When Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann surged in the race for
the Republican presidential nomination last summer, so did news coverage
of their religious associations. Reporters, pundits, and scholars wrote
dozens of articles and blog posts on the conservative evangelical
Christians who supported them. And as the media probed, they discovered
an ominous threat: dominionist theology.
Dominionists take their name and their message from the biblical story
of creation, in which God gives humans dominion over the earth. They
believe Christians hold a divine mandate to control all social and
cultural institutions, and have a God-given duty to claim political
Quoting sensational statements by some dominionists calling for the
establishment of Old Testament civil law, a number of journalists
suggested that a President Bachmann or Perry would slowly but inexorably
instill theocracy in American laws and courts.
response, several scholars and conservative columnists contended that
taking the most extreme rhetoric of dominionists as a proxy for what
Perry or Bachmann would do in office was akin to seeing President Obama
as the tool of Jeremiah Wright-style liberation theologians. They
pointed to the diversity of theological beliefs within the religious
right, arguing that fear-mongering about dominionism ignored the
complexity of evangelical Christianity.
Sifting through the back-and-forth suggests the need to bear in mind
some religious history.
Since the early twentieth century, most conservative American
Protestants have subscribed to premillennial theology. Premillennialists
believe Christ will “rapture” his followers at a dramatic moment, after
which those “left behind” will have to fight the forces of the
Antichrist prior to Christ’s return. This belief theoretically promotes
a fortress mentality, in which faithful Christians (which is to say:
conservative evangelicals) hunker down and await the end of the world,
avoiding secular politics and anything else that might compromise their
In an important Atlantic article from 1995, Harvard Divinity
School professor Harvey Cox described a visit to Pat Robertson’s Regent
University during which he discovered tension over “the dominion
theology” espoused by some members of the faculty. Cox argued that this
theology had emerged from postmillennialism, the dominant theological
outlook of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which encouraged believers
to reform the world in preparation for Christ’s return. (Premillennialists
believe the Christ’s return will usher in the millennium, at the end of
which the final judgment will occur; postmillennialists believe
that Christ will return at the end of the millennium for the final
Although most evangelicals had become premillennialists by the middle of
the twentieth century, a faction of postmillennialists held on. Many of
these came from the Reformed (Calvinist) theological tradition, which
places great emphasis on God’s sovereignty over all creation. In
particular, theologian Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony championed the
notion that Christians ought to re-institute Old Testament law in modern
society. This “reconstruction” of politics and law would attest to God’s
dominion over society and would prepare the earth for Christ’s return.
Rushdoony and his disciples exercised considerable influence on the
homeschooling movement, where curricula based on dominionist thinking
still proliferates. Publishers such as A Beka Books have printed both
intellectual defenses of dominionism and student textbooks reflecting
dominionist influence. Many homeschool students attend “Christian
worldview” academies, where they learn dominionist concepts in a
week-long summer camp setting. Most of these kids return to families and
churches whose theology is ostensibly premillennial.
How to parse the competing theological outlooks within evangelicalism?
On the one hand, premillennialist theology promotes spiritual purity and
distancing from “the world.” On the other, postmillennialists suggest
that Christians should take dominion over society. It would seem that
Cox’s 1995 observations captured a theological tension at the heart of
contemporary evangelicalism—and contemporary evangelical politics.
In fact, premillennialist evangelicals never withdrew from political
activity. But the growth of conservative religious activism in the 1970s
called into question their theological worldview and rendered them
susceptible to dominionist projects. Has their activism effectively
turned premillennial evangelicals into postmillennial dominionists? That
was the question underlying last summer’s debate.
an article for the DailyBeast.com in August, Michelle Goldberg argued
that dominionism was a potent force on the religious right. Where Cox
had treated it as a marginal stream in evangelical theology, Goldberg
portrayed it as having greater political than theological significance.
Indeed, while acknowledging its roots in postmillennial theology, she
contended that dominionism had in fact become the defining political
vision for conservative Protestants.
Expanding on Goldberg’s view, Grove City College (Pa.) psychology
professor Warren Throckmorton wrote a series of blog posts in which he
distanced himself from fellow evangelical pundits by portraying
dominionism as a significant threat to American democracy. In
particular, he worried that dominionists would persecute homosexuals, up
to the point of prescribing capital punishment for gays and lesbians.
