Rampant Denial About the Threat Posed By Christian Dominionists, Perry and Bachmann
Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction, at least as perceived by members of a culture removed from a particular truth. Today's strange truth is the fact of the Christian dominionist influence on the beliefs of right-wing evangelicals, and in particular, on the worldviews of Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas gov. Rick Perry, two top-tier contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
Dominionism, an academic term for a strain of evangelical Christianity that mandates believers to take over the institutions of society in order to implement God's law on earth, flows from the theology of Christian Reconstructionism, whose proponents see as their ultimate goal the reconstitution of biblical law as the law of the land. Although usually less literal than Reconstructionism in its interpretation of God's law, dominionism can vary from sect to sect in its severity. A common thread in the fabric of many right-wing evangelical sects, dominionism is nonetheless generally viewed as exotic by those mainstream media journalists who dare to describe it in their coverage, while progressive reporters see it a danger to the body politic.
Then there are the deniers, such as Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion editor, who stepped forward on the Web site of the Washington Post to reassure readers that all this talk of dominionism and the GOP is just a paranoid fantasy of the left.
A Victory for Progressives
Believe it or not, for progressive reporters, Miller's high-profile denial is something of a victory, for it means the work of investigative journalists for progressive publications is making its mark on the more mainstream outlets, as when the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza echoed Sarah Posner's reporting for Religion Dispatches in his profile of Bachmann, or when Michelle Goldberg built on the dogged research of Rachel Tabachnick (writing here for AlterNet) and others for her Daily Beast piece on dominionism's claim on both Perry and Bachmann.
"Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world," Miller wrote at the Post's "On Faith" site. Then she went on to say, parenthetically, "Some extremist Christians leveled a similar charge against Barack Obama in 2008, that he was the antichrist aiming to take over world governments."
To equate dominionism with "a firm belief in Jesus" does a disservice to all those Americans who firmly believe in Jesus, but who also firmly believe in the separation of church and state. To deny the pervasive influence of dominionism on the professed faith of many -- perhaps most -- on the religious right is to reveal a breathtaking ignorance of American evangelical theology as it has evolved over the past 40 years.
And to equate the fact, proven by diligent reporters and by the theological writings of right-wing religious leaders, of the impact of dominionist ideology on Republican politics with the malevolent, racist fantasy of Obama as anti-Christ should really be a firing offense at any publication whose credibility rests on the conveyance of factual information. But I expect that Miller will keep her job.
Not Just a River in Egypt
As I wrote last week, media people tend to deal with the religious right and its belief systems in one of two ways: either through the lens of exoticism (as if the reporter were an anthropologist visiting some strange and primitive culture), or through denial, because the truth is just too awful and jarring to the worldview of the well-educated, rational reporter. For journalists in the latter category, the America of the religious right is just not the America they know, nor is it the one they care to know.
I'll spare you a point-by-point takedown of Miller's insulting and ridiculous piece; Peter Montgomery has done an excellent job of that at Religion Dispatches, and Fred Clarkson further eludicates at the Daily Kos. The larger point is this: the religious right was born of a turn toward dominionism among a certain segment of the evangelical population in the 1960s.
Prior to the birth of the religious right, most evangelicals saw the world of secular politics as something to avoid. Dominionism was almost a necessary turn of theology if evangelicals were to be mobilized as a political force. Politics had to be anointed as a path to godliness, and a handful of influential religious leaders and theologians did just that. Rousas John Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism; Francis Schaeffer, an early crusader against abortion (whom Michele Bachmann often claims as an important influence); and Bill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ, all set the stage for the creation of the religious right as a political force in the 1970s.
This is Contemporary American Religion 101; it is also Contemporary American Politics 101. For the religion editor of a major American news magazine not to know this simply boggles the mind.
Dominionism is an idea embraced by worshipers from a range of denominations, faithful whose style of worship can vary widely. In recent years, the growth of Pentecostal sects has given dominionism a new character. Rick Perry's prayer rally cast light on the New Apostolic Reformation, which weds the Seven Mountains strain of dominionism attributed to Bill Bright with a mystical religious belief in the power of demons to possess people and even institutions. Lou Engle, who prayed with Michele Bachmann on a Family Research Council Webcast for the defeat of health-care reform, routinely describes LGBT people as being possessed by demons -- and he means that literally. Engle is part of the New Apostolic Reformation. He is not a paranoid fantasy. He is a real person, embraced by powerful political players.
Clearing the Brush
As the beliefs of Perry and Bachmann are brought into relief by progressive journalists (see Sarah Posner here), more reserved elements of the evangelical community are no doubt wincing in understandable fear of seeing their beliefs conflated with the likes of the New Apostolic Reformation. And so we have A. Larry Ross, the long-time spokesperson for the evangelist Billy Graham, piping up on the Daily Beast, with a complaint that progressive writers (and Michelle Goldberg, in particular) have got it all wrong when it comes to the religious right.
Though not a dominionist himself, Graham cut the brush for the path taken by dominionist preachers, according to Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley, writing at the Web site of Political Research Associates. But rather than concede that some of those who followed his long-time boss have perhaps taken a bridge too far in their theological meanderings, he blames liberals for perpetrating a myth, and Goldberg in particular, for "misappl[ying] a broad label that few, if any, evangelicals use or with which they identify."
While the second part of Ross' statement is true -- dominionism is an academic term, not the name of a denomination -- the first part is simply wrong. Perry did indeed launch a prayer rally organized by dominionists, and Michele Bachmann has spoken of the influence of both John Eidsmoe, a Christian Reconstructionist, and Francis Shaeffer, a dominionist, on her religious thinking. (Schaeffer's son, Frank, wrote of his father's beliefs and their influence on Bachmann for AlterNet.)
Ross has some legitimate complaints regarding the media treatment of evangelicals and the religious right (these are not monolithic communities, for example), but he misleads when he asserts that the Tea Party movement is something completely separate from the religious right. Just last week, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell confirmed what progressive journalists have been reporting for the last two years: that the overlap between the two movements is significant.
But instead of drawing a distinction between the political theology of preachers in the mold of Billy Graham, and that of dominionists like Francis Schaeffer, Ross offers up the old right-wing trope that the Constitution does not comprise what Thomas Jefferson famously called a "wall of separation" between church and state. The term, he says, "is never mentioned in the Constitution," and goes on to defend Rick Perry's "privately funded prayer rally [conducted] before he launched his presidential campaign."
Ross does not mention that Perry's prayer rally took place amid a frenzy of speculation, created by Perry's own political allies, that he would announce his candidacy within days -- which he did. Ross also fails to mention that Perry, according to the New York Times, promoted the rally on a government Web site and issued invitations on his official letterhead as governor of Texas. Perhaps those were just the godly actions of God's own servant in the executive office of one of the nation's largest states. But dominionist? Nah.