Dominionism (also called subjectionism) the tendency among some conservative politically-active Christians, especially in the United States, to seek influence or control over secular civil government through political action—aiming either at a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law. The use and application of this terminology is a matter of controversy.
And God blessed [ Adam and Eve ] and God said unto them, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." —Genesis 1:28 (KJV)
A longstanding usage of dominionism among social scientists and legal scholars describes a Biblical argument in favor of anthropocentrism, a favoring of the rights and interests of humans in relation to environmentalism and/or animal rights. This usage is not the primary focus of this article.
Dominion Theology is a grouping of theological systems with the common belief that society should be governed exclusively by the law of God as codified in the Bible, to the exclusion of secular law, a view also known as theonomy. The most prominent modern formulation of Dominion Theology is Christian Reconstructionism, founded by R. J. Rushdoony in the 1970s. Reconstructionists themselves use the word dominionism to refer to their belief that civil government should be controlled by Christians alone and conducted according to Biblical law. Social scientists have used the word "dominionism" to refer to adherence to Dominion Theology as well as to the influence in the broader Christian Right of ideas inspired by Dominion Theology. Although such influence (particularly of Reconstructionism) has been described by many authors, full adherents to Reconstructionism are few and marginalized among conservative Christians.
In the early 1990s, sociologist Sara Diamond and journalist Frederick Clarkson defined dominionism as a movement that, while including Dominion Theology and Reconstructionism as subsets, is much broader in scope, extending to much of the Christian Right. In his 1992 study of Dominion Theology and its influence on the Christian Right, Bruce Barron writes,
In the context of American evangelical efforts to penetrate and transform public life, the distinguishing mark of a dominionist is a commitment to defining and carrying out an approach to building society that is self-consciously defined as exclusively Christian, and dependent specifically on the work of Christians, rather than based on a broader consensus.
According to Diamond, the defining concept of dominionism is "that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns". In 1989, Diamond declared that this concept "has become the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right" (p.138, emphasis in original). In 1995, she called it "prevalent on the Christian Right." Journalist Chip Berlet added in 1998 that, although they represent different theological and political ideas, dominionists assert a Christian duty to take "control of a sinful secular society."
In 2005, Clarkson enumerated the following characteristics shared by all forms of dominionism:
1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
2. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
3. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, insofar as they believe that the Ten Commandments, or "biblical law," should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.
Essayist Katherine Yurica began using the term dominionism in her articles in 2004, beginning with "The Despoiling of America", (February 11, 2004), Yurica has been followed in this usage by authors including journalist Chris Hedges  Marion Maddox, James Rudin, Sam Harris, and the group TheocracyWatch. This group of authors has applied the term to a broader spectrum of people than have Diamond, Clarkson, and Berlet.
The Christian nation concept can be opposed by:
... the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; ...
Supporters of the separation of church and state believe this article confirms that the government of the United States was specifically intended to be religiously neutral. Drafted by George Washington's administration with Thomas Jefferson's help, and ratified in 1797, they claim it becomes, with the Constitution, "the supreme Law of the Land" -- as Article VI-2. of the US Constitution says it must.
The terms "dominionist" and "dominionism" are rarely used for self-description, and their usage has been attacked from several quarters. Journalist Anthony Williams charged that its purpose is "to smear the Republican Party as the party of domestic Theocracy, facts be damned." Journalist Stanley Kurtz labeled it "conspiratorial nonsense", "political paranoia", and "guilt by association", and decried Hedges' "vague characterizations" that allow him to "paint a highly questionable picture of a virtually faceless and nameless 'Dominionist' Christian mass." Kurtz also complained about a perceived link between average Christian evangelicals and extremism such as Christian Reconstructionism:
The notion that conservative Christians want to reinstitute slavery and rule by genocide is not just crazy, it's downright dangerous. The most disturbing part of the Harper's cover story (the one by Chris Hedges) was the attempt to link Christian conservatives with Hitler and fascism. Once we acknowledge the similarity between conservative Christians and fascists, Hedges appears to suggest, we can confront Christian evil by setting aside 'the old polite rules of democracy.' So wild conspiracy theories and visions of genocide are really excuses for the Left to disregard the rules of democracy and defeat conservative Christians — by any means necessary.
