Required Reading: Christian Jihadis and Presbyterian Ayatollahs

The Christian terrorists are coming for you.

That has long been the hysterical message about “dominionism” present in American media and even academic writing.  But is it true?

In an illuminating recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Michael J. McVicar analyzes the ways “dominionism” has been used as a rhetorical cudgel over the past thirty years.

Though McVicar specifies he’s not trying to offer an authoritative biography of dominionism, nor a prescription for handling dominionism, his article still offers a helpful guide to the ways this bogey has developed, among evangelical Protestants and among the broader culture.

As McVicar recounts, in the 2012 presidential primaries accusations of “dominionism’s” influence flew fast and furious.  Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in particular stood accused of close ties to dominionism.  For many in the media, that implied a vague sort of theological imperialism, a desire to impose religious strictures on American public life.

McVicar traces the talk about “dominionism” back to criticism by evangelical writers in the 1980s of two Christian movements, Rousas J. Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstruction movement and Earl Paulk Jr.’s Kingdom Now movement.  Leading evangelical authors insisted that such movements did not and could not represent mainstream evangelical theology.

Most important, McVicar argues, these evangelical criticisms served to propagate the labels “dominionism” and “dominion theology.”

Soon, writers outside of evangelical circles appropriated evangelical critiques.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, McVicar writes, secular critics “appropriated much of the evangelical press’s criticism of dominion theology while simultaneously reframing it within the discourses of political progressivism and cultural pluralism.”

Soon, McVicar argues, scholar/activists such as Sara Diamond popularized a caricature of dominionism as the “central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

Much of the treatment of “dominionism” in these journalistic and academic treatments has contributed to a frenzy over the connections between conservative Christianity in America and violent, militant religion in other parts of the globe.  For some, “dominionism” serves as proof that all conservative Christians secretly want to take over secular institutions.  For others, “dominionism” is nothing but a bogey of progressive nightmares.

McVicar pushes a more subtle line.  There is such a thing as dominionism, he avers.  However, talk about dominionism usually tells us more about the speaker than about the subject.  Evangelical critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for evangelical belief.  Secular and progressive critics have defined dominionism out of bounds for civil American culture and politics.

Of course, as regular readers of ILYBYGTH are keenly aware, these issues of definition and boundary construction are central to school politics.  I’ve argued in these pages that anti-dominionist rhetoric is more often a blunt instrument than a real effort to shape policy.  If conservatives want to establish schools that include prayer or Bible reading, for example, critics can accuse them of anti-American “dominionism.”  If conservatives want to restrict the teaching of evolution or of sexual information, critics can accuse them of creeping “dominionism.”

Such talk doesn’t help make better schools.  But understanding this kind of talk and the way it has developed historically does promise to help us understand how American education really works.

McVicar’s website tells us that he is working on developing these arguments in a book under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

We’ll look forward to it.

Further reading: Michael J. McVicar, “‘Let Them Have Dominion:’ ‘Dominion Theology’ and the Construction of Religious Extremism in the US Media,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25.1 (Spring 2013): pp. 120-145.

 

 

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13 Comments

  1. pgaikin

     /  September 1, 2013

    This may shock some but Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is an evangelical Christian. Specifically, he belongs to sect called the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Dominionist group believing we are in the “end times.” In fact, they claim why worry about the environment because Jesus is returning soon to make everything right. That explains Canada’s dismal record on the environment. And, we still have two more years of him.Woo is me.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the note. But I’m guessing Professor McVicar would argue that the C&MA is a good example of a denomination that gets unfairly tarred with the “dominionist” brush. I can’t speak for Dr. McVicar, but I believe he argues in this article that if we want to talk usefully about “dominionism,” we should restrict that usage to Kingdom Now or Rushdoony-affiliated groups. Or, to use theological jargon, postmillennial Reconstructionist groups. The C&MA, I believe, is ferociously pre-millennial. That is why, for instance, leaving the garbage for Jesus might make sense to some C&MA believers.

      Reply
    • pgaikin, how is the CMA dominionist?

