Why No Catholic Dominionists?

Ever since Jonah Goldberg pegged us for the fascists we are, we liberals have needed a new rhetorical cudgel. And we may have found one — Dominionist. Essentially, it refers to an evangelical Protestant who believes that God’s law — that is, Old Testament law — should be the law of the land, and that the task of enforcing it, along with the attendant privileges, should fall exclusively to evangelical Protestants.

Ever since Michele Bachmann surged into the front rank of GOP contenders, she has been forced to contend with the label. It could undo her. As Christopher Hitchens points out, Rick Perry, for al his godly bluster, can at times look like a pragmatist, whereas “[Bachmann's] religious positions are so weird, and so weirdly held, that they have already made her look like a crackpot.” Hitchens doesn’t actually drop the D-bomb, but it would seem to represent the sum of his thoughts.

This may be, like so much in politics, unjust. In Patheos, Douglas Groothius makes a good case that Bachmann’s no big-D Dominionist, just a very religious person who’s very conservative. Francis Schaeffer, the theologian she admires most, denounced the imposition of biblical law as “insanity,” and categorically rejected violence. He had so little regard for the thinking of Rousas John Rushdoony, who first articulated the notion of a biblically governed society, that “The name ‘Rushdoony’ does not even appear in the index of Schaeffer’s five-volume collected works.”

Groothius seems very knowledgeable about such things, so I’ll take his word and add, parenthetically, “Whew!” But in a way, whether Bachmann’s a Dominionist or a reconstructionist (the term Rushdoony himself preferred) is beside the point. These are not normal times. With a number of states legalizing gay marriage, and the White House putting an end to the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, people of faith are feeling pushed. Now that the free-falling economy has put the nation in an apocalyptic mood, they are feeling emboldened to push back harder on more fronts than ever before. Sarah Palin, whom many took for a wingnut, felt obliged to tell reporters that certain people in her family supported civil unions for gay couples; Bachmann goes the full monty in the other direction and preaches that homosexuality is a choice. Even if she does, finally, prove too zealous for the nation, it’s amazing she’s come as far as she has.

And this leaves me wondering: whither Catholics of the Right? Do they have their own Schaeffer — a political philosopher with a plan to remake society in a distinctly Catholic image? I really am too recently arrived on the block to know. These days, they’d be missing the wave not to have one. At the same time, I can see why they’d face more obstacles than their opposite numbers in the Protestant camp.

From Joseph de Maistre to Frederick Wilhelmsen, that team’s fielded some impressive talent. Unfortunately, much of what they thought was distinctly, irredeemably European. Most of them supported some throne-and-altar formula that would look as strange to Americans as rule by Leviticus. Many expressed a near-mystical attachment to the particularities of one European society or another. Wilhelmsen and L. Brent Bozell, Jr. admired Spain. Chesterton was all for Merrye England. Charles Maurras saw France as the heir to ancient Greek rationality, and once referred to the marble Athlete of Polycetus as “a youth of our blood.” I do not envy the person charged with selling that in Middle America.

There aren’t too many success stories to stick in the prospectus. Franco did not repress his people on anything like the Soviet scale, but he’ll never be remembered as a champion of human rights. His reign didn’t exactly usher in any flowering of arts or letters, either. If Ava Gardner hadn’t dated that bullfighter, the whole country might have fallen off the map, culturally speaking.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that, during World War Two, many Catholic political personalities, to be tactful about it, chose their friends badly. Leon Degrelle, founder of Belgium’s Rexist party, served in the Waffen SS. Charles Maurras, though never a great fan of the Germans, supported Petain’s Vichy government. Even today, he’s impossible to cite without a disclaimer.

And yet this feels like one of those moments where all options are on the table. That Michael Voris has made a name (and, I’m guessing, somewhat of a fortune) for himself promoting a kind of pop integral nationalism would be remarkable under any circumstances. That he’s pitching it to people who, by and large, are terrified of big government may be the most relevant detail of all. The notion of a dictatorship of relativism may have taken hold so deeply in the Catholic imagination that it’s started to feel like a literal dictatorship. Once you’ve convinced yourself you’re already being tyrannized, why not go to your own extremes? Fair’s fair.

I seem to remember an old Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Frankly, if these times were any more interesting, I’d be afraid to get out of bed.

