Cracking the Christian nationalist code: A glossary for the confused

While Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s Gaza war has outraged or alienated many would-be supporters, Donald Trump has never expressed even the slightest interest in Palestinian rights. Trump’s allies in the evangelical community — by far his strongest base of support — interpret Middle East politics through a biblical lens that gives Israel title to all the lands from the Nile to the Euphrates — and also sees the apocalypse they believe is coming as desirable. Striving for peace and universal human rights, in their view, goes against God’s will. 

A key figure who epitomizes this view is John Hagee, founder and leader of Christians United for Israel, which boasts 10 million members, which is greater than the total population of American Jews. It was founded in 2006 after the publication of Hagee’s book “Jerusalem Countdown,” which asserts that a U.S.-Israel war against Iran is both biblically prophesied and necessary to bring about the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming. Two years later, John McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement in the 2008 presidential campaign, after a sermon of Hagee’s surfaced describing Hitler as fulfilling God’s will by hastening the return of Jews to Israel. 

But Hagee is just one figure in the still-poorly-understood Christian dominionist movement that’s supporting Trump and MAGA Republicans in general. Their goal is to remake America into a right-wing Christian theocracy. Canadian scholar André Gagné’s recent book “American Evangelicals for Trump: Dominion, Spiritual Warfare, and the End Times” (Salon story here) does much to explain the evangelical wing of that movement, known as the New Apostolic Reformation, drawing on its own own words. 

As I noted in that article, three high-profile NAR leaders — Lance Wallnau, Paula White-Cain and Dutch Sheets — were intimately involved in bringing Trump to power, supporting him and then fighting to keep him in power after the 2020 election. They’re just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2020, Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, has been a co-leader of the “ReAwaken America Tour,” which is connected to multiple NAR figures, as Jennifer Cohn reported in 2022. Just this month, Salon contributor Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates reported on Wallnau’s latest political venture, dubbed the “Courage Tour,” which targets 19 counties that “are going to determine the future of America.”

It remains quite a challenge to relate the beliefs and practices of NAR leaders to what’s unfolding this year, in what figures to be one of the most consequential presidential elections in history. This is true both because religious movements tend to be complex, with contradictory currents and various shades of belief and practice, and because the NAR does not have a traditional membership structure, and the structures it does possess are often obscure to outsiders.  

In addition, the media generally fails to depict social and religious movements clearly or understand how they function. A handful of key terms can help clarify matters, from overarching concepts like “dominionism” to deliberately vague phrases like “covenant marriage” (as associated with House Speaker Mike Johnson) or “government schools” (rather than public schools). 

To help meet that challenge, I’ve put together the following glossary of terms, drawing heavily on the work of others: First there’s the “Reporter’s Guide to the New Apostolic Reformation” co-authored by Gagné and Clarkson, about to appear in an updated, condensed version, along with a glossary. Clarkson’s group has a broader glossary of terms, including some that provide relevant context. And Julie Ingersoll, author of “Building God’s Kingdom” (Salon interview here), helpfully provided additional terms. 

The glossary is divided into three sections. First is an alphabetical set of terms with broader applicability, setting the stage for the terms that directly describe dominionism and its dominant forms. Second is a set of terms that describe America’s dominionist landscape, ordered to reflect its internal logic. Third is an alphabetical list of terms used by dominionists themselves, often with meanings that differ from their more conventional definitions. Millions of people who use these terms do not identify as dominionists, but are arguably helping to spread profoundly anti-democratic ideas. 

Preliminary terms

Christian nationalism: The belief that America was founded as, and intended by God to be, a Christian nation. This is based on an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, rooted in parallels between America and Israel, which was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest and separatism. It’s an important premise for most of the Christian Right, which claims it is seeking to restore or reclaim this mandate. The Christian nationalist vision has been used, for example, by theologian Francis Schaeffer to justify the anti-abortion movement, and by advocates of dominionism to advance a theocratic society. Sometimes identified as “white Christian nationalism” to distinguish it from the Black Christian nationalist tradition identified with the civil rights movement.  

