(Ed. Note. The following is part 1 of 5 of our continuing republication of Dominionist Theology: A Guide to Theocracy for Secularists originally published on the Left Hemispheres blog in 2011 by Steve Barry, along with additional new commentary. Follow these links to read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5)
Back in 2011 I was occasionally writing and more often podcasting with a group of friends as part of a Atheist/Skeptic/Secular Humanist blog called Left Hemispheres. My then co-blogger and co-host Steve Barry took it upon himself at the time to write a particularly thorough 5 part series on growing theocratic influences that were organizing within the American conservative right. As we are now on the verge of such elements exerting a frankly terrifying amount of influence over the national politics it seems like a good time to revisit his series to demonstrate how these groups gained influence and open discussion on effective methods to dissolve their influence in the interest of preserving freedoms and rights that are now under very real threat.
The original postings have been lost to the machinations of the internet sometime after we stopped maintaining the blog in 2014. So, with Steve’s permission For Infernal Use Only will be republishing the original series over the coming weeks along with additional commentary reflecting the 7 years since the original publication.
Dominionism, Dominion Theology, and Theonomy vs. Theocracy
By Steve Barry, 2011
“Dominionism” is the religious belief that Christians are mandated to influence and control the government (more accurately over everything) based on God’s Laws within the Bible manifested as political philosophy and subsequent machinations. In short; Christian laws and people should be present within every facet of the culture and “secularism and pluralism” should be eradicated. There is a central belief that Christians are inherently superior to secular and non-Christian laws and people.
There are three overarching beliefs of Dominionism. They are:
- Christian Nationalism: The belief that the Unites States of America is a Christian Nation and was explicitly founded as such. This whole “Separation of Church and State” concept is a trick by godless, liberal secularists working for Satan. Probably Marxist Nazi Islamic Atheists.
- Christian Religious Supremacy: Obviously they do not hold other religions, or the lack thereof, in high regard. Christianity is the only true religion. The rest are evil, wicked, and infected with demons sent by Satan to corrupt. This belief in corruption extends to other sects of Christianity that do not share in their beliefs.
- Christian views on Biblical law should be reflected in or usurp secular American law: This could range from something fairly innocuous like a vague wish to return to idealized 1950’s Americana to a complete theocracy; in which Biblical laws are carried out to the point where homosexuals, adulterers and blasphemers are stoned to death.
It is best to think of these beliefs on a spectrum. Christians that hold these beliefs have varying levels of what I’ll call “severity” as to how this worldview should be accomplished and carried out. The following section is from my Dominionism in the 21st Century post:
“In his article The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy – Part Two, Chip Berlet states that it is “a tendency among Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that encourages them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but also to seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.”
Berlet divides the Dominionists into two subgroups:
Soft Dominionists are Christian nationalists. They believe that Biblically-defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. They fear that America’s greatness as God’s chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Their vision has elements of theocracy, but they stop short of calling for supplanting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Hard Dominionists believe all of this, but they want the United States to be a Christian theocracy. For them the Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely addendums to Old Testament Biblical law. They claim that Christian men with specific theological beliefs are ordained by God to run society. Christians and others who do not accept their theological beliefs would be second-class citizens. This sector includes the Christian Reconstructionists, but it has a growing number of adherents in the leadership of the Christian Right.
I think many, if not most people in the Christian Right movement during the recent cultures wars fit into the Soft Dominionist movement as described above and they would not have an objection to this description. While in direct opposition to secularism and liberalism, they are still basically within mainstream America. Not that they aren’t a threat, but at this point we are used to them.
The Hard Dominionists, however, are a major threat to the United States of America, its Bill of Rights, the Constitution, education, science, and our tradition of secular government. Some would balk at this notion, but the point is they do not see the United States of America as having always been a secular nation. They would balk because they see the nation as having always been a nation created by God and has since been undermined and overtaken by liberals, socialists, atheists, homosexuals, etc. We are the enemy and we should be destroyed. It is God’s will. Think about that mindset for moment. Does that sound like you want these people anywhere near the leadership of our country?
