Politics

The Christian fundamentalist heritage of Bachmann and Perry – a crash course

By Kevin Bloom 16 August 2011

Michele Bachmann’s win in the Iowa straw poll and Rick Perry’s announcement that he’s in the race, after leading an unprecedented prayer meeting in Houston, is proof positive that a hardcore Christian fundamentalist can take the White House. But how hardcore is hardcore? KEVIN BLOOM ponders the history and nature of Dominionism.

In 1973, a massive three-volume tome entitled Institutes of Biblical Law was published in America. The writer, a Calvinist theologian named Rousas John Rushdoony, had already distinguished himself as a champion of homeschooling and enemy of secular education. His defining interest, however, was the United States political system – specifically, how it might be changed. In his opus, Rushdoony argued that the country would be much better off if all the statutes were repealed and replaced by Mosaic law. Under such a system, he wrote, the following crimes would carry the death penalty: false prophesying, adultery, lying about one’s virginity, idolatry, and public blasphemy. There were other more obvious misdemeanors for which a person would be put to death – like witchcraft and incest – but mainly Rushdoony didn’t like homosexuals, and he was quite clear that the state would be doing God’s work if it had them all killed. Of course, he wasn’t mad about blacks or Jews either, as indicated in the passages that defended segregation and denied the Holocaust.

While the Institutes of Biblical Law didn’t sell very well, it had a big influence on one Francis Schaeffer, who many scholars credit as sparking the rise of the Christian Right in the United States. Like Rushdoony, Schaeffer was dead against the secularisation of American schools; he was also a vocal anti-abortionist. In his own opus, A Christian Manifesto, which sold almost 300,000 copies in its first year, he popularised and built on Rushdoony’s teachings that America was founded on a Christian base. Where Schaeffer diverged, though, was in his belief that the principles – as opposed to the actual details – of Old Testament law should replace secular law.

Despite the slight variations in philosophical outlook, Schaeffner was in essence a Dominionist – a proponent of Rushdoony’s central idea that man has dominion over all things (from Genesis 1:26-7, where God tells Adam to “assume dominion” over the world), and that rule by non-Christians is sacrilege. Until very recently, even though Schaeffner did spread the movement’s influence a lot wider than Rushdoony had managed to, Dominionists were a fringe sect in America. Now, with the deep Dominionist affiliations of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, it has unequivocally entered the mainstream.

What does it mean that two of the three most plausible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are governed in their thoughts and actions by such beliefs? Ryan Lizza, in a lengthy profile on Bachmann for the New Yorker, had this to say: “Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared. Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is ‘personal enslavement,’ and that, if same-sex marriage were legalised, ‘little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it.’ Speaking about gay-rights activists, that same year, she said, ‘It is our children that is the prize for this community.’ She believes that evolution is a theory that has ‘never been proven,’ and that intelligent design should be taught in schools.”

As for Perry, the prayer rally that he led in Houston the Saturday before last (6 August) says about all there is to say on the matter. According to the New York Times, the rally was an unprecedented political event in America, combining as it did the office of the governor of Texas (Perry used the office’s resources to promote the event) and the delivery of a message to the Lord. With 30,000 members of the Christian faithful in attendance, many of them kneeling and others weeping, Governor Perry beseeched Jesus Christ (the rally was supposed to be “for all faiths”) to save America. From what? From discord at home, fear in the marketplace, and anger in the halls of government. Outside the stadium, gay activists and supporters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation were amongst the protestors.

Perry’s version of Dominionism is known as the New Apostolic Reformation, and it names “Seven Mountains” of society that God must control: family, religion, arts and entertainment, media, government, education, and business. Which doesn’t sound too far away from the following assertion of Rushdoony: “The state is a bankrupt institution. The only alternative to this bankrupt ‘humanistic’ system is a God-centered government.”

It’s probably not going to change the minds of the voters in middle America, but this is clearly something for the “liberal media” to get even more alarmist about. As Michele Goldberg, the author of a New York Times bestseller on the rise of Christian nationalism, has just written in the Daily Beast: “We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before. Those of us who wrote about the Christian fundamentalist influence on the Bush administration were alarmed that one of his advisers, Marvin Olasky, was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. It seemed unthinkable, at the time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person whose ideas were so inimical to democracy. Few of us imagined that someone who actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly do.” DM



Read more:

  • “The Transformation of Michele Bachmann,” in the New Yorker;
  • “Perry Leads Prayer Rally for ‘Nation in Crisis’,” in the NYTimes;
  • “A Christian Plot for Domination?” in the Daily Beast.

Photo: Reuters.

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