With Tim Pawlenty out of the presidential race, it is now fairly clear that the GOP candidate will either be Mitt Romney or someone who makes George W. Bush look like Tom Paine. Of the three most plausible candidates for the Republican nomination, two are deeply associated with a theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism. If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn’t optional.
Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid. In a contemptuous 2006 First Things review of several books, including Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and my own Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era.”
Now, however, we have the most theocratic Republican field in American history, and suddenly, the concept of Dominionism is reaching mainstream audiences. Writing about Bachmann in The New Yorker this month, Ryan Lizza spent several paragraphs explaining how the premise fit into the Minnesota congresswoman’s intellectual and theological development. And a recent Texas Observer cover story on Rick Perry examined his relationship with the New Apostolic Reformation, a Dominionist variant of Pentecostalism that coalesced about a decade ago. “[W]hat makes the New Apostolic Reformation movement so potent is its growing fascination with infiltrating politics and government,” wrote Forrest Wilder. Its members “believe Christians—certain Christians—are destined to not just take ‘dominion’ over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the ‘Seven Mountains’ of society, including the media and the arts and entertainment world.”
In many ways, Dominionism is more a political phenomenon than a theological one. It cuts across Christian denominations, from stern, austere sects to the signs-and-wonders culture of modern megachurches. Think of it like political Islamism, which shapes the activism of a number of antagonistic fundamentalist movements, from Sunni Wahabis in the Arab world to Shiite fundamentalists in Iran.
Dominionism derives from a small fringe sect called Christian Reconstructionism, founded by a Calvinist theologian named R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s. Christian Reconstructionism openly advocates replacing American law with the strictures of the Old Testament, replete with the death penalty for homosexuality, abortion, and even apostasy. The appeal of Christian Reconstructionism is, obviously, limited, and mainstream Christian right figures like Ralph Reed have denounced it.
But while Rushdoony was a totalitarian, he was a prolific and influential one—he elaborated his theories in a number of books, including the massive, three-volume Institutes of Biblical Law. And his ideas, along with those of his followers, have had an incalculable impact on the milieu that spawned both Bachmann and Perry.
Rushdoony pioneered the Christian homeschooling movement, as well as the revisionist history, ubiquitous on the religious right, that paints the U.S. as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. He consistently defended Southern slavery and contrasted it with the greater evils of socialism: “The law here is humane and also unsentimental,” he wrote. “It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so ... Socialism, on the contrary, tries to give the slave all the advantages of his security together with the benefits of freedom, and in the process, destroys both the free and the enslaved.”
Rushdoony’s most influential idea was the concept of Dominionism, which spread far beyond the Christian Reconstructionist fringe. “‘Dominion theologians,’ as they are called, lay great emphasis on Genesis 1:26–7, where God tells Adam to assume dominion over the animate and inanimate world,” wrote the scholar Garry Wills in his book Under God: Religion and American Politics, describing the influence of the ideology on Pat Robertson. “When man fell, his control over creation was forfeited; but the saved, who are restored by baptism, can claim again the rights given Adam.”
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. “Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ—to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness,” wrote George Grant, the former executive director of Coral Ridge Ministries, which has since changed its name to Truth in Action Ministries. “But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice ... It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time ... World conquest.”
Bachmann is close to Truth in Action Ministries; last year, she appeared in one of its documentaries, Socialism: A Clear and Present Danger. In it, she espoused the idea, common in Reconstructionist circles, that the government has no right to collect taxes in excess of 10 percent, the amount that believers are called to tithe to the church. On her state-senate-campaign website, she recommended a book co-authored by Grant titled Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee, which, as Lizza reported, depicted the civil war as a battle between the devout Christian South and the Godless North, and lauded slavery as a benevolent institution. “The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith,” the book said.
One could go on and on listing the Dominionist influences on Bachmann’s thinking. She often cites Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of the anti-abortion movement, who held seminars on Rushdoony’s work and helped disseminate his ideas to a larger evangelical audience. John Eidsmoe, an Oral Roberts University professor who, she’s said, “had a great influence on me,” is a Christian Reconstructionist. She often praises the Christian nationalist historian David Barton, who is intimately associated with the Christian Reconstructionist movement; an article about slavery on the website of his organization, Wallbuilders, defends the institution’s biblical basis, with extensive citations of Rushdoony. (“God's laws concerning slavery provided parameters for treatment of slaves, which were for the benefit of all involved,” it says.)
In elaborating Bachmann’s Dominionist history, though, it’s important to point out that she is not unique. Perry tends to be regarded as marginally more reasonable than Bachmann, but he is as closely associated with Dominionism as she is, though his links are to a different strain of the ideology.
The Christian Reconstructionists tend to be skeptical of Pentecostalism, with its magic, prophesies, speaking in tongues, and wild ecstasies. Certainly, there are overlaps between the traditions—Oral Roberts, where Bachmann studied with Eidsmoe, was a Pentecostal school. But it’s only recently that one group of Pentecostals, the New Apostolic Reformation, has created its own distinct Dominionist movement. And members see Perry as their ticket to power.
“The New Apostles talk about taking dominion over American society in pastoral terms,” wrote Wilder in the Texas Observer. “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.” He quotes a sermon from Tom Schlueter, New Apostolic pastor close to Perry. “We’re going to infiltrate [the government], not run from it. I know why God’s doing what he’s doing ... He’s just simply saying, ‘Tom I’ve given you authority in a governmental authority, and I need you to infiltrate the governmental mountain.”
According to Wilder, members of the New Apostolic Reformation see Perry as their vehicle to claim the “mountain” of government. Some have told Perry that Texas is a “prophet state,” destined, with his leadership, to bring America back to God. The movement was deeply involved in The Response, the massive prayer rally that Perry hosted in Houston earlier this month. “Eight members of The Response ‘leadership team’ are affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation movement,” wrote Wilder. “The long list of The Response’s official endorses—posted on the event’s website—reads like a Who’s Who of the apostolic-prophetic crowd, including movement founder C. Peter Wagner.”
We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before. Those of us who wrote about the Christian fundamentalist influence on the Bush administration were alarmed that one of his advisers, Marvin Olasky, was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. It seemed unthinkable, at the time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person whose ideas were so inimical to democracy. Few of us imagined that someone who actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly do.