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.