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The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy
by Chip Berlet
In a September 1994 plenary speech to the Christian Coalition national convention, Rev. D. James Kennedy said that "true Christian citizenship" involves an active engagement in society to "take dominion over all things as vice-regents of God." Kennedy's remarks were reported in February 1995 by sociologist and journalist Sara Diamond, who wrote that Kennedy had "echoed the Reconstructionist line."
More than anyone else, it was Sara Diamond who popularized the use of the term "dominionism" to describe a growing political tendency in the Christian Right. It is a useful term that has, unfortunately, been used in a variety of ways that are neither accurate nor useful. Diamond was careful to discuss how the small Christian Reconstructionist theological movement had helped introduce "dominionism" as a concept into the larger and more diverse social/political movements called the Christian Right.
Dominionism is therefore a tendency among Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that encourages them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but also seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.
This highly politicized concept of dominionism is based on the Bible's text in Genesis 1:26:
The vast majority of Christians read this text and conclude that God has appointed them stewards and caretakers of Earth. As Sara Diamond explains, however, some Christian read the text and believe, "that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns--and there is no consensus on when that might be." That, in a nutshell, is the idea of "dominionism."
Just because some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point does not mean we should abandon the term. And while it is true that few participants in the Christian Right Culture War want a theocracy as proposed by the Christian Reconstructionists, many of their battlefield Earth commanders are leading them in that direction. And a number of these leaders have been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism, which is a variant of theocracy called theonomy.
William Martin is the author of the 1996 tome With God on Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series. 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:
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.
Martin also points out that "Jay Grimstead, who leads the Coalition on Revival, which brings Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals, has said, '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.' He 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.'"
So 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 anti-democratic tendencies in the Christian Right.
“Dominionism” as a Term or Description
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.
A nested subset chart looks like this:
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.
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.
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.
Generic Dominionism and Specific Dominion Theologies
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.
The Christian Right
Putting the Christian Right in its proper place in the political spectrum as a component of the broader U.S. Political Right is an important step in developing an effective response. This also allows us to evaluate the threat posed by domininionist and theocratic tendencies in the Christian Right. Some people see this better when presented in outline of chart form, so this entry in the series is constructed along those lines.
The Christian Right is a series of social movements with participants that have been mobilized into political participation through the Republican Party as part of a larger set of coalitions that include social conservatives, moral traditionalists, neoconservatives, militarists, etc. The Republican Party and the Christian Right, however, represent just a portion of the entire spectrum of the U.S. Political Right, so we provide a full chart of these sectors below.
The Christian Right plays multiple roles in the political system: as a social movement made up of people with shared grievances; a political movement with a specific set of electoral and legislation goals on the federal and state level; and a coalition partner in conservative politics.
Christian Right: Multiple Roles in Political System:
The Christian Right itself is made up of different sectors that exist in a coalition that may seem monolithic, but which actually has fracture points where wedge issues can be developed as part of an effective counter-strategy.
Christian Right: Multiple Internal Sectors:
Within the Christian Right, it is primarily the Christian Nationalists and Christian Theocrats who pursue a type of dominionism that has theocratic aspects. The degree of dominionist authoritarianism varies by sector. Christian Reconstructionism is the major theopolitical ideology behind Hard Dominionism, but it is a subset of it. So there are nested subsets.
All Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats are also Soft Dominionist Christian Nationalists, but not all Soft Dominionist Christian Nationalists are Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats.
All Christian Reconstructionists are Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats and Christian Nationalists, but not all Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats are Christian Reconstructionists.
Degree of dominionist authoritarianism:
Dominionists of all varieties can also have a complicated mix of attributes. These include the theology and style of religious practice; and the view of biblical End Times prophecy.
Theology and style of religious practice:
View of biblical End Times prophecy:
The Christian Right is just one of several sectors that comprise the Political Right in the United States. The chart below shows where it fits, dividing the Christian Right into hard and soft dominionists. Christian Conservatives are the bridge between the Secular Right and the Dominionists and Theocrats, but it is a weak bridge. Christian Conservatives are listed in the Chart below as part of the Religious Right.
This all may seem overwhelming at first, but in a nation where many people have elaborate systems for tracking sports scores or soap opera plots, it is a reasonable expectation that people who want to successfully challenge dominionists and theocrats can walk up the learning curve and appreciate the view from the top.
