An election year is just around the corner, and right on schedule we're witnessing the return of the liberal obsession with conservative politicians' religious beliefs.
Every time a Republican candidate for high office surfaces who is also a dedicated Christian, the left warns in apocalyptic tones that if you vote for him, America will sink into a "theocracy." Long ago these fear-mongers warned us about Ronald Reagan. Then it was George W. Bush, and after that, Sarah Palin. Now it's Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Elect Perry or Bachmann, this year's warnings go, and make way for "Jesusland" — a country in which adulterers will be stoned, creationism taught in the schools and gay people sent to reorientation therapy.
In a recent New Yorker profile of Bachmann, Ryan Lizza characterized the Minnesota congresswoman as "a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious beliefs in government." Around the same time, Salon's Alex Pareene accused Perry of "purposefully evoking some of the most radical far-right movements and ideas of the last 200 years." A few days later, Michelle Goldberg, who in 2006 wrote a theocrats-under-the-bed book titled "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," warned in the Daily Beast that both Bachmann, a Lutheran, and Perry, a lifelong Methodist who currently worships at an evangelical mega-church, "are deeply associated with a theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism."
You may wonder what on Earth "dominionism" is. That's because the word wasn't coined by dominionists (partly because it's unclear whether there actually are any) but by writers who worry about dominionism. The word derives from a passage in the Book of Genesis in which God gives Adam and Eve "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth." It's a stretch from there to the idea that the Christian right has a secret plan to take over America, but plenty among the paranoid intelligentsia have been willing to make that stretch.
Sara Diamond, who wrote the 2002 book "Facing the Wrath: Confronting the Right in Dangerous Times," concluded that dominion theology — the notion that "Christians, and Christians alone, are biblically mandated to occupy all secular positions" — is ubiquitous in evangelical circles.
Her position was enthusiastically adopted by many of her fellow intellectuals, who were already freaked out by the Bible-reading George W. Bush. Books such as Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming," Chris Hedges' "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America," Kevin Phillips' "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century" and James Rudin's "The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us" flowed feverishly from the presses. On the Internet, Andrew Sullivan coined the word "Christianist," and bloggers across the country echoed each others' daily alarms about the coming fundamentalist jihad.
Lately, the alarmist left has focused on Rousas John Rushdoony, a Presbyterian minister who died in 2001. Rushdoony, part of a Calvinist offshoot known as Christian Reconstructionism, believed that biblical law, including the eye-for-an-eye mandates of the Old Testament, should form the basis of government.
But linking Rushdoony to present-day evangelicals involves connecting a dubious series of dots. In the case of the New Yorker's Bachmann profile, the dots included the fact that she attended law school at Oral Roberts University, where professors taught her to seek "legal means and political means" to change laws that conflicted with biblical values. It also pointed to her admiration for the evangelical theologian and bestselling author Francis Schaeffer, who died in 1984. No matter that Schaeffer specifically condemned Rushdoony's proposal that Old Testament law should govern America.
As for Perry, well, um, he led a prayer rally on Aug. 6 that was protested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Oh, and he prayed with some Pentecostal preachers who have been accused by his critics of being closet dominionists. "Close to" and "associated with" are favorite phrases in the vocabulary of the religion-fearing left.
To listen to those warning of dominionism, you'd think there was a tidal wave of millions of theocrats poised to crash over American democracy.
In "Kingdom Coming" Goldberg accused David Gibbs, Terri Schiavo's lawyer, of Rushdoony-ism, even as she acknowledged that he was actually a Baptist: "But whether he knew it or not, Reconstructionism shaped his thinking, just as it shaped the thinking of the Christian nationalist movement as a whole."
Sarah Palin got tagged as a "dominionist stalking-horse" by left-wing bloggers in 2008 because she had led a prayer service at her former church, Wasilla Assembly of God, in which she declared that U.S. troops in Iraq were "on a task that is from God."
Such groups as Campus Crusade for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Feminists for Life have been characterized as dominionist fronts. Most recently — and hilariously — New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer postulated that Christian Reconstructionism might have been behind the recent anti-public union demonstrations in Wisconsin. After all, Gary North, Rushdoony's son-in-law, has argued that the Bible forbids public employees from organizing.
It is hard to figure out why no one in the liberal media seems to mind, say, that one of President Obama's spiritual advisors, the progressive evangelical Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, also has a political agenda — income redistribution and greater social spending — that he says is influenced by his Christian values.
Many Jews believe that the rabbinic concept of tikkun olam, or "repairing the world," is a mandate for bettering society at large. Yet when conservative-voting Christians seek to implement their values in the public square, using the language of their faith, they're feared like carriers of bubonic plague.
The opponents of the religious right would gain a bit more credibility if they didn't feel compelled to manufacture a vast conspiracy called dominionism and throw around words like "theocracy" every time the GOP threatens to win an election. You know what they sound like? Their opposite number from the 1950s: the John Birch Society.
Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."