Pat Robertson and the (old) dominion wars

I’ve tried to stay out of the whole Dominionism thing in recent weeks, in large part because if you have read a fair share of church history you — literally — have heard it all before. The partisans simply work up new labels in each new round of combat.

Yes, there are some theocrats out there and then tend to clump into some very small and quite distinct groups. It should be noted that these groups rarely agree with one another, either on matters of theology or politics. The spirits that animate these quarrelsome folks are quite diverse (one might even say they are “legion”).

Take those “New Apostolic Reformation” folks who are supposed to be running the state of Texas, right now. Is it just me, or do they sound like the latest manifestation of the whole power prophecy stance that sweeps through some Pentecostal flocks every now and then?

Anyway, one passage in Lisa Miller’s recent commentary on the Dominionism scare — part of her work at the Washington Post “On Faith” site — stirred up some very old memories for me, memories from my “moderate” Southern Baptist past and my one close encounter with the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Here’s the passage that tweaked me:

Christian conservatives in America are not more militant than ever. Pat Robertson, a Christian minister, ran for president in 1988. Robertson was, actually, a dominionist. “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world,” he wrote.

Now, I’m no expert on Robertson. I’ve never even met the man. However, based on my readings I do know that he has held a lot of beliefs at different points in time and many of them don’t mesh very well. Take that “rightful place of leadership at the top of the world” quote. Is he talking about an event at the end of time? Next week? After the next White House race? What?

Nevertheless, that reference to Robertson being a true blue dominionist — little “d,” or big “D” — reminded me an excellent article in Atlantic Monthly that I read long ago when I was wrestling with whether to join the faculty of Regent University (don’t ask). It was written by the great liberal Baptist Harvey (“The Secular City“) Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

The name of this long, but essential, article: “Warring Visions of the Religious Right.” It grew out of Cox’s experiences when he was invited to do a series of lectures on the Regent campus. While surprised at the invitation, he was even more surprised to arrive and discover (a) that the campus was home to intellectuals representing quite a few different theological and political perspectives and (b) that there was probably more true diversity there (in terms of disagreements on vital issues) than one would find in the Harvard faculty lounge.

Thus, the key word in his title is “warring.”

To his shock, Cox learned that quite a few Regent people were embracing the doctrine of “postmillennialism.” What’s that? Well, think of it as the opposite of the whole “Left Behind” thing.

Since the rise of fundamentalism, in the early years of the twentieth century, the favored eschatology among its adherents has been that Jesus Christ will actually return before the establishment of his millennial Kingdom, and in the meantime things will get progressively worse on earth. There will be wars and rumors of wars as we spiral downward. This is the so-called pre-millennial view, popularized in Hal Lindsey’s paperback broadside The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which has sold more than 12 million copies. In that book Lindsey analyzed the Cold War, the role of Israel, and the moral decline of America in the light of his own inventive reading of the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and announced that the final great battle of Armageddon was about to begin.

This somewhat overheated “living-in-the-last-days” mentality is, however, vociferously opposed by another school of conservative Christian eschatology, which is called postmillennialism. A considerably more upbeat view, it holds that through the faithfulness of individuals and the influence they bring to bear on societies, righteousness and justice will gradually spread and increase. Consequently, when Christ comes again, the earth will be prepared for his appearance. The postmillennial idea reigned virtually uncontested in American Protestantism from the time of Jonathan Edwards until the appearance of fundamentalism, around 1900. Since then the two parties have been feuding, but in the past decade the postmillennial view has staged a comeback. It is clearly dominant at Regent.

Pre-millennial and postmillennial eschatologies generate opposing visions of what believers should be doing in a fallen world.

You can say that again.

This sets the stage for the battle that was raging at Regent nearly two decades ago.

You guessed it. The title of this section of Cox’s article is, “The Dominion Controversy.” This is the context for Miller’s earlier Robertson quote.

