Abby Ohlheiser: If “The Book of Mormon” and Romney’s early campaign were a Mormon Moment, the past few weeks have been something of a “Dominionism” moment. Dominionism, a generalized term for a collection of Charismatic Christian movements that treat the structure and power of civil government, media, and other significant institutions as a mission field, is a key part of reporting that understands the Religious Right (which, of course, is not synonymous with Evangelical Christians). Sarah Posner’s most recent piece on Dominionism is at Salon today. Dominionism is part of Ryan Lizza’s profile of Michelle Bachmann, and of a substantial portion of the coverage of Rick Perry’s The Response, which I attended earlier this month.

This week, a few articles taking issue with the attention paid to Dominionism have questioned the media’s intent and effects, while examining its role in this election cycle.

Lisa Miller, a religion columnist for the Washington Post used recent reporting on Dominionism to draw attention to the paranoia that can sometimes accompany reporting on the intersection of religion and power. She writes:

The stories [about Perry and Bachmann’s religious beliefs] raise real concerns about the world views of two prospective Republican nominees. But their echo-chamber effect reignites old anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians. Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world….

…Evangelicals generally do not want to take over the world. “Dominionism” is the paranoid mot du jour. In its broadest sense, the term describes a Christian’s obligation to be active in the world, including in politics and government.

Which implies that the term Dominionism is being misused, perhaps intentionally. Miller suggests that it resembles the way Fox News uses Sharia. I thought of it more in the same way that the Shi’a Islam concept of Taqiyya–a practice that allows a Muslim to lie or perform immoral acts in order to conceal their faith when threatened by persecution or compulsion–is re-defined by those in the Anti-Sharia movement to mean a general go-ahead to lie about Islam. But Dominionism is understood both by some within and outside of Evangelical Christianity to refer to something else as well. Miller seems to miss this, and the possible usefulness that scrutiny of Dominionism could have for believers and non-believers alike.

But she’s right to caution against paranoia when reporting on the movement–or Evangelicals in general. While the mainstream-ness of The Response had been questioned since its inception, it was easier to assume its wide appeal until reports came out that only 8,000 people had registered for the event in a stadium with a capacity close to 80,000 (as has been widely reported, over 30,000 people attended and the event wasn’t quite the flop anticipated). In any case, it seemed that the result of the low number of registered attendees–and the failure of the event to fill the stadium as originally intended–was a closer look at Conservative American Christianity. The scrutiny of Dominionism beyond those who have been reporting on it for a long time, without claiming direct causality, has more to do with finding out exactly who Perry has associated himself with, and why so few Evangelicals would want to attend something like The Response, than it does with redefining Evangelicals as a large-scale Pinky and The Brain operation.

Perhaps the most bold criticism of recent Dominionism reporting is A. Larry Ross’s “Christian Dominionism is a Myth” at The Daily Beast, a response to an earlier Daily Beast piece by Michelle Goldberg (A Christian Plot for Domination?). His thesis statement is self-evident, but I’m going to quote him anyway:

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.”

Ross assumes that discussions of Dominionism are about outsiders defining authentic Evangelical Christianity, that writers who tackle what Perry believes, or how Dominionism influences the strategies of some Evangelical leaders and politicians, are really looking for a conspiracy with every Evangelical believer implicated. To me, the rebuttal to Ross’s point here is contained in the article he’s responding to. Goldberg writes, “In many ways, Dominionism is more a political phenomenon than a theological one.”

But Ross’s project doesn’t end there. He continues to list the top ten things that, in his mind, religion writers get wrong. Here’s a quote from point two, “Superimposition”:

…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.

Journalists have been drawing the connection between the Tea Party and The Religious right because it’s true. The New York Times was late to the party with an op-ed piece earlier this week that contained findings from a study that began in 2006. Ross is appealing to a very limited definition of conservative Christianity that is unsullied by politics. As he says later (#4 on the list), “As stated in ‘An Evangelical Manifesto,’ evangelicals are defined theologically, not politically, socially, or culturally.” Those who deviate are confused.

Ross is a PR man, the former spokesperson for Billy Graham, which explains the protectiveness he feels towards the brand of Christianity he’s had a hand in creating. Dominionism as a subject of scrutiny clearly ruffles his feathers, threatens his picture of authenticity. In defending it, however, he implies that the intent of those who report on Dominionism is to harm Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, and that their intended audience is only elite liberals up in New York and the North East. I doubt both of these points, as well as the seeming assumption that Evangelical audiences can not learn something from thorough, nuanced reporting on Dominionism, or other Christian movements that claim “mainstream” status for themselves.

But back to The Response. I, and others, have shown the particular interpretations of Biblical passages employed at the event. They say something important about The Response’s vision for America. It’s Dominionism, whether Perry’s a true believer in it or not. But he’s very clearly seen the value of the political strategy, and taken up the prophetic status allowed by it for his own use. And this was driven home to me by an email I and all of the other Response attendees received earlier this week:

Dear Abigail,

Thank you for registering for The Response on August 6 in Houston. I hope you were able to attend or participate online as it was certainly a day to remember. I was especially encouraged to see so many youth and young adults in attendance. In addition to the tens of thousands who were in attendance at Reliant Stadium, over 2,000 churches and groups gathered together and joined the event via a live web stream, and hundreds of thousands participated via a live web stream from their homes. If you were not able to participate live, we encourage you to watch the video archives of The Response that will be available at the website (http://www.theresponseusa.com) until the end of August.

The Response was just the beginning of a nationwide initiative to return America to the principles on which she was founded, with God at the center of our nation. All of us in attendance in Houston were moved by the overwhelming call to repentance, prayer and action.

Today, I want to introduce you to Champion the Vote (CTV), a friend of AFA whose mission is to mobilize 5 million unregistered conservative Christians to register and vote according to the Biblical worldview in 2012. Only half of the Christians in the United States are registered to vote. Imagine the impact we could make on the future of America if these Christians made their voices heard in the voting booth!

CTV’s research has shown that it takes only 5 million voters to influence the outcome of an election. This is a do-able goal, and Champion the Vote is seeking Champions – an army of volunteers — to help with the effort. A Champion is simply a Christian talking to other Christians about registering and voting.

If you would like to be involved in this important initiative, go to the CTV website (http://www.ChampionTheVote.com) for complete details. We can make a difference, one by one, multiplied across the nation.

Sincerely,

Don Wildmon, Founder
American Family Association

P.S. Our leaders need your prayers. Here are two easy ways to pray daily for our leaders – http://www.PrayForLeaders.com.