This is Part 3 in my series on Dominionism, which in turn grew out of my post on Ted Cruz’s Dominionist connections. The previous parts:
In this third part, I want to look at some of the important philosophical roots of Dominionism, and how those ideas have poisoned American Evangelicalism. In my opinion, it is these roots that led to Rushdoony in the first place, and are at the heart of what is evil within American Evangelicalism in our present time. Without this fundamental idea - Presuppositionalism - Dominionism in its present form, both “soft” and “hard” would not have gained a foothold, and it could not be sustained. Furthermore, the very reason that Dominionism plagues Evangelicalism is that this idea has already corroded the brains and consciences of Evangelicals.
I’ll be honest here: I have really struggled with my continued participation in Evangelicalism over the last few years, like many of my peers. I have felt like Evangelicalism is committing a slow suicide - and it is doing so by requiring that many of us check our brains and our conscience at the door. Right now, I have my doubts that unless some fundamental changes occur, it will not remain possible for a person to be part of Evangelicalism and still be intellectually honest or morally and ethically decent. Such people will be increasingly purged in the name of doctrinal purity. And a big reason for this is the embrace of Dominionist assumptions.
I’m going to start by going back to the mid 1800s and the fallout from the Enlightenment. In one sense, religion in general took a severe hit during this period, as rationality replaced special revelation and church authority as the source of objective truth in many - some would argue all - areas of knowledge. For some areas, this made for tremendous advances. Scientific knowledge made astounding leaps in a few hundred years, and the revolution has shown no signs of abating. Politics too changed dramatically, and for the better. No longer would the Divine Right of Kings support despotism. (It is important to remember that Nazism and Stalinism were rejections of the Enlightenment doctrine of Human Rights, and were based on totalitarian ideology - akin to a theocracy of its own, not Enlightenment freedom.) As I noted in a previous installment, the foundation of our own nation was Enlightenment values, not Theocracy.
The Enlightenment posed some significant threats to religion, in any case, because it established the concept that objective truth can be discovered by non-religious means. For institutions - such as the various official state churches and political entities like the Vatican - this meant a loss of prestige, and also a loss of funding. It also meant that they had to adapt, or fail to remain relevant. Some did better than others at this.
A key figure in the Dominionist discussion appeared at this time. Abraham Kuyper was a theologian, and also a political figure in Holland. Kuyper is an intriguing character to me, because, like many of his time, he was a mixed bag when it came to his ideas. On the one hand, he stood for many good things. He believed in - and advocated for - the separation of church and state. He opposed Communism (fairly new back then) but sought to enact workplace reforms and wage laws to alleviate the pressure on workers that led to an embrace of Communist ideas. He was far ahead of his time in supporting intermarriage between races (particularly in Dutch Africa.) In his personal life, he seemed to be a decent person grappling honestly with the challenges of a post-Enlightenment world.
On the other hand, some of his ideas have borne seriously bad fruit in the 150 years since. He is credited with being a founder of the Neo-Calvinist movement, which is in many ways the locus of pernicious patriarchal ideas in American Evangelicalism. Naturally, one of his antagonisms was toward the Arminians whose revivals were bleeding members from the Dutch Reformed Church. As an Arminian myself, I would of course be on the other side of that issue from him in any case.
The worst of it, however, was in two ideas that were to be seized on by others and taken to their logical extreme.
The first was the idea of “sphere sovereignty.” It’s not a bad idea entirely, that the state, church, family, and academia/science each have their roles in society and that they should respect each other. In the circumstance he lived in, Kuyper’s idea was actually one that led to a better society, with more freedom and less antagonism. The problem was that it was adopted by Rushdoony later (and the Religious Right too) as a weapon to make whole areas of society off limits to the government. It was pretty obviously not Kuyper’s intention, but that’s where it led.
