How extremist Christian theology is driving the right-wing assault on democracy
Progressive policies and positions are supposed to be rooted in reality and hard evidence. But that's not always the case when it comes to the culture wars that have such an enormous impact on our politics — especially not since the unexpected evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016, culminating in the "pro-life" death cult of anti-vaccine, COVID-denying religious leaders. If this development perplexed many on the left, it was less surprising to a small group of researchers who have been studying the hardcore anti-democratic theology known as dominionism that lies behind the contemporary Christian right, and its far-reaching influence over the last several decades.
One leading figure within that small group, Rachel Tabachnick, was featured in a recent webinar hosted by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (archived on YouTube here), as part of its Religion and Repro Learning Series program, overseen by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson. Tabachnick's writing on dominionism can be found at Talk2Action and Political Research Associates, and she's been interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
Her presentation sheds important light on at least three things: First of all, the vigilante element of the Texas anti-abortion law SB 8. Second, the larger pattern of disrupting or undermining governance, including the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, the installation of overtly partisan election officials and the red-state revolt against national COVID public health policies. While Donald Trump has exploited that pattern ruthlessly, he did not create it. And third, the seemingly baffling fact that an anti-democratic minority feels entitled to accuse its opponents — including democratically elected officials — of "tyranny."
Some dominionist ideas — such as the biblical penalty of death by stoning — are so extreme they can easily be dismissed as fringe, others have been foundational to the modern religious right, and still more have become increasingly influential in recent years. Those latter two categories are what we need to understand most, say both Tabachnick and Jackson.
"One of the things that struck me, as a relative newcomer," said Jackson, a former Congregationalist minister, "was that there was not sufficient understanding about the theological frames used by many individuals who are opposed to abortion." She continued, "I'm a strategist in a lot of ways, and one important strategy, I believe, must be to understand what the teachings and the theological frames are" on the other side. Which links directly to the question of what progressive activists need to do differently in this changed environment.
This failure to understand the nature of dominionism has hampered activists, not just in the realm of reproductive justice, but across an entire spectrum of political issues, both cultural and economic. Jackson discussed her own background, raised within a conservative Christian worldview.
"I was taught a very individualistic approach," she said, "taught that we shouldn't pay taxes, because doing so enabled people who were not working, and enables people whose lifestyle we don't agree with." There's nothing new about such views, but dominionism provides believers with an even stronger foundation for them.
Jackson describes her current understanding of religious faith as highly intersectional: "We believe that to understand the attacks on abortion also invites us — or even requires us — to look at attacks on voting, to look at attacks on immigrants, attacks on prison reform, attacks on equal pay and on and on," she said. "It's all of the same cloth: They are all attacks on humans flourishing. That's my language. The God of my understanding wants all of us to flourish in who we are."
The language of dominionism is strikingly different, to put it mildly. In her webinar, Tabachnick played a clip of one of the movement's leading figures, C. Peter Wagner, providing a definition:
Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing. And it relates to society — in other words what is talked about, what the values are in heaven [that] need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation chapter 1:6 that "he has made us kings and priests," and check the rest of that verse, it says "for dominion." So we are kings for dominion.
Later she provided a definition from Frederick Clarkson, author of the 1997 book, "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy":
Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.
Wagner, who died in 2016, is known as the founding father of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), one of the two main branches of dominionism, which grew out of the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions within evangelical Christianity. Dominionists in the other branch, known as "Christian reconstructionism," come out of conservative Calvinism, with a focus on bringing government and society under biblical law. They tend to be more circumspect, often obfuscating their true intentions and avoiding the word "theocracy" in favor of "theonomy," for example. But not Wagner, as can be seen in the title of his 2011 book, "Dominion!: Your Role in Bringing Heaven to Earth." The NAR talks constantly about taking dominion over the "seven mountains" of society: education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media.
But it's the other branch, the Christian reconstructionists, who have excelled at strategic organizing and providing blueprints across different right-wing constituencies for almost 50 years. They are the ones Tabachnick focused most of her presentation on, specifically two key figures: Rousas John Rushdoony, the movement's master theologian, and his son-in-law Gary North, a prolific strategist, propagandist and networker who was once a staffer for Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian hero.
Christian reconstructionism, Tabachnick explained, is "about bringing government in all areas of life under biblical law, a continuation of the Mosaic law in the Old Testament, with some exceptions." This dispensation would include, "according to Gary North, public execution of women who have abortions and those who advise them to have an abortion."
In a recent private presentation, Frederick Clarkson asked a rhetorical question: "People have long said that there should be Christian government, but if you had one, what would it look like? What would it do? Rushdoony was the first to create a systematic theology of what Christian governance should be like, based on the Ten Commandments, and all of the judicial applications he could find in the Old Testament — including about 35 capital offenses."
But the "Handmaid's Tale"-style extremism of dominionists' ultimate vision shouldn't really be our focus, Tabachnick told Salon. "Nobody cares about the theocratic, draconian future envisioned by reconstructionists because they don't believe it will happen," she said.
