The End Times, Part II: Social Justice, Dominionism, and the Culture Wars

Whether Christians are Postmillennialist, Amillennialist, or Premillennialist has a dramatic affect on how they view the world. Understanding this aids in understanding things like social justice, dominionism, and the culture wars.

Postmillennialists, Amillennialists, and Premillennialists

Catholics are generally Amillennialists while mainline Protestants are generally either Amillennialists or Postmillennialists. The distinction between the two is often vague. Amillennialists believe we are currently living in a (figurative) millennium and that Christ’s return could come at any minute, or not for hundreds or thousands of years. Amillennialists generally don’t involve themselves in watching for the signs of the end times, and instead concentrate on living Christian lives in the here and now. Postmillennialists are similar, except that they believe that Christians must work to bring about the Millennium, when the world will be at peace, governed by Christian ethics and values.

There are actually two types of Postmillennialists. Most Postmillennialists are your mainline Protestants who run soup kitchens and talk about social justice. Some Postmillennialists, however, are extremely conservative, mainly of the reformed (i.e. Calvinist) traditions. These are the dominionists, the ones who believe in establishing a theocracy – some even hope to bring back Old Testament law. (See Gary Nash and Rousas Rushdoony, for instance, or Vision Forum.) To be clear, there are very few hard-core dominionists. What I find more interesting about dominionism than the few who want to bring back Old Testament law is the influence some dominionist ideas have had beyond hard-core dominionism itself.

Most conservative Protestants are Premillennialists, who, like I said before, believe in a coming tribulation, with a rapture at some point, and that the end times are imminent. These are the ones who watch for signs of the end times, speculate about the identity of the antichrist, and interpret current events through a Biblical end times lens. These are the ones who believe that the end times might begin at any moment.

Cultural and Theological Bleed

Now there is also this thing I call “bleed.” In other words, the edges get blurry in interesting way and cultural and theological influence spreads ideas around. This often happens unintentionally, but understanding it is key to understanding things like the political influence of dominionism.

First, through cultural icons like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, Premillenialism has gained a hearing beyond just conservative Protestants. In fact, even some Catholics have been taken in, prompting the composition and marketing of books like The Rapture Trap, explaining to Catholics that that whole Premillennial, Tribulation, and Rapture thing is neither Biblical nor grounded in church tradition.

Second, while today’s evangelicals and fundamentalists alike trace their lineage back to the late nineteenth century Bible conferences that birthed Premillenialism, some progressive evangelicals have rejected Premillenialism and embrace either Amillennialism or, more likely, Postmillennialism. They generally talk about social justice rather than watching for the signs of the times. These sorts of evangelicals are often associated with the emergent church.

Third, a surprising number of Premillennialists have been influenced by the thinking of Postmillennial dominionists. You would think Premillennialists would care only about watching for signs of the end times and nodding as the world gets worse and worse, and that is why it was so very odd to see Jerry Falwell getting into politics. Beginning in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer, himself a Premillennialist but influenced by some of the ideas of Postmillennial dominionism, called on Christians to resist the “moral decay” they saw around them and fight the “secular humanism” that was taking place in society. Schaeffer’s influence should not be underestimated, and he was himself involved in the founding of numerous religious right organizations. The combination of the threat presented by (apparent) moral decay and the galvanizing call of Schaeffer, influenced by dominionist thought, resulted in numerous Premillennialists rejecting isolationism and engaging politically in the “culture wars.”

Note: Schaeffer was not, strictly speaking, a dominionist. Being “influenced by dominionist ideas” is not the same thing as being an actual full dominionist. There are very few who actually want to restore Old Testament law. Most of those influenced by dominionist ideas simply want to work through the ballot box to preserve our nation’s “moral foundation” and spread “Christian” values. It’s the difference between upholding “traditional” marriage and urging a return to stoning gay people. I find both problematic, but I don’t think it’s helpful to treat the two like they’re one and the same. 

It sometimes seems like Premillennialists don’t realize what is happening when embracing certain ideas from Postmillenial dominionism. I actually sensed this disconnect as a child. I wondered why we would be so politically involved in trying to “take back the nation for Christ” if we knew that the future held only defeat and decline, followed by the Tribulation. Shouldn’t we just focus on saving souls and leave everything else alone, I wondered? I actually asked my dad this at one point, and he thought for a minute before concluding that “we have to try.” In other words, we know we’re going down, but we’re not going down without a fight. This thinking, though, is new. Before the influence of Schaeffer, Premillennialists were generally more separatist, focusing on saving souls rather than on injecting religion into politics. But it’s also important to remember that Schaeffer could only have the influence he had because of the visibility of the startling “moral decline” that began in the 1960s. In this atmosphere many Premillenialists felt very threatened, and Schaeffer’s ideas, influenced by dominionist thinking, filled a need.

