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Dominionists, Dominionisimists, Theonomists and Political Labels

If you’re expecting me to do a rundown on the definitions of all of these terms, then you’ll be disappointed. There’s plenty of writing trying to define the terms. Jeremy Pierce wrote the key post discussing “dominionismism,” titled simply Dominionismists. In it, he compares those who are concerned about dominionism with Birthers and Truthers. On the other hand Chip Berlet, (Inside the Christian Right Dominionist Movement that’s Undermining Democracy) amongst many others, sees this as a quite clearly defined movement that is “undermining democracy.”

I don’t deny that there is a certain hysteria involved from time to time, but I think there is a much different sort of dynamic involved in mislabeling some people as dominionists, and even in trying to find a specific theological stream of movement that can properly be labeled “dominionist.” I would suggest that the fundamental problems here are different, and they are ones that regularly occur in discussing political and religious movements, doubly so when discussing a movement that is both religious and political.

First, relatively few journalists or commentators have a serious understanding of theology or of the details of Christian movements. Even many theologians don’t really understand the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements all that well. Thus they have a hard time understanding things such as spiritual warfare or claiming dominion over territories in a spiritual sense, or what they mean by calling something demonic.

Second, there are quite a few things that might be regarded as demonic. I believe in trying to be conscious of variations in belief. Few beliefs really exist in binary form. You can almost always find a spectrum. There are those who believe in demons, and those who don’t. But between those points there are very different beliefs about the demonic realm. Some who believe in demons actually simply take them as a sort of short hand for evil tendencies of movements. Others see actual, intelligent spiritual beings behind almost everything that happens. Failing to differentiate between those views will result in mislabeling and misunderstanding.

Third, political labels are dangerous. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those folks who things labels are unimportant. We have to use labels to communicate. The problem with political labels is not that they are a bad idea in general, but rather that they are normally used manipulatively. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the political process.

The reason I don’t like political labels and use four to describe myself in the header of this blog, is not that labels are bad, but rather because I don’t quite fit into a movement. I have aspects of the four labels I use in my belief system, but I haven’t invented a single term. “Passionate moderate” is the closest I can come to one.

But in politics labels are used more as accusations. Again, using an example from my header, “liberal charismatic” was bestowed on me by an opponent who disliked me a great deal. He disliked both liberals and charismatics, and used the label to express the extreme dislike for my views. And, quite frankly, he was closer to right than he knew.

But in politics, labels are extended by association. Let’s suppose we have a politician who is a Christian evangelical, and believes that the gospel of the kingdom should be preached in all the world. To him, evangelism is a good word. He believes everyone should have the chance to accept the gospel, and would be happy if they all did. Christian readers will recognize this as a fairly standard Christian view. For reasons that will become apparent, I’m going to label this guy X.

So X has friends and associates, and he reads books. He reads books by people who are more conservative than he is. He goes to a church where the general position of the congregation is to his right. The members and the pastor believe that one should vote for people who are Christians or Jews, i.e. have a “Judeo-Christian ethic.” We’re going to call the pastor Y.

Now Y also reads books and associates with various people, whose average position is to the right of X’s friends, though there is considerable overlap. He has a friend we’ll call Z who read R. J. Rushdoony in college (incidentally so did I, for that matter), and who recommends reading Rushdoony frequently and publicly. Z doesn’t actually agree with everything that Rushdoony has to say, but he agrees with many things, and things it’s a good idea for people to hear these ideas and give them consideration.

So X runs for office, and the press starts looking through his record and associates, and they find Y and then they realize he also has a connection with Z. How many sermons has he heard that might have quotes from Rushdoony? Who really is X anyhow? Perhaps they even have a label that now includes all three.

But despite going to a church pastored by Y, and perhaps even reading a book recommended by Z, X doesn’t believe that only Christians or even only Christians and Jews should hold office, nor does he accept a significant portion of Rushdoony’s positions.

At the same time, people on the far right, which we’ll define for purposes of this post as people to the right of Z, have a very different agenda. They’re looking at Z and are wondering if he’s really on their side. They find that he goes to a church pastored by Y, who won’t recommend reading Rushdoony, even though he acknowledges having read some things by him, and they discover that he meets with X who, horror of horrors, says he might vote for a Muslim or an Atheist, provided he agreed with them on the important issues. So Z, who thinks only Christians should hold office, gets labeled as a leftist.

