  began writing  articles on the Christian Right for the Humanist and Z Magazine. 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."

In 1992 author Bruce Barron warned of a growing "dominionist  impulse" among evangelicals in his book Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion  Theology. Barron, with a Ph.D. in American religious history, is also an  advocate of Christian political participation, and has worked with conservative  Christian evangelicals and elected officials. Barron is smart, courteous, and  not someone you would debate without doing a whole boatload of homework.  Disrespect him at your own risk.

Barron was worried by the aggressive, intolerant, and  confrontational aspects of Dominion Theology; and was especially concerned that  these ideas had seeped into the broader Christian evangelical community.  Dominion Theology is not a version of Christianity with which Barron is  comfortable.

In his book, Barron looks at two theological currents:  Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now, and explains that "Many  observers have grouped them together under the more encompassing rubric of  'dominion theology.'" Christian Reconstructionism evolved out of the writings  of R.J. Rushdoony; while Kingdom Now theology emerged from the ministry of Earl  Paulk.

"While differing from Reconstructionism in many ways,  Kingdom Now shares the belief that Christians have a mandate to take dominion  over every area of life," explains Barron. And it is just this tendency  that has spread through evangelical Protestantism, resulting in the emergence  of "various brands of 'dominionist' thinkers in contemporary American  evangelicalism," according to Barron.

I later met Barron when lecturing in Pennsylvania (I think it was Pennsylvania)  and we had a cordial conversation in which we agreed it made sense to reserve the term Dominion  Theology for the most hard-core theocrats. We also agreed that not every  evangelical was in the Christian Right and not everyone in the Christian Right  was a Dominionist. But keep in mind that back then some people were using the term "Dominionist" as synonymous with "Dominion Theology.

In December 1992 Margaret & I wrote “Theocracy and White  Supremacy: Behind the Culture War to  Restore Traditional Values,” for the Public  Eye Magazine.

Fred Clarkson and I had numerous and lengthy conversations  on this subject between 1992-1995.  We  tossed around several terms and ways to accurately, fairly, and respectfully  describe the tendency we could see in action inside the Christian Right.

In his thoughtful 1993 study "A Reformed Approach to  Economics: Christian Reconstructionism," Edd S. Noell explains the nuts  and bolts of how the Christian Reconstructionists view economic theory through  the lens of Biblical law. Noell is an Associate Professor of Economics at  Westmont College, and has done his homework. According to Noell:

The teachings of Christian Reconstructionism have  been increasingly influential in recent years for evangelicals advocating  social policy in various mainline denominations and independent churches. They  have also induced a fairly strong and at times quite critical reaction both  within and outside the Reformed community; among the sobriquets given to  Reconstructionists are “ triumphalists ” and “the liberation theologians of the  right.” (Bulletin, Association of Christian Economists, Spring, 1993,  pp. 6-20)

In 1995 with Diamond’s permission I combined some of her  articles into a chapter in Eye’s Right!  Challenging the Right Wing Backlash. The title of the chapter was “The  Christian Right Seeks Dominion: On the Road to Political Power and Theocracy”

Diamond published Roads  to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and  Political Power in the United States in 1995. It was a masterpiece of  sociological social movement theory.

Somewhere between 1989 and 1995 some of us started to use  the term Dominionism, especially after Roads  to Dominion came out.  It seemed that  for the Christian Right the influence of Dominion Theology had paved the path  for their “road to dominion.”

William Martin is the author of the 1996 tome With God on  Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series of the same name (Martin and  I were both advisers to the PBS series of the same name). 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.” The late Christian Right  leaders Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy “endorsed Reconstructionist books"  for example, noted Martin. 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. Robertson’s 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 pointed out that Jay Grimstead, who led the  Coalition on Revival, “brought Reconstructionists together with more mainstream  evangelicals.” According to Martin, Grimstead explained “'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.”

Then Grimstead 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."

Fred Clarkson wrote Eternal  Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy in 1997. Fred  continued writing about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism, including  an article in the Public Eye magazine: "The Rise of Dominionism: Remaking America as a Christian Nation" in 2005.

I have credited Diamond with popularizing the concept that  there was a dynamic involving Dominion Theology and the broader Christian  Right.  So Diamond popularized the idea  that seeking “dominion” was an important social movement dynamic inside the  Christian Right. 

So arguably Fred Clarkson and I developed the term  “Dominionism” in a series of conversations that stretched over several years.  Fred and I began to use the term "Dominionism" in speeches and interviews to describe the broader tendency as distinct from "Dominion Theology." It is possible  that Barron used it in print before we did.   Fred might know, but this is my version of reality. I expect Fred has a  different version.   The Rashomon Effect.  If we didn’t create the term Dominionism, Fred and I certainly have been the primary progressive activists to urge other writers to use it. But the scholarly concept was originated by Sara Diamond, who makes no  claims on crafting the terms “Dominion Theology” or “Dominionism.” So please stop calling her and asking for an interview. She prefers her privacy.

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 troubling tendencies  in the Christian Right.

This was by best recollection after doing some document research
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 05:14:41 PM EST
Thanks for the good summary history, Chip. Brings back memories of a lot of head scratching about finding useful descriptive terms generally, and this one in particular.  Here are some additions to the story. I'll add more as recollections arrive.

