Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy - Part Three

In the Christian Right, more leaders than followers have consciously embraced dominionist ideas. The tendency toward a "dominionist impulse," however, has continued to become more widespread since the 1970s, making a discussion of theocracy not only legitimate, but necessary. Conscious or unconscious--dominionism is a real threat to democracy.

Author Bruce Barron warned of a growing "dominionist impulse" among evangelicals in his 1992 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.

I have discussed the Christian Right with Sara Diamond, William Martin, and Bruce Barron. The first three essays in this series are based on their work, reflecting a broad range of political and spiritual viewpoints. Along with my colleague Frederick Clarkson, it is authors Diamond, Barron, and Martin who built a firm foundation for the use of the terms dominionism and dominion theology.

Barron is worried by the aggressive, intolerant, and confrontational aspects of dominion theology; and is especially concerned that these ideas have 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.

The distinction is crucial. Dominion theology (Christian Reconstructionism, Kingdom Now, and a handful of smaller theologies), has generated a variety of versions or "brands" of "dominionism" adopted by a number of leaders in the Christian Right who would not describe themselves as "dominionist;" and most certainly would reject the theological tenets promulgated by a "dominion theology" such as Christian Reconstructionism.

Beginning in the 1960s, and gathering force in the 1970s, the "dominionist impulse" rode along a wave of discontent among evangelicals and fundamentalists. They were upset with secular society, especially federal court decisions and government legislation and regulations they felt intruded too far into the personal--and religious--life. Their concern over social, cultural, and political issues involving pornography, school prayer, abortion, and homosexuality prompted participation in national elections since the 1970s.

This social movement of conservative Christian evangelicals was mobilized by the Christian Right, who joined with ultraconservative political operatives to take over the Republican Party. In this coalition, there are a wide variety of theological tendencies and disputes that are temporarily set aside in favor of organizing to achieve a specific political agenda. This coalition also sets aside disputes over how the End Times of biblical prophecy play out. This means that the primarily "postmillennialist" Christian Reconstructionists work on projects with the primarily "premillennialist" evangelical constituency of the Christian Right.

Open advocates of dominionism declare that "America is a Christian Nation," and that therefore Christians have a God-given mandate to re-assert Christian control over political, social, and cultural institutions. Yet many dominionists stop short of staking out a position that could be called theocratic. This is the "soft" version of dominionism.

The "hard" version of dominionism is explicitly theocratic or "theonomic," as the Christian Reconstructionists prefer to be called. For America, it is a distinction without a difference.

According to Barron, "Unlike the Christian Right, Reconstructionism is not simply or primarily a political movement; it is first and foremost an educational movement fearlessly proclaiming an ideology of total world transformation." Barron also "observed a discomforting triumphalism within dominion theology, especially its takeover rhetoric." In this usage, "triumphalism" simply means when it comes to religions belief, it's my way or the highway. One God, one religion, one folk, one nation--a Christian Nation--love it or leave it.

Barron notes that Christian Reconstructionism has "intellectual substance, internal coherence, and heavy dependence on Scripture," and this has helped "Reconstructionist philosophy win a hearing in many sectors of the Christian Right." For example, Barron found the "idea of Christian dominion, though with less emphasis on biblical law, has been echoed within the Charismatic movement, that segment of American Christianity identified by its free-spirited, demonstrative worship and its practice of spiritual gifts such as tongue speaking and prophecy."

One well-known Charismatic preacher is Pat Robertson, who reaches millions of viewers weekly through his "700 Club" television program. "Robertson's explicit emphasis on the need to restore Christians to leadership roles in American society mirrors what" Barron called, "a dominionist impulse in contemporary evangelicalism."

Who is a dominionist?

Barron argued that "in the context of American evangelical efforts to penetrate and transform public life, the distinguishing mark of a dominionist is a commitment to defining and carrying out an approach to building society that is self-consciously defined as exclusively Christian, and dependent specifically on the work of Christians, rather than based on a broader consensus."

Around World War II it was the sentiment of many evangelical Protestants in the United States that they needed to find a way to co-exist with an increasingly pluralistic society, and thus they began to self-identify as "evangelicals" to distinguish themselves from the more doctrinaire and intolerant wing of "fundamentalism."

Barron believes that the "all-encompassing agenda" of the dominionists "puts them at odds with those more moderate evangelicals who work for social change yet still affirm the pluralistic nature of a society in which all ideas--be they Christian or anti-Christian, derived from or opposed to biblical law--have an equal right to be heard and to compete for public acceptance."

So evangelicals can work for conservative social change without being "dominionist," and some can be our allies in building broad opposition to dominionism as an impulse in the Christian Right. This is aided in part by an intractable contradiction among practitioners of hard forms of dominion theology.

As Sara Diamond explains, ultimately, "Dominionist thinking precludes coalitions between believers and unbelievers...." This creates an irresolvable contradictory tension. "The Christian Right wants to take dominion," notes Diamond, but it also wants to work within "the existing political-economic system, at the same time." The broader the Christian Right stretches as an electoral coalition, the more obvious it becomes that some of its key leaders want a theocracy rather than a democracy. Hard-line dominionists want to overthrow the existing political-economic system and replace it with a theocracy. That's a real hard sell to most of our neighbors.

In the United States today, there is a struggle between democracy and theocracy--as Fred Clarkson so aptly puts it in the title of his book. This is obvious to many of us, perhaps, but it is largely being ignored by the mainstream media and most Christian evangelicals. This is a wedge issue that can only be effective if we learn how to distinguish among the many different theological, political, organizational, and other aspects of Christian belief and political participation. Using terms such as "dominionism" and "theocracy" in a cautious and careful way allows us to broaden the conversation, and broaden the coalition that seeks to defend the dream of democracy against the nightmare of theocracy.

Ported from Talk to Action
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