Dominionism Beyond the Roy Moore Moment

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.

Trump, Cruz, & Dominionism: Some Christian Right Leaders Fear a Crack-Up

The 2016 Republican presidential campaign has transformed American politics, likely forever. Everyone is making adjustments, but two recent illuminating episodes suggest that some Christian Right leaders are finding the changes to be unusually awkward and challenging.

trump cruzThe Christian Right, as a voting bloc, has never united behind a single candidate during the Republican presidential primaries (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s unopposed second-term races). Still, we tend to forget that the movement has never been monolithic and that there have always been political tensions between rival candidates and factions. But the factional tensions are different this year. And there are two main reasons for this.

The first tension is related to the unique, and uniquely divisive, candidacy of Donald Trump. Evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie, in a curiously overwrought speech, widely-discussed in the evangelical press, has gone so far as to call it a conservative “crack-up.”  The second is the specter of Dominionism as it relates to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his campaign. 

The Christian Post recently reported on the eyebrow-raising remarks of evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie at a luncheon sponsored by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington DC.  (IRD is best known for its efforts to degrade the historic communions of mainline Protestantism.)  Cromartie runs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC.

Cromartie is upset that the “new branding” of evangelicalism and the Christian Right is being ruined by evangelical and conservative leaders who support Trump. He said the movement has benefited from the rise of Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and megachurch pastors and authors Tim Keller and Rick Warren. He believes that they better “present” the movement’s goals than such founding Christian Right figures as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, Sr.

But this rebranding, Cromartie says, has been undone because of the pro-Trump activities of noted Southern Baptists such as megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The Christian Post continued:

“In the last six or seven or eight years, we now have new leaders to replace those leaders, so that it’s a new branding of evangelicals in our society,” Cromartie stated. “Now, that is all out the window, ladies and gentleman, when Jerry Falwell Jr. has the audacity to come out and endorse Donald Trump, when Robert Jeffress goes on and sells his soul every week on Fox News, encouraging the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

“If this is not a crack up,” Cromartie observed,” I don’t know what it is.”

As if to underscore his confusion about all this, Cromartie also cited blogger Matt Walsh, whose hyperbolic post “Let’s Remember The Cowardly Conservative Leaders Who Betrayed Us For Trump” leaves readers with little doubt that the faction fighting is getting bitter.

Speaking of Falwell and Jeffress, Walsh declared:

“They now promote Trump in direct defiance of Scripture, which clearly stipulates that anyone who desires to be a leader must be noble, respectable, temperate, and dignified (and probably not someone who brags about his adultery and thinks the nation’s largest abortion provider is ‘wonderful [sic]).  To claim Trump belongs in any of these categories is blasphemy.”

“Our ‘leaders’” he continued, “have subjugated themselves to the American Kim Jong Un simply for the publicity and the ratings and the chance to be friends with a billionaire celebrity.”

Meanwhile, the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his unexpected emergence as the leading candidate of both the Christian Right and much of the GOP establishment as an alternative to Trump is causing the movement other kinds of indigestion.

Catholic neoconservative strategist Robert P. George is apparently worried about how voters will react to the way Senator Cruz relates his religious views to public policy. Specifically, he is worried about Ted Cruz and Dominionism.

At the beginning of the presidential primary season four years ago, the Christian Right was similarly worried that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) were receiving press attention for their well-established involvements in the theocratic politics of Dominionism.

In that race, those two candidates both dropped out early. But with Cruz actually having a shot at the nomination, George apparently hopes to squelch the emerging discussion about Cruz and Dominionism before it goes any further. This may be why he was featured in a recent article in Christianity Today, which sought to smear researchers who have published about Cruz’s dominionist roots, namely evangelical historian John Fea, evangelical psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, and myself.

In the article, George claimed:

“The contemporary religious Left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting is to smear opponents by labeling them ‘dominionists.’ … Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist.”

This is as silly as it is wrong.  What’s more, although former PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and I may have defined and popularized the terms “Dominionism” and “dominionist” in the 90s as a way to describe a tendency that is evident across a wide swath of evangelicalism, we have always sought to apply it fairly and accurately.

Nevertheless, George and the authors of the article did not offer a single example of the supposedly McCarthyist-style uses of the term by those of us named in the article or anyone else.

Also ignored by the authors and George is the fact that the term was part of the debate about Christian Reconstructionism in the evangelical community for years before Berlet and I used it for wider publics.1  The term has also been objectively employed in many scholarly books and articles.

As I recently told journalist Bill Berkowitz, who wrote about the discussion of Cruz and Dominionism for Truthout, “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.” John Fea has detailed how, in addition to Cruz’s own statements, Cruz’s father Rafael (who is also his principal campaign surrogate) is openly a 7 Mountains Dominionist, as is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC – revisionist historian David Barton. One of Cruz’s foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, is also a well-known 7 Mountains Dominionist and a longtime board member of a 7 Mountains political project called The Oak Initiative.

The public debate about the Christian Right is usually limited to the tripartite agenda of what they term “life, marriage, and religious liberty” as put forth in The Manhattan Declaration.  But their agenda has always been broader and deeper than that, which is why Robert P. George, the principal author of the Declaration (and current Vice Chairman of EPPC) does not want to risk us talking about the political and economic dimensions of what they mean by “taking dominion” over society. This, combined with the bitterness of some about evangelical support for Trump, may very well signal a period of disunity rather than the politically homogenized evangelicalism preferred by Washington, DC think tanks and power brokers.


 

[1]  These usages are discussed in Christian Reconstructionism:  R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.; page 204.