The Christian right’s “dominionist” strategy

The emergence of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as top presidential candidates is a story 30 years in the making

Topics: 2012 Elections, Editor's Picks, History, Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Rick Perry, War Room,

The Christian right's "dominionist" strategyRick Perry

An article in the Texas Observer last month about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s relationship with followers of a little-known neo-Pentecostal movement sparked a frenzied reaction from many commentators: Dominionism! Spiritual warfare! Strange prophecies!

All the attention came in the weeks before and after “The Response,” Perry’s highly publicized prayer rally modeled on what organizers believe is the “solemn assembly” described in Joel 2, in which “end-times warriors” prepare the nation for God’s judgment and, ultimately, Christ’s return. This “new” movement, the New Apostolic Reformation, is one strand of neo-Pentecostalism that draws on the ideas of dominionism and spiritual warfare. Its adherents display gifts of the spirit, the religious expression of Pentecostal and charismatic believers that includes speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing and a belief in signs, wonders and miracles. These evangelists also preach the “Seven Mountains” theory of dominionism: that Christians need to take control of different sectors of public life, such as government, the media and the law.

The NAR is not new, but rather derivative of charismatic movements that came before it. Its founder, C. Peter Wagner, set out in the 1990s to create more churches, and more believers. Wagner’s movement involves new jargon, notably demanding that believers take control of the “Seven Mountains” of society (government, law, media and so forth), but that’s no different from other iterations of dominionism that call on Christians to enter these fields so that they are controlled by Christians.

After Perry’s prayer rally, Rachel Maddow featured a segment on her MSNBC show in which she warned,

“The main idea of the New Apostolic Reformation theology is that they are modern day prophets and apostles. They believe they have a direct line to God … the way that they’re going to clear the way for it [the end of the world] is by infiltrating and taking over politics and government.”



Maddow’s ahistorical treatment of the NAR, however, overlooked several important realities. For anyone who has followed the growth of neo-Pentecostal movements, and in particular the coalition-building between the political operatives of the religious right and these lesser-known but still influential religious leaders, the NAR is just another development in the competitive, controversial, outrageous, authoritarian and often corrupt tapestry of the world of charismatic evangelists.

Before the NAR came along, plenty of charismatic leaders believed themselves to be prophets and apostles with a direct line to God. They wrote books about spiritual warfare, undergirded by conspiracy theories about liberals and Satan and homosexuality and feminism and more (my own bookshelves are filled with them). They preached this on television. They preached it at conferences. They made money from it. They all learned from each other.

Before the NAR, Christian right figures promoted dominionism, too, and the GOP courted these religious leaders for the votes of their followers. Despite a recent argument by the Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg that “we have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before,” it’s been there since at least 1980. Michele Bachmann is a product of it; so was Mike Huckabee. Ronald Reagan pandered to it; so did both Bushes; so does Perry.

In 2007, I saw Cindy Jacobs and other “apostles” lay hands on Shirley Forbes, wife of Rep. Randy Forbes, the founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which boasts some Democrats as members and many of the GOP’s leading lights. “You are going to be the mother of an army,” they told Forbes, prophesying that she would “speak the power of the word into politics and government. Hallelujah!”

The idea that Christians have a sacred duty to get involved in politics, the law and media, and otherwise bring their influence to bear in different public spheres is the animating principle behind the religious right. If you attend a Values Voters Summit, the annual Washington confab hosted by the Family Research Council, you’ll hear speakers urging young people to go into media, or view Hollywood as a “mission field.” That’s because they insist these institutions have been taken over by secularists who are causing the downfall of America with their anti-Christian beliefs.

A few days ago, the Washington Post’s religion columnist, Lisa Miller, took Goldberg and Maddow to task for overhyping dominionism as a plot to take over the world. Miller, though, misses the boat, too, by neglecting to acknowledge and describe the infrastructure the religious right has built, driven by the idea of dominionism.

Oral Roberts University Law School, where Bachmann earned her law degree, was founded with this very notion in mind: to create an explicitly Christian law school. Herb Titus, the lawyer converted by Christian Reconstructionism who was instrumental in its launch, describes his mission in developing a Christian law school as a fulfillment of a “dominion mandate.” After ORU was absorbed into Regent University in the 1980s, Titus was the mentor to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who last week was elevated to chair of the Republican Governors Association and is widely speculated to be a possible vice-presidential pick.

Christian Reconstructionists, and their acolytes of the Constitution Party, believe America should be governed by biblical law. In her 1995 book, “Roads to Dominion: Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States,” Sara Diamond describes the most significant impact of Reconstructionism on dominionism:

“the diffuse influence of the ideas that America was ordained a Christian nation and that Christians, exclusively, were to rule and reign.” While most Christian right activists were “not well-versed in the arcane teachings” of Christian Reconstructionism, she wrote, “there was a wider following for softer forms of dominionism.”

For the Christian right, it’s more a political strategy than a secret “plot” to “overthrow” the government, even as some evangelists describe it in terms of “overthrowing” the powers of darkness (i.e., Satan), and even some more radical, militia-minded groups do suggest such a revolution. In general, though, the Christian right has been very open about its strategy and has spent a lot of money on it: in the law, as just one example, there are now two ABA-accredited Christian law schools, at Regent (which absorbed the ORU law school) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. There are a number of Christian law firms, like the Alliance Defense Fund, formed as a Christian counterweight to the ACLU. Yet outsiders don’t notice that this is all an expression of dominionism, until someone from that world, like Bachmann, hits the national stage.