  • Rouxfus

    There is no Dominionist movement. The term seems to be the invention of sociologists, and promulgated through journalists to describe the natural tendency of a Christian political majority to enact laws which reflect Christian moral values. If you read about the “movement” you don’t find references to institutions or individuals who are promoting this idea within the “movement”. What you see is pointers to the web spinners of this meme – journalists and sociologists. It has been invented out of whole cloth as you say, a cudgel and a label by which the left can demonize Christians, and sweep them all into one convenient rhetorical pile.

  • Anonymous

    Hang on just a minute there. Just because sociologists oin a term, doesn’t mean teh term has no validity. I can’t think of a single person who would claim membership in the Lavender Mafia — the term was coined by a priest and sociologist named Fr. Andew Greeley — but very few of my readers would deny that such an entity ever existed. (I am unsure what to think.)

    Now, I’ll readily agree that all labels, especially negative ones, get mis- and overused in ways that bring discredit on the labelers. Thanks to Groothius’ very cogent, very passionate defense, I’m quite prepared to believe that Bachmann’s been subject to that kind of injustice. On the other hand, he affirms quite plainly that, yes Virginia, there is — or rather, was –a Rushdoony. He did not live in a cave all by himself. He founded a think tank called the Chalcedon Foundation, and published extensively — including in Triumph, a conservative Catholic magazine — You can argue that his influence has been exaggerated, but you can’t write him out of the picture altogether.

    Anyway, “Dominionist” sounds much grander than “reconstructionist,” which makes me think of real estate.

  • Anonymous

    Max, no Catholic political philosophy has ever taken off in America because there are too many mutually incompatible constituencies to satisfy.

    Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker tried it in the 19th century, but America was way too anti-Catholic then. In the 1890s, Leo XIII condemned something called “Americanism,” the actual content of which mattered much less than the label. In the 1920s, Al Smith was a coalition-builder, not a thinker. In the 1950s, John Tracy Ellis, Fulton Sheen, and John Courtney Murray articulated something like a political philosophy for American Catholics; indeed, Murray was the chief intellectual influence on Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty. But the problem was that those guys were all priests; their thing wasn’t considered a lay thing. The Kennedys, starting with old Joe himself, obviously blew it. Since then, National Review under Buckley, a serious Catholic, and First Things under Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, have come fairly close to developing a Catholic political philosophy that makes sense in an American context. But American Catholics are so polarized and fragmented that nobody can speak for all or even most of them.

    Even now, everybody who really thinks about these things realizes that a movement or party which consistently upheld Catholic social teaching in its integrity would be on the political fringes in America. What you’re asking about just ain’t gonna happen.

    Best,
    Mike

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget Buckley. He and Bozell fell out because Bozell thought hBuckley’was too selective when it came to incorporating Catholic teachings into his political philosophy. (I am not sure, but I think it was the encyclical Mater et Magistra that struck Bill as indigestibly pinko.) Bozell left NR, went to Spain, and fell in love with European thinkers. So deeply did he come to identify with European political traditions that, while attending a pro-life rally in Wasington D.C., he and one of his sons wore the red berets of Spain’s Carlist movement and chanted, ‘VIVA CRISTO REY!” Think of it: a Lyle Lovett look-alike engaging in civil disobedience dressed like he’s ready to run with the bulls. Surreal.

    I wonder how widespread that kind of Amreica fatigue ever got, or will get.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it will become widespread. Bozell’s turn to throne-and-altar integralism killed Triumph magazine–which is why I didn’t mention that short-lived but entertaining journal.

    As for Buckley’s “Mater sì, Magistra no”–which I believe was penned by Garry Wills as a summary–he was indeed being doctrinally selective. In fact, every Catholic political thinker accuses other Catholic political thinkers of being doctrinally selective. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that charge unless one’s an integralist–the old term for what you’re calling “Catholic dominionism.” In America, nobody’s dominionism is really going to fly–not Catholic, not Protestant, not Muslim…

  • http://www.affordablemedicaldental.com Affordable Medical Insurance

    If you read about the “movement” you don’t find references to institutions or individuals who are promoting this idea within the “movement”. What you see is pointers to the web spinners of this meme – journalists and sociologists.