… (Just) how are Christians to exert influence? This brings up what has undoubtedly been the most contentious issue at Regent. It has to do with something called “dominion theology.” A subset within postmillennial theology, the dominion school holds that Christians (and, some would add, religious Jews) have inherited all the Old Testament mandates, one of the most fundamental of which is in Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (emphasis added). Dominion theologians interpret this passage to mean that believers are entitled to “dominion” over all the world’s major institutions. They should rule the earth until Christ comes again, no matter what the duration of their interim reign. Some of Robertson’s critics believe that such a vision — an entire nation run at all levels by the faithful — is what inspired Robertson to rename his university “Regent,” and they find this frightening.

Their concerns, it would seem, are not entirely groundless. At times Robertson has written, in what gives a strong impression of being a dominion-theology voice, that Regent is to be a “Kingdom institution,” in which people will be taught how to “enter into the privilege they have as God’s representatives on earth.”

So who won this war? That’s the surprising twist. Cox discovers strong evidence that the dominionists lost the war at Regent and, to his surprise, Robertson even emerged as a “moderating influence” who was veering away from that stance.

Fascinating. Essential reading, for those who are actually interested in the roots of this latest mini-firestorm. If you want to do more than play spin the labels, this wise article from Cox is must reading.

So read it all.

IMAGES: On the the Regent University Divinity School; Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    Sorry, this is not the place to post your basic anti-Pat Robertson posts.

    Deal with the contents of the post.

  • Will

    Is he talking about an event at the end of time? Next week? After the next White House race? What?

    Exactly. We are told that these sinister “Dominionists” call for Christians to “take dominion”. But what the bleep does “take dominion” MEAN? The would-be Paul Revere’s crying “The Dominionists are coming!” seem maddeningly vague about that.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Pre-millennialism is actually a bit older than fundamentalism, if you count it from the Dispensationalism of Darby. Certainly dispensationalists (all that I know of) are fundamentalists, but, as noted in the post, not all fundamentalists are dispensationalists (again, as far as I know).

    I liked Cox’s historical review of Christian education, providing some context for Regent, but have to question this:

    the legacy of the Reformation by not insisting on the Reformation’s central doctrinal bequest:justification by grace alone.

    Shouldn’t that be faith alone?

    I would be interested to see Cox do a side-by-side of Regent, Liberty, and Wheaton, each representative of a different strain of religion that often get clustered together under that vague word “evangelical”.

    Finally, it was fun to encounter Rod Williams, who had founded a charismatic prayer group in Austin when he taught at the Presbyterian seminary there in the 60s. He was gone by the time I came along in the 70s, but I heard him speak once or twice and he was certainly interesting.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I agree with you that the article is well worth reading. But I think your review did not include a couple important points.

    First, I think his reaching back to the original focus of universities like Harvard was appropriate and even vital. Seeing historical parallels with today’s situation helps put the current situation into perspective.

    I also found apt his drawing a parallel between liberation theology and similar engagement with the world from the religious right.

    The one criticism I had was his minimal discussion of the claim that certain controversial passages in Robertson’s books are all the ghostwriters fault. Cox avoids pushing on that point but I wish he had. I would have liked him to ask about how could someone say, in effect, that Robertson did not read and correct what others wrote in his name.

    But that’s a minor quibble in a very well written piece.

  • tmatt


    There was much I could have mentioned. I focused on the part most relevant to the current journalistic mini-firestorm.

  • Daniel

    It’s typical of my news and opinion experiences that in the run-up to the upcoming presidential election, so many interviewees who have never diligently studied the issue of dominionism or post-millenialism have become instant experts. I would hope that journalists would spend some extra time and find ways of finding out what they’re really talking about. Is that really too much to ask? Indeed: The would-be Paul Revere’s crying “The Dominionists are coming!” seem maddeningly vague about that. You’re right on with that comment.

  • rob in williamson county

    The postmillennial idea reigned virtually uncontested in American Protestantism from the time of Jonathan Edwards until the appearance of fundamentalism, around 1900.

    Uh…there were/are also people who subscribed to an amillennial position, but by acknowledging this the writer would have had to muddy the “clarity” of his analysis. I really like analysis that presents the rich complexity of faith, and writers and editors that trust their readers should strive to present it in their work.