Welcome to this multi-part critical review of the recently published booklet, America, Return to God
, edited by "The Chinese Billy Graham," Thomas Wang. This collection of essays by prominent leaders of the far Christian right has one simple thesis: America must return to its Christian roots or die. In the forthcoming installments of this series, we will work our way through the essays in this booklet, critique them, and offer a progressive Christian alternative.
Join me after the flip...
I use the term "Dominionist"
deliberately, for two reasons. First, it is necessary to distinguish between this type of conservative and nationalistic American Christianity and the American Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and the Niebuhr brothers. Second, the term "Dominionist" refers to a particular subgroup within conservative Protestant Christianity. (I want to stress that not all evangelicals and fundamentalists are Dominionists). It recognizes that these thinkers do stand within the Christian tradition (as much as we might not like to admit it), but it also recognizes that there is an important distinction between this type of Christianity and the more progressive strains of Christianity as represented by many mainline denominations as well as the more liberal traditions within Roman Catholicism.
Dominionism is a relatively recent term coined by critics and rarely used by its own representatives. The term itself is taken from a reading of Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
Rousas John Rushdoony, generally considered the father of "Christian Reconstructionism" (a type of Dominionism), published The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, in which he argued for the application of biblical laws to modern society, i.e., a theocracy. Chip Berlet at Talk to Action describes Dominionism as follows:
Open advocates of dominionism declare that "America is a Christian Nation," and that therefore Christians have a God-given mandate to re-assert Christian control over political, social, and cultural institutions. Yet many dominionists stop short of staking out a position that could be called theocratic. This is the "soft" version of dominionism.
The "hard" version of dominionism is explicitly theocratic or "theonomic," as the Christian Reconstructionists prefer to be called. For America, it is a distinction without a difference.
It is important to reassert here that not all conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Christians are Dominionists. Dominionism is a much smaller category. But its roots are to be found in conservative Protestantism, and Dominionism is a branch of the conservative Protestantism to which modern conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists also belong.
We are aware of the basic, fundamental differences between conservative and progressive Christians on a whole host of moral and political issues, including human sexuality, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, women's equality, evolution, and the establishment clause of the first amendment, just to name a few. But far fewer casual observers are aware of the roots of these differences, which will be the subject of this first installment.
The split between conservative and liberal Protestant Christians can be traced to the earliest days of the European Enlightenment. The introduction of the historical-critical method into the academic study of the Bible quickly sparked a raging controversy in European theology departments. Conservative theologians rejected the historical-critical method as an illegitimate intrusion of a secular science into the sacred realm. Liberal theologians welcomed the new method as a valuable tool for better understanding the texts of the Bible in a modern world. Conservative theologians clung to various doctrines of inspiration, maintaining that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, literally true in its individual parts and as a whole. Historical criticism called that claim into question, and theologians who employed the historical-critical method discovered many factual errors and discrepancies between the various books of the Bible (consider the example of the Beatitudes, which Jesus delivers on a mountain in Matthew and on a plain in Luke), as well as clear evidence of multiple sources, editors, and revisions within the biblical texts themselves (this from the sub-disciplines of historical criticism known as source, form, and redaction criticism). This critical attitude toward the Bible did not, as the conservatives claimed, mean that the liberal theologians were denying the authority of the Bible or denying that it is the Word of God. It simply meant that these liberal theologians considered the Bible a product of early Christian communities, written by ordinary men (and perhaps also women) as a testimony of their faith in God. In both conservative and liberal circles, then, the Bible has authority, but the respective interpretations of that authority are quite different.
For these conservative Protestants, the Bible was the only authority in all matters of faith and life, and its directives were unambiguous. It was simply a matter of assent to this authority and application of biblical principles in one's life. Liberal Protestants, on the other hand, sought to learn from the sciences, philology, philosophy, and many other academic disciplines, as well as developing what they called a "canon within the canon" of the Bible. In other words, not all parts of the Bible were considered equal. Martin Luther, the 16th-century Reformer, already used this type of critical thinking in his use of the Bible, arguing that what is essential in the Bible is was Christum treibt - "whatever preaches Christ." Everything in the Bible must be weighed against its proclamation of God's gracious love in Christ. Those passages that correspond to what Luther called "the gospel" are given more weight than those passages that do not. The conservatives, on the other hand, considered every word of the Bible to be just as important and essential as the next - there was and could be no distinctions, because every word is the literal Word of God. Furthermore, any attempt to apply critical methods to the Bible was seen as tantamount to a rejection of God.
