Whatever happened to "Blessed are the meek"?
A Christian Plot for Domination?
by Michelle Goldberg
Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry aren't just devout-both have deep ties to a
fringe fundamentalist movement known as Dominionism, which says Christians
should rule the world.
With Tim Pawlenty out of the presidential race, it is now fairly clear that
the GOP candidate will either be Mitt Romney or someone who makes George W. Bush
look like Tom Paine. Of the three most plausible candidates for the Republican
nomination, two are deeply associated with a theocratic strain of Christian
fundamentalism known as Dominionism. If you want to understand Michele Bachmann
and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn't optional.
Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule
all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America's most radical
theocrats, it's long had an influence on religious-right education and political
organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it
seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have
been called paranoid. In a contemptuous 2006 First Things review of several
books, including Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, and my own Kingdom Coming:
The Rise of Christian Nationalism, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote,
"the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era."
Now, however, we have the most theocratic Republican field in American
history, and suddenly, the concept of Dominionism is reaching mainstream
audiences. Writing about Bachmann in The New Yorker this month, Ryan Lizza spent
several paragraphs explaining how the premise fit into the Minnesota
congresswoman's intellectual and theological development. And a recent Texas
Observer cover story on Rick Perry examined his relationship with the New
Apostolic Reformation, a Dominionist variant of Pentecostalism that coalesced
about a decade ago. "[W]hat makes the New Apostolic Reformation movement so
potent is its growing fascination with infiltrating politics and government,"
wrote Forrest Wilder. Its members "believe Christians--certain Christians--are
destined to not just take 'dominion' over government, but stealthily climb to
the commanding heights of what they term the 'Seven Mountains' of society,
including the media and the arts and entertainment world."
In many ways, Dominionism is more a political phenomenon than a theological
one. It cuts across Christian denominations, from stern, austere sects to the
signs-and-wonders culture of modern megachurches. Think of it like political
Islamism, which shapes the activism of a number of antagonistic fundamentalist
movements, from Sunni Wahabis in the Arab world to Shiite fundamentalists in
Dominionism derives from a small fringe sect called Christian
Reconstructionism, founded by a Calvinist theologian named R. J. Rushdoony in
the 1960s. Christian Reconstructionism openly advocates replacing American law
with the strictures of the Old Testament, replete with the death penalty for
homosexuality, abortion, and even apostasy. The appeal of Christian
Reconstructionism is, obviously, limited, and mainstream Christian right figures
like Ralph Reed have denounced it.
But while Rushdoony was a totalitarian, he was a prolific and influential
one--he elaborated his theories in a number of books, including the massive,
three-volume Institutes of Biblical Law. And his ideas, along with those of his
followers, have had an incalculable impact on the milieu that spawned both
Bachmann and Perry.
Rushdoony pioneered the Christian homeschooling movement, as well as the
revisionist history, ubiquitous on the religious right, that paints the U.S. as
a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. He consistently defended
Southern slavery and contrasted it with the greater evils of socialism: "The law
here is humane and also unsentimental," he wrote. "It recognizes that some
people are by nature slaves and will always be so ... Socialism, on the
contrary, tries to give the slave all the advantages of his security together
with the benefits of freedom, and in the process, destroys both the free and the
Rushdoony's most influential idea was the concept of Dominionism, which
spread far beyond the Christian Reconstructionist fringe. "'Dominion
theologians,' as they are called, lay great emphasis on Genesis 1:26-7, where
God tells Adam to assume dominion over the animate and inanimate world," wrote
the scholar Garry Wills in his book Under God: Religion and American Politics,
describing the influence of the ideology on Pat Robertson. "When man fell, his
control over creation was forfeited; but the saved, who are restored by baptism,
can claim again the rights given Adam."
