Christian extremism is actually a perfect lens to view Dominion Theology
2 Timothy 2:4-5King James Version
4 No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.
5 And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully
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The False Gospel of Dominion Theology
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It’s Time to Talk About Violent Christian Extremism
There’s a “strong authoritarian streak” that runs through parts of American evangelicalism, warns Elizabeth Neumann. What should be done about it?
The authoritarian, fundamentalist nature of certain evangelical strands is a prominent theme in the places where you see the most ardent Trump supporters or the QAnon believers, because they’ve been told: “You don’t need to study [scripture]. We’re giving you the answer.” Then, when Rev. Robert Jeffress [a prominent conservative Baptist pastor in Dallas] says you’ve got to support Donald Trump, and makes some argument that sounds “churchy,” people go, “Well, I don’t like Trump’s language, but OK, that’s the right thing.” It creates people who are not critical thinkers. They’re not necessarily reading scripture for themselves. Or if they are, they’re reading it through the lens of one pastor, and they’re not necessarily open to hearing outside perspectives on what the text might say. It creates groupthink.
Another factor is Christian nationalism. That’s a huge theme throughout evangelical Christendom. It’s subtle: Like, you had the Christian flag and the American flag at the front of the church, and if you went to a Christian school, you pledged allegiance to the Christian flag and the American flag. There was this merger that was always there when I was growing up. And it was really there for the generation ahead of me, in the ’50s and ’60s. Some people interpreted it as: Love of country and love of our faith are the same thing. And for others, there’s an actual explicit theology.
There was this whole movement in the ’90s and 2000s among conservatives to explain how amazing [America’s] founding was: Our founding was inspired by God, and there’s no explanation for how we won the Revolutionary War except God, and, by the way, did you know that the founders made this covenant with God? It’s American exceptionalism but goes beyond that. It says that we are the next version of Israel from the Old Testament, that we are God’s chosen nation, and that is a special covenant — a two-way agreement with God. We can’t break it, and if we do, what happened to Israel will happen to us: We will be overrun by whatever the next Babylon is, taken into captivity, and He will remove His blessing from us.
What [threatens] that covenant? The moment we started taking prayer out of [public] schools and allowing various changes in our culture — [the legalization of] abortion is one of those moments; gay marriage is another. They see it in cataclysmic terms: This is the moment, and God’s going to judge us. They view the last 50 years of moral decline as us breaking our covenant, and that because of that, God’s going to remove His blessing. When you paint it in existential terms like that, a lot of people feel justified to carry out acts of violence in the name of their faith.
The elections in 2016 and 2020 were a fight in existential terms for believers of this teaching — meaning, if we allow Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden to be president, they are going to put the nail in the coffin [of the covenant], and the next thing we’re going to see is that Christianity is going to be outlawed, pastors will not be able to teach the Bible and Christians will become persecuted.
Now, here’s the caveat: Some of that fear is not out of thin air. There is a real “cancel culture,” where you see a mob mentality swarm on somebody who holds a biblically based viewpoint on, say, gay marriage, and you see someone forced out of a position or lose sponsorships or advertising. But they follow that to what they think is a logical conclusion — that eventually, pastors will not be able to preach against homosexuality or abortion, and if [they do], they’re going to end up arrested and unable to preach. I’ve heard that argument made multiple times over the last 10 years. The irrationality is the idea that there are no protections, that the courts wouldn’t step in and say, “No, the First Amendment applies to Christians as well.”
It tries to assert that they are losing power and must regain that power by any means necessary — which is why you can justify voting for Trump, so that we can, for God’s purposes, maintain this Christian nation. But that’s nowhere in scripture. Scripture, when it talks about what “Israel” is in the New Testament, it explains that it’s the church — which is not owned by any one nation; it’s a global church. And even if somehow you wanted to say that the American church is what [scripture is] referencing, [the Bible] tells us [to do] the exact opposite of what they’re talking about. We are told not to seek power. We’re told to be humble. We’re told to turn the other cheek. Jesus, in confronting Caesar’s representative at his trial, says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” “My fight is not here,” basically. Our purpose as believers is to be salt and light; it’s not to force everybody else to hold our beliefs.
To fix that, you really have to go back to scripture. You can’t just be like, “Christian nationalism is wrong.” You have to go back to what the Bible says, versus what you were taught as an American Christian, where it was so interwoven. It took me a while to even discover it. Once somebody pointed it out, [I was] like, “Oh, my gosh. I was taught that, and you’re right, that’s not correct.”