Other criticism has focused on the proper use of the term. Berlet wrote that "some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point," and argued that, rather than labeling conservatives as extremists, it would be better to "talk to these people" and "engage them." Sara Diamond wrote that "[l]iberals' writing about the Christian Right's take-over plans has generally taken the form of conspiracy theory," and argued that instead one should "analyze the subtle ways" that ideas like Dominionism "take hold within movements and why."
A common view among evangelical Christians is that the granting of "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 includes a "cultural mandate" to influence all aspects of the world with Christian principles. Contrary to the theocratic vision of Dominion Theology, this view calls for Christians simply to "honor God as they promote truth and mercy and apply scriptural principles to the affairs of life."(p.252) As formulated by the Dutch Reformed theologian (called the father of Neo-Calvinism) and prime minister Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the "cultural mandate" view teaches that all human endeavor, whether ostensibly sacred or secular, is part of building God's kingdom. Kuyper energetically applied Christian principles to the secular problems of his day, seeing his efforts as extending "common grace" to all people. However, Kuyper firmly rejected the idea that "dominion" could be taken to mean domination of Christians over others. Kuyper was a founding father of the Christian Democratic movement, which remains an important political influence in parts of Europe and Latin America and elsewhere.
The work of Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) provided an important underpinning for the rise of the modern Religious Right. Schaeffer, a follower of Kuyper's system of Neo-Calvinism, had founded L'Abri, a Christian community and study center in Switzerland, in 1955. There he received evangelical Christians and others from many parts of the world, encouraging them that it was not only good but important for Christians to intellectually engage with and benefit from the Western cultural tradition (secular though it may be) of art, literature, philosophy, and the like.
In the 1970s, Schaeffer began to travel more often to his native United States, where he saw a need to warn against what he saw as the cultural decay of American society. His book, film and lecture series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, co-authored with C. Everett Koop, toured Christian colleges and churches in the early 1980s. Panels of ethicists and scholars presented the films, fielding questions from audiences and raising the alarm that, through Christian inattention, Western Civilization had slipped its Judeo-Christian moorings, drifting into a "post-Christian era", under the sway of a secular civil religion that Schaeffer called "secular humanism". The landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade served as Schaeffer's iconic portrait of the radical cheapening of human life which he predicted must accompany this cultural shift, producing a culture increasingly bent on self-destruction. In his tract A Christian Manifesto, he called upon Christians to directly resist these influences in the public sphere, by means including civil disobedience.
Though Schaeffer's interests were primarily cultural and philosophical, his doctrine of engagement with the public sphere influenced a diverse spectrum of theological conservatives, including Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, John W. Whitehead, and others. Some of these founded political and legal organizations that ignited what has come to be called the culture war.
Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was the intellectual founder of Christian Reconstructionism, a postmillennial form of Theocratic Dominion Theology. Most mainstream Christians reject Rushdoony's views and other forms of Dominion theology as quite radical.
According to Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists including Gary North and Greg Bahnsen, the idea of dominion drawn from Genesis 1:28 implied a theonomy ("rule of the law of God"), in which observation of their own strict form of Christianity would be required of all citizens, and moral sins ranging from blasphemy to homosexuality would be punishable by death. Rushdoony wrote that "[m]an is summoned to create the society God requires," "bringing all things under the dominion of Christ the King." A significant influence on Rushdoony and the theonomists came from Calvinist philosophers and theologians, including the presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), though Van Til himself disavowed any entanglement of his work with political movements.
In regard to the influence of Reconstructionism upon the broader Christian Right, sociologist and professor of religion William Martin wrote,
It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, 'Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.' In addition, several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books. Rushdoony has appeared on Kennedy's television program and the 700 Club several times. Pat Robertson makes frequent use of 'dominion' language; his book, The Secret Kingdom, has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he 'would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,' as well as when he later wrote, 'There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.' And Jay Grimstead, who leads the Coalition on Revival, which brings Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals, has said, 'I don't call myself [a Reconstructionist],' but 'A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God's standard of morality . . . in all points of history . . . and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike. . . . It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.' He added, 'There are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership James Kennedy is one of them-who don't go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.'(p. 354)
Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation, the flagship organization of Reconstructionism, rejects the claim that they are orchestrators of a clandestine, politically motivated conspiracy:
Our critics sometimes imply or state outright that we are engaged in a subtle, covert attempt to capture conservative, right-wing politics in order to gain political power, which we will then use to "spring" Biblical law on our nation. This is flatly false. We do not believe that politics or the state are a chief sphere of dominion.