Throckmorton, himself an evangelical, had worked for years to carve out
a nuanced position on same-sex attraction. He neither endorsed
“reparative therapy” (intended to “cure” homosexuals) nor supported most
psychologists’ embrace of homosexuality. By encouraging Christian
homosexuals to lead fulfilling lives without acting on their sexual
desires, he faced an uphill battle in convincing homosexuals and fellow
psychologists that his methods were not discriminatory. What he opposed
was any societal effort to persecute homosexuals along dominionist
Throckmorton’s concern about dominionist persecution of homosexuals
became acute in 2009, when Uganda’s parliament began considering a bill
stiffening punishments for homosexual activity, up to and including the
death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” (Homosexuality had been
illegal in Uganda under a colonial era law, punishable by up to 14 years
in prison, though it is unclear how recently that law has been
enforced.) Throckmorton called attention to the role of a March 2009
conference at which several anti-gay American evangelicals stirred up
Ugandan anxiety about Western homosexual influences.
It emerged that the bill’s sponsor, parliamentarian David Bahati, not
only was influenced by dominionists in the anti-gay movement but also
had attended meetings of the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive group of
American evangelicals that has sponsored prayer breakfasts and bible
studies for political leaders in Washington, D.C., for decades. In a
lengthy piece for Harper’s in 2010, journalist Jeff Sharlet
argued that the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, taught
Bahati that “homosexuality is only a symptom … [of] a greater plague:
government by people, not by God.”
A dominionist threat in Africa was one thing. In a New Yorker
profile last August, Ryan Lizza suggested that one of the leading
contenders for the GOP presidential nomination subscribed to dominionist
Lizza claimed that Michele Bachmann had inherited a strain of
dominionism from the late Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical intellectual
whose books and films in the late 1970s prompted many evangelicals to
believe liberal secularists were waging war on traditional Christianity.
In Lizza’s view, Schaeffer had disseminated a soft form of dominionism
that morphed into the hard-edged version championed by his twenty-first
This view was disputed by Schaeffer’s biographer, Barry Hankins, who
replied in an August article in the American Spectator that to
imply Schaeffer was a dominionist was “akin to arguing that since Ho Chi
Minh cited the Declaration of Independence when proclaiming Vietnam’s
independence in 1945, Thomas Jefferson must have been a communist.”
More plausibly, Lizza—and others—pointed to the influence of
dominionists at the (now defunct) Oral Roberts University law school,
from which Bachmann graduated in 1986. In a series of well-documented
articles on dominionism for Religion Dispatches over the summer
journalist Sarah Posner traced Bachmann’s links to two prominent
dominionsts active at the school at the time—Herbert Titus and John
Eidsmoe. Posner worried that Bachmann’s political philosophy rejected
religious freedom and pluralism in favor of a theocratic government that
would institute Christian law.
In August, Posner was joined by the Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg, who
described Bachmann as part of a dominionist movement that “says
Christians should rule the world.” Francis Schaeffer’s son Frank (who
had long since rejected his father’s teaching) said in an August essay
for AlterNet that Bachmann’s teachers had taught her to “replace the
U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights with their interpretation of the
Bible.” A Bachmann presidency would, in the minds of these critics, be a
huge step towards an American theocracy.
Even as Bachmann was enjoying her day in the campaign sun, Texas Gov.
Rick Perry’s dominionist ties were also coming under scrutiny. On August
6, Perry kicked off his own presidential campaign by hosting The
Response, a massive prayer rally whose key sponsors including a number
of prominent dominionists.
The critics called particular attention to the New Apostolic Reformation
(NAR), a charismatic ministry whose leaders included C. Peter Wagner, an
NAR leader who in 2008 published an important dominionist tract entitled
Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. Wagner, who
endorsed and attended the rally though he did not speak from the podium,
distanced himself from the Perry campaign and from what he claimed were
misinterpretations of dominion theology in an October 3 interview with
NPR’s Terry Gross.
“We use the word dominion but we wouldn’t want to say that we have
dominion as if we’re the owners or we’re the rulers of, let’s say, the
arts and entertainment mountain,” he insisted. “We believe in working
with any—with whatever political system there is. In America, it’s
democracy.” He went on to claim that there were divisions within NAR and
that Perry probably had never heard of NAR when he arrived at The
Response in August.
The critics weren’t buying. Calling him the “Christocrat favorite for
president,” Sarah Posner described Perry as a man whose list of
dominionist associations stretched back years. A President Perry would,
in her view, be a disaster for anyone opposed to dominionism.