Now whether “dominionist” is a good label or not, I’m not absolutely certain. Personally, I don’t need it, and don’t quite see how it could be properly defined. I’d like to find a group of people who actually espouse a label such as that. I can oppose people based on easier to discover issues. For example, those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians, espouse what I see as an extreme view on abortion laws, or oppose freedom of expression won’t get my vote.

Some of those folks may fall into the category of “dominionist,” but I find it both much harder, and of much less practical value, to try to figure out the boundaries and the membership of such a group.

Oh, and the big difference I see between this a Birthers or Truthers is that one is falsehood in clear black and white, while this tends to be more of a fogging of differences between various people.


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  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Thank you, Henry, for your as always very sensible take on this subject: Dominionismism: A conspiracy theory unmasked – also a couple of follow-up posts linked to there concerning the alleged “Dominionists” Francis Schaeffer and Peter Wagner.

    1. Glad you provided the links. I actually had those on a list to include and somehow I got writing last night and forgot to put them in. In particular, for readers, I would note that Peter provides some detail on specifically what C. Peter Wagner et. al. are talking about, which is a topic I only brush by.

    2. Peter Kirk says:

      I missed out the words “See also my post” from my previous comment.

  2. Berlet is a conspiracy theorist. I think you give him too much credit. He’s much better than some. Generally those who present their conspiracy theories in academic terms are better at moderating them. But there is no group that can accurately be called Dominionism that meets the definition of Sara Diamond, other than the followers of Rushdoony, and they’re so fringe that they’re hardly worth being concerned about. The people who subscribe to Berlet’s first two theses (at least on one reading of the second) but not the third Reconstructionist thesis are much more mainstream, but that’s most of evangelicalism, and it’s not a radical claim (even if it’s historically simplistic) to have religious views and think “restoring” a Christian basis for our moral system as the moral framework justifying our laws.

    The second plank is actually ambiguous, so I’m not 100% sure what he means. If he just means Dominionists think Christianity is superior to other religions, it’s hard to be a genuine Christian and not think that. Unless you’re a complete relativist about religious truth, you’re going to think that if you’re a Christian. If he means not allowing other religious views to be present at the debate table, then it is indeed a very radical view, however. But it’s also so fringe that it’s not present in the political system at all. I’m not sure of a third thing he might mean between those two. But either way, it’s innocuous or so fringe as to be not worth spending much time on (just as we don’t spend much time on white supremacists nowadays; it’s about as influential).

    He misrepresents the third plank. Reconstructionism isn’t theocratic. It’s theonomist. There’s a difference. Real scholars on theocracy recognize that it means putting clergy or church authorities as the civic government, as is done in Iran. Theonomy is much weaker. Even Israel wasn’t theocratic once Saul was king. It was theonomist, however, because the Torah was the basis of all civil laws (but the civil laws weren’t identical with the Torah, or there would never be any new decrees, and we have examples of exactly that in Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). There are theonomists, and they are radical. We should not fear them, because they are so fringe as to be politically impotent. Insofar as they affect the mainstream, they convince it to care about biblical principles as the moral basis of good laws. Any good Christian should like that, although some would disagree with particular principle and how they’re applied. Insofar as they are more radical, they are not influential enough to make a dent. No one is saying to pretend they don’t exist, but they’re not worth the attention people like Berlet, Diamond, and Lizza have given to them.

    Besides, Berlet’s comments about the 2000 and 2004 elections make it clear that he’s a conspiracy theorist in more ways than one. We need a good term for those who think Bush stole the election in 2004 (and at this point even those who think he stole it in 2000 are pretty much either ignorant or self-deceptive, since the studies after the fact showed how unlikely it would have been for Gore to win even if the recount had continued; it would have needed the most liberal standard for the recount, one even many Democrats opposed). Maybe I’ll call them Stolers.

    1. Jeremy – I actually agree with you on Berlet, but I didn’t feel like fisking his article. So thanks for doing the point by point, especially “theocratic” vs “theonomist”. My only disagreement with the original article, if it even is a disagreement, is that I see a different dynamic in producing dominionismism (a hopelessly tongue twisting term!) than in Birthers or Truthers. I think that is actually an important distinction, again in the interest of not grouping very different things under the same label.

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