Pat Robertson and the (old) dominion wars

I've tried to stay out of the whole Dominionism thing in recent weeks, in large part because if you have read a fair share of church history you -- literally -- have heard it all before. The partisans simply work up new labels in each new round of combat. Yes, there are some theocrats out there and then tend to clump into some very small and quite distinct groups. It should be noted that these groups rarely agree with one another, either on matters of theology or politics. The spirits that animate these quarrelsome folks are quite diverse (one might even say they are "legion").

Take those “New Apostolic Reformation” folks who are supposed to be running the state of Texas, right now. Is it just me, or do they sound like the latest manifestation of the whole power prophecy stance that sweeps through some Pentecostal flocks every now and then?

Anyway, one passage in Lisa Miller's recent commentary on the Dominionism scare -- part of her work at the Washington Post "On Faith" site -- stirred up some very old memories for me, memories from my "moderate" Southern Baptist past and my one close encounter with the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Here's the passage that tweaked me:

Christian conservatives in America are not more militant than ever. Pat Robertson, a Christian minister, ran for president in 1988. Robertson was, actually, a dominionist. “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world,” he wrote.

Now, I'm no expert on Robertson. I've never even met the man. However, based on my readings I do know that he has held a lot of beliefs at different points in time and many of them don't mesh very well. Take that "rightful place of leadership at the top of the world" quote. Is he talking about an event at the end of time? Next week? After the next White House race? What?

Nevertheless, that reference to Robertson being a true blue dominionist -- little "d," or big "D" -- reminded me an excellent article in Atlantic Monthly that I read long ago when I was wrestling with whether to join the faculty of Regent University (don't ask). It was written by the great liberal Baptist Harvey ("The Secular City") Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

The name of this long, but essential, article: "Warring Visions of the Religious Right." It grew out of Cox's experiences when he was invited to do a series of lectures on the Regent campus. While surprised at the invitation, he was even more surprised to arrive and discover (a) that the campus was home to intellectuals representing quite a few different theological and political perspectives and (b) that there was probably more true diversity there (in terms of disagreements on vital issues) than one would find in the Harvard faculty lounge.

Thus, the key word in his title is "warring."

To his shock, Cox learned that quite a few Regent people were embracing the doctrine of "postmillennialism." What's that? Well, think of it as the opposite of the whole "Left Behind" thing.

Since the rise of fundamentalism, in the early years of the twentieth century, the favored eschatology among its adherents has been that Jesus Christ will actually return before the establishment of his millennial Kingdom, and in the meantime things will get progressively worse on earth. There will be wars and rumors of wars as we spiral downward. This is the so-called pre-millennial view, popularized in Hal Lindsey's paperback broadside The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which has sold more than 12 million copies. In that book Lindsey analyzed the Cold War, the role of Israel, and the moral decline of America in the light of his own inventive reading of the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and announced that the final great battle of Armageddon was about to begin.

This somewhat overheated "living-in-the-last-days" mentality is, however, vociferously opposed by another school of conservative Christian eschatology, which is called postmillennialism. A considerably more upbeat view, it holds that through the faithfulness of individuals and the influence they bring to bear on societies, righteousness and justice will gradually spread and increase. Consequently, when Christ comes again, the earth will be prepared for his appearance. The postmillennial idea reigned virtually uncontested in American Protestantism from the time of Jonathan Edwards until the appearance of fundamentalism, around 1900. Since then the two parties have been feuding, but in the past decade the postmillennial view has staged a comeback. It is clearly dominant at Regent.

Pre-millennial and postmillennial eschatologies generate opposing visions of what believers should be doing in a fallen world.

You can say that again.

This sets the stage for the battle that was raging at Regent nearly two decades ago.

You guessed it. The title of this section of Cox's article is, "The Dominion Controversy." This is the context for Miller's earlier Robertson quote.

... (Just) how are Christians to exert influence? This brings up what has undoubtedly been the most contentious issue at Regent. It has to do with something called "dominion theology." A subset within postmillennial theology, the dominion school holds that Christians (and, some would add, religious Jews) have inherited all the Old Testament mandates, one of the most fundamental of which is in Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (emphasis added). Dominion theologians interpret this passage to mean that believers are entitled to "dominion" over all the world's major institutions. They should rule the earth until Christ comes again, no matter what the duration of their interim reign. Some of Robertson's critics believe that such a vision -- an entire nation run at all levels by the faithful -- is what inspired Robertson to rename his university "Regent," and they find this frightening.

Their concerns, it would seem, are not entirely groundless. At times Robertson has written, in what gives a strong impression of being a dominion-theology voice, that Regent is to be a "Kingdom institution," in which people will be taught how to "enter into the privilege they have as God's representatives on earth."

So who won this war? That's the surprising twist. Cox discovers strong evidence that the dominionists lost the war at Regent and, to his surprise, Robertson even emerged as a "moderating influence" who was veering away from that stance.

Fascinating. Essential reading, for those who are actually interested in the roots of this latest mini-firestorm. If you want to do more than play spin the labels, this wise article from Cox is must reading.

So read it all.

IMAGES: On the the Regent University Divinity School; Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School.

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