The Rise of Dominionism and the Christian Right

John W. Whitehead July/August 2006

God's plan is for His people, ladies and gentlemen, to take dominion. . . .What is dominion? Well, dominion is Lordship. He wants His people to reign and rule with Him. . . but He's waiting for us to. . . extend His dominion. . . .And the Lord says, "I'm going to let you redeem society. There'll be a reformation. . . .We are not going to stand for those coercive utopians in the Supreme Court and in Washington ruling over us any more. We're not gonna stand for it. We are going to say, 'we want freedom in this country, and we want power. . . .'"
—Pat Robertson

From Harper's magazine to Vanity Fair and a host of other mainstream publications, the ever-expanding role of the Christian right in shaping the policies and politics of the nation is making headlines. As Charles Marsh notes in a New York Times editorial, "Wayward Christian Soldiers," American evangelicals "have amassed greater political power than at any time in our history."1 This power, which can be traced to a handful of evangelical leaders with decided political agendas, reaches into the Oval Office and deep into the bowels of Congress.

The result has been a fusion of the Christian Right and the Bush administration. In fact, in examining the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead up to the Iraq war, Marsh, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, came to the conclusion that the "single common theme among the war sermons appeared to be this: our president is a real brother in Christ, and because he has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq, we shall gloriously comply."

Yet this mind set signals more than just widespread evangelical support for a president who has professed to be a Christian. It actually dovetails neatly with the dominionist philosophies seemingly espoused by modern-day evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, that is, the belief that Christians are destined to take over and rule the world by taking "dominion" over the political process and reinstituting biblical law. Many perceive this as a campaign to use the United States to create a global, Christian empire.

The Emergence of a Dominionist Philosophy

Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. As the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors—in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.
—D. James Kennedy

The heart of the debate is over whether or not the United States is a Christian nation. As Sonia DeWitt noted in her article "An American Agenda" (November/December 2005): "Many Christian leaders and organizations have adopted the position that the concept of separation of church and state was never intended by the Founding Fathers and is an impediment to the righteous, godly society they are intending to create in America."2 DeWitt, like many writers, cites both Francis Schaeffer and R. J. Rushdoony as supporting the notion that there should be no separation of church and state, that in fact the United States should be a Christian nation. Yet while Rushdoony unabashedly advocated a Christian theocracy, this is a far cry from Schaeffer's views.

An ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001)—often referred to as the father of Christian Reconstructionism (aka "post-millennialism," the idea that Christians will bring in the kingdom of God on earth and Christ will then return to a triumphant church)—dedicated much of his adult life to working to restore the historic Christian doctrines of post-millennialism and Christian dominion in the church. His 1973 book,
The Institutes of Biblical Law, promoted a social philosophy shaped by biblical law—a philosophy that advocated a return to the Old Testament. It was this book, more than any other, that gave rise to the Christian Reconstruction movement.

In keeping with Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony believed that the federal government should concern itself with national defense, while education and social welfare should be handed over to the Christian churches. As Rushdoony stated, "The Christian theonomic society will only come about as each man governs himself under God and governs his particular sphere. And only so will we take back government from the state and put it in the hands of Christians."

Unlike Rushdoony, who exhorted Christians to take over the world for Christ through political means, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), a Presbyterian minister and apologist, called for a return to true Christian spirituality through social activism. At no time did Schaeffer advocate a Christian theocracy. In fact, Schaeffer's book A Christian Manifesto (1981) embraced the idea of "freedom for all and especially freedom for all religion. That was the original purpose of the First Amendment."

Although Schaeffer rightly pointed out that the separation of church and state in America is often used to silence the Christian church, he disagreed vocally with Rushdoony's dominionist ideas. Schaeffer wrote:
"[A]s we stand for religious freedom today, we need to realize that this must include a general religious freedom from the control of the state for all religion. It will not mean just freedom for those who are Christians. It is then up to Christians to show that Christianity is the Truth of total reality in the open marketplace of freedom."

