"Let Them Have Dominion": "Dominion Theology" and the Construction of Religious Extremism in the US Media

By McVicar, Michael J. | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

"Let Them Have Dominion": "Dominion Theology" and the Construction of Religious Extremism in the US Media


McVicar, Michael J., Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


In the summer of 2011 speculation about the religious commitments of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls dominated certain sectors of the popular press in the United States. Much of this coverage focused on the problem posed by a largely unknown but--as the coverage argued--highly influential political theology known as "dominion theology" or, more generally, "dominionism." For reporters and pundits, no candidates in the Republican field embodied the ominous dangers of dominionism more clearly than Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Even before Perry officially entered the race in mid-August 2011, journalist Forrest Wilder (2011) exposed Perry's ties with a neoPentecostal organization, the New Apostolic Reformation. (1) Wilder's report, written for an independent, progressive Texas monthly, uncovered a network of shadowy religious figures who "talk about taking dominion over American society in pastoral terms." Following close on the heels of Wilder's piece, Ryan Lizza (2011b) published a New Yorker profile of Tea Party favourite Michele Bachmann. Lizza reported that Bachmann's "extreme" beliefs on everything from homosexuality to her understanding of the Constitution could be traced to her connections with a school of conservative Protestant theology he identified as "Dominionism." Since her college days, Bachmann had maintained close connections with a network of "Dominionist[s]" who, Lizza explained, believe "Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns." (2)

Before the ink dried on Wilder's and Lizza's pieces, prominent sources reported on dominionism and the threat it might (or might not) pose to democracy and the separation of church and state in the United States. National Public Radio's Fresh Air ran three lengthy interviews documenting the dominionist influences in the Republican Party (Lizza 2011a; Tabachnick 2011; Wagner 2011). Online, The Daily Beast ran a series of articles on dominionism. One declared, "If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn't optional" (Goldberg 2011); another argued that dominionism is a fantasy created by secular liberals who fear evangelicals (Powers 2011); yet another author flatly asserted, "Christian Dominion is a myth" (Ross 2011). On cable television, CNN's Jack Cafferty asked his viewers, "How much does it worry you if both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have ties to Dominionism?" (Cafferty 2011). A New York Times Magazine editorial argued that reporters must ask Republicans if they "pledged allegiance to the Dominionists" (Keller 2011). Even the British press joined the fight, with The Spectator declaring that "panic over Dominionism" is the product of "people loathing things they don't understand and mongering fear ahead of an important election" (Gray 2011). By late September, the heat generated over the dominion controversy had dissipated, but not before a legion of bloggers and pundits had offered their opinions of dominionism. (3)

Lost in all of the chatter over dominionism was any sense of the historical development of this significant but woefully misunderstood concept. This article intervenes in the dominion debate by tracing the development of dominion discourse through nearly three decades of popular reporting on the subject. First, this article outlines how the controversy of dominion theology developed in the 1980s when journalists and preachers associated with popular evangelical media outlets debated the meaning of two small but influential theological movements: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now. It situates these debates within the context of the rise of the so-called Christian or new religious right. Next, the article describes how a small network of secular journalists and activists appropriated the material produced in the evangelical press in an effort to stoke a smouldering backlash against right-wing political and religious figures.

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