What I was trying to emphasize in this older post, and I now understand even better than when I first wrote the above, is that Dominionism describes the political philosophy and machinations that many conservative Christians hold, but there are varying degrees in which their goals and methods would go. Obviously, not every Christian is a “Dominionist.” In some respects, it is not that useful a descriptor for groups and especially individuals. Your typical Sunday morning, church-going granny could be labeled a “Dominionist” if asked certain questions, but what does that really tell you? Not much. Granny probably wouldn’t even know what you are talking about if you asked if she was “Dominionist.”
This doesn’t mean I am falling into the trap of dismissing Dominionism, its leaders, and their threats to liberty. Far from it. All I am saying is that those of us (antitheists, atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists, agnostics, and some progressive Christians) that oppose these ideas and movements need to know what—exactly—we are talking about. An example of an incorrect notion of the Dominionism can be found on RationalWiki (which I love). Dominionism is not “also called” Christian Reconstructionism (ed note: I am happy to report that RationalWiki has updated their page since this article’s original publication). Christian Reconstructionism is a type of Dominion Theology. The easy answer to why this has become a common point of confusion is that Christian Reconstructionism has been around for a few decades and had been a kind of progenitor for the Christian Right movement that gained momentum in the 1970’s and 1980’s. More on that later. This may seem like nitpicking, but there are significant differences between some of these groups and, in fact, they (various Dominionist and non-Dominionist Christian theologies) find the others heretical, dangerous, or fake. Of course they do…
We are used to people that believe America was founded as a Christian nation, that Christianity is “The Way”, and that America’s laws should be based on the Bible. That is par for the course. The real challenge is to place these beliefs on a spectrum from the mistaken and annoying to unmitigated threats. As far as groups and beliefs to keep our eyes on…we need specifics. Let’s dive in and drill down.
Whereas “dominionism” is the descriptor for the political beliefs and the goals of some Christians; “Dominion theology”, as the name implies, is a specific set of religious beliefs. It is the religious basis of the movement that influences or “mandates” the political side. This mandate is inspired by and interpreted from a passage in Genesis.
And God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said unto them, “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.” —Genesis 1:28 (KJV)
One of the reasons I started to look into this topic in more detail was that I have seen various different definitions of dominionism or confusing the different theological beliefs within Dominion Theology. Many writers state that all Dominionists believe that Jesus didn’t fully defeat Satan while on the cross and therefore it is up to the Church to defeat the forces of evil so Jesus can return. I have found that to be true of the Kingdom Now theological adherents (ed note: see Part 3, coming soon), but I am not sure that the Christian Reconstructionists (ed note: see part 2, coming soon) believe this. Not exactly anyway. For example, using the two main “branches” of Dominionism I will discuss in this series how we can see the slight theological similarities and differences.
- Christian Reconstructionism = Kingdom of God on Earth was established at the crucifixion, but it is incomplete. It is progressing and Jesus will return at the culmination of a Christian world.
- Kingdom Now Theology = The Church needs to create Kingdom of God on Earth so Jesus is able to return.
While the differences are subtle, they have implications for how these theologies manifest in the people that follow them. While Christian Reconstructionists still have to work at making the world Christian, the Kingdom Now Theologists believe they have a greater role in this due to their beliefs in the charismatic power. This is just one example. I am not going to dive into the plethora of incorrect information. Much of the confusion originates from other Christians who are critical of Dominion Theology and find it heretical (and secular writers have often cited these writings). They tend to misrepresent for their own theological underpinnings.
Conversely, a major theological theme shared by these groups is that God lost control of the Earth to Satan after the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. I use this core belief as the central definition of Dominion Theology. It is as follows: Dominion Theology is the belief that Christians are mandated by God to reclaim dominion from Satan’s control, in order to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth for the eventual return of Jesus Christ. To be clear, this is my interpretation of everything that I have read from secular critics, religious critics and the Dominionists themselves. It removes specific beliefs of particular groups that are mistakenly applied to the whole or that do not perfectly align with others. I welcome a discussion in the comments if anyone disagrees or has a better core theological belief for them.