And yet, as evangelical insiders and knowledgeable scholars pointed out,
the opponents of dominionism included the vast majority of evangelicals
“Evangelicals do not generally want to take over the world,” wrote
Washington Post reporter Lisa Miller August 18. “[E]vangelicals
aren’t generally of one mind.” Miller quoted Christian PR man Mark
DeMoss saying one would be “hard-pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians
in America who could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.” Miller
also noted religious historian Molly Worthen’s characterization of
dominionism as “a pretty small world.”
In a September 17 article for the Spectator, Emory University
religion scholar Patrick Allitt was less dismissive, describing
dominionism as “real, though more of a tendency than a sharply defined
movement.” Allitt predicted that Bachmann and Perry (“possibly even
‘dominionists’”) would founder since “Americans certainly like their
presidents to be religious, but they mustn’t be too religious.”
Allitt’s reading of the situation confirmed the academic analysis of
evangelicals’ influence on contemporary American politics. For years
scholars have emphasized the limited success of the religious right in
achieving its goals since its emergence on the national stage the late
1970s. They point out that conservative evangelicals have failed to
overturn Roe v. Wade, to stem the normalization of
homosexuality in American society, and to restore prayer in the public
schools. Evangelicals have been repeatedly disappointed by a series of
Republican presidents—even their homegrown hero, George W. Bush.
The scholars have also argued that evangelicals are not theocrats. Notre
Dame’s Christian Smith gently mocked journalistic fear-mongering in the
title of his important 2000 book, Christian America? What
Evangelicals Really Want. In it, Smith contended that evangelicals
were far more disparate and ambivalent than their foes believed.
In Faith in the Halls of Power (2008), one of the most important
books on contemporary evangelicalism to date, D. Michael Lindsay—a
sociologist who became president of Gordon College in September—rejected
the notion that dominionists posed a threat to the republic. In his
view, the evangelicals who had achieved real power in contemporary
American culture were establishment insiders who shared few goals with
the dominionists who argued for the overthrow of religious pluralism. In
Lindsay’s view, the very act of achieving power required evangelicals to
abandon some of their co-religionists’ claims about taking dominion.
In 2009, Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College added another
dimension in his provocative study, The Democratic Virtues of the
Christian Right. Based on a careful study of anti-abortion
activists, the book showed that conservative evangelicals were
thoroughly democratic in their approach to activism, embracing high
school civics lessons to engage with American politics through voter
registration, targeted fund-raising, and legitimate persuasion.
These and other careful studies of evangelicalism— to be sure, produced
mostly by evangelical scholars—made other academic students of religion
react cautiously to last summer’s alarms. When AP religion reporter
Rachel Zoll asked University of Pennsylvania scholar and Religion
Dispatches blogger Anthea Butler in October if dominionism was a threat,
Butler said, “I don’t know if ‘threat’ is the right word. I think
‘problem’ is the better word.”
So what gives? Are dominionists a force to be reckoned with or a figment
of hyperactive liberal imaginations?
The key to assessing the movement’s strength lies in assessing the
capacity of evangelical rhetoric to affect public policy. Just as Jerry
Falwell scared secularists with his bombastic predictions of a moral
majority retaking control of the country in the 1980s, so C. Peter
Wagner is frightening his foes by advocating Christian dominion today.
To be sure, Falwell and Wagner represent different streams of
evangelicalism. Falwell’s Baptist heritage made him wary of theocracy,
while Wagner has openly advocated dominionism. But the two share a key
similarity: their rhetoric has always been more aspirational than
realistic. Evangelicalism’s diversity, not to mention the checks and
balances of the U.S. political system, means that true dominionism is
best seen as a fundamentalist dream, not a plausible American future.
Yet over the course of the religious right’s three decades, dominionist
rhetoric has shifted American evangelicals’ understanding of politics
and culture. It is especially influential in home schools, which now
educate over one million American children.
These children learn about a world where the state of Israel is an
example of God’s work in the world, and where demonic forces combat
believers around the globe. Such views filter into politics, where
opposition to Israel or denial of the supernatural can spell doom for
The real “threat”—if one opposes evangelical politics—is not theocracy
but misguided policy. American evangelicals have proven time and again
to be as American as they are Christian, and that means they adore the
Bible and the Constitution together. Dominionists will never convince
them to get rid of the latter. But they have gotten many to accept their
interpretations of the former.