One of the most unlikely hot topics of the past month has been a kind of political theology that, to the extent it achieved any real popularity, peaked in the early 1980s: Dominion theology, or as New Yorker correspondent Ryan Lizza calls it in his now famous profile of Michelle Bachmann, Dominionism. It contends that “Christians, and Christians alone, are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.” (Here he’s quoting from Sara Diamond’s summary in Roads to Dominion, p. 246.) In a particularly extreme form, that theorized by Rousas John Rushdoony, this dominion could even take the form of a theocracy implementing Old Testament law.
Now, Lizza doesn’t actually develop the connections between Bachmann and Dominionism (or Rushdoony’s “Christian Reconstructionism”) in much depth. He describes the effect on Bachmann (then a Jimmy Carter backer) of seeing Francis Schaeffer’s film, How Should We Then Live? as “life-altering.” And he notes that Bachmann attended law school at Oral Roberts University, where the law review published essays by Rushdoony and Schaeffer. Anything more is left for the reader to infer.
And here Lizza has run into some heavy criticism from observers who don’t espouse any interest in seeing Michelle Bachmann become president, or Mosaic laws supplanting the Constitution, but who find his characterization of evangelicals and their politics misleading. For example, here’s Barry Hankins, Baylor history professor and Schaeffer biographer:
Lizza uses the alleged connection between Schaeffer and Rushdoony as a way of marginalizing Bachmann and, by implication, other evangelicals of the Right who have been influenced by Schaeffer. In doing so, Lizza only gets some of the details on Schaeffer correct while presenting an overall view of the evangelical pop intellectual that is almost wholly without merit. Ironically, Lizza’s approach is much like Schaeffer’s, who often got the details wrong about, say, Soren Kierkegaard, the Renaissance, or Samuel Rutherford’s alleged influence on the American Revolution, but still presented a big picture that was remarkably helpful for Christians in thinking about the trajectory of western moral and intellectual life.
Hankins responds that Schaeffer opposed theocracy and that Lizza is relying on an unreliable source (Schaeffer’s iconoclastic son Frank) for the notion that Schaeffer supported the overthrow of the government.
This is far from my field of expertise, so I don’t intend to dwell on Schaeffer’s dalliance with Dominion theology or his influence on the religious right, or even on Bachmann’s candidacy and how her agenda has been influenced, if at all, by someone like Rushdoony. Instead, I’m most interested in how this imbroglio has pointed to some crucial ways that evangelicalism is still misunderstood by non-evangelical observers.
Religion reporter Lisa Miller argued as much in the Washington Post, criticizing the depiction of evangelicalism in Lizza’s piece and two others: a report in the Texas Observer on Rick Perry, and a post in The Daily Beast picking up on the Bachmann and Perry profiles. Not that no evangelicals subscribe to Dominion theology, but Miller (who’s written many articles on that wing of Christianity, not all flattering) characterizes it as highly unusual, and suspects that “dominion” is a term wielded by those on the left in the same way that “sharia” is on the right.
For his part, Barry Hankins finds it astonishing that a reporter for a national publication could get evangelicals so wrong:
The larger point here is the degree to which a reporter for a reputable and influential national magazine can be so out-of-touch with evangelicalism — one of the two most influential religious movements in America, the other being Roman Catholicism. Calling Schaeffer exotic, and interpreting him through the lens of a figure he fawned over for about ten minutes, is akin to forgetting who Billy Graham is.
…only a tiny minority of the Christian Right is devoted to Dominionism and an even smaller minority of the wider evangelical subculture. One might have expected in the 1980s that a correspondent for the New Yorker might fail to understand evangelicalism in even a rudimentary way. At that time evangelicals had only recently re-entered conservative politics after a half-century hiatus. We might look back to that time and forgive, or at least snicker at, reporters who thought evangelical activists were like Iran’s Ayatollah. But after more than 30 years of high evangelical visibility, in an era where roughly 30 percent of the American population is evangelical, and that evangelicals for the most part live pretty much like everyone else, one has to ask the New Yorker, “Where have you been?”
Perhaps, but I still find myself wanting to defend reporters like Lizza. As an evangelical Christian myself, I’m well aware that I inhabit an already perplexing subculture that has spawned even more sub-subcultures, and it’s no easy thing even for a skilled reporter (and I think Lizza is one, having read much of his work since his New Republic days), coming from outside such a context, to make sense of its idioms and assumptions.
Let’s face it, evangelicals speak in terms that are given to misunderstanding.
Take, for example, one of my research subjects, Carl Lundquist, a Baptist General Conference pastor who served as president of Bethel College and Seminary from 1954-1982 (and, near the end of that period, a term as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAE). Lundquist employed several stock phrases in his attempts to define and communicate the mission of Bethel. Most commonly, he described Bethel as preparing “a task force for the evangelical penetration of society.”
The notion of this “task force” engaging in the “penetration of society” shows up in several of his annual reports, plus articles for magazines, speeches, sermons, etc. Imagine that his 1965 report, quoted next, had been made in 2011 and reported by a national magazine whose reporter and editor were not from the population of evangelical, Pietist Baptists to whom Lundquist addressed himself:
For a Christian institution of higher education, there is only one mission—to witness; one field—the world; one task force—the student and teacher alike; and one time—now. Specialized training in all the disciplines is to make possible the penetration of the structures of society by able and committed Christians.