Fast-forward to the 19th century. The same debates are still raging in Europe, and now they are being fought in the United States as well. The American expressions of mainline Protestantism generally accepted the liberal view of the Bible, while the conservative expressions (the various Baptist groups) maintained the literalist understanding of the Bible. During the so-called "Second Great Awakening" in the middle of the 19th century (the first being that of Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and others in 18th-century New England), revivalist preachers roamed the countryside and the cities preaching hellfire and brimstone, urging intense emotional experiences of sin and grace, and demanding immediate conversion to Christ at the risk of one's eternal life. While many factors contributed to this revival within conservative American Protestantism, one of the most important factors was the rapid industrialization that was transforming American cities and directly impacting even rural America. There are many similarities between the second American revival and the split between conservatives and liberals during the European Enlightenment - both conservative movements originated as a reaction to modernization. The liberals welcomed modernism (with certain reservations, of course), while the conservatives largely rejected any concessions to modernity.
We find ourselves in a similar historical situation today. The globalization of the economy, the gradual shift from nation-states to market-states, the rapid pace of advancements in technology and mass media, increased interaction between cultures, ease of travel and relocation, and the decline of American hegemony have all contributed to a reinvigoration of conservative Protestant Christianity in the United States. This newest movement shares many characteristics with its forbears both in the United States and in Europe - an insistence on absolute biblical authority, adherence to a theory of divine inspiration of scripture, a rejection of modernism, a claim to return to the "original" teachings of Christianity, a genuine distrust of any signs of religious pluralism or relativism, and a strict emphasis on "morality," to name a few.
One feature of the modern conservative resurgence that is of special concern to us here is the insistence on the Christian roots of the United States. The belief that the United States is a "Christian nation" lies at the root of many of the positions taken by the Dominionists in particular over the last several years. And this booklet, America, Return to God, is a good representation of this type of thinking.
For your convenience, and to pique your interest in the following installments, here is the table of contents for America, Return to God:
Part I. From Faith to Unbelief: America in Decline
- The Presidents and the Bible - Vernon McLellan
- Foundations for Faith and Freedom - Francis A. Schaeffer
- Christians in the Political Arena - Vernon McLellan
- Identifying the Spirit of the Constitution - David Barton
- Loss of Faith in America - Jim Nelson Black
- "My People Have Changed God"! - Thomas Wang
- The ACLU - Coral Ridge Ministries
- ACLU vs. America - Alan Sears and Craig Osten
- Banning Prayer in Public School Has Led to America's Demise - Gary Bergel
- The Silence of Christmas and the Scream of Tsunami: Soul-Speak in a Suicidal Culture - Ravi Zacharias
- The Neo-Pagan Drift - Thomas Wang
- The Hidden Agenda of Homosexual Politics - Erin Doherty
- The Fall of the Family: The Roles Played by Media and Feminism - Bill Tam
Part II. From Unbelief to Repentance: America to Restoration
- Forgiveness & Healing - II Chronicles 7:14
- Repentance of Nineveh - Jonah 3:1-10
- Christ's Words to His Church - Thomas Wang
- Knowing the Heart of God - Henry Blackaby and Norman Blackaby
- Speak Up! - Jerry Falwell
- The Debacle of Liberalism - Eternity
- Prayer of National Repentance - Joe Wright
- Christianizing America? - D. James Kennedy
- How Can Revival Come? - Tim LaHaye
- How Can We Win This War? - James Dobson
- The Fight of the Day - Carl. F. H. Henry
- Ambush Alert: The Barbarians Are Here! - Thomas Wang
- We Must Seek God - Erwin W. Lutzer
- What Can We Learn From the 18th Century Awakenings? - Gerald McDermot
- Charles G. Finney: Spiritual Revivalist and Social Reformer - Jay Rogers
- The Remaking of America - Gary DeMar
- Ten Steps to Change America - David Barton
Epilogue. Must History Repeat Itself? - Thomas Wang
Also, for more information on Dominionism, Christian Reconstructionism, theocracy, and progressive alternatives, please visit the following websites:
Theocracy Watch (from the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University)
Talk to Action
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State
People For The American Way
Americans for Religious Liberty
Finally, Frederick Clarkson (a contributor at Daily Kos and Street Prophets) has published an excellent study of this topic, entitled Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.
Originally posted at Street Prophets.