By Jon Winsor
Questions about Dominionism and national politics are now moving out of the muckraking exposés and the religion pages and into elite journalism. Yesterday, NPR’s Fresh Air devoted most of its air time to journalist Rachel Tabachnick on the topic of Dominionism. Now, NY Times Chief Editor Bill Keller is going there as well:
This year’s Republican primary season offers us an important opportunity to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them. We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a “cult” and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not “overly religious.”) Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity, which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.
I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York… Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ…
In the last presidential campaign, Candidate Obama was pressed to distance himself from his pastor, who carried racial bitterness to extremes… I don’t see why Perry and Bachmann should be exempt from similar questioning…
To get things rolling, I sent the aforementioned candidates a little questionnaire.
Keller lists some of his questions in his op-ed (which you can read here).
Tuesday, conservative columnist Michael Gerson defended the conservative field from the criticisms on Dominionism, saying (sarcastically):
The Dominionist goal is the imposition of a Christian version of Shariah law in which adulterers, homosexuals and perhaps recalcitrant children would be subject to capital punishment. It is enough to spoil the sleep of any subscriber to The New Yorker. But there is a problem: Dominionism, though possessing cosmic ambitions, is a movement that could fit in a phone booth…
Many have become unhinged by the interpretive power of a simple idea. In the case of Dominionism, paranoia is fed by a certain view of church-state relations — a deep discomfort with any religious influence in politics: Even if most evangelicals are not plotting the reconstruction of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, they nevertheless want to impose their sectarian views on secular institutions. It is a common argument among secular liberals that the application of any religiously informed moral reasoning in politics is a kind of soft theocracy. Dominionism is merely its local extension. [My emphasis.]
But Bill Keller and others have been rightly asking what kind of reasoning? There shouldn’t be anything wrong with asking common sense questions about what someone’s “religiously informed moral reasoning” is:
Asking candidates, respectfully, about their faith should not be an excuse for bigotry or paranoia. I still remember, as a Catholic boy, being mystified and hurt by the speculation about John Kennedy’s Catholicism — whether he would be taking orders from the Vatican… And of course issues of faith should not distract attention from issues of economics and war. But it is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.
This echoes what some of the exposé writers have been saying about Dominionism as a political phenomenon. Here is an excerpt from Sarah Posner’s piece at Slate:
The commenters who have jumped on the [New Apostolic Reformation] frequently overstate the size of its following… Most chilling, though, is the willingness to engage in what’s known in the Word of Faith world as “revelation knowledge,” or believing, as Copeland exhorted his audience to do, that you learn nothing from journalism or academia, but rather just from the Bible and its modern “prophets.” It is in this way that the self-styled prophets have had their greatest impact on our political culture: by producing a political class, and its foot soldiers, who believe that God has imparted them with divine knowledge that supersedes what all the evil secularists would have you believe.
In this way, Dominionism may be a prominent example of a certain dangerously Manichaen way of thinking. And you may not even need Francis Schaeffer or Dominionism to think that way–or even participate in a movement with Dominionist roots. For instance, you could subscribe to Cleon Skousen’s strain of Mormonism. (See this article on the “Tea Party’s artist” John McNaughton, who was influenced by Skousen, and this one on Cleon Skousen and Glenn Beck).
Gerson is right that the public could seize on a “simple idea” about Dominionism, but that misses a critical point. In a complex, modern nation such as ours, it’s crucial for us to know how a candidate thinks–as Keller implies, whether they can think open-mindedly and empirically about important questions. If they’re trapped in dogma, or they toe the line for a certain passionate constituency trapped in dogma, voters need to know that before they cast their ballots.