Christian Zionism:  Primarily an evangelical doctrine, originating in 19th-century British premillennialism, that regards supporting the State of Israel as crucial to fulfilling prophecies in the Book of Revelation. This culminates in the battle of Armageddon, with the mass slaughter of Jews as Israel is covered in “a sea of human blood,” as described by Hagee. While Jewish Zionists hold a wide range of views and some support a Palestinian state, Christian Zionists oppose any such accommodation. In the extreme, they support Israel stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, and are especially eager for war with Iran.

Demonization: Portraying a person or group as malevolent, sinful or evil, perhaps even in league with Satan, as a potential pretext for discrimination and violence. The NAR and those influenced by it believe that actual demons influence earthly events. Religious conservatives who deny that Republicans have courted white supremacist support and who view abortion as profoundly evil, for example, have explained Black support for Democrats as resulting from the influence of the demon Jezebel. 

Imprecatory prayer: The act of praying for God to smite his enemies. Such prayers are found in the Bible and are often directly quoted by modern Christian Right activists, notably by leaders of the NAR. 

Intercessory prayer: The act of praying on behalf of others. Intercessory prayers, such as praying for the nation or for certain politicians or government officials, are common among those associated with the NAR.

Pentecostalism: A major subset of modern evangelical Christianity characterized by a focus on “gifts of the spirit” — speaking in tongues, prophesy, casting out demons, etc. — which was traditionally premillennialist, denominational and apolitical prior to engaging with Christian reconstructionists in the 1980s.  

Philosemitism: A term referring to the exaggerated or grandiose “love” displayed by Christian Zionists and other Christian conservatives toward Jews, which often involves the adoption of certain Jewish practices, such as blowing the shofar. Despite profuse statements of support for Jews and Israel, Christian Zionist philosemitism coexists with conspiratorial antisemitism and with a stated end-times goal to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, after which Jews must convert to Christianity or be slaughtered. 

Postmillennialism: The belief that Jesus will return to Earth after the “millennium,” a thousand-year messianic age in which Christian ethics prosper. Postmillennialism encourages a much more socially and politically activist orientation than premillennialism, 

Premillennialism: The belief that Jesus will physically return to the Earth heralding a literal thousand-year messianic age of peace. This was traditionally the dominant view of fundamentalist and evangelical American Protestants, who saw the world becoming more and more fallen until the apocalypse. Books like “The Late Great Planet Earth” and the “Left Behind” series popularized this view. 

Theocracy: A system of government in which political leaders are also clerical leaders of an official organized religion, or are backed and validated by said religion and its leaders. 

Theonomy: A system of government in which civil government is ruled under religious law. While technically distinguishable from theocracy, it’s largely a distinction without a difference. 

Understanding the dominionist landscape

Dominion: The purpose for which human beings are created — sometimes meaning only men, since women were created to help and support men in their exercise of dominion — according to the book of Genesis

Dominionism: The theocratic idea that Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions. It is the underlying ideology of contemporary Christian nationalism, providing both a justification for political engagement and an agenda. It mandates the promulgation of a comprehensive “biblical worldview.” There are two major forms of dominionism in America today: Christian Reconstructionism and the New Apostolic Reformation.  In Christian Reconstructionist postmillennialism, the “dominion mandate” is thwarted by the Fall but restored with the Resurrection. Beginning in the 1980s, dominionist postmillennialists began making inroads in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements by emphasizing the practical demands of dominion and sidelining speculation on theological questions where they disagreed. 

Christian reconstructionism: A theocratic movement founded by R.J. Rushdoony, whose three-volume “Institutes of Biblical Law” defines what a biblically-based society should look like. While its most extreme teachings — such as stoning children who disobey their parents — are generally ignored, its influence in other areas, including the Christian homeschooling movement, has shaped the views of millions who’ve never heard of Rushdoony. Its vision is rooted in Calvinist theonomy and the idea that America is, or should be, a Christian nation, and provides a blueprint for the reconstruction of society after secular government is undermined. It provides a reason for political activism in a way that premillennialism did not. 