John Turner, University of South Alabama historian and author of “Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America,” said that the NAR’s “Seven Mountains” dominionism is “just a catchy phrase that encapsulates what Bright and many other evangelical leaders were already doing — trying to increase Christian influence (they would probably use more militant phrases like ‘capture’) in the spheres of education, business and government.”

Bright, like Perry’s prayer cohorts, believed America was in trouble (because of the secularists) and needed to repent. One of the most well-known evangelicals in the country, Bright had agreed to let Virginia Beach preacher John Gimenez, a charismatic, organize the rally, despite evangelical discomfort with charismatic religious expression. In his book, Turner describes the Washington for Jesus rally of 1980:

From the platform, Bright offered his interpretation of the source of the country’s problems, asserting that “[w]e’ve turned from God and God is chastening us.” “You go back to 1962 and [196]3 [when the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading],” Bright argued, “and you’ll discovered a series of plagues that came upon America.” Bright cited the Vietnam War, increased drug use, racial conflict, Watergate, and a rise in divorce, teenage pregnancy, and alcoholism as the result of those decisions. “God is saying to us,” he concluded, “‘Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!’” … “Unless we repent and turn from our sin,” warned Bright, “we can expect to be destroyed.”

Unlike Perry’s rally, Ronald Reagan the candidate wasn’t present at the Washington for Jesus rally. At a 2007 gathering at his church, Gimenez recounted how he and Bright later met with President Reagan, and Bright told him, “You were elected on April 29, 1980, when the church prayed that God’s will would be done.”

In August 1980, though, after Reagan had clinched the nomination, he did appear at a “National Affairs Briefing” in Texas, where televangelist James Robison (also instrumental in organizing Perry’s event) declared, “The stage is set. We’ll either have a Hitler-type takeover, or Soviet domination, or God is going to take over this country.” After Robison spoke, Reagan took the stage and declared to the 15,000 activists assembled by Moral Majority co-founder Ed McAteer, “You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”

That was also a big moment for Huckabee, who worked as Robison’s advance man. It was even imitated by then-candidate Barack Obama, who met with a group of evangelicals and charismatics in Chicago and repeated Reagan’s infamous line. Obama’s group included publisher Stephen Strang (an early endorser of Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid) and his son Cameron, whose magazines Charisma and Relevant help promote the careers of the self-declared modern-day prophets and apostles. Huckabee appeared with Lou Engle at his 2008 The Call rally on the National Mall (like Perry’s, billed as a “solemn assembly”) in which Engle exhorted his prayer warriors to battle satanic forces to defeat “Antichrist legislation.”

When I interviewed former Bush family adviser Doug Wead for my 2008 book, “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters,” he gave me a lengthy memo he compiled for George H.W. Bush in 1985, to prepare him for his 1988 presidential run. In the memo, he identified a thousand “targets,” religious leaders across the country whose followers, Wead believed, could be mobilized to the voting booth.

In my book, I examined the theology and politics of the Word of Faith movement (also known as the prosperity gospel) and how Republicans cultivated the leading lights of the movement. Primarily because of television, but also because of the robust (and profitable) speaking circuit these evangelists maintain, they have huge audiences. All that was in spite of — just as the scrutiny of NAR figures now is revealing — outlandish, strange and even heretical theology. What’s more, Word of Faith figures have endlessly been embroiled in disputes not just with their theological critics, but with watchdogs and former parishioners who charge they took their money for personal enrichment, promising that God would bring them great health and wealth if they would only “sow a seed.”

At Gimenez’s 2007 event, Engle and the other “apostles” were not the stars; rather, the biggest draw was Word of Faith televangelist Kenneth Copeland. In 1998, writing to Karl Rove, Wead called Copeland “arguably one of the most important religious leaders in the nation.” At Gimenez’s church, Copeland, who has boasted that his ministry has brought in more the $1 billion over his career, preached for two hours. The sanctuary was packed, with the audience hanging on every word. Gimenez introduced him as “God’s prophet,” and Copeland urged them to “get rid of the evening news and the newspaper,” study “the uncompromised word of the Holy Ghost,” and take “control over principalities.”

The commenters who have jumped on the NAR frequently overstate the size of its following. Engle’s events, for example, are often smaller than advertised, including a poorly attended revival at Liberty University in April 2010, where one would expect a ready-made audience. When I’ve covered these sorts of events, including smaller conferences by local groups inspired by figures they see on television, it’s often hard to see how the often meandering preachers are going to take over anything, even while it’s clear they cultivate an authoritarian hold on their followers. I meet a lot of sincere, frequently well-intentioned people who believe they must be “obedient” to God’s word as imparted by the “prophets.”

Most chilling, though, is the willingness to engage in what’s known in the Word of Faith world as “revelation knowledge,” or believing, as Copeland exhorted his audience to do, that you learn nothing from journalism or academia, but rather just from the Bible and its modern “prophets.” It is in this way that the self-styled prophets have had their greatest impact on our political culture: by producing a political class, and its foot soldiers, who believe that God has imparted them with divine knowledge that supersedes what all the evil secularists would have you believe.

Last week CNN’s Jack Cafferty asked, “How much does it worry you if both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have ties to dominionism?” That worry crops up every election cycle. If people really understood dominionism, they’d worry about it between election cycles.

Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008).

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