01 February 2017

American Dominionism and Europe's Evangelicals (Part 1 of 2)

The influence of Dominion theology continues to grow. It's nothing new in terms of the European Evangelical scene but it clearly continues to gain influence and now like its American cousin has become almost universal.

It's never taught overtly but the language and ideas are there. It's much the same in the United States. This is why you can have people that are completely beholden to its mentality, concepts, categories and ethics and yet are unaware that anything, let alone any school of thought has been embraced. In their ignorance they will assume that all Biblically minded Christians hold to such a teaching and apparently always have.
This mentality breaks sharply with Fundamentalism. The shift in the United States occurred in the 1950s with the rise of the Evangelical Movement. Billy Graham and numerous figures associated with Christianity Today were the leaders of a new mentality of cultural engagement and with it brought a plan for political action. It was in its infancy at that time and didn't begin to come into its own until the 1970s, followed by a significant transformation and boost in the 1990s which brings us to the Neo-Evangelicalism of today.
The European scene is a bit different. It has always carried a different flavour and style than what is found in the English speaking world.
There are many parallels between the UK and American Evangelical settings. Dominionist thought in the British context has tracked in different ways due to some of the differences in culture. The Establishment/Anglican dynamic adds an element to their situation that is not found in North America.
It is the rest of Europe or what is commonly referred to as 'The Continent' that I'm primarily focused on here though some English figures have also played a part.
Dominionist thinking didn't arrive in earnest until the 1970s and once again Billy Graham is the central figure. Prior to this, apart from conservative holdouts in the various Mainline and Free Church groups, the main force for what we might call a Biblically-focused Christianity was found among the Plymouth Brethren. Arriving in the 19th century the Brethren were and for the most part are Separatist in their mindset. The European variety does not include all the legalism and social taboos that one might find in the UK or especially in the United States.
In addition unlike Western Evangelicals there hasn't been any impetus in Brethren circles toward socio-political engagement let alone activism. Some might say this is due to the demographic and statistical realities. The numbers just aren't there. But we would also add, neither is the theology or the meta-narratives that so dominate the Anglo-American scene. There's no notion and thus no romantic attachment, yearning or expectation of some kind of Christian state or even social order. The historical and cultural narrative doesn't support it.
In this sense, their adherence to Scripture and their posture vis-à-vis the world, places them within the Fundamentalist camp.
And yet it's clear that they too are being affected and challenged by US-based Evangelical movements. The rise of the European Right which not that long ago had no place among conservative Christians in Europe is now finding pathways into the Body of Christ and generating division. There are rumblings of political activism among the Australian Brethren as well.
This Separatist movement though perhaps beginning to splinter, is contrasted with the more visible broad-minded and ecumenical Protestant element that is to be found among Europe's Evangelicals. They perpetuate the legacy of Billy Graham and the vision of the 1974 Congress held in Lausanne.
Modern Evangelicalism in Europe (and in much of the Third or Developing World) is dominated by Lausanne Movement-type thinking. While ostensibly about Evangelising, the 1970s movement represented a shift in focus. While speaking of world evangelisation, social justice and concern for the poor it subtly opened the door to Dominionism. Social justice it must be remembered could take on a different hue during the Cold War. Today it's associated with Leftist thinking. During the Cold War it could just as easily be about freedom from the injustices of life under Eastern Bloc Communism.
The 1974 conference focused on reaching people with the gospel but there was also a tremendous ecumenical impulse, a focus on numbers and a lot of emphasis on cultural engagement. While it was (and is) certainly valid to have answers to the questions of the day, the push as Francis Schaeffer made clear in his address, was to understand the gospel in holistic terms. This type of language and the associated lexicon that goes with it points to the notion of transforming and redeeming culture. This is the Christendom project, the offspring of Sacralism in a Christian context.
