by Sara Diamond
ZMag, February 1995
The Christian Right's recent role in delivering Congress to the Republicans raises the question of just how much power the movement hopes to amass. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition says repeatedly that his organization wants nothing more than a representative voice in government, "a place at the table," as he puts its. Other movement leaders are more sweeping in their calls to make ours a Christian nation, a Kingdom of God on earth.
As we assess the Christian Right's future prospects, the movement's political theology is one big piece of the puzzle. Included in the movement are people with diverse viewpoints on the degree and means through which Christians ought to "take dominion" over every aspect of society. The motto of the secular Heritage Foundation, taken from the title of an influential conservative book of the 1940s, is "ideas have consequences." Yet in the past few years, with the growth in public awareness of the Christian Right, the movement's variant forms of dominion theology have attracted only scant attention.
Most of the attention has come from a new crop of researchers working on the Christian Right. Most of these people are political liberals who seek to shore up the prevailing "two-party" system by portraying their opponents -- in this case, those of the Right -- as aberrations on the U.S. political landscape. Liberals' writing about the Christian Right's take-over plans has generally taken the form of conspiracy theory. Instead of analyzing the subtle ways in which political ideas take hold within movements and why, the liberal conspiracy theorists use a guilt-by-association technique that goes like this: We know that a particular Christian Right author or activist has advocated bad ideas, like killing queers or forming armed militias. Then we look to see who else appears in proximity to the offender on organizational letterhead stationary or on the speakers list at movement conferences. This approach may indicate the degree of tolerance of extremist views within a given network of the broader Christian Right movement. But the approach implies that ideas are somehow contagious: If someone serves on a board of advisors with someone else, they must think similarly and therefore be likely to behave similarly. This is the approach the Right has used to red-bait the civil rights movement, the New Left and, recently, the environmental movement.
Conspiracy theorizing about the Christian Right's supposedly "secret"
agenda involves highlighting the hate-mongering and bizarre ideas of a
handful of Christian Right players while neglecting the broad popularity
of dominion theology. There are a variety of ideological tendencies within
the Christian Right. At the truly extreme end of the spectrum is a set
of ideas proponents call reconstructionism, associated with only a small
number of think tanks and book publishers. Many Christian Right activists
have never even heard of reconstructionism, whose advocates call for the
imposition of an Old Testament style theocracy, complete with capital punishment
for offenses including adultery, homosexuality, and blasphemy.
Sects and Schisms
More prevalent on the Christian Right is the Dominionist idea, shared by Reconstructionists, that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns -- and there is no consensus on when that might be. Dominionist thinking precludes coalitions between believers and unbelievers, which is why many Christian rightists will have a hard time compromising with some of the very same Republicans they recently helped elect. The idea of taking dominion over secular society gained widespread currency with the 1981 publication of evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer's book -- A Christian Manifesto. The book sold 290,000 copies in its first year, and it remains one of the movement's most frequently cited texts. Schaeffer, who died of cancer in 1984, was a product of the internecine conflicts that split the Presbyterian church during the 1930s and 1940s. Schaeffer was allied with the strident anti-Communist leader Rev. Carl McIntire who headed the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches. Later Schaeffer joined an anti-McIntire faction that, after several name changes, merged into the Presbyterian Church in America. (A related denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the milieu out of which convicted killer Paul Hill developed his justifications for killing abortionists.) In the 1960s and 1970s, Schaeffer and his wife Edith ran a retreat center in Switzerland, where young American "Jesus freaks" came to study the Bible and learn how to apply Schaeffer's dominion theology to the political scene back home.
In -- A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer's argument is simple. The United States began as a nation rooted in Biblical principles. But as society became more pluralistic, with each new wave of immigrants, proponents of a new philosophy of secular humanism gradually came to dominate debate on policy issues. Since humanists place human progress, not God, at the center of their considerations, they pushed American culture in all manner of ungodly directions, the most visible results of which included legalized abortion and the secularization of the public schools. At the end of -- A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer calls for Christians to use civil disobedience to restore Biblical morality, which explains Schaeffer's popularity with groups like Operation Rescue. Randall Terry has credited Schaeffer as a major influence in his life.
In the 1980s, some of the younger men Schaeffer influenced joined a group called the Coalition on Revival (COR), founded by Jay Grimstead. Grimstead, a veteran of the old Young Life missionary group, had decided that evangelicals were insufficiently literalist in their reading of the Bible. Grimstead founded COR with two purposes. One was to unify pastors who differed on questions of "eschatology," which is the study of the end-times and the question of when Christ will return. Most evangelicals have held the pre-millennial belief that Christ will return before a 1,000 year reign by believers. Grimstead and others in COR are post-millennialists who believe their job is establish the kingdom of God on earth now; Christ will return only after Christians have been in charge for 1,000 years. COR's second purpose, consistent with post-millennialism, was the development of position papers, called "world view documents," on how to apply dominion theology to Christian Right activism in more than a dozen spheres of social life, including education, economics, law, and even entertainment.