The second was also not intended to have the actual result. Kuyper believed that there was a natural antithesis between Enlightenment worldview, and that of the Calvinist Christian. The two were fundamentally incompatible in his view. Some of us might disagree with that - me included - but it wasn’t uncommon at the time. Now, Kuyper’s viewpoint on the antithesis has become essentially a litmus test for orthodoxy within Evangelicalism. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One thing remained to change this idea into pure poison, and it wasn’t Kuyper’s doing. Kuyper himself believed in freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry. He believed, furthermore, in “common grace,” that is, that anyone, Christian or not, Calvinist or not, could discover, create, and contribute to the good of society.
It is the next figure in our story that rejected “common grace” while retaining Kuyper’s antithesis idea that started the dark path to Dominionism.
Cornelius Van Til is best known for his philosophy of “presuppositionalism.” This is the belief that one’s very ability to see or understand truth comes from the presuppositional beliefs a person has. To Van Til, one must first believe in the truth of Christianity (specifically Reformed Christianity - Calvinism) and in the supernatural inerrant revelation of Scripture as the source of all truth before that person can know or understand any truth in any area of life, thought, or discovery.
This viewpoint has some troubling corollaries. As Van Til taught, because a non-Christian is fundamentally incapable of knowing truth, there is no common ground where Christians and non-Christians can agree and meet. Likewise, any “truth” arrived at by anyone who does not have the “correct” beliefs about God and the universe is suspect and unreliable, no matter what. Because that person is “totally depraved” to use the Calvinist term, he or she is incapable of seeing truth about anything without lying to him or herself about it. This is in contrast to his view of [the right sort of] Christians, who would naturally and inevitably come to superior conclusions because their theology was correct.
The topic of apologetics is beyond the scope of this post, although I hope to write about it in the future. It isn’t hard to see the influence of Van Til’s Presuppositionalism in modern Evangelical apologetics, however. It’s one area where the ideas have badly poisoned the discussion. I believe it has also poisoned the entire system of Evangelical thought.
Rushdoony would take this even further than Van Til by noting the rejection of “secular” thought and the embrace of scripture as the only source of truth, and building what he saw as the logical outgrowth of Presuppositionalism: Christian Reconstructionism, based on the literal imposition of Old Testament law on the world. In essence, if you cannot trust reason, science, or people with the wrong theology to be right about anything, what source do you have left to make decisions about political, social, family, or any other matters? Rushdoony's "solution" is a literalist application of Mosaic Law to everything.
Having given this introduction, I would urge the reader to read this article by Alan Bean from Baptistnews.com, which helped me in formulating this post. I won’t duplicate it all, but it does contain a good discussion of the Kuyper/Van Til/Rushdoony progression, and also the reality of hard-core dominionism.
In discussing soft-core dominionist ideas, the author makes a good case that three Dominionist ideas have become foundational for the Religious Right, and I thoroughly agree.
“Neither Michael McVicar nor Julie Ingersoll [authors of books on Reconstructionism] suggest that hardcore dominionism, in its full Rushdoonian glory, is the consensus opinion of the contemporary religious right. Many of the specifics of the founder’s vision have failed to gain traction; but Kuyper’s antithesis between Christian and secular worldviews, Van Til’s insistence that only God-centered thinking can be coherent and productive, and Rushdoony’s focus on the reconstructed family have become foundational for the religious right.”
In my experience it is this foundational idea of Presuppositionalism which has poisoned Evangelicalism more than anything else. It has led to intellectual and ethical suicide, to the point where many of us feel uncomfortable discussing key issues with Evangelicals - particularly the leadership.
The bottom line is this:
Theological “Truth”™ trumps objective facts, and believing the “right” presuppositions is the most important part of “faith.”
As the Baptist News article puts it:
“Political and religious liberals respond to men like Cruz, Ham, Mohler and Barton with the apparently obvious argument that objective facts matter. We are appalled when they refuse to budge.”
Peter Enns notes exactly why this is problematic:
Theological needs – better, perceived theological needs – do not determine historical truth. Evangelicals do not tolerate such self-referential logic from defenders of other faiths, and they should not tolerate it in themselves.
The poisonous fruit of Presuppositionalism manifests itself in most of the ways Evangelicalism is obnoxious and harmful at present. I hope to flesh some of these out in future posts, but let me just run through some of them.
