I’ve recently criticized people I felt were too hard on the mainstream media’s coverage of conservative evangelical politicians. But now that Rick Perry has joined Michele Bachmann in the race, the fear in my circles of someone perceived to be an actual theocrat becoming president is palpable.

But a word of caution. It strikes me that very few people in the mainstream media and the liberal blogosphere are actually very familiar with evangelical beliefs, not to mention extremely fringe evangelical beliefs like those of R.J. Rushdoony, the anti-democratic, pro-slavery Christian reconstructionist who is getting a new day in the sun thanks to this circus of a GOP primary. I want vigorous, thorough, skeptical and even unfriendly investigation of the theological ideas at play in this race. For example, my Daily Beast colleague Michelle Goldberg has a long piece on “dominionism” that I think does a good job of describing right-wing Christian political theologies without sensationalizing them.  But I also detest hype, narratives and memes, which seem to get more aggressive and obnoxious in our thousand-miles-a-minute political news cycle.  I’ve seen countless scripture passages turned into scary soundbites with little to no theological comprehension. The way liberal publications and blogs in particular are seizing on the term (Learn about Dominionism! Christians’ secret subversive plot to take over the government!) feels a little more like a viral internet meme than a serious examination of the subject.

Here’s the reality: Dominionism as a term or a school of thought is virtually unknown even to conservative evangelicals of the type who adore Bachmann and Palin. There is no widely-agreed-upon definition of what constitutes “dominionism”; it is used describe everything from garden-variety religious right (“soft dominionism”) to the insane, totalitarian Christianism of Rushdoony (“hard dominionism”). It is difficult to overstate how fringe it is in its purest forms, how tiny the number of people who are aware of and embrace its arguments. To be sure, millions of evangelicals have ideas, in varying degrees of specificity and fervor, about America being a “Christian nation” and needing to recover traditional values. A few of them have read books by David Barton, Peter Marshall, David Noebel, etc. But, and this is the most important thing, most of their political concerns arise organically from their relatively orthodox Christian views, and have nothing to do with ideological movements like dominionism . Far fewer evangelicals are the red-meat voting machines than certain members of the media imagine. And most of them, even if they have a revisionist, whitewashed, Christianized understanding of the American founding, still accept that they live in a multicultural nation that is not and will never be a theocracy.

Again, none of this to say that it’s scaremongering to cover Perry and Bachmann’s religious connections. By all means. But it’s also a disservice to the truth to exaggerate the significance of these connections, and feeds into their followers’ sense of grievance to have their relatively benign views attached to odious figures they’ve probably never heard of.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • Whitney

    Yes, yes, and yes. To group Bachmann and even Palin with dominionism groups is quite laughable to me. The groups are quite polar opposites of each other, with the only connection that they are opposite sides of the liberal spectrum. But one is much further over than the other. Dominionism is someone like Phillips or Rushdooney whose views are scandalous to any orthodox Christian. The rhetoric from that group against Palin was quite hostile (not that she didn’t deserve criticism, but it was mostly based on her gender.)

    Your warning is wise.

  • Kathy

    Numerically, the dominionists of any stripe may be a tiny fringe. But they include a number of people who are providing obscene amounts of money to advance various aspects of a dominionist agenda that would have real and damaging consequences. There is a risk in minimizing the vast wealth at the disposal of this tiny group (which translated into significant political power), in addition to the risk you describe in exaggerating their numbers.

  • http://porterperkins.blogspot.com Mark Perkins

    Very good post. It sounds like an inverse of the Obama-is-a-communist fervor. It only sounds legitimate if you’re (1) mostly ignorant about the topic (dominionism/Communism) but (2) scared and (3) have a thumbnail sketch of familiarity with it.

  • Joe M

    Wow. A post I like. Well said.

  • Ngoldwe

    I widely read about this subject of Dominionism and Dominionists, and I view them as a credible threat to American democracy and the Republic. The other commenters of this thread are underestimating the danger of Dominionism. That is a serious mistake.