Evangelicals and “Dominion” (part 2)

Yesterday I posted a response to the debate over Dominion theology, which holds that Scripture mandates that Christians control secular institutions, including political ones. There have been several sources for the revival of a debate whose roots go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, but probably the most important was Ryan Lizza’s profile in The New Yorker of Republican congresswoman and presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann. Lizza claims that Bachmann “belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by “Dominionists” like R.J. Rushdoony and (here’s where Lizza drew criticism from historians and biographers) Francis Schaeffer.

Ryan LizzaMy first post focused on the challenge facing a non-evangelical like Lizza trying to make sense of the evangelical subculture. As an example, I looked to my own research and former Bethel president Carl Lundquist’s recurring claim that Bethel was training “a task force for the evangelical penetration of society,” a seemingly dominionistic phrase that, when understood in light of Lundquist’s other words and deeds, is anything but.

Now, Lizza doesn’t quantify the size of the “generation of Christian conservatives” influenced by Dominionism. Few serious students of evangelicalism (in the last post I mentioned reporter Lisa Miller and historian Barry Hankins) think it’s very large, which squares with my own experience as a participant-observer. The kind of evangelicalism characterized by Lizza simply does not match the political and social concerns I hear from my evangelical colleagues and students at Bethel, or from the clergy or laity at my church, for that matter.

N.B. I’m sure that the evangelicals I encounter do not make up anything like a cross-section of American evangelicalism as a whole, to say nothing of the movement where it’s growing fastest, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. What follows are observations based on anecdotal evidence, drawn from a sample that’s no doubt skewed by geography, level of education, affluence, theology, and numerous other factors. However, I think I’m both closer to this subculture than reporters like Lizza and able, to some degree, to step outside of it as a critical observer, so I hope my observations add something useful to the conversation.

To understand what Lizza seems to be missing, consider one of the biblical quotations he supplies in his article on Bachmann:

“…let them [man] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:26b, KJV)

Lizza takes this (incomplete) verse as being central to Dominion theology. Now, I’ll admit that I hear many Bethel students (especially in the their 1st and 2nd years on campus) and a few members of my church professing a belief that America is a “Christian nation,” a prime version of what Sara Diamond calls “softer forms of dominionism” in her book on the religious right quoted by Lizza. (“Christian nation,” I should add, is deceptively simple phrase with a complex history: see John Fea’s recent book for a balanced take.) But Genesis 1:26 also undergirds two very different views of how Christians ought to relate to the larger world that are far more widespread than Dominionism among the evangelicals I know, though perhaps not so apparent to non-evangelicals.

Rain Forest
Licensed by Creative Commons (laura0509)

First, I’m sure that when most 21st century evangelicals use Genesis 1:26 as a proof-text, they are doing so in support of what they call “Creation care.” After all, the verse, while saying nothing explicit about political and legal structures (except insofar as they’re part of “all the earth”), does speak directly to the relationship between humans and other living things created by God and deemed “good.” Evangelicals might quibble over the causes of climate change and what constitutes an appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic development, but rare is the historically orthodox Christian these days who agrees that “dominion” implies the unlimited right of humanity to plunder Creation.

Here let me add a bit of quantitative data that seems to support my own impressions. The Pew Forum recently released a survey of evangelical leaders from around the globe who participated in the 2010 Lausanne Congress in Cape Town. Of that sample, 83% agreed that it was either essential or important to protect the environment; only 2% said environmental protection was not important at all.

In The Message Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Hebrew word usually translated in English as dominion, rule, or reign as “be[ing] responsible,” which is probably much closer than those other words to capturing how most evangelicals think they ought to relate to the rest of Creation. (See also Gen. 2:15, quoted in the National Association of Evangelicals page dedicated to Creation care.) They read the “dominion” verse in light of the biblical theme of stewardship, defined by my own denomination as “acknowledging that all of creation – the earth, scripture, our time, relationships, talents, possessions – that is, every good thing, comes out of God’s original abundance in creation, and is a gift of which we are caretakers.”

Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano (ca. 1745-1797), freed slave, best-selling author, abolitionist, and evangelical Christian

Second, Lizza leaves out Genesis 1:26a in his rush to 1:26b: “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that….'” (Here I’ll go back to my favorite translation, the TNIV, since the King James’ use of “man” might be taken as implying, wrongly, that only those with a Y chromosome were so fashioned.) The notion of all human beings being created in the image of God (Imago Dei, see also the following verse) is deeply embedded in Jewish and Christian understandings of humanness, and so also in many of those traditions’ conceptions of ethics and justice. (I confess that I don’t know if Islam shares this belief with its Abrahamic cousins — please feel free to correct me in the Comments if I’ve erred in not including that tradition here.) It guided those Christians who helped make human rights a cornerstone of any liberal understanding of justice. For example: Olaudah Equiano, William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, to name just a few Christians whose faith helped inspire their activism against the enslavement of fellow human beings.

Alas, the Imago Dei was sorely neglected by the Christians on the other side of that debate. Still, I’d argue that a conviction that human beings (whether Christian or not) are “image-bearers” can provide a much stronger foundation for beliefs in inalienable rights and basic dignity than any secularist alternative — e.g., Utilitarianism, which can too easily find some rights alienable and some humans disposable, or some kind of appeal to the “Golden Rule” as stripped of religious context, which fails so long as you’ve got people like Hitler and Stalin who are quite content to deprive any human being of her property, liberty, and life, have an expectation of receiving the same treatment from their “enemies” embedded in their worldview, and bend no knee to Christ or any other lord.

A commitment to human rights (well, 1st generation rights) is so pervasive among the young evangelicals that I teach at Bethel that it’s hard to imagine Dominion theology having any but an indirect impact on them. Indeed, when I offer my upper-division Human Right in International History course (as I will next spring), I usually find myself having to play devil’s advocate more than I’d prefer, arguing that human rights aren’t universal or natural (some see them as social constructions), or that “rights talk” is not necessarily the best way to realize the biblical ideal of shalom.

Hopefully, one of my rights-defending, creation-stewarding evangelical students will find herself running for president in 2040 or so. I’ll look forward to reading their New Yorker profile.


<<Read the previous post in this mini-series


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