Sep 21, 2011

The two unexplained ideas central to 'dominionism'

In the great dominionist kerfuffle of last month, two important, inter-related explanations kind of got missed.

One, there wasn't a good, solid definition of "dominionism" that domininionists would recognize.

Two, there wasn't a good explanation of why an actual dominionist, who owns and claims the term, would be a dominionist.

There was actually a lot of good reporting, in the little flair up of interest. There was a lot of good stuff in the push-back, too, and in the commentary. In general, this is actually something like how I'd like public debates to go. But there was a big blank spot, a hole, which deserves to be looked at.

Michelle Goldberg, of The Daily Beast, did the standard thing in these articles, when she defined "dominionism." She defined it this way: "Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions." She also linked to the wikipedia page on dominionism. She then expanded on this, writing,
"For believers in Dominionism, rule by non-Christians is a sort of sacrilege—which explains, in part, the theological fury that has accompanied the election of our last two Democratic presidents."
Problem number one, here, is that the last two Democratic presidents are Christians. Barack Obama is a Christian. So is Bill Clinton.

Goldberg's right, of course, that there was a special fury in response to those Democrats' election, but it doesn't make any sense to explain that fury on the grounds of their not being a Christian, since they were (and are). The election of a Southern Baptist can't have made people angry because it was a violation of Christians' right to be in charge. Whatever the reason was, that wasn't really it. The reason for the fury might also usefully explain why some Christians don't think Obama or Clinton could possibly also be Christians, but explaining the anger by appeal to the anger-produced misinformation isn't helpful.

If you start with Goldberg's definition of "dominionism," you end up explaining the opposition to the last two Democratic presidents by repeating verbatim the kind of crazy things some people have said about the last two Democratic presidents. The bad definition creates problems.

That definition of "dominionism" seems to have come from Sara Diamond, originally. This is who Ryan Lizze quotes in his long-form piece on Michele Bachmann. Lizze writes:
"Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: 'Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.'"
This is a superior definition in at least one way. "Mandate" is actually something that people who actually identify with this reading of the Bible and this understanding of Christianity would recognize. "God-given right to rule" is not the way they would phrase it, and the subtle difference matters. "Mandate" means there's a responsibility. That's distinct from an entitlement.

The definition is still rather bare, though. It's supplemented only by a quote from Genesis, a little history about how the legalization of abortion radicalized evangelicals, and the note that Schaeffer "repeatedly reminds viewers of the 'inerrancy' of the Bible and the necessity of a Biblical world view."

This is true, as far as it goes, but it still isn't a definition that a dominionist would use, and doesn't contain the reasoning that would explain why. It's not clear, from this talk of mandates, or even the reference to Genesis dominion, why a dominionist would feel it necessary to be a dominionist, would feel that there was a "mandate" pushing Christians into politics.

Sarah Posner -- whose work is consistently great -- gives a similar definition: "The idea that Christians have a sacred duty to get involved in politics, the law and media, and otherwise bring their influence to bear in different public spheres is the animating principle behind the religious right."

Forrest Wilder, writing specifically about the New Apostolic Reformation's backing of Perry, gives a more detailed definition, and, helpfully, a dominionist's self-description of the theology:
"The New Apostles talk about taking dominion over American society in pastoral terms. They refer to the 'Seven Mountains' of society: family, religion, arts and entertainment, media, government, education, and business. These are the nerve centers of society that God (or his people) must control.

"Asked about the meaning of the Seven Mountains, [Apostle Tom] Schlueter says, 'God's kingdom just can't be expressed on Sunday morning for two hours. God’s kingdom has to be expressed in media and government and education. It’s not like our goal is to have a Bible on every child’s desk. That’s not the goal. The goal is to hopefully have everyone acknowledge that God’s in charge of us regardless.'"
 Here we get to clearer, more usable, definition, that helps to explain the mandate that those who hold to dominion theology feel themselves to be under.

The real key idea here is spheres.

This is a core, central tenant of those who own the idea of dominionism. Christian Reconstructionists and those who could probably be called post-Reconstructionists hold that there are four spheres. Sometimes they'll specify, and say four spheres of government: Church, state, family and individual. The New Apostolic Reformation people, the only other group besides Christian Reconstructionists that seems to explicitly hold the idea of dominionism and not just dabble in the language and some of the ideas, also talk about spheres, though their spheres are spheres of power or influence, and there are seven of them.

This seems simple enough, and the general reaction to this is OK, sure. Those who disagree, at this point, aren't likely to see anything particularly problematic with this dicing up of society into four or seven spheres, particularly because it seems like nothing is at stake in such divisions.

The second idea, which makes the core issue of sphere's matter, is that God's plan for redemption involves all these spheres.

This is a break from the way evangelicals are normally understood to think of salvation, redemption, God's work of grace in the world. Generally, evangelicals talk about individuals being converted. Hearts. Souls. Etc.

For dominionists, this ignores all the other spheres, over which God is also the rightful king. God doesn't just want to come into your heart, and doesn't just have a great plan for your life, as the proselytizing phrases go, God wants to come into government, the family, etc. God has wonderful plans for them, too, and wants in.

That is to say -- and this is the crucial, missing phrase, in all this reporting -- dominionists reject the idea that anything is religiously neutral.

No neutrality: this is the real issue. Prior to, behind and underneath “dominion” is the rejection of neutrality.