  • rc

    I have to agree with those who say there is no Dominionist movement. Left-of-center and more-secular-than-center folk in the mainstream media seem to have plumbed the depths of obscure terms-of-art amongst America’s cornucopia of Christian variety and picked out, from a dust-covered pamphlet in the back of a white clapboard six-family church somewhere, a term intended to thrill themselves and like-minded persons with the notion that, despite all the protestations of differences between them, Billy Graham really is just Osama Bin Laden in drag.

    I mean, it really is that obscure. Christianity Today and Young Life and Campus Crusade for Christ and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Navigators and Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson and “The Purpose Driven Life” and “Mere Christianity” and “My Utmost For His Highest”: These are the center of gravity. 99.9% of Evangelicals and even Fundamentalists (I was a Southern Baptist growing up; I know both communities) have simply never heard the term “Dominionist.”

  • Anonymous

    hogwash. it is called the society of st. pius X.

  • http://twitter.com/drjenpierce Jen Pierce

    Interesting discussion, thanks, Max.

    On the one hand, Catholic Dominionists, likely do and have existed (like integralism), the question is, truly, why do they not gain as much traction as the evangelicals?

    If Catholicism is catholic, small, c, it could never gain political traction because if that small c is working, Catholicism should be able to hold folks of all political stripes. Thankfully, it still seems to me, except…well except…

    To the extent that the Catholic voice in the public square has almost entirely ceded to the Evangelical and Christian reconstructionist voice, to the point that they are almost indiscernible from each other. There is currently no expressly Catholic voice in politics or in culture in general, as there once was in recent history, during the time that Buckley rose up. Depending on one’s orientation, people will tell you that Vatican II had either everything to do with the emergence of that voice (The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance as it is sometimes called) or everything to do with it becoming mute.

    To its credit, the Vatican, in authoring documents has always been the master of irenic ambiguity in its language. It doesn’t always do it perfectly, but in general it does it better than any other “think tank” or teaching body out there. One of the fruits of THAT, is that almost any political orientation can come to an encyclical and feel vindicated by one of those selective reads.

    The end result being, if one reads the document thoroughly with both fides et ratio, one finds oneself thoroughly unable to find a comfortable political home in any secular American political movement or institution.

    Again, that is either a rotten fruit or a sweet one depending on your point of view…but from my point of view that is small c Catholic and is exactly as it should be.

    Otherwise we’d be tempted to render unto Ceasar something he wouldn’t know what to do with.

    Pitch perfect discussion for where my head’s been at lately. Thanks again.

  • http://twitter.com/drjenpierce Jen Pierce

    Interesting discussion, thanks, Max.

    On the one hand, Catholic Dominionists, likely do and have existed (like integralism), the question is, truly, why do they not gain as much traction as the evangelicals?

    If Catholicism is catholic, small, c, it could never gain political traction because if that small c is working, Catholicism should be able to hold folks of all political stripes. Thankfully, it still seems to me, except…well except…

    To the extent that the Catholic voice in the public square has almost entirely ceded to the Evangelical and Christian reconstructionist voice, to the point that they are almost indiscernible from each other. There is currently no expressly Catholic voice in politics or in culture in general, as there once was in recent history, during the time that Buckley rose up. Depending on one’s orientation, people will tell you that Vatican II had either everything to do with the emergence of that voice (The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance as it is sometimes called) or everything to do with it becoming mute.

    To its credit, the Vatican, in authoring documents has always been the master of irenic ambiguity in its language. It doesn’t always do it perfectly, but in general it does it better than any other “think tank” or teaching body out there. One of the fruits of THAT, is that almost any political orientation can come to an encyclical and feel vindicated by one of those selective reads.

    The end result being, if one reads the document thoroughly with both fides et ratio, one finds oneself thoroughly unable to find a comfortable political home in any secular American political movement or institution.

    Again, that is either a rotten fruit or a sweet one depending on your point of view…but from my point of view that is small c Catholic and is exactly as it should be.

    Otherwise we’d be tempted to render unto Ceasar something he wouldn’t know what to do with.

    Pitch perfect discussion for where my head’s been at lately. Thanks again.

  • Robbie Robel

    The Catholic right is largely obsessed with the restoration of the House of Bourbons in France. Most of the Catholic traditionalists I know are avowed monarchists of the pre-1789 variety.

  • Andrew Patton

    Because Dominionism is a heresy. It detracts from the Gospel because it is too worldly.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X