In his article for Vanity Fair, Craig Unger described Schaeffer as "the most important religious figure that secular America has never heard of."3 Unger was absolutely correct. Yet while Schaeffer's writings greatly impacted modern Christian thinking—as Jerry Falwell has remarked, Schaeffer "began teaching me that I had a responsibility to confront the culture where it was failing morally and socially"—and spurred many Christians to social activism, especially when it came to taking a stand against abortion, Rushdoony's writings transformed the way Christians thought about political involvement and essentially laid the foundations for the emergence of a powerful political right wing. As Rushdoony's son-in-law Gary North notes, his writings "are the source of many of the core ideas of the New Christian Right, a voting bloc whose unforeseen arrival in American politics in 1980 caught the media by storm."

The Rise of the Christian Right
The enemies of morality will not stop and will not back off. The Left cannot and will not change. . . .If the Democrats in the Senate try again to usurp the President's constitutional authority by filibustering. . . , there will be a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea.
—James Dobson

While Rushdoony and Schaeffer are virtually unknown outside Christian right-wing circles, their teachings, co-opted by those with political agendas, have taken on lives of their own.

Fueled by the political writings of Rushdoony and the social activism of Schaeffer, and energized by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye launched the Moral Majority in 1979. That same year, Beverly LaHaye started Concerned Women for America as a biblical counterpoint to the National Organization for Women. Since then the Christian Right has seldom looked back, even as it has taken on wildly apocalyptic overtones.

By the early 1980s the Christian Right had formed a voting bloc that burgeoned into a powerful movement. It effectively ushered Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush into the presidency. As Katherine Yurica describes in "The Despoiling of America," "The years 1982-1986 marked the period. . . that would turn millions of Christians into an army of political operatives. It was the period when the militant church raised itself from centuries of sleep and once again eyed power."4

As the media empires of evangelical leaders and televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, and Paul Crouch grew to encompass print, radio, and television, so too did the reach and power of the Religious Right. It now boasts of representing some 30 million Christian voters, as its leaders are fond of reminding elected officials. For example, dominionist-influenced leaders often have a direct line into the White House. It has been reported that James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, held weekly telephone conversations with Bush adviser Karl Rove during the campaign. As Falwell remarked to Vanity Fair about his participation in a group made up of right-wing political and religious leaders, the Council for National Policy, which enjoys regular access to the Oval Office, "Everyone takes our calls."5

Questioning Dominionism
Those who have absorbed Rushdoony's teachings may have succeeded in creating a political-religious philosophy. But does this emphasis on religious empire-building under the guise of dominionism coincide with what the Bible has to say about being the earth's caretakers?

According to the Bible in both Genesis 1:26 and 1:28, human beings are given dominion "over all the earth." They are allowed to rule over "the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground" (NIV)*. Since everything God had made was pronounced "good," the implied meaning of dominion is an ordering of creation in terms of science and the arts. This ordering is affected by a study of the creation (with all of its intricate processes and systems) for the purpose of using this knowledge for the benefit of the earth's inhabitants. Therefore, human beings are not to subdue or rule other human beings, and they are not to destroy the earth, but to replenish it.

And although humans have dominion over the lower orders of creation, they are not sovereign over them. Since God created all things, only He is sovereign, and man must treat the lower orders by this standard. Man is not using his own possessions. Therefore, humans are not entitled to exploit the lower order, since they are things borrowed or held in trust. They are not ours intrinsically. Yet the dominion impulse in a fallen world has been corrupted and interpreted to justify control, exploitation, and manipulation.

The historical record shows that power tends to corrupt and that even the most virtuous Christians can be (and are) corrupted by power. In fact, those who drafted the United States Constitution were well aware of the sinfulness of humanity and the inevitability of corruption, even among the truly religious. They denied the divine right of kings and understood the dangers posed by absolute monarchs who called themselves "defenders of the faith."

More important, those who framed the Constitution knew that no sinful human being should be trusted with absolute power. Thus, they devised a system of checks and balances that would institutionalize restraint. James Madison and other Framers recognized that if men were angels, there would be no need for government. But men are not angels.

