Dominionism Beyond the Roy Moore Moment

About Frederick Clarkson

August 2003 rally in front of the Alabama state judicial building in support of Roy Moore. Photo: Wikimedia.

Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore –– arguably the most openly theocratic candidate to run for a major office in the U.S. in modern times –– almost won. This, despite credible allegations of child sex abuse, a reputation as a serial stalker of teenagers at the town mall as a young prosecutor; and public opposition by senior Republicans including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) –– among a host of other remarkable factors.  Even in defeat, Roy Moore illuminates the rise of Christian Dominionism as a political wave that may not yet have crested.

Dominionism has a number of variants and expressions, but generally is the theocratic idea that God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.  It is an advanced and maturing movement generally, within in the Republican party in particular.

One person who epitomizes this trend is Michael Peroutka, a Maryland lawyer and politician who has been a major underwriter of Roy Moore’s Alabama political career and of Moore’s non-profit Foundation for Moral Law.  Their association is long and close.  In 2004 Moore, then a hero to the Christian Right for installing a monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama state courthouse when he was the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and defying a federal judge’s order to remove it, flirted with running for President on the theocratic Constitution Party ticket, the third largest party at the time. In the end, Moore didn’t declare himself a candidate, but by serving as the headliner draw at state party conventions, he was able to introduce the little known Peroutka (then-Chairman of the Maryland Constitution Party, and a declared candidate for the nomination) –– who ultimately became the party’s presidential candidate.

A decade later, Peroutka switched parties and as a Republican won a seat on the County Council in Anne Arundel County, Maryland in 2014, despite controversy over his leadership in the theocratic, Southern secessionist organization, League of the South. (Anne Arundel is the county that includes the state capital, Annapolis.)  As in the case of Moore, Peroutka was opposed by some leading Maryland Republicans, including Governor Larry Hogan. But far from becoming a pariah, the county executive, Republican Steve Schuh has endorsed him for reelection in 2018 and on December 4, 2017 he was elected by his fellow Republicans as chairman of the County Council. This was less than two weeks before the Alabama special election –– but well after exposés of Peroutka’s involvement with Moore and The Washington Post’s reporting on Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct. Faced with a strong challenger who could flip control of the council to the Democrats, the Republican Party is evidently rallying around Peroutka.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is another leading example of the ongoing significance of political Dominionism.  Should he be reelected in 2018, he would certainly be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 or 2024.  Cruz ran in the Republican primaries in 2016, and did remarkably well, despite revelations about  of the Dominionism of his campaign and his close supporters, by Texas reporters and scholars and an evangelical historian; as well as the way that Cruz used the idea of religious freedom to advance a Dominionist agenda. This sort of reporting largely disappeared after Cruz emerged as the last plausible candidate to stop Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination. Cruz was also supported by-anyone-but-Trump party leaders as well as neo-conservative Christian Right figures like Robert P. George.  Nevertheless, even after the election, most of the political community and the media have continued to report on the likes of Peroutka, Cruz, and Moore in other terms, as if the deeper religious and political ideology that drives and animates their politics does not exist.

When looking at politicians and issue groups it can be easy to lose sight of the religious ideas that animate their politics, especially when these ideas may seem strange to outsiders who also may not have the vocabulary to describe them.

When looking at politicians and issue groups it can be easy to lose sight of the religious ideas that animate their politics, especially when these ideas may seem strange to outsiders who also may not have the vocabulary to describe them. Sometimes too, pols may be trying to shade their more controversial views and involvements. But that need not deter us from shining a light on them. There are two main schools of Dominionist thought that animate the movement these being Christian Reconstructionism, pioneered by the late theologian R.J. Rushdoony, which advances the idea not only of the need for Christians (of the right sort) to dominate society, but to ultimately institute and apply Old Testament “Biblical Law” in every area of life. The other, closely related form of Dominionism is advocated by the neo-Pentecostal  New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), led by longtime Fuller Theological Seminary professor, C. Peter Wagner; which advocates for what they call “Seven Mountains” of dominion. This is a call for Christians to “reclaim the seven mountains of culture”: government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.

It is worth noting that Dominionism has also long-resonated with, and helped to develop contemporary White nationalism, neo-confederate ideology  and White supremacism. 

It is worth noting that Dominionism has also long-resonated with, and helped to develop contemporary White nationalism, neo-confederate ideology  and White supremacism.  The eminent sociologist James Aho in his 2016 book Far-Right Fantasy:  A Sociology of American Religion and Politics writes that these elements have increasingly found resonance with Dominionist thought in both its Christian Reconstructionism and  New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) expressions. Aho makes clear that no understanding of the far right in the U.S. is complete absent the religious dimension.

“Ignoring the handful of pagan Odinist and SS-garbed neo-Nazis, America’s contemporary ultra-rightists,” he wrote, “are almost exclusively white, middle aged, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Mormons, animated by a doctrine known as Dominionism.”

(Paradoxically, Pentecostalism has historically been racially and ethnically inclusive and diverse in ways that contrast with overwhelmingly White conservative Baptist and Presbyterian factions of the Christian Right.  NAR style Dominionism does not conflate Dominionism with any variety of White identity.)

Unsurprisingly, Dominionism was a powerfully underlying current before the White supremacist march on Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. One of the principal organizers of the event was the League of the South.  Nevertheless, in the run up to Charlottesville the stated religious intentions of League leader Michael Hill went largely unreported. Hill envisions the League and his growing “Southern Defense Force” as an army that seeks to defend White Christendom –– the “Army of the True Living God” and carry out an Old Testament style vision of “destroying the enemies of our land, our people and of our God.”

While Dominionism in its various expressions continues to rise, it is happening within a continuum of interacting elements of the Republican Party, the Christian Right, and even the far right that define politics and culture in the age of Donald Trump and Roy Moore.

Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.