08.21.11

Christian Dominionism Is a Myth

The media paint Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry as frightening 'Dominionists,' but A. Larry Ross argues that this is a scare tactic with little basis in truth.

Michelle Goldberg’s Aug. 14 post on The Daily Beast “A Christian Plot for Domination?” pejoratively positions Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry as Dominionists by association with an obscure theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism.

“If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn’t optional,” wrote Goldberg, adding to the din and confusion about what is becoming a defining issue of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Although her well-intentioned article may resonate in the echo chambers of her fellow East Coast media elite, Goldberg misapplies a broad label that few, if any, evangelicals use or with which they identify. It reveals more about the author’s personal perspective and lack of nuanced understanding of the topic than it provides useful information about the subjects themselves.

The collateral damage in such reporting is that readers are moved one step closer to perception defining reality, reinforcing the communications axiom "It’s not that people don’t know so much, but that they know so much that isn’t so.”

I don’t know or represent either candidate, nor do I have anything to do with their campaigns. But I am a lifelong evangelical who understands the foundational tenets of belief in the doctrine of love, according to the principles of Jesus in the Great Commandment and the Sermon on the Mount.

Not only is a leader who has experienced authentic heart transformation able to live a godly life, he or she also endeavors to model counterintuitive servant leadership, rather than domination or control, and to empower the least of society instead of mounting a quest for power.

According to author and social critic Os Guinness, the primary issue is “learning how to live with our deepest differences, especially when they involve matters of faith; it’s about justice, not ‘just us.’”

Most Americans today consume news less for information than for validation, and gravitate to media outlets that reinforce opinions and a worldview they already embrace. Despite today’s proliferation of 24/7 news networks and social-media platforms, as everyone retreats to these silos of validation, we seem to have lost our public square, or at least the former civility of it.

Sojourners president Jim Wallis has observed that network-television viewers need to hear the collegial, respectful discussions among marquee leaders with opposing views that take place in network greenrooms moments before they aggressively attack and demonize each other in heated debates broadcast on point/counterpoint news programs.

Not only is a leader who has experienced authentic heart transformation able to live a godly life, he or she also endeavors to model counterintuitive servant leadership, rather than domination or control.

“If you just pay attention to American politics, you think everyone is playing from the 10-yard line,” says David Westin, former president of ABC News. “In reality, most Americans play between the two 40-yard lines.”

Having worked in media relations at the intersection of faith and culture for more than 30 years, I don’t believe there is a vast liberal conspiracy against Christians. Rather, it often comes down to colliding worldviews on the authority of Scripture and nuances of faith among ministries and media.

This week a national religion reporter asked me to identify the top 10 things the media get wrong about evangelicals and politics. In a spirit of collaboration, to foster understanding rather than further unsympathetic criticism, I inventoried principles from my experience of general areas of disconnect between the press and the pews, illustrated by anecdotal examples:

1. Definition

The character and meaning of labels, such as “evangelical,” have been obscured and their importance lost, creating deep confusion within the church and corruption without. As a result, exit polls from the last presidential election were skewed, identifying many surveyed as evangelical, though they did not share that behavior or belief. The connotations of fundamentalism, a conservative movement founded around the five fundamentals of the faith, has morphed from referencing theological tenets into pejorative allegations of an exclusive, militant style of practice. Sometimes it is used to describe, erroneously, any or all individuals of the Christian faith, a tendency perhaps exacerbated by constant news references to radical Muslim ideologists, which Goldberg herself affirms.

2. Superimposition

Branding terms formerly applied to leaders of faith involved in politics, such as the derogatory “religious right,” are now being used to describe conservative politicians with a personal faith. Further, instead of referencing the Tea Party as a movement united around concern about big government, many journalists seem to be trying to redefine the color red by overlaying religious intent and purpose to that movement.

3. Balanced Lexicon

The vocabulary used in religious reporting lacks corresponding terminology for differing viewpoints. This built-in bias often negatively positions people of faith by what they are reportedly against, rather than by their passionate beliefs or positive efforts toward the common good. (Contrast the negative categorizations of “religious right,” “anti-abortion,” and “homophobic” against more neutral classifications such as “left,” “pro-choice,” and “alternative lifestyle.”)

4. Evangelical Motivation

As stated in “An Evangelical Manifesto,” evangelicals are defined theologically, not politically, socially, or culturally. Confusion about that definition, even within the movement, has led to extremes—privatizing faith to the personal and spiritual realm, or politicizing it to express partisan points that have lost touch with biblical truth.

5. Monolithic Community

In the 1950s, evangelicals were commonly described as “anyone who agrees with Billy Graham.” While evangelicals today continue to share core beliefs, the community represents a big tent that is far from monolithic. No one person can presume to speak for this diverse and sundry group made up of various strands that vary widely on the nonessentials and in their social and political views.

6. Separation of Church and State

This often misapplied term, used most recently in reference to Perry’s privately funded prayer rally before he launched his presidential campaign, is never mentioned in the Constitution, which instead specifies against any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” In an effort to avoid another state church like the one in England, the Framers wanted to protect the church from the state, and religion from any government interference—not the reverse.

7. Cherry-Picked Scripture

A dust-up over the recent Iowa Republican debate focused on Bachmann’s reference to the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands. But it ignored the related though even stronger directive for husbands to love their wives, as “Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.” Submission involves mutual respect among individuals who are equal in essence but different in function.

8. Evangelical Demographics

Though often marginalized by media reports in terms of numbers and influence, the nation’s evangelical population, according to the Institute for the Study of Evangelicals, is estimated at between 30 and 35 percent of the population, or about 100 million Americans.

9. Reinforced Stereotypes

Evangelicals and other people of faith are often caricatured as Ned Flanders, the neighbor on The Simpsons; loyal lemmings who are vulnerable to group-think; or other unflattering stereotypes.

10. Concern for the Poor

Another common accusation about evangelicals, particularly conservatives, is that they are more concerned about moral than social issues. Historically, people of faith in general, and evangelical individuals and organizations in particular, have given a higher percentage of income to charity, provide more social-outreach programs, and are regularly among the first to respond when disaster strikes. Voices such as California megapastor Rick Warren are putting “legs” on the Gospel by calling for a Second Reformation—one of behavior, not belief, involving deeds beyond creeds.

Although evangelicals, admittedly, have some housekeeping to do, at the end of the day the Christian faith is not an ideology, nor are believers useful idiots for one party or another. By and large, believers and evangelical leadership are motivated by the love of Jesus, not leveraging biblical values against the culture.