Much of the liberal writing on dominion theology and Reconstructionism has focused on COR as headquarters for a conspiracy to take over society. Grimstead and his colleagues advocated running stealth candidates in selected counties as early as 1986. But in recent years, COR has served as little more than a clearinghouse for Grimstead's position papers. As an organization, COR is largely inactive. Like the Moral Majority of the early 1980s, COR was a network of pastors, all busy with their own projects.
If COR had any effect, though, it was in reinforcing ideas about taking dominion. The 100 or so movement leaders in COR each signed a "covenant" statement affirming their commitment to the idea that Christians should take dominion over all fields of secular society. Only a few of COR's steering committee members were hard core Reconstructionists. Most of the Reconstructionists are too hair-splittingly sectarian to want to associate with COR's diverse crew of pentecostal charismatics and fundamental Baptists.
The Reconstructionists are theologically committed to Calvinism. They
shy away from the Baptists' loud preaching and the Pentecostals' wild practices
of speaking in tongues, healing and delivering prophecies. To secular readers,
the minutiae of who believes what -- or which group of characters likes
to dance on one foot -- might seem trivial. But some of the details and
divisions of Christian Right theology are politically relevant.
As Above, So Below
Reconstructionism is the most intellectually grounded, though esoteric, brand of dominion theology. Its leading proponent has been Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, an obscure figure within the Christian Right. Born in 1916, the son of Armenian immigrants to the U.S., Rushdoony looks like an Old Testament patriarch with his white hair and beard. At a young age Rushdoony was strongly influenced by Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til, a Dutch theologian who emphasized the inerrant authority of the Bible and the irreconcilability between believers and unbelievers. A recent issue of Rushdoony's monthly -- Chalcedon Report noted his Armenian background. Since the year 320, every generation of the Rushdoony family has produced a Christian priest or minister. "There was Armenian royalty in the Rushdoony blood, and a heritage of defending the faith, often by sword and gun, against Godless foes bent on destroying a people of faith and works."
With that auspicious heritage, Rushdoony founded the Chalcedon Foundation in California in the mid-1960s. One of the Foundation's early associates was Gary North who eventually married Rushdoony's daughter. North had been active within secular libertarian and anti-Communist organizations, particularly those with an anti-statist bent.
Rushdoony and North had a falling out and ceased collaboration years ago. North started his own think tank, the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. Rushdoony, North, and about a half dozen other reconstructionist writers have published countless books and journals advocating post-millennialism and "theonomy" or the application of God's law to all spheres of everyday life. In his rhetorical crusades against secular humanists and against most other Christians, North is fond of saying "You can't beat something with nothing."
North has geared his writing for popular audiences; some of his books are available in Christian book stores. Rushdoony's writing is more turgid and also more controversial. It was Rushdoony's seminal 1973 tome -- The Institutes of Biblical Law that articulated Reconstructionists' vision of a theocracy in which Old Testament law would be reinstated in modern society. Old Testament law classified a wide range of sins as punishable by death; these included not only murder and rape but also adultery, incest, homosexuality, witchcraft, incorrigible delinquency by youth, and even blasphemy. In the Reconstructionists' vision of a millennial or "kingdom" society, there would be only local governments; there would be no central administrative state to collect property taxes, nor to provide education or other welfare services.
Aside from Rushdoony and North, Reconstructionism boasts only a few other prolific writers. These include Dr. Greg Bahnsen, Rev. Joseph Morecraft, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Kenneth Gentry, none of whom are major figures within the Christian Right. They are quoted more often in liberal reports than in the Christian Right's own literature.
The unabashed advocacy of a Christian theocracy has insured a limited following for the most explicit of the Reconstructionists, who have also been sectarian in their sharp criticism of evangelicals. North, for example, has published a series of attacks on believers in the pre-millennial version of when Christ will come back.
Perhaps even more than the punitive legal code they propose, it is the Reconstructionists' religion of Calvinism that makes them unlikely to appeal to most evangelicals. Calvinism is the by now almost archaic belief that God has already preordained every single thing that happens in the world. Most importantly, even one's own salvation or condemnation to hell is already a done deal as far as God is concerned. By this philosophical scheme, human will is not involved in changing the course of history. All that is left for the "righteous" to do is to play out their pre- ordained role, including their God-given right to dominate everyone else.
Calvinism arose in Europe centuries ago in part as a reaction to Roman Catholicism's heavy emphasis on priestly authority and on salvation through acts of penance. One of the classic works of sociology, Max Weber's -- Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, links the rise of Calvinism to the needs of budding capitalists to judge their own economic success as a sign of their preordained salvation. The rising popularity of Calvinism coincided with the consolidation of the capitalist economic system. Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper. It is no surprise that such notions still find resonance within the Christian Right which champions capitalism and all its attendant inequalities.
The hitch comes in the Calvinists' unyielding predestinarianism, the cornerstone of Reconstructionism and something at odds with the world view of evangelical Christians. Last fall in Sacramento some of the local Reconstructionists held their annual Reformation Bible Conference, co-sponsored by the Covenant Reformed Church and the Chalcedon Foundation. The theme of the weekend was Christian "apologetics," meaning defense of the faith against heretical enemies of all stripes.