Presuppositionalism has led to denialism of scientific facts - and to an overall hostility toward science. This stems from the fact that many scientific discoveries contradict or threaten doctrinal sacred cows.
An astute point from a victim of an earlier era of Presuppositionalism
Presuppositionalism has led to the acceptance of historical denialism and revisionist history.
Presuppositionalism has led to the astounding arrogance of Evangelicals who believe that they automatically understand the world better than everyone else because they have the “right” doctrine.
Presuppositionalism has led to Evangelicals slandering outsiders.
Presuppositionalism (and Kuyper’s dualism) have led to an “us versus them” antagonism toward anyone who has differing views, whether other religions, atheism, or other denominations of Christianity.
Presuppositionalism has lead to Evangelicals rejecting the life of the mind, insisting that the only legitimate use of intellect is to “prove” their pre-existing suppositions.
Presuppositionalism has led to hostility toward new ideas, new knowledge, and new understanding, because these threaten the presuppositions.
Presuppositionalism has led to idolatry of the past, and the claim that returning to the prejudices and injustices of the past will lead to “godliness.”
Presuppositionalism has led to an inability to think ethically or act with compassion, because having the right beliefs trumps both ethics and compassion. (This one needs its own post.)
Think about it. How many of the catastrophic errors of the past - and present - are due to this idea that doctrine trumps reality? Why should women stay and be beaten? Because the doctrine of Patriarchy trumps both compassion for victims and the modern idea of Feminism. Why are Evangelicals so desperate to be able to deny LGBT people housing and employment? Because believing the right things about sexuality trumps basic human decency. Why are Evangelicals convinced that science is a godless conspiracy? Because science threatens their view of the Bible.
And ultimately, Presuppositionalism leads to both Dominionism and Theocracy.
In part, because the only way to eliminate ideas and facts that threaten theology is to suppress the competing truths using government force.
In part too because Presuppositionalism has led Evangelicals to the astoundingly arrogant conclusion that they know better than others about everything, and thus those who disagree are either stupid or evil or both.
As I said, I hope to flesh out some of these in future posts. (Some may have to wait until I can write without as much anger.) Unless and until Evangelicalism is willing and able to face the theological discomfort caused by new discoveries and ideas - and maybe rethink some of the presuppositions which underlie certain beliefs - it will continue to lose the battle for hearts and minds. Because Evangelicalism requires belief in things that are not, objectively speaking, true, it requires that an adherent check his or her brain - and conscience - at the door.
I’ll close with a quote from John Pavlovitz that I believe is pertinent:
I’m tired of scientific ignorance being treated as if it’s a Christian virtue.
This could go for ignorance in general, and for the whole pile of denial that Presuppositionalism has left us.
Note on theological change:
One of the most astoundingly arrogant facet of this belief is that, even though theology has changed through the centuries (even compare the Old and New Testaments, to say nothing of slavery, witch burning, and other historical revisions), Evangelicals are damn sure they have it right this time, and that there shall be no more changes. Really?
The one thing I do not see in Evangelicalism right now - or in most (not all) Evangelicals I know - is a openness to idea that they might be wrong. Or even have an incomplete understanding of something. Instead, you just see ignorant statement after ignorant statement, usually quoted from some celebrity pastor, that directly contradicts proven historical or scientific truth.
It would be nice, instead, to see a little humility. We have been theologically wrong before. Our understanding of the world has changed dramatically over recorded history. We have in the past allowed new discoveries and paradigms to alter our beliefs. In many cases (see witch burning), this has led to an enriched understanding of the Divine. Even Saint Paul himself said that we only know in part - we see through a glass darkly. Unless and until we allow ourselves to evolve as we discover, we end up merely perpetuating the prejudices and injustices of the past. (To paraphrase Cass Sunstein)
A couple of paired links for this part:
I believe that Presuppositionalism requires that we check our brains and our consciences at the door. It isn’t just one. Both are important to our sense of ethics - and I believe Christ called us to use both.
Rachel Held Evans: The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart