Paranoia and the Progressive Press: A Response to WaPo’s Religion Columnist

Last week, Lisa Miller, noted religion writer and editor (Newsweek and the Washington Post) filed an op-ed in which she fulminated against “the left” and journalists who have raised concerns about the influence of dominionist thinkers on Republican presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.

“Beware False Prophets who Fear Evangelicals,” the headline reads. And the opening salvo sums up her attitude: “Here we go again. The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about ‘crazy Christians.’”

It’s true that political reporters can stumble when covering religion, but Miller is making a more sweeping charge: that “leftists” and journalists are unfairly hyping the influence of far-right leaders and painting all evangelicals with the same brush. She doesn’t make the case.

Miller links to recent in-depth articles from the Texas Observer, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast, but doesn’t really engage substantively with any of their reporting. Instead, Miller gives a pro forma acknowledgment that the stories “raise real concerns” about candidates’ worldviews while portraying the articles broadly as evidence of unfair attacks on evangelicals from a hysterical anti-Christian “left.” She calls dominionism “the paranoid mot du jour.”

If It Quacks Like a Duck

It may be the “word of the day,” as journalists continue to educate themselves and their readers on this particular strand of thinking, but that doesn’t mean an investigation of the role of “dominionism” in religious right rhetoric and strategy is a paranoid project. (The urge to investigate, or to interpret, can be too easily dismissed as paranoid. But if not for such “paranoia,” what exactly would the role of journalists be?)

So, as background: dominionism refers to a theological tenet at the core of the religious right movement—that Christians are meant to exercise dominion over the earth. As RD readers know, dominionist thought is not a new phenomenon. It may be true, as evangelical leader Mark DeMoss says in Miller’s story, that “you would be hard-pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians in America would could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.” But it’s certainly not true of the leaders of the religious right political movement. Their followers are hearing dominionist teaching whether they know it or not.

In recent years, there has been a very visible embrace by traditional religious right leaders of the rhetoric of “Seven Mountains,” a framework attributed to former Campus Crusade for Christ director Bill Bright. It puts dominionist thinking in clear, user-friendly lay language. The “Seven Mountains” of culture over which the right kind of Christians are meant to have dominion are business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family, and religion. (Some folks rearrange the categories a bit to explicitly include the military.)

The language has been used by Pentecostal leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, a group that sees itself creating a new church and an army of spiritual warriors who will hasten the return of Christ by taking dominion over the earth. But the Seven Mountains framework has also become a sort of lingua franca among the religious right, forming the basis for Janet Porter’s May Day rally on the mall last year as well as the National Day of Prayer and Jim Garlow’s Pray and Act campaign. The Family Research Council and prominent religious right figures like Harry Jackson and David Barton all use the language.

In other words, this is not a movement dreamed up by people with no understanding of Christianity who simply want to stir up fear of conservative evangelicals. The increasingly widespread use of “Seven Mountains” rhetoric reflects an effort by a broad swath of conservative evangelical leadership to adopt a shared set of talking points, if you will, to unite theologically disparate elements in common political cause to defeat the Satanic/demonic enemies of faith and freedom: secularists, gays, liberals, and the Obama administration.

C. Peter Wagner is the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation and author of Dominion!: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. His official bio says “In the 2000s, he began to move strongly in promoting the Dominion Mandate for social transformation, adopting the template of the Seven Mountains or the 7-M Mandate for practical implementation.” Wagner was an endorser of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer-rally-cum-presidential launch and dozens of members of the New Apostolic Reformation were involved in organizing and speaking at the event.

Shouting “Harlot” in a Crowded Theater?

In an online conversation about her article, Miller criticizes coverage of the movement’s excesses, saying “that clips in which ministers shout ‘harlot’ over and over are likely to inflame more than they are to elucidate,” saying that “the left needs to search its soul, as it were, and see that it’s guilty of the same kind of demonizing that one sees on the right.” That is just one of several false equivalences Miller lays out, and it’s an irresponsible assertion.