Christianity in America Today
Many Christians have simply lost sight of the truth that they struggle not against "flesh and blood" but against spiritual forces. Determined to achieve political victories, many Christian activists and leaders have shifted their efforts over the past two decades from the Bible Belt to the Beltway. Equipped with their own lobbying entities, those of the Christian Right have made no effort to hide their intentions to shape the political scene in the halls of Congress. As Chris Hedges writes in "The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism":
"[T]he powerbrokers in the Christian Right have moved from the fringes of society to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states, along with large minorities in 81 percent of the rest of the states. Forty-five Senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives earned between an 80 to 100 percent approval rating from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups—The Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council."6

Yet political action as a cure-all is an illusion. Although it is a valued and necessary part of the process in a democracy, the ballot box is not the answer to all mankind's ills. And, in fact, Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the world's ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politician's toolbox.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in the political process. However, they must rid themselves of the notion that they are destined to assume control of other people and governments, and rule the world. The legitimate use of power does not include using it to impose one's will upon others. The believer's claim must not, therefore, be for absolute power but for equality of access to society's marketplace of ideas where true Christianity, and the worldview that springs from it, can more than hold its own.

How Should We Then Live?
For the Christian Right, the answer is often a political one. Yet Jesus Christ did not seek political power. And He did not command Christians to seek it either. Indeed, as Christ proclaims in John 18:36: "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (NIV). However, Christ did not say that Christians should not be involved in political affairs. If democratic governments are to survive, Christian influence and involvement in government are important.

The primary task of Christians is to teach biblical truth, which includes living a moral life. Other than speaking and acting on biblical truth, the Bible does not command believers to follow any specific "social or political action." By proclaiming such truths in word and deed, Christians can undoubtedly have an influence on the culture—which includes political institutions. Indeed, Christians must be involved in social concerns (and even political matters) to a certain extent in order to be faithful to the general teachings of the Bible.

This will necessarily mean that the Christian will often be forced to stand against the governmental and political establishment in speaking truth to power. To some extent, believers must always, as did John the Baptist, stand outside the political establishment and criticize (when necessary) the political Herods of this world.

This also means, as Francis Schaeffer noted in
A Christian Manifesto , that Christians must avoid joining forces with the government and arguing a theocratic position. "We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country," Schaeffer writes. "To say it another way, 'We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.'" Indeed, by fusing Christianity with politics, one will only succeed in cheapening religion, robbing it of its spiritual vitality and thus destroying true Christianity. Rather than taking over the country and the world, as Dominionists suggest, Schaeffer advocated Christian involvement in all areas of life. To quote Schaeffer,
"[O]ur culture, society, government and law are in the condition they are in,
not because of a conspiracy, but because the church has forsaken its duty to be the salt of the culture [italics supplied]. It is the church's duty (as well as its privilege) to do now what it should have been doing all the time—to use the freedom we do have to be that salt of the culture."

Thus, the activism of the true Christian flows from a sense of loving care for what God has created. This means the Christian has a responsibility to assist in preserving both freedom and order—indeed, to work for justice—while keeping in mind one's fallen nature, spiritual priorities, and the limitations of the political process.

However, as we speak of political involvement and activism, we must be mindful that
our problems are not political or cultural, but spiritual. The present state of Western culture and the declining value of human life generally are mere
symptoms of a deeper problem. That problem is moral and spiritual decay.

No matter what Dominionists believe, the present spiritual problems we face will not be changed through the political system. Therefore, unless there is a
spiritual reformation, there will be little alteration in the present course of society. If the hearts of people are not changed, then further moral, and thus cultural and societal, decay is to be expected.

John W. Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute, based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead worked closely with Francis Schaeffer prior to his death, helping him research A Christian Manifesto. Whitehead first met R. J. Rushdoony in 1975 and over a period of years, had many in-depth conversations withe him.

* Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright
Article Author: John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.