Within this definition is contained some significant information about the worldviews of the people that adhere to them. First, it is representative of the good/evil duality of an Abrahamic religious universe. Nearly everything that has happened since Adam and Eve were to have bitten the apple has been the work of the devil. This world we live in, anything “worldly,” is Satanic. It sets up everything external to Biblical teaching as wrong, bad, or evil. Science? Satanic. Secularism? Satanic. Religious Pluralism? Satanic. Homosexuality? Satanic. Public Schools? Satanic. No-theocratic government? Satanic. It is a wholly insular worldview that is perfectly suited to protect the meme of religion.
Secondly, within this definition is the simplest premise of Dominion Theology’s eschatology (End Times beliefs). While there are differences between the groups they all share the belief and goal that the Earth must be prepared for the (post-millennial) return of Jesus Christ. This is not related to The Rapture, by the way. Dominion Theology largely disavows that concept.
So how does Dominion Theology instruct Dominionist political agenda? A word from a leader in one of the movements:
“Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing and it relates to society. In other words, what the values are in Heaven need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation Chapter 1:6 that He has made us kings and priests – and check the rest of that verse; it says for Dominion. So we are kings for Dominion.” – C. Peter Wagner (emphasis added)
I emphasized the two sentences to point out the theme. The Dominion they wish to seek is to establish their brand of Christianity as the ultimate authority on Earth and they will accomplish this by taking over society. The “head and not the tail” reference is from Deuteronomy stating, “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be beneath…” (Deuteronomy 28:13 NASB) noting that God will bless His people and they shall rule over the Earth (provided they keep the Covenant). This is a clear catchphrase or battle cry for Dominionists. Aside from Genesis 1:28, this may be one of the best Biblical passages to describe their mindset. They are commanded to rule the Earth under God’s law.
Theonomy vs Theocracy
We need to define a few things here for clarification since these two concepts are often confused. I would venture a guess that they aren’t confused so much as mistakenly thought of as the same thing.
- Theonomy: God’s Law. The state of an individual or society that regards its own nature and norms as being in accord with the divine nature. (via dictionary.com)
- Theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. (via Merriam-Webster)
This is a necessary distinction especially in light of the splitting of hairs that Dominionists have begun to do when defining their goals as more and more media attention has brought them into the light. If we wanted to get into a strictly theological debate about what this means we could go on and on, ad nauseum. In short, theonomy is the Christian opposite of the concept of autonomy. There is no “self” as the basis for ethics. Just Divine Will. Only God’s Laws, as they are revealed in the Bible, are the basis for ethics. These “laws” should be used as the basis for civil law. In my opinion, theonomy is to theocracy as Dominion Theology is to Dominionism. One is a theological concept regarding basic personal and universal worldview and one is the political application of that worldview. Now, it can be easily argued that theonomy, since it is a “law system” applied to civil law is political and that would be correct as well. However, the point here is that one is required for the other to exist. Theocracy is not going to happen without theonomy. As mentioned above, this is relevant since Dominionist (especially Christian Reconstructionists) have attempted to muddy the waters with theological speak of theonomy as if it doesn’t have an end game.
The Bible gives the foundation for a true theocracy as a bottom-up, grassroots effort that begins in the hearts of the people. It can never be imposed from the top down.…We can deceive ourselves into thinking that the people of the United States would be willing to echo the sentiments of the desert-wandering Israelites, accepting the terms of God’s covenantal rule, or we can get to work locally, making change at the top inevitable. Voting for this sort of top-down change without doing the hard work of the bottom-up is exactly the sort of theocratic thinking that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris accuse Christians of having. We need a theonomic revolution in the hearts of the American people (and the rest of the world), not a theocratic one. Politics and presidents can’t save us, only Jesus can. And when the Church serves her true King in obedience and action, the theocracy will come—not through elections, but through people—one heart at a time.
Theonomy, drives theocracy. Many observers and writers view Dominion Theology as a subset of Dominionism with the differing types of specific theologies nested underneath. This concept works only in the sense that “Dominionism”, as a term, is useful to denote the similarities and act as a catch-all, umbrella term. My problem with this however, is that it puts the cart before the horse. Dominionist political action does not drive the theology. Theology drives the “mandate” for political action. In the next several posts I will continue with primers on movements within the movement and how the varying religious beliefs influence their political actions.
