Lisa Miller’s column in the Washington Post about dominionism has gotten a lot of comment in secular circles. Let me add my voice to the mix. She writes:
Here we go again. The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about “crazy Christians.”
One piece connects Texas Gov. Rick Perry with a previously unknown Christian group called “The New Apostolic Reformation,” whose main objective is to “infiltrate government.” Another highlights whacko-sounding Christian influences on Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. A third cautions readers to be afraid, very afraid, of “dominionists.”
The stories raise real concerns about the world views of two prospective Republican nominees. But their echo-chamber effect reignites old anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians. Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world. (Some extremist Christians leveled a similar charge against Barack Obama in 2008, that he was the antichrist aiming to take over world governments.) …
This isn’t a defense of the religious beliefs of Bachmann or Perry, whatever they are. It’s a plea, given the acrimonious tone of our political discourse, for a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion. Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they’re Christian. One-third of Americans call themselves “evangelical.” When millions of voters get lumped together and associated with the fringe views of a few, divisions will grow. Here, then, are some clarifying points.
Evangelicals generally do not want to take over the world. “Dominionism” is the paranoid mot du jour. In its broadest sense, the term describes a Christian’s obligation to be active in the world, including in politics and government. More narrowly, some view it as Christian nationalism. You could argue that the 19th- and early 20th-century reformers – abolitionists, suffragists and temperance activists, for example – were dominionists, says Molly Worthen, who teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.
Extremist dominionists do exist, as theocrats who hope to transform our democracy into something that looks like ancient Israel, complete with stoning as punishment. But “it’s a pretty small world,” says Worthen, who studies these groups.
Is she right? Kind of. When she says that most evangelical Christians are not dominionists who want to take over the world, she is right. When she says that the term “dominionist” is being overused, she’s right; it has a specific meaning and it should be used narrowly, not broadly. But at the same time, she’s beating up a straw man. It just isn’t true that those who are criticizing some of those crazy Christians are referring to all evangelicals; rather, they’re talking about the particular type of evangelicals who were behind Perry’s prayer rally and with whom Michele Bachmann is closely associated.
Let me defend my first argument first. I think the term “dominionist” should be reserved for a relatively narrow subset of hardcore Christians, particularly Christian Reconstructionists and others who want to institute the full Mosaic law from the Old Testament as the civil and criminal law to govern society. And I don’t believe that the vast majority of evangelical or fundamentalist Christians (and those terms are not interchangeable) would favor such a thing. In fact, I think a very small percentage of them would.
I do think that the majority of evangelical or fundamentalist Christians want to see some aspects of Bible-based policies instituted in the United States. They generally favor restrictions on abortion, for example, and they often cite the Bible to support that position. And they often — thought not as often these days — support restrictions on gay rights, again citing the Bible for support.
But you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the average evangelical is going to support stoning gays, women who aren’t virgins on their wedding day or unruly children. I simply don’t believe that the average evangelical would support requiring rapists to pay their victims’ fathers and marry her or require the brothers of a deceased husband to impregnate his widow. I don’t even think the average evangelical would support outlawing blasphemy or heresy, both of which would be illegal under a real Christian theocracy. That doesn’t mean those limited policies advocated by the average evangelical aren’t plenty dangerous and liberty-destroying in and of themselves; they certainly are. But I don’t think they would turn the US into a theocracy as the really hardcore dominionists want to do.
Perhaps we should describe them with old political labels: authoritarian and totalitarian. The average evangelical is certainly authoritarian, but they wouldn’t be on board for the totalitarian society favored by reconstructionists and real dominionists. And I think we should be clear on the distinction.
Having said that, I think Miller is doing exactly what she accuses others of doing — not making clear distinctions. The dominant discussion about dominionists lately has revolved not around evangelicals as a whole but around the Christian leaders that Perry and Bachmann have associated themselves with — and if those people don’t qualify as “crazy Christians,” no one would.
If you think Oprah is paving the way for the anti-christ, as one of the principals behind the Perry prayer rally does, you’re crazy. If you think the Japanese stock market went down because the emperor had sex with a demon, you’re crazy. If you think RJ Rushdoony’s vision of a Christian society is a good idea, as Bachmann’s primary mentor John Eidsmoe does, you’re both crazy and dangerous.
If you think prayer is a rational public policy to solve natural disasters and economic problems, as Rick Perry has said many times, you are unfit for any office and the proper response to you should be limited to pointing and laughter. If you believe that public education leads to Nazism, as Bachmann has argued in the past, you’ve left this planet and landed on Wingnuttia. I don’t care what you label those people, they’re stark raving nuts. And extraordinarily dangerous.