Dominion Theology is a contemporary grouping of theocratic ideologies that seek to institute a nation governed by Christians based on understandings of biblical law. Extents of rule and ways of achieving governing authority are varied. For example, Dominion Theology can include theonomy, but does not necessarily involve advocating Mosaic law as the basis of government. The label is applied primarily toward groups of Protestants in the United States.
Prominent adherents of these ideologies are otherwise theologically diverse, including Calvinist Christian Reconstructionism, Charismatic/Pentecostal Kingdom Now theology, New Apostolic Reformation and others. Most of the contemporary movements labeled Dominion Theology arose in the 1970s from religious movements reasserting aspects of Christian nationalism.
Some have applied the term "Dominionist" more broadly to the whole Christian right. This usage is controversial. There are concerns from members of these communities that this is a label being used to marginalize Christians from public discussions.
And God blessed [ Adam and Eve ], and God said unto them, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
In the late 1980s, several prominent evangelical authors used the phrase Dominion Theology (and other terms such as dominionism) to label a loose grouping of theological movements that made direct appeals to this passage in Genesis. Christians typically interpret this passage as meaning that God gave humankind responsibility over the Earth, but the distinctive aspect of Dominion Theology is that it is interpreted as a mandate for Christian stewardship in civil affairs, no less than in other human matters.
An example of Dominionism in reformed theology is Christian Reconstructionism, which originated with the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s and 1970s. Rushdoony's theology focuses on theonomy (the rule of the Law of God), a belief that all of society should be ordered according to the laws that governed the Israelites in the Old Testament. His system is strongly Calvinistic, emphasizing the sovereignty of God over human freedom and action, and denying the operation of charismatic gifts in the present day (cessationism); both of these aspects are in direct opposition to Kingdom Now Theology.
Full adherents to Reconstructionism are few and marginalized among most Christians. Dave Hunt, Albert James Dager Hal Lindsey, and Thomas Ice specifically criticize Christian Reconstructionism from a Christian viewpoint, disagreeing on theological grounds with its theocratic elements as well as its Calvinism and postmillennialism. J. Ligon Duncan, Sherman Isbell, Vern Poythress, Robert Godfrey, and Sinclair Ferguson analyze Reconstructionism as conservative Calvinists, primarily giving a theological critique of its theocratic elements. Michael J. McVicar has noted that many leading Christian Reconstructionists are also leading writers on libertarian economic theories.
Kingdom Now theology
Kingdom Now theology is a branch of Dominion Theology which has had a following within Pentecostalism. It attracted attention in the late 1980s.
Kingdom Now theology states that although Satan has been in control of the world since the Fall, God is looking for people who will help him take back dominion. Those who yield themselves to the authority of God's apostles and prophets will take control of the kingdoms of this world, being defined as all social institutions, the "kingdom" of education, the "kingdom" of science, the "kingdom" of the arts, etc. C. Peter Wagner, the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation, writes: "The practical theology that best builds a foundation under social transformation is dominion theology, sometimes called 'Kingdom Now.' Its history can be traced back through R. J. Rushdoony and Abraham Kuyper to John Calvin."
Dominion Theology and the Christian Right
In the late 1980s sociologist Sara Diamond began writing about the intersection of Dominion Theology with the political activists of the Christian Right. Diamond argued 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.":138 (emphasis in original) in the United States.
While acknowledging the small number of actual adherents, authors such as Sara Diamond and Frederick Clarkson have argued that postmillennial Christian Reconstructionism played a major role in pushing the primarily premillennial Christian Right to adopt a more aggressive dominionist stance.
Misztal and Shupe concur that "Reconstructionists have many more sympathizers who fall somewhere within the dominionist framework, but who are not card-carrying members." According to Diamond, "Reconstructionism is the most intellectually grounded, though esoteric, brand of dominion theology."
Journalist Frederick Clarkson defined dominionism as a movement that, while including Dominion Theology and Reconstructionism as subsets, is much broader in scope, extending to much of the Christian Right in the United States.
In his 1992 study of Dominion Theology and its influence on the Christian Right, Bruce Barron writes,
In the context of American evangelical efforts to penetrate and transform public life, the distinguishing mark of a dominionist is a commitment to defining and carrying out an approach to building society that is self-consciously defined as exclusively Christian, and dependent specifically on the work of Christians, rather than based on a broader consensus.
Journalist Chip Berlet added in 1998 that, although they represent different theological and political ideas, dominionists assert a Christian duty to take "control of a sinful secular society."
- Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
- Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
- Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, insofar as they believe that the Ten Commandments, or "biblical law," should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.