What's happening right now, however, is that this ideology has had tremendous impact on more immediate politics. "Christian reconstructionism is the merger of a distinct brand of Calvinism with Austrian School economics," Tabachnick said. "In other words, it's an interpretation of the Bible grounded in property rights." The results have been far-reaching:
For more than 40 years, its prolific writers have provided the foundations and strategic blueprints for the attacks on liberation theology and the social gospel, as well as many other streams of Christianity which do not share the Reconstructionists' belief in unfettered capitalism as ordained by God and its fierce anti-statism.
The larger religious right's attack on public education, the social safety net and most government functions are largely grounded in the writings, strategies and tactics formulated by reconstructionist writers. Reconstructionism is not the only (and certainly not the first) source of interposition and nullification in this country. However, much of what is currently being taught today about using interposition to undermine the legitimacy of government is sourced in reconstructionism.
This idea of "interposition" comes through what's known as the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," which we'll return to below. But its significance — especially in the post-2020 Republican Party — has only recently become apparent. Reconstructionism's initial appeal was more immediately, as Tabachnick explained in the seminar:
What Rushdoony provided is a package that included attacking what these fundamentalists hated and feared most in society, often expressed in terms of "This is communist. This is socialist." But Rushdoony provided a way to sacralize these ideas, and at the same time not just tear down the old order, but provide a blueprint for the new order.
Everyone didn't have to agree on the blueprint, she said: "Rushdoony's ideas went out in bits and pieces. The Christian right leaders took what they wanted and discarded what they didn't."
"Christian reconstructionism, as articulated by Rushdoony, provided a standard by which everyone else had to measure themselves," Clarkson told Salon. "Not everyone on the Christian right agreed with Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionist thinkers on, for example, the contemporary application of capital crimes listed in the Old Testament. And followers were often at pains to distinguish themselves."
Clarkson cites the case of conservative Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, who disagreed with Rushdoony on the applicability of biblical law, but became a driving force behind the anti-abortion activist movement Operation Rescue. That "militant Schaefferism," Clarkson said, "led activists to think: What's next, beyond political protest and stopping abortion? This is where the conversation has been in the Christian right for decades."
The doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," mentioned above, first emerged into public discourse out of Operation Rescue. But it did so as part of a larger, more complicated story.
There's a long history of right-wing opposition to federal authority, particularly grounded in the 19th-century defense of slavery and continuing in the defense of Jim Crow segregation. In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically of the governor of Alabama "having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."
As detailed by Randall Balmer in "Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right," the religious right wasn't initially fueled by opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, but by opposition to a lesser-known decision in 1971, Green v. Connally, which threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions, most famously the evangelical stronghold Bob Jones University.
Anti-abortion activists have long sought not just to bury that past but to stand it on its head, somehow equating Roe v. Wade with the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857 and claiming the moral heritage of abolitionism.
"Throughout these movements there is also an attempt to turn the tables on the claims of racism," Tabachnick said in her webinar. "This is one of the roles that anti-abortion activism as abolition plays. Also, there's a promotion of narratives that provide a different history and legal justifications for interposition, nullification and even secession. One of the things that Christian reconstructionism has added to this dialogue is the concept of the lower magistrate."
As Tabachnick explains it, the "lesser magistrate" is a heroic figure who "resists the tyranny of a higher authority" — defining "tyranny" in biblical terms, potentially including any number of popular or common-sense laws or policies. This notion first gained salience in the anti-abortion context in the 1980s and '90s, as Tabachnick went on to explain.
"Many violent anti-abortionists have justified their actions in reconstructionist teachings," she said. "One of these was Paul Hill, who studied under one of the major reconstructionist leaders and corresponded with others." Hill went on to murder Dr. John Britton, a physician who performed abortions, as well as Britton's personal bodyguard, in 1994. Hill was executed in 2003, but the reconstructionist movement sought to cast him out well before that.
"Gary North responded, after the murders had taken place, in a book called 'Lone Gunners for Jesus,'" Tabachnick said. His message to Hill was, "You're going to burn in hell, you've been excommunicated. This was because Paul Hill stepped outside the bounds of the guidelines set by the movement."
To explain this, she quoted a passage from another book by North that offered qualified support for Operation Rescue: "We need a statement that under no circumstances will Operation Rescue or any of its official representatives call for armed resistance to civil authority without public support from a lesser magistrate."
"On the basis of their belief of what the law or the word of God is, they are allowed — on the advice, on the interposition, of a lesser magistrate — to commit acts of violence," Tabachnick continued. North was seeking to control or curb anti-abortion terrorism, but without rejecting it in principle. Murdering abortion providers — or even murdering women seeking abortions — could be morally justified, with the blessing of a lesser magistrate.
This is relevant to SB 8 in Texas in at least two ways. That bill bans abortions after six weeks and is enforced not by state officials, but by deputizing private individuals to sue anyone who performs the procedure or "aids and abets" it. First of all, giving private individuals these vigilante-style rights seems a lot like making them into "lesser magistrates," however narrowly constrained.
Second, the Supreme Court's refusal to stay the law — which clearly violates the Constitution and existing precedent, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissent — can be seen as an example of the doctrine in action. In more normal circumstances, the court would have stayed the law pending consideration on the merits, even if a majority of justices intended to overturn precedent. That's how common law has worked for centuries.