To end Part 1 I will leave you with this:
While most Dominionists would say they favor the U.S. Constitution, and merely seek to restore it to the original intentions of the founders, in fact, their views are profoundly anti-democratic. The Dominionist worldview is not one based on the rights of the individual as we have come to know them, but on notions of biblical law…Indeed the Dominionist movement and its allies in Congress are actively seeking to eviscerate the capacity of the federal courts to protect the rights of all citizens. Developing a coherent understanding of the ongoing role of Dominionism in the dynamic growth of the Christian Right movement will be integral to any effective counter strategy in this, one of the central struggles of our time. Political Research Associates “The Rise of Dominionism”
2018 Hindsight Commentary
What I really like about Steve’s series is he does a wonderful job of defining the problem of Dominionist beliefs and goals. He also does a great job of illustrating how applying these beliefs to the political sphere is a danger to established ideas of liberty and freedom in modern pluralist society. However, looking back over the past 7 years since he wrote the series we can now see the strategies they have used to grow their government influence and are now in a position to begin implementing their ideas into law.
The Theocratic Strategy
Of course the original impetus for this series, and the Left Hemisphere’s project in general, was the growing far-right Christian backlash to the election of President Obama in 2008. We began the project shortly before the midterm 2010 elections, which I think it’s fair to say marks the first big electoral push by theocrats to gain political power in the 21st Century. They accomplished such large victories in 2010 for a number of reasons. Most notably though, in retrospect, is that theocrats were able to use multiple motivating factors to effectively have right-wing Christians vote as a block. By fostering sentiments of moral outrage, combining them with fears of economic insecurity, and taking advantage of festering racist sentiments combined with traditionally lower voter turnout in midterm election years they were able to make significant down-ballot gains.
The Republicans that took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 largely campaigned on a platform of needing to provide a fiscal balance to the Democratic administration, but churches used state and local elections to drive the voter turnout by amplifying moral rhetoric like anti-choice ideology and stoking fears about homosexuality. It’s now clear that proponents of theocratic rule learned how to use their churches as a political organizing tool from the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. However, this time instead of the black church being used to coordinate a movement of equality, Dominionist theocrats were manipulating fears of the changes that would come with expanding freedoms to already maligned and misunderstood minority groups.
The Role of the Tea Party
One of the things that made this campaign successful was how theocrats were able to motivate their local bases through the church to also vote in up-ballot conservatives who they viewed as imperfect but sympathetic because they sought to eliminate federal restrictions that would amplify their State and local influence in the name of small government and ‘States rights’. In addition the Tea Party was able to successfully create rhetoric of morality and personal responsibility that played well to more mainstream Christians while downplaying religious rhetoric that would have turned off more moderate plurality minded believers. As conservatives became more radicalized over subsequent election cycles these more moderate candidates were eliminated in the primaries for daring to work towards any compromise with the opposition. The narrative quickly became one in which compromise with Democrats wasn’t just a political reality, but a moral failing that offended God and deserved punishment.
They encouraged this radicalization by painting opponents like secularists and pluralists as literally evil agents of demonic forces in a spiritual battle. More liberally minded Christians were encouraged to vote against their own economic interests by the amplification of moral rhetoric that essentially made voting for any pro-choice or pro-gay marriage candidate a sin that perpetrated Satan’s grip over the earthly realm and hampered efforts to bring about the 2nd coming of Jesus. There was little effective strategy to combat these efforts on the political left because arguments of economic benefit were portrayed as a refusal to put God and the unborn before yourself. Dominionists were successfully making the argument to more liberally minded Christians who would otherwise support Democratic candidates that their economic suffering was an unfortunate necessity of a greater spiritual battle.
Coming Soon: Christian Reconstructionism
In part two of the series Steve delved into the philosophical underpinnings that spurred the growth of this movement and begins to outline the anti-pluralist arguments that are the foundations of Dominionist theosophy. I will be continuing my hindsight commentary on how these beliefs were sold to the public and allowed for the continued rise in influence and the beginnings of a counter-response by secular and pluralist groups.