      Reply
      • pgaikin

         /  September 3, 2013

        There is a blurring of the lines between Dominionists and Reconstructionists and the Conservatives are politically savvy enough not to blatantly identify with either position. People will Google it. But their goal is as outlined in the 7 Mountains concept: taking control of society and that is Harper’s agenda. But doing so means never openly mentioning the bible or religion because if Canadians knew Harpers background or religion they would have rejected him long ago. Canada is a secular society and a persons beliefs are their business not anyone else’s. So, Harper’s agenda when it comes to climate change and environmental safeguards reflects Dominionist thinking which accounts for his governments dismal record and actions, and his actions speak louder than words. Just like it does with the radically Christian right in the US and their theocratic schemes. A good book on the subject is The Armageddon Factor by Marci McDonald which details the roots of Harpo’s Dominionist/Reconstructionist background and that of his mentor Reform Party founder Preston Manning. But Canadians are waking up to Harper without even talking about religion and they might toss him out in 2015 or so we hope. I just wish Americans would wake up.

      • That all sounds speculative and does not give evidence that the CMA denomination is dominionist. Do you have documentation that their official position is dominionist or are you interpreting Harper’s actions as dominionist and thus by association, label the CMA dominionist as well?

        Of the book mentioned, a reviewer states: “… her source notes reveal that her account relies heavily on a handful of books by American journalists who over-simplified evangelical thought ” and “McDonald sees Christian nationalist conspiracy everywhere she looks. Yet much of what she describes sounds merely like politics as usual …”
        [Source]

    • Technically most churches (if not all) believe we’re in the end times, I’m not saying you’re wrong, in fact I agree with you but just thought I should point that out.

      Reply
      • pgaikin

         /  September 2, 2013

        Good point, I never thought of that and you’re right, thanks

      • Churches have long believed that they were in the end times, so what?

      • willbell123

         /  September 2, 2013

        @ChazIng I’m suggesting it isn’t as notable an observation as you’d be led to believe by pgaikin’s point.

      • @willbell123, granted that may be so. My “so what?” was directed to pgaikin.
        @pgaikin, could you explain how the CMA is dominionist and how an “end time” belief accords with said dominionism?

  2. Mark Chancey

     /  September 1, 2013

    My own sense–and I haven’t read read McVicar’s article yet (thanks for the heads up)–is that part of the problem is that the media and some critics use the “dominion” terminology too loosely. So I agree with your comments above, Adam. On the other hand, there really is a broad stream of sentiment in some political sectors that America was founded to be a (Protestant) Christian nation and that it should reclaim that heritage by adopting laws that favor particular conservative Christian viewpoints. It’s a serious and real political and cultural phenomenon (writes the Texas resident)–but it doesn’t fit the box of “dominion theology,” though it sometimes borrows language and motifs from it. I just call it “Christian Americanism.”

    Reply
    • Right, Mark. And for new readers, please know that I am no apologist for conservative Christianity of any sort. I do not advocate a special role for evangelical Protestantism in public schools or public life in general. However, I do not think it is good policy to demonize one’s political opponents. I believe the tendency to use the peculiar political beliefs of Christian Reconstructionism as a simple stand-in for conservative evangelicalism fouls the waters. There is no doubt that a wide range of conservative Christians hope to influence the public square in favor of policies they favor, from abortion restriction to the curtailment of homosexual rights. But by labeling all such conservative activism “dominionism,” we slide into the sort of witch-hunting hysteria that has had such lamentable results far too often in our American history.

      Reply
  3. My understanding of the term “dominionist” is that it is properly applied to those groups who advocate Seven Mountains theology, teaching that it is the purpose and goal of their particular brand of Christianity to occupy and take dominion over the Seven Mountains or power centers of society – arts, business, education, family, government, media, and religion. While their thought certainly owes a debt to Rushdoony and his Christian Reconstructionism, they stem more directly from C. Peter Wagner and his fellow “apostles” of the New Apostolic Reformation.

    I think you are correct that “dominionist,” like “fundamentalist,” is now being used so broadly that it has lost much of its original specific meaning. That does not, however, mean that the movement should be minimized or dismissed. Home schooling/private schooling/school vouchers is one area where there is substantial cause to be concerned. I suggest reading some of Rachel Tabachnick’s carefully researched and written articles on talk2action.org. Here in Pennsylvania we are seeing considerable efforts to undermine our public schools and to divert public funds for religious education. I find that very disturbing.

    Reply

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