This should help make all that Premillennial, Amillennial, and Postmillennial stuff more clear. It also serves as a way to introduce the idea of dominionism and touch on the origins of the culture wars, both things I will write more about in the future. As always, feel free to add to what I’ve said – I don’t know everything, after all!

Also in this series: 

Part I – The Millennium, Tribulation, and Rapture

Part II – Social Justice, Dominionism, and the Culture Wars

Part III – Dispensationalism

Part IV – The Tribulation in Detail

Part V – Signs, Prophesies, and Current Events

Part VI: Rapture Anxiety

Part VII: Dispensational Premillennialism’s Recent Origins


About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anders

    Very interesting, and I look forward to the next post. Small nitpick: you write “Second, some progressive evangelicals have rejected Postmillenialism and embrace either Amillennialism or, more likely, Postmillennialism.” They cannot both reject and embrace Postmillenialism. :)

    But that is a minor quibble.

    • Libby Anne

      Whoops! Typo! There, I fixed it. Thanks!

      • John Morales

        Another unintentional error (I think) due to near-homophony (my bold):

        Most conservative Protestants are Premillennialists, who, like I said before, believe in a coming tribulation, with a rapture at some point, and that the end times are eminent.

        I suspect you intended to write ‘imminent’.

        Rather interesting reading, BTW. Thanks!

      • Libby Anne

        Ack! Thanks! I swear, typos are like ants no matter how many you squash there are always more!

      • Iain

        May I add another? “…explaining to Catholics that that whole Postmillennial, Tribulation, and Rapture thing is neither Biblical nor grounded in church tradition.” I think here you do mean Premillenial, since Postmillennialism wouldn’t have the Tribulation, and I don’t believe Catholics have huge problems with Postmillenialism.

      • Libby Anne

        Dude. This is just sad. I need to proofread better, apparently! Thanks!

      • Anders

        Heh. You should read some of my posts at Natalie’s blog. Proofreading is for suckers. :)

      • Yukimi

        I don’t want to be evil but this is another typo, right? “Amillennialists believe were are currently living in a” I guess you meant Amillennialists believe we are

      • Libby Anne

        *headdesk*

      • Iain

        Don’t look at corrections as a bad thing :) . We’re reading this avidly, and my sense is that this whole series could become a reference for eschatology for skeptics. Cleaning up a few mental typos is worth the effort… most blog posts I read have a number of errors, but you know what the writer means, so it isn’t worth fixing. A dense, informative post needs (and gets) more proofing.

        Personally, as a former evangelical of many years’ standing, I’m surprised at how much I didn’t know, and how much “theology” has been developed recently. I’m finding this whole series absolutely fascinating.

    • Margaret

      Don’t look at corrections as a bad thing :) .

      I second that.

      Libby Anne, the corrections show that people are reading your stuff and that we really, really want these articles to stand as references that we can go back to or recommend to someone. Think of it as free proof-reading for your excellent published articles instead of as nit-picking on a blog.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Fred Clark has been pointing out it makes no sense to believe the world is irredeemably lost and Jesus will destroy and that we are supposed to make the world conform to Jesus’s rules. Sadly, his blog seems to mostly not be read by the people who need to hear this.

  • Night Witch

    Interesting! I feel as though I have a better handle on these people’s motivations now. I’m currently atheist, but grew up vaguely catholic, and attended catholic schools thru high school. I had never heard of “the Rapture” till I was in college, and had to ask what it was. The answer didn’t make much sense to me, but this is much clearer.

    Interestingly, we were taught in religion class more “the world happens to be ending, and so Jesus will come,” more than “Jesus will come to end the world!” As in, “Giant natural (or human-made) catastrophe will happen, but Jesus will come save everyone!”

  • seditiosus

    Fascinating! I’m really looking forward to the other installments in the series.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    I second seditiosus’ reply. :)

    Very interesting read.

    • anthonyallen

      3rd’d.

  • Coragyps

    You remind me of the tabloid newspaper that I saw one fall day while waiting in the grocery store line. The teasers on the front cover included “The World Will End By Spring!” and “Get Out of Debt by Christmas!”

    Crap, I could put up with a couple of months of dodging bill collectors……

  • Keith

    I also appreciate this series. I am particularly intriqued by the premillenialists being so heavily influenced by dominion it’s ideas. I had always just assumed that they all thought like your dad did, not that they were different schools of thought.

    Please keep posts like this coming.

  • Brad

    Good series, and as a (still mostly) Evangelical, I can attest that this is all pretty much accurate. I actually used those same wikipedia diagrams a couple years ago when teaching the same topics to a Bible class.