New Apostolic Reformation: An evangelical dominionist movement, originally identified and named in the 1990s by evangelical theologian C. Peter Wagner, which seeks to restore the 1st century’s supposed “fivefold ministry” via a networked, top-down, prophecy-guided governance structure of prayer networks, replacing the democratic, doctrinally-guided church model that has dominated Protestantism since its founding. It has since become the leading political and cultural vision of the Pentecostal and charismatic wing of evangelical Christianity. 

Fivefold Ministry: This refers to the offices of the church— apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers — as outlined in Ephesians 4:11-13. The restoration of these offices, which work together as a whole function, is a key element of the NAR vision. The doctrines and denominations of traditional Christian churches are deemed to be under the influence of a “religious spirit,” perhaps demonic, and are obstacles to advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Apostle: This means someone who, recognized by other apostles, exercises authority over individual leaders, churches, Christian organizations or networks, and is responsible for establishing God’s governing order in designated spheres of ministry, accountable to boards of directors, elders or deacons

Prophet: God speaks to and through his prophets of the “fivefold ministry,” but it’s apostles who judge, evaluate, strategize and execute God’s revealed word. Prophets are therefore expected to submit to the authority of the apostolic leaders. There have been controversies about various prophets and prophecies, particularly regarding the role of Donald Trump and the outcome of the 2020 election.

Apostolic network: A band of autonomous churches and ministries united in an organizational structure and led by one or more apostles. New networks are created in order to identify, attract and equip new generations of apostles. 

Apostolic center: The hub of an apostolic network, which displaces the traditional church or church building to accommodate the broad functions of the fivefold ministry. They often seek to transform today’s churches into training, education and mission centers. They go beyond pastoring local congregations and seek to create communities of expanding influence with social and economic impact. 

Seven mountains mandate: A campaign being waged by leaders of the NAR to popularize and make practical the work of taking dominion over society. The campaign, first driven by activist leaders Lance Wallnau and Johnny Enlow, but then embraced by C. Peter Wagner and other NAR leaders — divides the work of dominionism into the metaphorical conquest of seven mountains whose demonic influences must be driven off. These mountains (sometimes also called gates or spheres) are religion, education, government, family, media, business and arts & entertainment. 

Spiritual warfare: This refers to the battle that supernatural forces of evil wage against Christians. It is believed that demonic forces are responsible for the problems of daily life as well as conflicts between people and even nations. Modern-day spiritual warfare practitioners believe these demonic forces can be contained through the power of prayer, but also defeated through social and political activism.

Strategic-level spiritual warfare: This idea, typically rooted in an interpretation of Ephesians 6:12, is frequently cited by NAR figures: “We’re not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Accordingly, Wagner taught that demonic forces control nations, regions, cities, groups of people, neighborhoods and important networks around the world, and are devoted to preventing the advancement of the Kingdom of God. NAR leaders often engage in public prayers of spiritual warfare against demonic forces they contend control the religious, political and gender identities of others. Once these “evil principalities” have been identified, they can be spiritually confronted through both imprecatory and intercessory prayers, sometimes by way of organized prayer walks in supposedly afflicted areas. 

Understanding and recognizing dominionist narratives

Biblical worldview: A comprehensive framework in which the Bible speaks to every area of life. This idea can be interpreted in many ways,, but in the NAR context it is used as a justification for conservative moral codes, opposition to the values of secular democracy and guidance in how to advance the Kingdom of God.

Biblical spheres of authority (also called “sphere sovereignty” or “jurisdictional authority”): Adapting the work of theologian Abraham Kuyper, Rushdoony taught that “the Bible speaks to every area of life” with a claim that God delegates authority to men in three distinct spheres of government: ecclesiastical or church government, civil government and family government. These spheres are exhaustive of all aspects of life, but each sphere is limited in its authority and restricted from reaching into that of the others. The church is charged with preaching the gospel and resolving disputes between Christians, civil government provides for the national defense and the punishment of “evildoers,” and family government has authority over economics and education. This is the framework upon which the Christian right claims that the Bible forbids regulation of business and that public education violates biblical authority. It’s also the basis on which they still claim to “believe in separation of church and state,” which is understood as essential although both are governed by God.