Biblical Prophecy and the End Times
The day after Christmas, Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind Prophecy Club" sent out its daily e-mail message with a 2005 "Year in Review" summary The teaser stated: "Are we living in the End Times? Could events of today signify that the Rapture and Tribulation could occur during our generation? Five important Signs from 2005 say yes!"
In the text that follows, we learn that "events in Russia are exactly what we should expect to see if we are nearing the end times....the rule of the Antichrist may not be too far behind...[the] Bible prophesies that the city of Babylon will be rebuilt as headquarters for the antichrist. Babylon lies on the Euphrates River, just 50 miles south of Baghdad."
We also are told that "...continued tensions may make Israel ripe for a covenant with the Antichrist," and that the "ancient Sanhedrin, the official legal tribunal in Israel...issued an official call to rebuild the temple [of Solomon in Jerusalem], an act that God's Word predicts must occur before the return of the Messiah."
Meanwhile, natural disasters may be "a foreshadowing of the overwhelming chaos that is to transpire during the tribulation, prompting many to repent before it's too late."
That last piece of advice is what the Left Behind series is all about. It is future narrative devoted to encouraging current salvation through a particular premillennial reading of the Bible. It's not enough to be a Christian, you must embrace a narrow and specific version of Christianity. Otherwise, you are not just going to Hell, but you will be persecuted and maybe tortured and murdered as well.
That's the basic theme of the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The 13 volumes have sold some 70 million copies, regularly hitting best seller lists. As pop theology, the messages of the series and the Left Behind Prophecy Club are troubling, but as popular political ideology, they are dangerous.
As part of its sales pitch for a subscription service, we are told that "The Left Behind Prophecy Club has the news you need to know" about:
The way these current events are woven into a discussion of Biblical prophecy creates frames of reference that help move people toward specific political viewpoints, not just concerning U.S. policies in the Middle East, but also about domestic issues.
Central to this process is a particular way of reading the Bible's book of Revelation that establishes a timetable and sequence of events for the End Times and the Tribulations that are related to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
According to polling by Barna research, "nearly nine out of ten evangelicals who believe in the end times (88%) maintain that is it very likely that Jesus will return during the last days, and 77% of born agains who believe in the end times indicated the same."
Tim LaHaye has spent decades melding his conspiracy theory of history into the End Times beliefs of evangelicals. In his 1980 non-fiction book The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye added a conspiracist theme to the critique of secular humanism put forward by popular theologian Francis A. Schaeffer, a conservative Christian evangelical. LaHaye dedicated the book to Schaeffer.
In a chapter entitled "Is a Humanist Tribulation Necessary?" LaHaye writes that the "seven-year tribulation period will be a time that features the rule of the anti-Christ over the world." LaHaye explains that this "tribulation is predestined and will surely come to pass." LaHaye, however, describes another period of tribulations that he calls the "pre-tribulation tribulation."
LaHaye, explains that the "pre-tribulation tribulation is:
According to LaHaye, adultery, pornography, and homosexuality "are rampant" and this is evidence of the warning by Schaeffer's "that humanism always leads to chaos." In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins write about the spread of humanist moral relativism in the forms of the feminist movement, abortion, and homosexuality. The Left Behind series takes the conspiracist themes of LaHaye's non-fiction books and spreads them through a huge audience.
The apocalyptic frames and conspiracist narratives in the Left Behind series are a form of "fiction explicitly intended to teach," according to author Gershom Gorenberg, who warns:
The LaHaye conspiracy theory about secular humanism provides a powerful theological justification for Christians to establish "dominion" over sinful secular society.
Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. “North American Protestant Fundamentalism.” In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).
Armstrong, Karen.  2001. The Battle for God. New York: Ballantine Books.
Barron, Bruce. 1992. Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Boyer, Paul S. 1992. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press.
Diamond, Sara. 1989. Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right. Boston: South End Press.
Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.
Diamond, Sara. 1996. Facing the Wrath: Confronting the Right in Dangerous Times. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.
Diamond, Sara. 1998. Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right. New York: Guilford Press.
Diamond, Sara.“Dominion Theology,” Z Magazine, February 1995,
Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.
Additional resources on the Christian Right:
Dualistic apocalyptic millennialism
What to Do!
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