    This is a subject I am reasonably familiar with, but this is the first time I’ve seen the contradiction you point out with regard to conservatives who hold Premillennialist theological beliefs, yet have a POSTmillennialist level of “make the world ready for Christ” activism.

    One interesting side note about the impact of these beliefs: I recall hearing somewhere [citation needed] that Michael S. Hyatt, the author of the 1998 book “The Millennium Bug : How to Survive the Coming Chaos”, that started all the Y2K hysteria was a strong Postmillennialist, and that his theological views of how we were going to usher in the millennial reign had a lot to do with why he thought that Y2K was going to be such a huge calamity.

    There were actually a lot of Christians who believed that the beginning of the new millennium (year 2000) might, in fact, coincide with the beginning of the spiritual millennial reign.

    And, I suppose, some who continued to believe that when George Bush was elected to his first term :)

  • MasterDarksol

    Thank you for putting the time and effort into writing up this series. This is highly illuminating for me as my pre-atheist background was Catholic. As you mention, we didn’t really concern ourselves with searching for signs of the end-times (to the point that I wasn’t even aware of pre/post/a-millennialist distinctions). I always thought the whole fixation on the Rapture was just weird, even when I was a theist.

  • Otrame

    @2
    EVERYONE should read Fred Clark’s “Slacktivist” blog (sorry, it is a huge hassle to link stuff while writing on an iPad). Fred is a Christian, an evangelical, and extremely liberal. Of course, I believe he is wrong about the existence of God, but he is so completely decent that I have no problem being an “accommodationist” where he is concerned.

    He started “reviewing” the Left Behind series several years ago, including the movies. He has been ripping them apart, page by page, in excruciating detail. I recommend reading those posts in particular, but really he has a lot to say that is worth reading, whether you are a Christian or not. Seriously, you’ll enjoy him. And he is a constant reminder that not all Christians are hateful bigots with small minds and smaller hearts, which I think it is important to keep in mind.

    • karmakin

      I actually stopped reading him several years ago when he stated that faith trumps works, and couldn’t understand why that’s morally and ethically problematic.

      Or to put it a different way, tribal identity trumps basic questions of right and wrong.

      Personally I think what we consider to be “Dominionism” is less about what they actually want to institute, which to be honest I think is pretty much arbitrary…if this was a movie, it would be a McGuffin…and it’s all about maximizing the strength and dominance of one’s tribal identity. In an alternate universe, if their opposition was a more economically conservative one, as an example, they would take up stances of social justice with the same vigor, although for a variety of reasons I don’t think that would actually be very likely.

      • Otrame

        I think you might have misunderstood him, honestly. Or he has grown past that. For me, his greatest value is the way he insists that Jesus actual meant the kinder gentler stuff so many Christians ignore, and that if you wear clothing with mixed fabrics you don’t have to worry about the “sleeping with a man as with a woman” part either. Mostly he is anti-hate and considers the “love god and your neighbors” stuff the most mportant commandment.

  • kisekileia

    This is the best intro to dominionism that I’ve seen anywhere in the several years I’ve been reading about this stuff online. A lot of sites devoted to dominionism appear to characterize the entire Christian right as dominionist, and I’ve found that those can end up looking like tinfoil-hattery to people who don’t see what’s wrong with those nice Christians over there who just happen to be a little more conservative than they are. Great post!

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  • Godlesspanther

    It really is difficult to determine the level to which the politicized Christian right is influenced by dominionist ideology. Persons such as David Barton, Bryan Fischer, and even oldsters like Pat Robertson make public statements that have obvious dominionist agenda written all over them — but, whenever asked about that specifically they almost always respond with something along the lines of — “aglkjaoihv, Jar49fgjl-uf4t”

    Some of the refusal to supply a direct answer can be attributed to the fact that they do not think about things in such an analytical manner — they simply have not given it much thought because they are more focused on an appeal to emotion in order to rile up their followers. Another aspect of this is that, although they think that they have the right to nose into everything that everyone else is doing they are under no obligation to be candid about what they themselves are doing. Another aspect of this is that it appears to be the case that giving a direct honest response to a question is mightily against their religion.
    To use Barton as an example — he wants the US to be known as a “Christian Nation” that is based on “biblical principles” — if we were to say — “OK David, this is a Christian nation based on Biblical principles, now will you just shut up and go away? Or do you really want more than that?” I’m sure that case would be that he really does want more than that. Does this guy really think that gay people ought to be literally put to death by method of stoning? We are left to speculate because hw will never be upfront on that or any other real issue.
    This eschatology rapture theology is difficult to follow. It’s like trying to trace the path of a single noodle in a large plate of spaghetti. And I thought advanced calculus was hard.

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