For believers in Dominionism, rule by non-Christians is a sort of
sacrilege--which explains, in part, the theological fury that has accompanied the
election of our last two Democratic presidents. "Christians have an obligation,
a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus
Christ--to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of
life and godliness," wrote George Grant, the former executive director of Coral
Ridge Ministries, which has since changed its name to Truth in Action
Ministries. "But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice ... It is
dominion we are after. Not just equal time ... World conquest."
Bachmann is close to Truth in Action Ministries; last year, she appeared in
one of its documentaries, Socialism: A Clear and Present Danger. In it, she
espoused the idea, common in Reconstructionist circles, that the government has
no right to collect taxes in excess of 10 percent, the amount that believers are
called to tithe to the church. On her state-senate-campaign website, she
recommended a book co-authored by Grant titled Call of Duty: The Sterling
Nobility of Robert E. Lee, which, as Lizza reported, depicted the civil war as a
battle between the devout Christian South and the Godless North, and lauded
slavery as a benevolent institution. "The unity and companionship that existed
between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common
faith," the book said.
One could go on and on listing the Dominionist influences on Bachmann's
thinking. She often cites Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of the anti-abortion
movement, who held seminars on Rushdoony's work and helped disseminate his ideas
to a larger evangelical audience. John Eidsmoe, an Oral Roberts University
professor who, she's said, "had a great influence on me," is a Christian
Reconstructionist. She often praises the Christian nationalist historian David
Barton, who is intimately associated with the Christian Reconstructionist
movement; an article about slavery on the website of his organization,
Wallbuilders, defends the institution's biblical basis, with extensive citations
of Rushdoony. ("God's laws concerning slavery provided parameters for treatment
of slaves, which were for the benefit of all involved," it says.)
In elaborating Bachmann's Dominionist history, though, it's important to
point out that she is not unique. Perry tends to be regarded as marginally more
reasonable than Bachmann, but he is as closely associated with Dominionism as
she is, though his links are to a different strain of the ideology.
For believers in Dominionism, rule by non-Christians is a sort of sacrilege.
The Christian Reconstructionists tend to be skeptical of Pentecostalism, with
its magic, prophesies, speaking in tongues, and wild ecstasies. Certainly, there
are overlaps between the traditions--Oral Roberts, where Bachmann studied with Eidsmoe, was a Pentecostal school. But it's only recently that one group of
Pentecostals, the New Apostolic Reformation, has created its own distinct
Dominionist movement. And members see Perry as their ticket to power.
"The New Apostles talk about taking dominion over American society in
pastoral terms," wrote Wilder in the Texas Observer. "They refer to the 'Seven
Mountains' of society: family, religion, arts and entertainment, media,
government, education, and business. These are the nerve centers of society that
God (or his people) must control." He quotes a sermon from Tom Schlueter, New
Apostolic pastor close to Perry. "We're going to infiltrate [the government],
not run from it. I know why God's doing what he's doing ... He's just simply
saying, 'Tom I've given you authority in a governmental authority, and I need
you to infiltrate the governmental mountain."
According to Wilder, members of the New Apostolic Reformation see Perry as
their vehicle to claim the "mountain" of government. Some have told Perry that
Texas is a "prophet state," destined, with his leadership, to bring America back
to God. The movement was deeply involved in The Response, the massive prayer
rally that Perry hosted in Houston earlier this month. "Eight members of The
Response 'leadership team' are affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation
movement," wrote Wilder. "The long list of The Response's official
endorses-posted on the event's website-reads like a Who's Who of the
apostolic-prophetic crowd, including movement founder C. Peter Wagner."
We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican
Party before. Those of us who wrote about the Christian fundamentalist influence
on the Bush administration were alarmed that one of his advisers, Marvin Olasky,
was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. It seemed unthinkable, at the
time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person
whose ideas were so inimical to democracy. Few of us imagined that someone who
actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns
out we weren't paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and
state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out
assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for
Beast. She is the author of the
New York Times bestseller
Kingdom Coming: The
Rise of Christian Nationalism and
The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the
Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award
and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in
Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation,
The Guardian, and
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