I agree that it can be uncomfortable to watch Lou Engle screaming from a stage, but it is even more uncomfortable to see him in a leadership role with other religious right leaders and members of Congress, as he was at the Family Research Council’s “prayercast” asking God to defeat health care reform. Engle, who declares that “the church’s vocation is to rule history with God,” introduced Michele Bachmann at that event.

Miller seems unfamiliar with, or uninterested in, the extent to which dominionist and reconstructionist thinking is reflected in the worldview of Michele Bachmann. (Miller says Pat Robertson, who ran for the presidency in 1988, was a dominionist; implying that Bachmann and other contemporaries are self-evidently not). It is not some kind of guilt-by-association stretch to ask what it means that Bachmann describes Christian Reconstructionist John Eidsmoe as a mentor and major influence on her thinking. Neither is it surprising that Rick Perry’s political prayer rally would bring greater attention to the extremist nature of the event’s sponsors and speakers, which has been extensively documented.

Dominionist thinking within the religious right has real-world consequences that justify concern. In the online discussion of her article, Miller wrote that she didn’t see much difference between Jerry Falwell creating Liberty University to train evangelical Christians to be active citizens and a Mormon sending her kid to BYU or a Catholic sending her kid to Georgetown.

But there is a difference. Maybe Miller should read Sarah Posner’s recent article for RD on the approach to law that presidential candidate Michele Bachmann studied at the precursor to Robertson’s Regent University law school, or her exposé on the approach currently taught students at Liberty’s law school. On a recent exam, for example, students were asked about a case — one which Liberty Counsel lawyers were currently involved in — regarding a woman had renounced her homosexuality and was refusing to honor the court-ordered custody arrangement for a child she’d had with a former partner. The exam asked whether students, as Christian lawyers, would advise the woman to honor the court orders, or defy “man’s law” in order to follow “God’s law.” Students who said they would advise her to obey court orders got bad grades. Also, in the real world, Liberty Counsel’s client fled the country with the child in defiance of multiple court orders and has become a folk hero to many in the religious right.

Liberty’s goal is to fill state and federal judgeships and legislatures with people who embrace this view of the law; people like Michele Bachmann.

Miller goes after other straw men. She argues that liberals seem to presume that “a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world.” Who, exactly? (And what a neat way to deny the voices of progressive, or even radical-left Christians.)

She compares “anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians” with charges made by some far-right Christians that Obama was the Antichrist seeking world domination. Seriously? Where’s the evidence for this leftist anti-Christian jihad, especially from someone who several paragraphs later says she is making a plea for “a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion”?

Miller writes, “Certain journalists” (no names here),

use ‘dominionist’ the way some folks on Fox News use the word ‘sharia.’ Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which ‘we’ need to guard against ‘them.’

Really? There is an extraordinary propaganda campaign built around convincing Americans that sharia law and Muslims generally pose a dire threat to the Constitution. But how many members of Congress, state legislatures, presidential candidates, and cable news personalities are ranting about the need to pass laws against dominionist teaching, or for that matter to restrict the ability of Christian evangelicals to build churches or engage in politics? Exactly none.

Miller isn’t the only one to make this kind of false equivalence. Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, claims that reporters are portraying Perry and Bachmann as theocratic Manchurian candidates and that those reporters are the moral equivalent of right-wing activists who suggest Obama wants to impose Islam on America. “Rather than worrying about Christians plotting to take over America, we ought to be more concerned with liberal journalists resorting to religious bigotry to smear conservatives.”

Is anything more predictable in our current political culture than liberals being charged with religious bigotry?

It’s true that Christian conservatives “thrive in a mindset of persecution,” as Miller quotes a scholar saying. That’s why religious right leaders have for decades been telling evangelicals that liberals and feminists and secular humanists and gays are hostile to religious liberty and are on the verge of criminalizing Christianity and dragging preachers from their pulpits and tossing them into jail. It’s ludicrous, though apparently still energizing.

But here’s the truth: religious right activists don’t need journalists portraying them as “freaky and dangerous” in order to see themselves as “political activists on behalf of God.” That’s what Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and religious right leaders tell them they are, over and over again.

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.