Again it was subtle in 1974. Listening to the messages, they're not all that bad, but seeds were being planted. Schaeffer talked about the danger of the Church embracing Middle Class cultural norms. That's a valid warning but I'm afraid Schaeffer might not have shared that concern in the 1950s, 1940s or even earlier. He was appalled by the philosophical and cultural climate that arose in the 1960s and yet I would contend that his entire reading of history is flawed and wrong-headed. His famous How Shall We Then Live film series is an exercise in frustration. Rarely is a point made that couldn't be seriously called into question on both historical and Biblical terms. Some of his criticisms of 20th century philosophy are valid but often his 'remedy' proves just as problematic. And while the Bible was often invoked, at the end of the day his 'solutions' have only brought Evangelicalism to the point of ruin and collapse.
Schaffer warned of too much compromise, the partnering of Evangelicals with Mainline liberals and others who did not hold to historic Christianity. And yet, ironically from his Christian Manifesto to his films and other writings, his overall influence and legacy is one of ecumenicalism. He provided intellectual structure to the project Billy Graham launched and gave his life to. Schaeffer is constantly appealed to and evoked as a figure of profound influence. The modern Evangelical Right views him as something of an intellectual founder. He is in their eyes one of the great heroes of the 20th century West.
As he approached his death in 1984, Schaeffer foresaw the coming collapse of Evangelicalism and one wonders if he wouldn't be upset that someone like Charles Colson was to come along and all but appropriate his legacy, even while formalising the Evangelical relationship with Rome. Schaeffer may have chafed at what happened a decade after his death in the ECT agreements and yet he certainly played a part in laying the groundwork.
Lausanne in many ways laid a foundation that was built on the ecumenical vision of Billy Graham and the Dominionism of Francis Schaeffer.
And it's all too clear this is what is being presented in schools like the Czech example presented in the linked article.
Again while the actual term 'Dominion' is not bandied about, even a cursory glance at their materials demonstrates this is at the core of their mission. From terms like holistic vision, cultural transformation, vocation, missional businesses and restorative economics it's clear this theology through various forms and motifs is what they have come to understand as both the Gospel and the fulfillment of Evangelisation.
All these terms and concepts point to Dominionist and Sacral commitments and understanding of the Great Commission in terms of transforming and redeeming culture.
The antithesis of Fundamentalism, the contrast between the Church and the World that dominates the New Testament is not found in their thinking.
Some of the ideas and certainly the testimonials, especially outside America's Right-wing context are not all bad. And yet one cannot escape disappointment when it's clear that the whole of their matrix and the structure of their thought are built upon Dominionist foundations. But once again in Europe it takes a different form. The impetus, nature of the mandate and telos are quite different. Outside the US context, the Dominionist vision is not wrestling with realistic expectations of political power. It's socio-prophetic, trying to engage and speak to the culture (which is not all bad) but that impulse erroneously drives them toward trying to eventually acquire political influence.
This is opposed to the US where significant power is already held and the Christian Right is engaged in a struggle to hold ground and at times make great strides and gains. The Christian Right in America has deep ties with sections of the Establishment. It has tremendous financial connections, political officeholders in its ranks, a large and influential media sector, a sizable faction of the Roman Catholic organisation, and through think-tanks such as The Heritage Foundation and ties to Israel (in particular Likud) is able to influence foreign policy.
Evangelicals in Europe have no Establishment connections and almost no significant infrastructure. Generally speaking while socially conservative they have not been a part of the Right-wing political spectrum. In terms of politics and economics they have usually tended toward the Centre or even slightly Left.
But the end of the Cold War has brought about many changes. And the changes are shifting the political spectrum and cultural sensibilities. The Evangelical movement so eager to 'engage' the culture all but subjects itself to these external forces. Globalisation and the economic transformations of the 1990s, let alone the possibilities of a new Schengen-zoned Europe brought about a new period of optimism and expectation. By the 2000s threats of terrorism and narratives about the clash of civilisations began to seep in. By the 2010s, financial collapse, disillusionment with the EU project, growing tensions and fears related to immigration and now terrorism have driven many to feel Europe, even 'Christian Europe' is in a state of existential crisis.
The passionate and angry voices of the Right are beginning to be heard, even in Christian circles.

Continue reading part 2