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.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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