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Who are the the Christian Dominionists backing conservative candidates?

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

A growing number of religious congregations espouse an ideology called Dominionism that calls for Christians to control or be the primary influence in American government.

Who are the Dominionists and what do they mean for the future of democracy?

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern, and Massachusetts writer and researcher Frederick Clarkson said the once-obscure movement has been gaining political power in the past decades and is a player in local and national elections across the United States.

Dominionism is an umbrella term for certain groups of Protestants and some Catholics who interpret Genesis 1:28 in the Bible, which refers to people having dominion over life on earth, as meaning that Christians should exercise control over most aspects of modern life, Riccardi-Swartz says.

“It’s a utopian end times eschatology,” she says.

“Most Dominionists, but not all, emphasize that the Christian church will mature and flourish and gain dominance in society before Christ returns.”

That teaching stands in opposition to standard Christian doctrine, also called premillennialism, “which suggests Christ has to return first before a Christian kingdom is established on earth,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

“So (the Dominionists’) endgame is creating a Christian kingdom on earth while we’re still alive.”

Ending abortion, gay marriage and secular education are cornerstones of the movement, says Clarkson, a senior research analyst with Somerville-based Political Research Associates.

“It’s their idea of righteousness and what God requires of them,” he says. “The only legitimate education is through the lens of the Bible as they understand it.”

‘They talk about getting rid of demons’

“They talk about Christianizing the public space. They talk about getting rid of demons,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

“It’s really about spiritual warfare,” she says.

“They see themselves as warriors fighting not just demonic forces but people. Because they see people as demonically possessed by the spirit of whatever is in opposition to them.”

“Really, what they’re talking about is cleansing the public sphere of people who are not like them,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rephrased a Bible passage and told students at a private Christian college to “put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” he was speaking to a political base of believers, she says.

“I think it’s fair to call Dominion theology part of the tool kit of political radicalism.”

There are different groups of people who believe in Dominionist-type theology, and they are not always in sync with each other, Riccardi-Swartz says.

So-called seven mountains of society

headshot of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Christian nationalists who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection can be considered “co-travelers” with Dominionists since “they have the same end goal,” she says.

But “most Dominionists aren’t as violent or as inclined to violence as we see among Christian nationalists, especially white Christian nationalists,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

There are a confusing number of groups associated with the theological movement, with names such as New Apostolic Reformation, Latter Rain, Joel’s Army and Seven Mountains.

The latter calls for Christians to have control over the so-called seven mountains of society: family, arts and entertainment, media, education, government, religion and business.

The Oak Initiative, which is associated with evangelistic prophet and election denier Rick Joyner, calls for raising up effective leaders in the seven areas as part of  a “spiritual awakening that lays a foundation for course correction in the future of America.”

When Republican candidate for Arizona governor, Kari Lake, recently promised reporters she would be their “worst fricking nightmare,” she also vowed that  “we will reform the media as well.”

Lake, who denies the legitimacy of President Biden’s election, has been compared to a prophet in a charismatic Christian publication.

“There’s a media mountain and they’ve got to conquer it,” Clarkson says. 

Some Dominionist groups definitely want a theocratic form of government, others want to transform democracy but not do away with it all together, Riccardi-Swartz says.

At the more extreme end, “there would be no more public schools,” she says. “The family would educate their children. There would be no social welfare endeavors because the church would  take care of all the needs of the poor.”

It doesn’t speak for all religious conservatives

Riccardi-Swartz says having a conservative Christian viewpoint does not mean that a person is a Christian nationalist or even a Dominionist.

Bart Barber, the new leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, denounced Christian nationalism on “60 Minutes” several weeks ago, saying that it stands in opposition to “everything I believe about religious liberty. … I object to it because Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’”

Riccardi-Swartz says the Christian radical right “has been slowly rising” over the past few decades.

“The easy scapegoat of course is Trump. But these ideas were there long before Trump,” she says.

Social media and digital technology have allowed Dominionist-type groups to network and partner more efficiently “than they were 30 years, even 10 years ago.”

“It’s always been there simmering. Now it’s at a full boil,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

How dominionists impacted the election

Republican right wing Christian gubernatorial candidate Douglas Mastriano lost the Pennsylvania race to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

But in many ways it was not really a defeat, Clarkson says.

With more than 40% of the vote, Mastriano “had an enormous sleeping victory that was unprecedented in the United States.” 

“We’ve never had another candidate like this in American history, running for a major office,” Clarkson says. 

“We have an openly theocratic candidate who said he is the voice of God,” Clarkson says. “The people around him believe the same.”

Toward the end of a Facebook video of a March 15 campaign event, Mastriano says, “God’s spoken through a donkey. He’s speaking through Doug Mastriano right now.”

“He remains a sitting state senator and leads a group of people who meet every week in the state Capitol to plan strategy,” Clarkson says. “The movement will continue.”

Mastriano’s campaign coordinators came out of New Apostolic Reformation churches and spent little money on advertising, relying instead on social media networks such as Facebook, Clarkson says.

That Mastriano’s campaign achieved as much as it did “is an astounding thing,” he says. 

It’s not just white men, Clarkson says, adding that women and people of color also play increasingly large roles in the NAR movement.

“If we see seats being filled with people who are actively in support of the so-called election fraud, who are proponents of Christian nationalism, who are conspiratorially minded, we don’t know what will happen,” Riccardi-Swartz says.

“What will happen to public schools? What will happen to gay marriage? There’s a whole list of things on the agenda that will tell us a lot about the temperature of democracy in the United States.”

Educate yourself, and vote

Riccardi-Swartz says education and information are key defenses against anti-democratic ideas.

“Be well read. Read widely,” Riccardi-Swartz says. Don’t read just one newspaper or listen to one radio station, she says.

“If you hear people in your community proclaiming conspiratorial ideas, call them out on that. Say, ‘I don’t think that’s actually accurate. Can we do some research and find out? Can we have a conversation about why you believe this?’”

Clarkson says it’s important to register to vote and then get out and cast a ballot. Lake, Mastriano and other election deniers were defeated in the midterm elections.

“The Christian right is one of if not the most powerful factions in American politics,” Clarkson says.

But a majority of Americans still believe in separation of church and state, he says. “And that matters in a democracy.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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