Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy - Part One

In a September 1994 plenary speech to the Christian Coalition national convention, Rev. D. James Kennedy said that "true Christian citizenship" involves an active engagement in society to "take dominion over all things as vice-regents of God."

Kennedy's remarks were reported in February 1995 by sociologist and journalist Sara Diamond, who wrote that Kennedy had "echoed the Reconstructionist line."

More than anyone else, it was Sara Diamond who popularized the use of the term "dominionism" to describe a growing political tendency in the Christian Right. It is a useful term that has, unfortunately, been used in a variety of ways that are neither accurate nor useful. Diamond was careful to discuss how the small Christian Reconstructionist theological movement had helped introduce "dominionism" as a concept into the larger and more diverse social/political movements called the Christian Right.

Dominionism is therefore a tendency among Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that encourages them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but also seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.

This highly politicized concept of dominionism is based on the Bible's text in Genesis 1:26:

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." (King James Version).

"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'" (New International Version).

The vast majority of Christians read this text and conclude that God has appointed them stewards and caretakers of Earth. As Sara Diamond explains, however, some Christian read the text and believe, "that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns--and there is no consensus on when that might be." That, in a nutshell, is the idea of "dominionism."

Just because some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point does not mean we should abandon the term. And while it is true that few participants in the Christian Right Culture War want a theocracy as proposed by the Christian Reconstructionists, many of their battlefield Earth commanders are leading them in that direction. And a number of these leaders have been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism, which is a variant of theocracy called theonomy.

William Martin is the author of the 1996 tome With God on Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series. Martin is a sociologist and professor of religion at Rice university, and he has been critical of the way some critics of the Christian Right have tossed around the terms "dominionism" and "theocracy." Martin has offered some careful writing on the subject. According to Martin:

"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.' "

According to Martin, "several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books."

Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson's 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy, writes Martin.

"Pat Robertson makes frequent use of 'dominion' language" says Martin, "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.' "

Martin also points out that "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.'"

So let's choose our language carefully, but let's recognize that terms such as "dominionism" and "theocracy," when used cautiously and carefully, are appropriate when describing anti-democratic tendencies in the Christian Right.

Originally posted on Talk to ActionTalk2Action

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Human Rights, Dignity, and Spiritual Belief

Last week I stood with hundreds of people clapping and singing at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The congregation was hosting an evening event for the national conference of the United States Human Rights Network.

First Iconium is a predominantly African-American congregation with a special mission to serve the cause of equality, justice, and human rights. They enthusiastically welcomed us, an audience that included Black, Latino, Asian, and White conference attendees from a wide variety of social, political, and religious movements.

Keith Jennings, coordinator of Iconium's Social Justice Ministry, strode to the podium and told us that while the gospel choir sang of Jesus, he wanted us to understand this was just one way to affirm our collective humanity. He welcomed us all, and recognized that in the audience there were believers and non-believers, and that some were straight and some were gay, but he said that everyone who was struggling for justice and basic human rights was welcome in the sanctuary of the church he attended.

Around the world there is a growing movement that uses a human rights framework to expand the protections offered by civil and constitutional rights.

It is easy to see that the Christian Right seeks to deny civil rights to those individuals its leaders label as sinful. The Christian Right undermines constitutional rights as it continues to breach the wall of separation between church and state. At Talk to Action, we also argue that basic human rights are being trampled by the policies promoted by the Christian Right in the United States.

By articulating a human rights framework, we begin with the benchmark set by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which elaborates a clearer picture of what is meant by freedom of religion:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change [his or her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [his or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

As the brackets suggest, this was an imperfect document, yet it sparked a new movement that we join in progress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a critical standard when it linked equal protection under the law to not just acts of discrimination, but also "incitement" to discrimination:
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

The Christian Right has attacked the rights of women as well as gay men and lesbians in a concerted effort to impose their theological views on the secular body politic--and the bodies of millions of people in our society. Furthermore, the relentless "incitement to such discrimination" by the Christian Right is itself a violation of basic human rights. It is ironic that the Christian Right has sown the foul wind of discrimination while claiming Biblical justification (Hosea 8:7, KJV).

Finally, the issue of dignity is central to our outlook here at Talk to Action. We note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Not just rights, but dignity. Click over to the Guidelines page at Talk to Action where this essay was first posted, and you will see that dignity is a core part of our process. Dignity is a basic human right. We take that seriously here, and it means that we will strive to not demonize people swept up by the windstorm of fear and resentment sown by the leaders of the Christian Right; even if we believe they eventually "shall inherit the wind" (Proverbs 11:29, KJV).

OK, so I have been citing Biblical text just to make some of you restless. But here's the deal: the right to dignity flows in all directions. Honoring the right to dignity means we not only must respect the right to hold sincere religious beliefs when we criticize the policies of the Christian Right; but we must do the same with our own allies.

In practice, this means learning to listen without offense to quotes from not only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, but also the Five Books of Moses in the Judaic Pentateuch, the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, the Koran, the sacred texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and any other religious texts our allies find meaningful. And, yes, any secular text that our allies find meaningful. To borrow from feminist's not "either/or" it's "both/and."

The issue is not secular belief versus spiritual faith; the issue is how to craft a pluralist civil society that honors the dignity of both secular philosophy and spiritual faith, while insisting that theological claims alone should never dictate public policies. That's why we say we are challenging theocracy; because that's what the Christian Right is increasingly sowing: a theocratic society.

It is up to us to see that they reap the whirlwind generated by a unified human rights movement defending civil and constitutional rights--but demanding human dignity as well.

We want rights and dignity--bread and roses.

Originally posted on Talk to ActionTalk2Action

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