Essayist Katherine Yurica began using the term dominionism in her articles in 2004, beginning with "The Despoiling of America", (February 11, 2004), Authors who also use the term dominionism in the broader sense include journalist Chris Hedges Marion Maddox, James Rudin, Michelle Goldberg, Kevin Phillips, Sam Harris, Ryan Lizza, Frank Schaeffer, and the group TheocracyWatch. Some authors have applied the term to a broader spectrum of people than have Diamond, Clarkson, and Berlet.
Sarah Posner in Salon argues that there are various "iterations of dominionism that call on Christians to enter...government, law, media and so forth...so that they are controlled by Christians." According to Posner, "Christian right figures promoted dominionism...and the GOP courted...religious leaders for the votes of their followers." She added: "If people really understood dominionism, they’d worry about it between election cycles."
Michelle Goldberg notes that George Grant, wrote in his 1987 book The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action:
- "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.....But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.... Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ."
A spectrum of dominionism
Writers including Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson distinguish between what they term "hard" and "soft" dominionism. Such commentators define "soft" dominionism as the belief that "America is a Christian nation" and opposition to separation of church and state, while "hard" dominionism refers to dominion theology and Christian Reconstructionism.
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.
Berlet and Clarkson have agreed that "[s]oft Dominionists are Christian nationalists." Unlike "dominionism", the phrase "Christian nation" occurs commonly in the writings of leaders of the Christian Right. Proponents of this idea (such as David Barton and D. James Kennedy) argue that the Founding Fathers of the United States were overwhelmingly Christian, that founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are based on Christian principles, and that a Christian character is fundamental to American culture. They cite, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court's comment in 1892 that "this [the United States] is a Christian nation," after citing numerous historical and legal arguments in support of that statement.
Criticism of the usage of the term "dominionism"
Those labeled dominionists rarely use the terms "dominionist" and "dominionism" for self-description, and some people have attacked the use of such words. Journalist Anthony Williams charged that such usage aims "to smear the Republican Party as the party of domestic Theocracy, facts be damned". Journalist Stanley Kurtz labeled it "conspiratorial nonsense", "political paranoia", and "guilt by association", and decried Hedges' "vague characterizations" that allow him to "paint a highly questionable picture of a virtually faceless and nameless 'Dominionist' Christian mass". Kurtz also complained about a perceived link between average Christian evangelicals and extremism such as Christian Reconstructionism:
The notion that conservative Christians want to reinstitute slavery and rule by genocide is not just crazy, it's downright dangerous. The most disturbing part of the Harper's cover story (the one by Chris Hedges) was the attempt to link Christian conservatives with Hitler and fascism. Once we acknowledge the similarity between conservative Christians and fascists, Hedges appears to suggest, we can confront Christian evil by setting aside 'the old polite rules of democracy'. So wild conspiracy theories and visions of genocide are really excuses for the Left to disregard the rules of democracy and defeat conservative Christians — by any means necessary.
Joe Carter of First Things writes:
[T]here is no "school of thought" known as "dominionism". The term was coined in the 1980s by Diamond and is never used outside liberal blogs and websites. No reputable scholars use the term for it is a meaningless neologism that Diamond concocted for her dissertation.
Diamond has denied that she coined the broader use of the term "dominionism," which appears in her dissertation and in Roads to Dominion solely to describe Dominion Theology. Nevertheless, Diamond did originate the idea that Dominion Theology is the "central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.":138
Jeremy Pierce of First Things coined the word "dominionismist" to describe those who promote the idea that there is a dominionist conspiracy, writing:
It strikes me as irresponsible to lump [Rushdoony] together with Francis Schaeffer and those influenced by him, especially given Schaeffer's many recorded instances of resisting exactly the kinds of views Rushdoony developed. Indeed, it strikes me as an error of the magnitude of some of Rushdoony's own historical nonsense to consider there to be such a view called Dominionism [sic] that Rushdoony, Schaeffer, James Dobson, and all the other people in the list somehow share and that it seeks to get Christians and only Christians into all the influential positions in secular society.
Lisa Miller of Newsweek writes that "'dominionism' is the paranoid mot du jour" (referring to the French for "word of the day") and that "certain journalists use 'dominionist' the way some folks on Fox News use the word sharia. Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which 'we' need to guard against 'them'." Ross Douthat of The New York Times noted that "many of the people that writers like Diamond and others describe as 'dominionists' would disavow the label, many definitions of dominionism conflate several very different Christian political theologies, and there's a lively debate about whether the term is even useful at all."
Other criticism has focused on the proper use of the term. Berlet wrote that "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 argued that, rather than labeling conservatives as extremists, it would be better to "talk to these people" and "engage them." Sara Diamond wrote that "[l]iberals' writing about the Christian Right's take-over plans has generally taken the form of conspiracy theory", and argued that instead one should "analyze the subtle ways" that ideas like Dominionism "take hold within movements and why". Authors, Robert Gagnon and Edith Humphey argued strongly against the use of the term in reference to US presidential candidate Ted Cruz in a 2016 oped for Christianity Today.
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