But biblical law isn't common law, especially as reconstructionists understand it. Under the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," Roe is not precedent but an instance of tyranny — and the justices have a duty to God to resist it. Of course, not even Amy Coney Barrett or Clarence Thomas has said anything like that, but it's entirely consistent with their behavior — as well as with their silence, since openly making such an argument would clarify just how radicalized they have become. But adherents of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate must surely appreciate the drift in direction.
Nor is the doctrine limited to abortion cases, as already noted. Matthew Trewhella is a pastor who was a prominent leader of violence-prone wing of the anti-abortion movement in 1990s, and author of the 2013 book, "The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates," which greatly heightened its visibility.
"Trewhella is now all over radio and the internet," Tabachnick said in her webinar, "claiming to meet with state legislators and attorney generals at the moment, with the cause of fighting the 'tyranny of mask mandates' and vaccination for COVID. So you can see how this is a concept that is not just limited to abortion. It is a concept that can be used in resistance of government authority all over the country in all different kinds of ways — FEMA, EPA, Bureau of Land Management and so forth."
Trewhella isn't breaking new ground here. Clarkson's 1997 book "Eternal Hostility" describes him making similar arguments in a speech to an anti-tax group in Wisconsin. He was just one figure among many spreading the seeds of reconstructionist resistance to federal authority among militia members, "freemen" and anti-abortion activists at the time.
"This movement believes that rights come from God and not from any government," Tabachnick told Salon. "Therefore, any 'rights' that conflict with their interpretation of God's law are not actually rights. They are 'humanist' or a product of man's laws and not God's laws. This theme of 'human rights' versus inalienable rights from God has been at the center of the Christian Reconstructionist movement since its beginnings."
She pointed to "What's Wrong With Human Rights," an excerpt from a book of the same name by the Rev. T. Robert Ingram published in "The Theology of Christian Resistance," a collection edited by North. Ingram sweeps aside the Bill of Rights as "a statement of sovereign powers of states withheld from the federal authority of the Union," and turns instead to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776.
The first section of the Virginia Declaration, beginning "That all Men are by Nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent Rights," is dismissed by Ingram for omitting any mention of God, as an "error of unbelief which falsifies all the rest that is said about human life." The second, beginning "That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all Times amenable to them," he dismisses as well: "The meaning could not be more clear, nor more opposite Biblical thought. The ruling proposition of Scripture and Christian doctrine is that 'power belongeth unto God.'" In short, there are no human rights.
The connection to the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is clear: Power comes from God, not the people. Whatever the people want is irrelevant. Whatever laws they may pass are irrelevant, too, if they go against God. "Tyranny" is whatever the Christian reconstructionist decides he doesn't like.
Elsewhere, Ingram denigrates freedom of speech and the press:
Freedom of speech and freedom of press are, in fact, applied seriously only to giving government protection to instigators of riot and rebellion, as well as those who would undermine human order by more subtle attacks on morals and customs.
As for the right to dissent, he calls it "not a lawful claim to own or to do something, which is the true right," but "a turning upside down of right and wrong, calling good evil and evil good." Similarly, there is no scriptural right to "resist authority," only that granted by the false doctrine of "human rights."
Ingram's interpretation of the Civil War is that "Yankee radicals inflamed the Northern peoples to mount the Civil War in the name of a 'human right' to be free ... if they did not destroy the whole Southern Order, they did at least dismantle its vast and efficient plantation economy." The civil rights movement, unsurprisingly, is understood as a defiance of "Tradition, law, and custom, which preserved public peace and order in the bi-racial state of the union, both North and South," and became "the target of the right to resist in the 60's, the supposed human rights justifying the violent means."
Tabachnick didn't dig into this text in her webinar, but it serves to illustrate her central principle: "This attack on the very concept of 'human rights' can be found throughout today's religious right."
Jackson told Salon that the most important part of Tabachnick's presentation came "when she talked about humanism and the humanistic frame, from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those who are within the dominionist camp see that as contrary to God. I read those same documents and I say, this is pointing us toward the direction that God wants for us. They look at it and see that as counter to God, because humanism from their perspective is something very contrary to God."
If we take such arguments seriously, then we understand why for dominionists there is nothing wrong with breaking any law at all, so long as "God wills it" and you have the blessing of a so-called lesser magistrate. This is the reconstructionist argument supporting a whole range of chaotic right-wing activity today, including baseless claims that the 2020 election was a fraud. After all, the fundamental reconstructionist argument is that all such democratic government is illegitimate.
"The goal of reconstructionism is to tear down the existing order and reconstruct a new society based on biblical law," Tabachnick said. "Even if we assume that this vision of a theocratic America will never come to fruition, it's important to recognize the movement's impact on the ideas, strategies and tactics of the larger religious right and its role in sacralizing the actions of other anti-statist fellow travelers.
"As I wrote almost a decade ago, the theocratic libertarianism of Christian reconstructionism has been surprisingly seductive to Tea Partiers and young libertarians — many of whom may not realize what is supposed to happen after the government is stripped of its regulatory powers."
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