The problem is that evangelicals (a category including pentecostal charismatics
and fundamental Baptists) believe that God's will works in conjunction
with free human will. They believe that salvation is not by the grace of
God only but by the faith of individual believers who freely choose to
surrender to Jesus. In fact, the cornerstone of the Western religions is
the view that God's will and human will work together. Evangelicals believe
strongly that humans freely choose sin or salvation and that those already
converted have the duty to go out and offer the choice they have made to
others. Calvinism, in contrast, undercuts the whole motivation for missionary
work, and it is the missionary zeal to redeem sinners that motivates much
of the Christian Right's political activism. Calvinism is an essentially
reckless doctrine. If God has already decided what's going to happen, then
the Dominionists do not have to take responsibility for their actions.
(They can kill abortion doctors "knowing" it is the right thing
to do.) Evangelicals, even those on the Right, still believe they as individuals
are capable of error. Furthermore, the Calvinist Reconstructionists look
askance at the other key draw of evangelical churches, the experiential
dimension. The Calvinists sing staid songs, read the Bible and weighty
theological treatises. What's going on, especially in the charismatic churche,
is something else. There, Christians by the thousands are flocking to wild
faith healing extravaganzas where people shout and cry and fall on the
floor because they are "slain in the spirit." The latest trend
is called "holy laughter" whereby the Holy Spirit supposedly
leads crowds to roll on the floor laughing uncontrollably, sometimes for
hours. This kind of stuff is happening in churches all over the country
-- often televised for the Christian TV networks -- with the backing of
prominent evangelical leaders. Some critics have condemned the eccentric
antics but they miss the point that people go to church not to read books
but to experience something extraordinary. Many get a similar high from
joining a political crusade. Large numbers of politically active evangelicals
are not going to want to sit still for boring philosophical lectures on
how their personal experiences don't matter in the face of pre-ordained
The Founding Fathers Said So
They do sit still, by the thousands, for David Barton of WallBuilders, Inc. From a place called Aledo, Texas, Barton has successfully mass marketed a version of dominion theology that has made his lectures, books, and tapes among the hottest properties in the born-again business. With titles like -- The Myth of Separation and -- America: -- to Pray or Not to Pray, Barton's pitch is that, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Fathers were all evangelicals who intended to make this a Christian nation.
Crowds of home schoolers and the Christian Coalition go wild with applause for Barton's performances. With an overhead projector, he flashes slides of the Founding Fathers and reels off selected quotes from them saying things like "only the righteous shall rule." For the years following the Supreme Court's 1962 and 1963 decisions against public school prayer, his charts and graphs show statistical declines in SAT scores and rising rates of teenage promiscuity, drug abuse, and other bad behavior. Apparently no one has ever explained to Barton that a sequence of unrelated events does not add up to a cause and effect relationship.
Barton's bottom line is that only "the righteous" should occupy
public office. This is music to the ears of Christian Right audiences.
To grasp Barton's brand of dominion theology, unlike reconstructionism,
one does not need a seminary degree. Barton's pseudo history fills a need
most Americans have, to know more about our country's past. His direct
linkage of the deified Founding Fathers with contemporary social problems
cuts through the evangelicals' theological sectarianism and unites them
in a feasible project. They may not be able to take dominion over the whole
earth or even agree about when Jesus will return, but they sure can go
home and back a godly candidate for city council, or run themselves. Barton
tells his audiences that they personally have an important role to play
in history, and that is what makes his dominion theology popular.
To Rule and Reign
But Barton's message flies in the face of the Christian Coalition's public claims about wanting only its fair share of political power. In his new book -- Politically Incorrect, Coalition director Ralph Reed writes: "What do religious conservatives really want? They want a place at the table in the conversation we call democracy. Their commitment to pluralism includes a place for faith among the many other competing interests in society." Yet the Coalition's own national convention last September opened with a plenary speech by Rev. D. James Kennedy who echoed the Reconstructionist line when he said that "true Christian citizenship" includes a cultural mandate to "take dominion over all things as vice-regents of God."
Who is telling the truth about the Christian Right's bid for power, Ralph Reed, or the popular Dominionists who speak at Christian Coalition gatherings? Liberal critics of the Christian Right would have us believe that Reed and Pat Robertson are just plain lying when they say they want to work hand-in-hand, like good pluralists, with non-Christians in government. To bolster the "stealth" thesis, liberals have to resort to conspiracy theory: Barton and Kennedy spoke at the conference, so Reed must secretly agree with them.
A better explanation is that the Christian Right, like other mass movements, is a bundle of internal contradictions which work themselves out in the course of real political activism. Ideas have consequences, but ideas also have causes, rooted in interests and desires. The Christian Right is in a state of tension and flux over its own mission. Part movement to resist and roll back even moderate change, part reactionary wing of prevailing Republicanism. The Christian Right wants to take dominion and collaborate with the existing political-economic system, at the same time. Liberal critics, who also endorse the ruling system, can recognize only the Christian Right's takeover dimension. Radicals can see that the dominion project is dangerous because it is, in part, business as usual.