Critics note that politics seems like the chief sphere in which Reconstructionism's influence is perceived, and consequently feel justified in characterizing it as primarily political in fact, even if not in ideal theory. Critics such as Clarkson identify it as totalitarian, comparable to other right-wing and political movements inspired by religious fundamentalism. Proponents of Reconstructionism claim that, on the contrary, they stand in opposition to tyranny:
The great problem with modern politics is that it is used as an instrument of social change. We at Chalcedon passionately oppose this. The role of the state is in essence to defend and protect, in the words of the early American Republic, life, liberty, and property. It is to reward the externally obedient by protecting them from the externally disobedient (Romans 13:1-7). Its role is not to make men virtuous; we have a name for civil governments that attempt to create a virtuous society: totalitarian.
"Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ -- to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less... Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land -- of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ."
Irving Hexham, the Canadian sociologist of religion, questions whether scholars have adequately distinguished Schaeffer's views from theonomy, in describing both as "dominionism". Schaeffer never described himself as a theonomist, and explicitly rejected theocracy in A Christian Manifesto, writing that "[t]here is no New Testament basis for a linking of church and state until Christ, the King returns."
In a dialogue with Jeff Sharlet (who had called Schaeffer "Rushdoony's most influential student" and proceeded to link others influenced by Schaeffer —- including LaHaye, Charles Colson, and Randall Terry -- to Rushdoony in that way), Alan Jacobs noted that Schaeffer's career significantly pre-dates Rushdoony's, and that Schaeffer is chiefly significant for his cultural reflections, which have nothing to do with Dominion Theology. Jacobs also argued that Schaeffer could only be called Rushdoony's "student" in the weak sense that he read his works very late in his career and agreed with some of his ideas (particularly in Schaeffer's A Christian Manifesto), and that their disagreements over fundamental issues far outweighed their synergy.
Writers including Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson distinguish between what they term "hard" and "soft" dominionism. "Soft" dominionists are defined as those who believe that America is a Christian nation. "Hard" dominionists are defined as those who advocate the establishment of a theocracy.
The term soft dominionism is applied to various Christian Right social and political movements that claim that "America is a Christian nation." Soft Dominionists also disclaim the existence of the "wall of separation" between church and state. In her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg called this tendency "Christian Nationalism." Berlet and Clarkson have agreed that "[s]oft Dominionists are Christian nationalists."
Unlike "dominionism", "Christian nation" is language that is commonly found in the writings of Christian Right leaders themselves. Proponents of this idea (such as David Barton and D. James Kennedy) argue that the Founding Fathers of the United States were overwhelmingly Christian, that founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are based on Christian principles, and that a Christian character is fundamental to American culture. They cite, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court's comment in 1892 that "this [the United States] is a Christian nation," after citing numerous historical and legal arguments in support of that statement.
Critics argue the claim that the United States is a Christian nation is of questionable historic validity (often pointing out the deist beliefs of some of the founding fathers -- Thomas Jefferson's in particular), is ethnocentric, and reduces secularists and members of other religions (such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) to second-class status. Other critics cite the Treaty of Tripoli passed by the United States Senate, which assured the ruler of that Muslim state that the United States government "is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion," and George Washington's letter to Moses Seixas, in which Washington defended religious freedom for Jews ("For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance").
The term hard dominionism is used to describe forms of dominionism which evidently envision, and work toward, a future (prior to the Second Coming of Christ) in which all the institutions of society will be governed by the principles of their form of Christian faith. This definition certainly fits Christian Reconstructionists and other adherents to Dominion Theology. Some apply it also to the more strident elements within the mainstream Christian Right.
Martin Luther was likely the first significant critic of dominionism. In modern times, Chip Berlet and Political Research Associates have written extensively and critically about dominionism, defining it (as discussed above) as a theocratically-inclined faction within the Christian Right. Chris Hedges, Joan Bokaer, Katherine Yurica, and TheocracyWatch define dominionism more broadly. Randall Balmer criticizes dominionism primarily with the meaning of anthropocentrism.
Dave Hunt, Hal Lindsey, and Thomas Ice are Christian critics specifically of Christian Reconstructionism, disagreeing on theological grounds with its theocratic elements as well as its Calvinism and postmillenialism. J. Ligon Duncan, Sherman Isbell, Vern Poythress, Robert Godfrey, and Sinclair Ferguson are conservative Calvinist critics specifically of Reconstructionism, primarily giving a theological critique of its theocratic elements.