Rick Perry has a new campaign ad airing in Iowa that in 30 seconds surfaces the three main characteristics of the Christian dominionist worldview. Here is the text of the ad, as reported by Politico:
"I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”
It was clever, (if sleazy) to compare gays finally having the right to serve openly in the American armed forces, with the matter of organized prayer and official Christmas pageants in the public schools. Children may of course celebrate Christmas and pray as they will as long as it is not disruptive of school itself or interfere with the rights of others. These issues long predate the Obama administration and the federal courts have generally resolved them in favor of respecting the rights of individual conscience of students and staff in the public schools. What is remarkable here, is that Perry clearly suggests he would seek to allow, if not require the public schools to promote Christianity through organized group prayer and religious celebrations.
Perry also claims that there is a war on religion generally and Christianity in particular being led by president Obama, and that allowing gays to serve openly and equally in the military was a victory for the anti-Christian side. Of course, Perry and his ilk presume that one cannot be religious, even Christian, and also gay. (Of course, there are many gay Christians, and reconciling religious and sexual identity has been an ongoing issue in many Christian churches in recent decades. The result has been growing acceptance, as openly gay and lesbian Christians are becoming clergy and rising to positions of leadership.)
In Perry's invocation of "our religious heritage" he is suggesting that he stands for a Christianity that "made America strong." This is a message that resonates with the Christian nationalist claim that the founders intended American to be a Christian nation, that somehow this intention has been derailed, and that it must be restored.
While this is obviously also dog whistle politics -- calling out to those who think that Obama is a secret Muslim, or who harbor other kinds of doubts about the president's professed Christian religious identity -- Perry is also seeking broad resonance among dominionist activists and all who have ears to hear what he is saying in his brief, but profoundly evocative message. How well it works for him in Iowa remains, of course, to be seen.
A few years ago I published an essay in The Public Eye magazine that identified three broad characteristics 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.
In the 30 seconds of Perry's ad, we can hear all three defining characteristics of domionism at work. We hear Perry saying that his particular kind of Christianity is at war with all others and must prevail. We hear him saying that he represents the kind of Christianity held by the Founding Fathers and that he will restore that faith. We hear him saying that the respect for the Constitutional right of individual conscience reflected in Supreme Court decisions regarding religious exercises in the public schools is an attack on his idea of Christianity, the policy ideas that flow from it and that he would fight for them as president.
A recent pamphlet by Americans United for Separation of Church and State intended to help debunk the Christian nationalist ideas that are so widespread on the Religious Right quotes Justice John Paul Stevens in his 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree ruling. Stevens surfaces the "underlying principle" of religious equality that has guided how the Supreme Court has sorted through the often difficult issues. His authoritative statement helps us to expose the religious supremacism, theocratic policy proposals, and the contemporary claims of Christian nationalism that are so ubiquitous this election season.
Commenting on the constitutional right of all Americans to choose their own religious belief, Stevens wrote, "At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Mohammedism or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."