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Civil government: Conservative Christians may refer to what the rest of us simply call government with this term, to emphasize that there are other forms, namely biblical government. It can function as a verbal tic of sorts, implying that the speaker is drawing on a theological or philosophical system built on Christian Reconstructionism and dominionism.

Covenant marriage: This concept made its way into public discourse when Mike Johnson became speaker of the House, and used the term to describe his marriage. In circles that emphasize biblical patriarchy, often rooted in the Calvinist or Reformed wing of Christianity, some have suggested that civil government should have no role in consecrating marriage. Only ecclesiastical authorities sanction marriage, and do so with additional patriarchal commitments. Until recently, covenant marriage has been a practice inside certain churches and only under their authority. Now some states, including Johnson’s home state of Louisiana, offer covenant marriage as an optional form that is legally more difficult to sever. While this remains entirely voluntary to this point, it’s part of a larger critique of divorce, which many Christians believe should be more difficult.

Government schools: Dominionists oppose public education on the grounds that it’s unbiblical because God delegated responsibility for educating children to “the family.” They have led an effort to undermine, defund and ultimately dismantle public education beginning as far back as the 1950s. An early part of this effort was working to undermine the sense of community ownership of public schools and identify them with “the government,” while also nurturing broader American suspicion of government. This can be another “tell” as to the speaker’s theological background. 

Lesser magistrates: Following the Calvinist/Reformed tradition in Protestantism, Christians who try to reconcile the biblical command to submit to civil authorities with increasingly heated rhetoric about tyrannical government sometimes reach back to John Calvin’s notion of “lesser magistrates.” Since all government officials are understood to work under the authority of God, resistance to higher levels of authority can be legitimated when it is directed by legitimate lower-level officials. This is expressed in the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which holds that county-level government is the only constitutionally legitimate form (although the U.S. Constitution never mentions sheriffs) and that sheriffs have not only the authority but the obligation to nullify state and federal mandates they see as illegitimate. This topic pulls together the Reformation, pro-slavery Presbyterianism and Christian Reconstructionism.

Patriarchy: Historians and sociologists may use this term as a descriptor, and feminists may deploy it as a pejorative. In the dominionist context, patriarchy is positively understood as the biblical form of family government upon which other institutions of society rest. “Biblical” families are understood as building blocks of the church and society, each headed by a man with wife (or wives) and children in submission to him. Ideas of gender equality are considered heretical. 

Religious freedom: The idea that people’s religious views should be neither an advantage or a disadvantage under the law. Historically, this has also meant that people should be free to make up their own minds, without the undue influence of powerful governmental and religious institutions. In this sense, the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state is intended to protect religious freedom. The Christian right and the Roman Catholic bishops have sought to redefine the term as a sword, forcing others to accommodate, subsidize and submit to their views, primarily via exemptions from civil rights laws protecting LGBTQ and reproductive rights. 

Support for Israel: In Christian Zionist terms, Israel must be supported in order to destroy it in the battle of Armageddon. 

Dominionists know they are a small minority, even among regular churchgoing Christians. Their power comes in large part from remaining illegible and portraying themselves in deceptive ways that journalists and scholars have sometimes taken at face value, even as dominionists admit they are engaged in a long-term propaganda war. This isn’t to say they are not sincere. They are, indeed, sincerely devoted to destroying democracy, which they believe is evil.  

It hardly matters whether someone like Mike Johnson — who has a covenant marriage, professes a “biblical worldview” and checks nearly all the other dominionist boxes — consciously identifies as such, or is honest about it with himself or us. What matters is what a person of Johnson’s apparent convictions actually does, and toward what end. 

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