Forgive the nod to Nirvana, whose “Nevermind” is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but I’ve been reading an awful lot lately about accusations of paranoia regarding coverage of the Christian religious phenomenon known as Dominionism. For some reason Kurt Cobain sneering “just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you” kept entering my mind. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
In any case, ever since the presidential candidacies of Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas governor Rick Perry started making news, their connections to conservative Christian groups who espouse some form of Dominionism, a religio-political movement that seeks “influence or control over secular civil government through political action,” has been getting increased attention in the mainstream media. The three most prominent examples come from Forrest Wilder’s piece on Rick Perry in the Texas Observer, Ryan Lizza’s piece on Michele Bachmann in The New Yorker, and Michelle Goldberg’s piece on both candidates in The Daily Beast. Suddenly, “Dominionism,” a term usually relegated to small watch-dog groups and religious leaders considered to be on the fringes of mainstream society, was everywhere. All this attention seems to have rattled some cages, and a seemingly inevitable backlash against the term is in full flower.
The former spokesperson for famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham, A. Larry Ross, says that Dominionism is a “broad label that few, if any, evangelicals use or with which they identify” (though he also admits to not personally knowing either Bachmann or Perry). A similar line is taken by religion journalist Lisa Miller at the Washington Post, who chides journalists who use the term, and points out, like Ross, that most evangelical Christians don’t want to take over the government. Barry Hankins at the American Spectator also works to acquit evangelicals, while Jonathan Tobin at Commentary says the newest conspiracy theory is Christian “Manchurian Candidates,” and Reason magazine implies that such stories amount to a constitutionally unsound “religious test.” Even the Dominionists aren’t Dominionists anymore! As Right Wing Watch recently documented, influential New Apostolic Reformation figure C. Peter Wagner says his movement doesn’t want theocracy, just Christian influence over every sector of society (a message echoed by another influential NAR figure).
“The usual meaning of theocracy is that a nation is run by authorized representatives of the church or its functional religious equivalent. Everyone I know in NAR would absolutely reject this idea, thinking back to Constantine’s failed experiment or some of the oppressive Islamic governments today. The way to achieve dominion is not to become “America’s Taliban,” but rather to have kingdom-minded people in every one of the Seven Mountains: Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts & Entertainment, and Business so that they can use their influence to create an environment in which the blessings and prosperity of the Kingdom of God can permeate all areas of society.”
So is this coverage just secular paranoia from the journalistic elite, one that bares a longstanding bias against pious Christians? The smaller media outlets that have been covering these theocratic tendencies among the Christian fringes are now responding, starting with Peter Montgomery, associate editor at Religion Dispatches.
“…this is not a movement dreamed up by people with no understanding of Christianity who simply want to stir up fear of conservative evangelicals. The increasingly widespread use of “Seven Mountains” rhetoric reflects an effort by a broad swath of conservative evangelical leadership to adopt a shared set of talking points, if you will, to unite theologically disparate elements in common political cause to defeat the Satanic/demonic enemies of faith and freedom: secularists, gays, liberals, and the Obama administration.”
Montgomery also blasts the false equivalencies being made by defenders of conservative Christianity’s honor, asking to see “the evidence for this leftist anti-Christian jihad.” Meanwhile, the folks at Talk To Action are surprised at the ignorance some journalists are displaying when trying to downplay Dominionist influence, and are quick to point out that groups like the New Apostolic Reformation are an “egregiously underreported sector of the Religious Right – not a conspiracy.”
In the book “Gravity’s Rainbow” Thomas Pynchon writes that “if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” When you start getting peppered with questions like: “do you think all evangelicals want a theocracy,” or “do you believe Rick Perry/Michele Bachmann is a brainwashed Manchurian Candidate,” the inevitable negative answers from most corners will simply return us to a more comfortable frame of reference. Instead of getting answers to questions about why several political figures mingle, hobnob, and praise individuals who do call for something that looks very much like theocracy, or why these extremist elements seem to be getting absorbed into mainstream conservative Christianity, we become mired in discussions over terminology and whether evangelical Christianity is being treated fairly. Still, as Adele Stan at AlterNet points out, this flurry of denials and reframing is actually something of a victory.
“Believe it or not, for progressive reporters, Miller’s high-profile denial is something of a victory, for it means the work of investigative journalists for progressive publications is making its mark on the more mainstream outlets, as when the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza echoed Sarah Posner’s reporting for Religion Dispatches in his profile of Bachmann, or when Michelle Goldberg built on the dogged research of Rachel Tabachnick (writing here for AlterNet) and others for her Daily Beast piece on dominionism’s claim on both Perry and Bachmann.”
For me, the bottom line is how a candidate will treat religious minorities once given the chief executive’s job. The arguments over terminology mask the fact that rhetoric, associations, and intentions do matter when we’re talking about national politics. As I pointed out recently at the Washington Post, even things said before an individual becomes president can be later interpreted into policy at high levels.
“Due to the unique “bully pulpit” power possessed by our Commander in Chief even comments made before a politician becomes president can later be interpreted into policy by his administration. There is a strong indication this happened during the presidency of George W. Bush, who famously remarked in 1999 that “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it.” In this case “it” was allowing Pagan soldiers to freely practice their religion at Fort Hood in Texas, but nearly a decade later the Washington Post reported on a case involving grave markers for fallen Pagan soldiers where Barry Lynn of Americans United said that discovery documents showed “references to Bush’s remarks … in memos and e-mails within the VA.” In Lynn’s opinion “the president’s wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level.” In short, rhetoric, especially when you go on to lead the world’s most powerful nation, does matter, as does the rhetoric of those who have played king-maker during the election.”
If a politician builds up a proven track record of hostility towards non-Christian faiths, or associates without qualm with those who do, as I believe Michele Bachmann has, then there is great risk in allowing these figures to lead a secular multi-religious nation. These debates over how much influence figures from various extremist Christian groups truly have isn’t simply an academic matter for those who don’t benefit from Christian privilege. Even if someone like Rick Perry isn’t a true believer and is cynically hitching his wagon to the horses he thinks will help win him the race, the tide of an elected president raises all boats, and we would see figures who believe that Pagans are demonically controlled suddenly granted new levels of access to power. That’s scary, because as the recently-released West Memphis 3 can tell you, Satanic panics are nothing to laugh off. Or as veteran Lakota journalist Tim Giago says: “Watching political candidates for the highest office in this land standing on podiums espousing their individual religious beliefs as gospel for all of us takes me back to those days when priests and ministers led the assault on the indigenous people using the Bible as a weapon of mass destruction.”
No doubt to some Christians this will all seem like paranoia, but I would surmise that most of them didn’t suddenly realize one day why their parents never revealed their religion to them as children. I know that most Christians could care less about what Pagans get up to (I’m grateful for that, and reciprocate their general lack of concern), but I know that the ones who do crave the ears (and souls) of influential individuals with an unrestrained passion. The trouble is that it only takes a few well-placed individuals to make things difficult for those who don’t toe some arbitrary theological/cultural line. I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because some of this sounds paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after us.