The Dominionist Challenge

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What to make of Dominionism, Christian Reconstruction, and other variants of the theocratic project the derive from the singular mind of Rousas John Rushdoony, the Calvinist theologian who died ten years ago? As Michelle Goldberg scolded recently over at the Daily Beast, both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have connections to dominionists, and for that reason it behooves us mainstream types to take it seriously for a change.

Dominion-alarmism is analogous to the pre-millennium-alarmism that warns that evangelicals only support Israel because the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land fits into a prophetic scenario that undergirds their expectations of the Second Coming. It turns out to be the case, however, that evangelicals also support Israel because in Genesis God gives the Holy Land to the Jews. Disentangling the relative importance of that promise and End Times theology is not easy. But of course, those who would urge American Jews to keep evangelicals at arms length stress the latter, not the former. Likewise, the specter of theocracy is more likely to scare the bejeezus out of Americans than a portrayal of evangelicals as fellow citizens merely employing their constitutional rights to advance a set of policy positions that accord with their conservative religious values.

Still, Goldberg, Sarah Posner, Kevin Phillips, and others who have sought to take the measure of Rushdoonyism have earned the right to give themselves a pat themselves on the back: The theocratic project has gained a more substantial foothold on the Christian Right than many of us have been prepared to accept. What’s needed now, beyond pressing the likes of Bachmann and Perry on their theological commitments, is an assessment of the movement that takes account of what its prospects really are in today’s America.

That Dominionism is a minority position among the evangelical elite Goldberg acknowledges. Based on their views on religious pluralism–including the fact that over 80 percent believe there are many paths to heaven–I’d be surprised if 10 percent of the evangelical rank and file adhere to the precepts of Rushdoony et al. If evangelicals constitute 30 percent of the American population; that would put the proportion of bona fide theocrats at three percent and the danger of Rushdoonyite theocracy just modestly ahead of the danger of Sharia law. Make that negligible as opposed to non-existent.