For all of the hoo ha on the Right and among those who are worried that they don't like the sound of the word dominonism and what it might mean for their preferred political candidates, the actual story is pretty straightforward.

I will add that many evangelicals were wise to and critical of dominion theology and dominionism long before us progressive scholars and journalists began to notice.  Over time, I think we all learned from one another.  I learned a great deal from such books as Dominion Theology:  Blessing or Curse? by Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Multnomah Publishers, 1988 and Vengeance is Ours:  The Church in Dominion, Sword Publishers, 1990.  I was first exposed to Christian Reconstructionism by Rodney Clapp's February 20, 1987 feature article,  "Democracy as Heresy" in Christianity Today. Later, there were articles by among others, Rob Boston whose "Thy Kingdom Come," in Church & State, September 1988 was perhaps the first article in a non-evangelical journal about Christian Reconstructionism.  Although new to some contemporary writers, obviously these these subjects have been much reported and discussed for many years, and not just on the Left.  And then, there are the speeches, sermons, books and articles by influential dominionists themselves.  

Now regarding the terms terms dominionism and dominionist;  yes, we encouraged their use in ways we hoped would be fair and accurate ways of referring to this dynamic and multidimensional religious-political movement.  And indeed, these terms seem to have generated no controversy until many years later.  Reconstructionist and Latter Rain-influenced figures such as Pat Robertson were all talking about dominion, and what it meant in the area of government and politics. It is logical to describe as "dominionists" those who were (and are) serious about "taking dominion" not just in theory but in contemporary political practice, and implementing their particular notions of religiously based laws over a religiously plural society.  That some people use the term too expansively and derisively is no different than how terms for any other major category of religious or political thought are used and abused. The term "liberal" for example, can be too broadly as well as mis-applied, and with the right kind of sneer attached it can also become an epithet or even a term of demonization.  

Whatever we may think of a particular group or ideology, we have tried to use terms that fairly and accurately reveal meaning, rather than smear groups and individuals. We also have a long and public record of opposition to unfair labeling and demonization tactics.

While it is likely that I used the term in any number of settings before, as far as I can recall, my first published use of the term dominionism was in my 1994 essay in The Public Eye:  Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.  This essay was carefully sourced, but the magazine's practice at the time was to publish end notes separately and make them available on request.  I referenced the books by House and Ice, and Dager in that essay; as well as Rodney Clapp's article. I incorporated most if not all of my Public Eye piece into my 1997 book Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy adding material and broadening the analysis.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Sep 01, 2011 at 09:26:39 PM EST

I had forgotten most of this.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Sat Sep 03, 2011 at 10:05:39 AM EST
I was mistaken in saying that Rodney Clapp's 1987 article in CT was my first exposure to Christian Reconstructionism. It would be fair to say that it was the first time I saw a feature article that sought to explain CR and how it fit in the wider world of evangelical Christianity. And in that sense, it was very helpful.

When I worked at Interchange Research Center in the mid-80s, I recall reading several books by Gary North, notably Backward Christian Soldiers:  An Action Manual for Christian Reconstruction, which was published in 1984. I was slowly becoming aware of what CR was and how it fit in the bigger picture, but it was a long term learning experience, in part because the movement itself was and is so publicity shy.  

I also recall attending parts of the 1986 Coalition on Revival gathering in Washington, DC, and discussing the role of Christian Reconstructionism with Sara Diamond and others in attendance.

Finally, now that I have had a few moments to look back, Bill Moyers did a broadcast segment on his show in 1987, which featured interviews with Rushdoony  and another prominent and unapologetic CR, Joseph Morecraft. I quoted from that segment in Eternal Hostility.  

I will no doubt eventually recall more details of my own learning, and the development of the term dominionism. But as I mentioned above, it was in many ways an obvious term to describe a wide swath of people who take the idea of taking dominion seriously and who were and are taking urgent political action based on that idea.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Sep 04, 2011 at 04:37:32 PM EST

When I use the word Dominionism I make sure it is known that it covers a multitude of groups with many similar ideas and doctrines but they are not synopic in all things. And I recommend they read up on it here and several other places. It was after seeing the movie in 1990, then reading the book by Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" that got me to start researching and finding that the novel isn't far fetched at all.

by Nightgaunt on Thu Sep 01, 2011 at 11:04:13 PM EST
Sorry that was how you got into looking at this stuff.  Thanks for the comment, though.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Fri Sep 02, 2011 at 01:51:34 PM EST
Parent .html An excellent article on how theology is not just viewed, despite what author Anne Rice might say about it on's forums, as an irrelevant exercise in soggy abstracts by polemicists of all stripes. While church goers turn their noses up at it, the world outside their four walls is paying more attention to it than they can possibly imagine much less appreciate. Sobering news for the church and society in the last days ..

by rev rafael on Sat Sep 03, 2011 at 01:52:22 PM EST

I've been waiting 22 years (so far) for her next book.

by Pierce R Butler on Sat Sep 03, 2011 at 08:25:15 PM EST

Reading this post it is very clear about Dominionism! From this post it is easier to know the importance of Dominionism and I appreciate you for sharing this post which is very informative. I hope to see more from you. Keep updating more articles!

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