WASHINGTON -- Evangelicals, warned liberal theologian Albert Outler, "want a society ruled by those who know what the word of God is. The technical name for that is 'theocracy,' and their Napoleon, whether he likes it or not, is Jimmy Carter." When Carter turned out to be less than Napoleonic, George W. Bush was identified as "the first prince of the theocratic states of America." Bush, according to one entirely fictional account, was converted to "Dominionism" -- a kind of Christian Wahhabism -- by Assemblies of God pastors who provided him "explicit coaching."
Now the heroes of the tea party movement, it turns out, are also closet theocrats. "If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry," argues Michelle Goldberg in Newsweek/Daily Beast, "understanding Dominionism isn't optional." A recent New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza contends that Bachmann has been influenced by a variety of theocratic thinkers who have preached Christian holy war.
As befits a shadowy religious sect, its followers go under a variety of names: Reconstructionists, Theonomists. The New Apostolic Reformation. Republicans. All apparently share a belief, in Goldberg's words, that "Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions."
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. The followers of R.J. Rushdoony produce more books than converts.
So it becomes necessary to stretch the case a bit. Perry admittedly doesn't attend a Dominionist church, or make Dominionist arguments, but he once allowed himself to be prayed for by some suspicious characters. Bachmann once attended a school that had a law review that said some disturbing things. She assisted a professor who once spoke at a convention that included some alarming people. Her belief that federal tax rates should not be higher than 10 percent, Goldberg explains, is "common in Reconstructionist circles."
The evidence that Bachmann may countenance the death penalty for adulterers? Support for low marginal tax rates.
Bachmann is prone to tea party overstatement and religious right cliches. She opened herself to criticism by recommending a book that features southern Civil War revisionism. But there is no evidence from the careers of Bachmann or Perry that they wish to turn America into a theocratic prison camp.
If this kind of attack sounds familiar, it should. It is not just an argument but a style of argument. Critics of a public figure take a marginal association and turn it into a Gnostic insight -- an interpretive key that opens all doors. Barack Obama was once trained in a community organization that was associated with Saul Alinsky, whose organization was reportedly subject to communist influence. And we all know what that means. Or: Obama's father was a socialist, anti-colonial Luo tribesman, and, well, like father like son. Never mind that that there is no serious evidence of political philosophic influence of father on son.
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.
As always, this argument proves too much, making a Dominionist of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, by this standard, would be a theonomist as well, on the evidence of his Call to Renewal speech in 2008 -- a refutation of political secularism.
Such secularism shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness. Like any ideology, this one has philosophic roots that are subject to argument. Yet secularists often assume their view is the definition of neutrality and thus deserves a privileged public place. The argument that religion is fundamentally illiberal thus provides an excuse to treat it illiberally. Pluralism is defined as the silencing of religious people. Thin charges of Dominionism are just another attempt to discredit opponents rather answer them -- in the same tradition as thin charges of Kenyan anti-colonialism. It is easier, after all, to allege a conspiracy than to engage an argument.