Sarah Palin is a "Dominionist" with an apocalyptic End Times theological viewpoint that sees the war in Iraq as part of God's plan. More on the End Times in the next post. Let's talk about Christian Right Dominionism and tendencies toward authoritarian theocratic governance.
With a number of bloggers calling Sarah Palin a "Dominionist," it is a good idea to clear up some obvious errors in the use of terminology.
Neither Sarah Palin nor her Protestant church affiliated with the Assemblies of God should be described as practicing a form of "Dominion Theology" or "Christian Reconstructionism." That is just plain wrong. It is fair to suggest that Palin displays the tendency called "Dominionism" in some of her public statements.
As one of the authors who popularized the term "Dominionism" (along with Sara Diamond, and Fred Clarkson), I feel some obligation to clear up this confusion, which stems from some very sloppy research posted on a number of websites where the terms "Dominionism," "Dominion Theology," and "Christian Reconstructionism" are used improperly and interchangeably.
"Christian Reconstructionism" is a form of "Dominion Theology" that influenced a tendency toward "Dominionism" in the Christian Right and certain evangelical churches such as The Assemblies of God. But, lumping of these theologies together is neither accurate, nor fair.
How did this confusion get started?
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 term "dominionism," using it 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:
• "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." (King James Version).
• "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'" (New International Version).
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." 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. 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:
"It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, 'Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.' "
According to Martin, "several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books."
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.
"Pat Robertson makes frequent use of 'dominion' language" says Martin, "his book, The Secret Kingdom, has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he 'would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,' as well as when he later wrote, 'There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.' "
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:
------------------------Dominion Theology or Theocracy
The specific meanings are different in important ways, although the terms have been used in a variety of conflicting ways in popular articles, especially on the Internet.
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.
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
Election cycle disclaimer: These are my personal essays written on my own time.
For additional reading, try: The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates and More on the Christian Right.