On its surface, Lundquist’s vision for Bethel sure sounds a lot like, say, Dinesh D’Souza’s vision for The King’s College, an evangelical school that occupies two floors in the Empire State Building. (A prominent conservative pundit with little academic background, D’Souza was appointed president of King’s last year. I’ve yet to see his response to the Dominionism flap, but Google his name with “theocracy” and you’ll find that plenty of progressive and libertarian bloggers have little doubt where he stands.) His profile in a New York magazine this summer received much less attention than Bachmann’s, but here’s what he’s quoted as telling the school’s graduating class:
We are living, for perhaps the first time in history, in a society whose basic assumptions are secular. Some Christians hope to change this through bottom-up, grassroots techniques. But I’m skeptical about that approach. Consider minority groups like Jews and gays, groups whose influence far outweighs their relatively small numbers. How do they do it? By focusing on strategic institutions—finance, media, law. At the King’s College, our mission is to prepare you to go into that world. It’s, frankly, an elitist mission, which says that culture is formed from the top down. I can only hope we have given you the tools to complete that mission, the tools to be dangerous Christians.
Or as one “post-evangelical” former adjunct at King’s put it:
What you’re supposed to be when you come out of King’s is an infiltrator. There’s a definite sense of, “Imagine what we could do if all the courts were Christian, if all the banks were Christian.” You know, I grew up around people talking about “engaging” the culture. What does engage mean except “infiltrate?”
Or “penetrate,” right? “Task force” (Lundquist) or “Christian A-team” (D’Souza, from a quotation given earlier in the article), it’s a similar aspiration, no?
Except that no one who knew Carl Lundquist at all well would confuse his goals with those of Dinesh D’Souza, R.J. Rushdoony, or Michelle Bachmann. Never one to confuse the cause of Christ with that of any political party or ideology, Lundquist was the target of vicious attacks from arch-conservative pastors who labeled him a Communist sympathizer during the Vietnam era. (He opposed ROTC on Christian college campuses and defended the right of antiwar activists to protest.) One can guess what such critics thought when, in 1988, Lundquist traveled to Cuba, had his picture taken with Fidel Castro (a photo that appeared in the BGC’s denominational magazine), and shared his experiences in Bethel’s Chapel service. Lundquist explained that he made the trip not because of any political sympathies but because it was an opportunity to witness to a man for whom he had long prayed.
As a Baptist Pietist whose ancestors found themselves at odds with a state church, Lundquist was far less interested in cultivating political power than in the ways that convertive piety and distinctive living could inspire and sustain evangelism and social reform. (I wish evangelicals themselves were more aware of their historical roots in nonconforming, free church traditions, so I can hardly blame outsiders for failing to realize why such Christians have historically been leery of church and state fusions.) If anything, Lundquist would most want to see the kind of “bottom-up, grassroots” change that D’Souza disparages.
His image of “penetration” was not to see evangelicals wielding political, economic, and legal power (though he didn’t discourage Bethel graduates from seeking careers in law, business, and politics), but to see them equipped to serve and witness to others. In another “task force” passage, from his 1967 report, he expressed his hope that Bethel graduates would “seek vocations which will involve significant human relationships in order that their influence for Christ may have maximum impact.” And so they often have: Bethel during and after Lundquist’s time has probably been better known for producing pastors, missionaries, teachers, social workers, and nurses than people who could “infiltrate” the power structures of this society.
In his 1969 report Lundquist described “a pained awareness of a world in which more than one-half of the people can neither read nor write, in which half of the people go to bed hungry every night, and in which one-third of the people are sick and without medical aid.” So he dedicated that year’s report to defending the freedom of protestors and activists, in whose message he heard “notes” like:
…the insistence that every human being is a person of importance and worth, that material security ought not have the highest priority in life, that love ought to characterize all of our interpersonal relationships, that right ideals are worth suffering for, that honesty should characterize our actions, that unconventional methods may open exciting new doors into the future, and that whatever ought to be done ought to be done now.
It is at this point that Christians have something in common with the youth of the revolt movement. These ideals have been held by Christians for centuries but sometimes have been lost to sight. Suddenly they are being sounded dramatically in a variety of strange places. An opportunity has been given to the church in our day to show how relevant Jesus Christ is to the new revolutionist. He may not be interested in the church. But he can be interested in Jesus Christ. And under God self-renewal—revival—is possible for the church also! This is no time to deplore the new American revolution. This is a time to identify with its valid emphases and to witness about the greatest revolutionist of all—Jesus Christ.
Hopefully it’s becoming clear how Lundquist’s “penetration” is a form of engagement markedly different from “dominion” or even “infiltration.” I would love to ask him why he picked the word “penetration.” I wonder if Jesus’ image of “salt and light”—calling his followers to preserve and illuminate a decaying, dark world, not rule over it—wouldn’t have better captured his meaning. In any event, that famous pair is now used by Bethel as one of its “core values”.
Tomorrow, a brief sequel to this post, looking at how Lizza used a verse from the Old Testament that might have led him to study two other commitments much more typical of evangelicals than a belief that they are “biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”
What’s your perspective? If you’re an evangelical, or have spent much time around them: are they misunderstood? Does Dominionism characterize your/their view of politics?