But it’s a very hard thing for people to [address], because it requires acknowledging that how you were raised or the people that you trusted either intentionally lied to you or were just wrong. It’s hard. It takes humility to go there. It’s a hard thing for people to recognize and escape from. But sadly, it’s a security issue that we have to address, because it has led to this.
It sounds like you’re describing a reality for some evangelical Christians where their church is based more in culture than scripture — and that this makes them more susceptible to things like QAnon?
Oh, absolutely. Here’s the thing, and I will do my best to explain it from a secular perspective: There’s text in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul is admonishing a church he helped establish: “You should be mature adults now in your faith, but I’m still having to feed you with milk.” He’s basically saying, you should be 18, but you’re still nursing, and we need you to get it together.
There was a big movement in the ’90s called Seeker-Friendly Churches. Willow Creek [one of the most prominent of these churches] did a self-assessment about 10 or 15 years ago, and one of the things that they found is while they had converted people to Christians, there was a lack of growth in their faith. They were not learning the scriptures. They were not engaged in community. They were not discipling anybody. And [Willow Creek’s] assessment was: We failed. We baptized some people, but they’re not actually maturing.
One of my questions is: Are we seeing in the last four years one of the consequences of that failure? They didn’t mature [in their faith], and they’re very easily led astray by what scripture calls “false teachers.” My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country — if everybody who calls themselves a “Christian” had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 percent of the Bible — they would not have been so easily deceived.
For the nearly 20 years since 9/11, to counter violent extremism, the U.S. government has done outreach to imams and other faith leaders in Muslim communities. In light of the QAnon problem, should we be doing the same with leaders in evangelical Christian communities?
I think we need to learn from the mistakes of the last 20 years. And I am very mindful that there are places where things went very well [with Countering Violent Extremism outreach], and there are also places where things did not go well. It’s a mixed bag.
I personally feel a great burden, since I came from these communities, to try to figure out how to help the leaders in those communities. I don’t know that I’m a credible voice anymore because of my political outspokenness, but there certainly are pastors who are struggling with these questions: How do I help somebody that has gone down the QAnon rabbit hole? Or, to put it in biblical terms, how do I help somebody who has made Trump an idol?
Pastors, church leaders, faith leaders — when you frame it that way for them, the answers start to come: “Oh, we know how to do this.” Usually, pastors have done a lot of counseling or shepherding in their lifetimes. They know that you don’t approach people head-on with dogmatic arguments; that tends to not work. You need to recognize that there’s often something else going on that has made somebody vulnerable to being deceived, and coming out of that deception can be painful and humbling. But faith leaders — the good ones, at least — are perfect for that kind of work. So even though the particular topic itself may be different than they’re used to, they have many of the skill sets you need.
Some of [what we need to do is] supporting them, because it’s disheartening work. It takes a long time for somebody to disengage. It’s usually not a light switch — although for QAnon, January 20 may historically be looked at as a light-switch moment. [QAnon lore has long held that on January 20th, Joe Biden would not be inaugurated, Donald Trump would remain president, declare martial law and many prominent political leaders would be arrested.] You’ve seen many people go, “Oh, I was conned,” and they’re out. But for others, it may be a longer journey.
Certainly, what they teach from their pulpits [is relevant], even going back to the basics. Scripture teaches us not to spend time in conspiracies. You don’t have to say anything about “stop the steal” or whatever. Or teach the Ten Commandments and the fact that bearing false witness and slander are actually what conspiracy theories do: You are believing made-up sets of “facts” about people you don’t have firsthand knowledge of.
There are ways pastors can address it. But it’s hard, and they need a community where they feel safe to be encouraged to do this work.
Your question is about the government. And I’m intentionally avoiding that — in part because, in this particular case, I don’t know if the government is a credible voice at all. They probably would do more harm than good. The best thing they can do is provide fact-based resources — for example, threat briefings to educate [ordinary citizens] on signs of individuals who might be radicalizing into violence. Providing that information would be helpful, but you kind of want there to be a cut-out. You don’t want “Big Brother” calling the local pastor and saying, “Hey, here’s your tips for the week.” That’s just going to breed more conspiracies.
What can government do? Well, they’re resourced to help state and local governments, to do research, to identify best practices, to keep us informed about the threats, to give grant funding for prevention work. But those concepts are inherently built around the idea that it’s a multidisciplinary approach. And when we say “multidisciplinary,” it’s mental health, it’s human services, it’s education.
The disinformation problem is not going away. We can build more resilience. We can put more guardrails in place. But it’s going to be a problem for us for a long time.