This is what's behind the talk of worldviews, for example. A movie isn't neutral, a law isn't neutral, a class syllabus isn't neutral. The idea of "worldviews" is that every cultural object is an expression of a worldview, part of a worldview, and can thus be judged as either a Christian worldview or not. This means each cultural object is either aiding the cosmic plan of redemption, or working against it.

Modern societies, of course, involve this idea that there are commonalities between peoples of different faiths and religions, so that while a Buddhist and an evangelical Christian, a Pentacostal and a Catholic or an atheist might differ on spiritual things, those differences aren't relevant to issues like voting rights, or math. This is why pluralism is possible. We can set aside religion, remove it from the public square except in the form of private motivations and so forth, and we can reason together, compromise, come up with plans for the common good. For those who reject such neutrality, the differences always matter.

For them, pluralism is polytheism.

For dominionists, governments are always theocracies. The question is just which theos.

This is what dominionism is. Before it's a mandate or a desire to dominate or anything like that, before it's a fury at a president who is a Christian but who people say they can't stand because he's not a Christian, dominionism is a rejection of secularity.

This isn’t an idea that evangelicals in general hold. There are parts of it, though, that are very attractive to many evangelical. The idea that religion can be just private and personal strikes many evangelicals as impossible, and as really wrong. That’s not what their religion is to them. How could it be that Jesus could change your life and yet leave parts untouched? Or that the God who created everything, is over all, who knows when even a sparrow falls and counts the number of hairs on your head, just doesn’t care when it comes to state legislation? Or that the Bible might not offer any guidance on really critical issues?

For them, Jesus matters, God matters, and the Bible matters. There's a Christian way to do everything, because Christianity is relevant to your whole life.

This is what's behind the rise of the talk about families, prominent in evangelical circles since the 1980s and absent earlier. It’s what gives rise to Christian education, Christian counseling, Christian movie reviews, etc., etc., etc.

It's the idea that's behind the mandate that animates the Christian right, too.

It's not quite that "rule by non-Christians is a sort of sacrilege," but, rather, that each sphere of life is understood to be either Christian or not, Biblical or not, in submission to God or in rebellion. What matters isn't the religious identity of the leader, exactly, but the way in which that leader leads. Clinton's administration was considered blasphemous by dominionists not because he wasn't a Christian, but because he didn't respect the separation of spheres in the way they're thought to be divided by God and/or the Bible, and, second, because he acted as though parts of society were irrelevant to God, and could be taken as religiously neutral.

Something like the State Children's Health Insurance Program is thought to be a violation of the seperation of spheres because it's government (which is one sphere), intervening into the jurisdiction of the family (which is another).

The program also makes no pretense of using "Biblical principles" or a "Christian worldview" to form or direct the program. Clinton believed the Bible was irrelevant to the details of getting health insurance for children, except possibly in the general sense of encouraging people to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. For dominionists, though, this supposed neutrality is actually an overthrow of God's order for things, putting government in the place of God, and basically an act of open rebellion against God.

This is why there were those who said it wasn't possible Clinton was a Christian.

This is why someone would say something like "the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God."

It sounds unhinged to broad swaths of the American public, and it does reject some very basic ideas of Western Civilizazion, such as the common and equal availability of reason and logic. But it falls out of these two ideas that are appealing to a lot of American evangelicals: society is divided up into spheres, and God is God over all of life.

The number of Christians -- even evangelical Christians, even conservative Christians part of the Religious Right -- who hold to these ideas with any sustained consistency is incredibly miniscule. This gets called “soft dominionism” sometimes. There’s some efforts to take the term and broaden it from those who whole-heartedly are dominionists, Christian Reconstructionists and the New Apostolic Reformation people, basically, so it applies to a lot of evangelicals who accept or embrace the ideas partially and situationally.

Even Francis Schaeffer, though, who did more than anyone to promote these ideas of dominionism and disseminate them through the evangelical world, backs away from them at certain key points. World Magazine, which is pretty dominionist, and promotes these ideas and exemplifies them maybe more than anyone today, also completely lets go of them at times.

A lot of those who hold that there's no religious neutrality also often sometimes conflate this idea with a very generic civic religion, content to take as a "Christian worldview" a whole lot of vague generalities. Other times, they're even totally OK with religious neutrality.

This is why not all the elected officials of the Christian right are like Georgia's own Bobby Franklin. Franklin is a dominionist in a way and to an extent that Michele Bachmann will never be.


These are the ideas that motivate a lot of conservative Christian activity. Whether it's full-fledged of no.

These ideas are persuasive for a lot of evangelicals. The idea of worldviews is like Kudzu, and this is the idea you have to understand if you're going to understand politically and socially active evangelicals in the early 21st century. It's not enough to say "they want to have dominion." An explanation is called for: an explanation of what "dominionism" means, and why it appeals to a lot of evangelicals, and how it seems to them to be a natural outworking of their faith.

It’s really worth being clear about the definition, and it’s helpful to have one that those who are happy to own the term would actually recognize. It’s important to explain it in a way that shows why someone might believe it, might find it appealing or attractive. Otherwise it’s scariness and insults.

Some observers see "dominionists" as basically doing what Constantine did, raising their religion above their battles and declaring, "IN HOC SIGNO VINCES." And there is some of that. Mostly, though, even those who really are dominionists aren't really driven by the idea of dominating. Dominating isn’t really the core of dominionism. What’s more central than Christians occupying or in-this-sign conquering, for dominionists, is the feeling their faith tells them society is broken up to spheres, and all of those are supposed to be run the way God wants them run, since there is one God, who is God over everything.