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“Here we go again,” writes Lisa Miller for the Washington Post. “The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about ‘crazy Christians.'”

One piece, she notes, connects Gov. Rick Perry with a previously unknown Christian group called “The New Apostolic Reformation,” whose main objective is to “infiltrate government.” Another highlights whacko-sounding Christian influences on Michele Bachmann. A third cautions readers to be afraid, very afraid, of “dominionists.”

“The stories raise real concerns about the world views of two prospective Republican nominees,” writes Miller. “But their echo-chamber effect reignites old anxieties among liberals about evangelical Christians. Some on the left seem suspicious that a firm belief in Jesus equals a desire to take over the world. (The same charge, ironically, leveled at Obama in 2008 by some extremist Christians.)”

Miller continues:

As Rachel Maddow so sarcastically said in her Aug. 10 broadcast on the New Apostolic Reformation: “Their goal, world domination, blah blah blah.”

This isn’t a defense of the religious beliefs of Bachmann or Perry, whatever they are. It’s a plea, given the acrimonious tone of our political discourse, for a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion. Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they’re Christian. A third of Americans call themselves “evangelical.” When millions of voters get lumped together and associated with the fringe views of a few, divisions will grow. Here, then, are some clarifying points.

Evangelicals do not generally want to take over the world. “Dominionism” is the paranoid mot du jour. In its broadest sense, the term describes a Christian’s obligation to be active in the world, including in politics and government. You could argue, says Molly Worthen, who teaches religious history at the University of Toronto, that the nineteenth and early twentieth century reformers – abolitionists, suffragists, and temperance activists, for example – were dominionists.

Extremist dominionists do exist, theocrats who hope to transform our democracy into something that looks like ancient Israel, complete with stoning as punishment. But “it’s a pretty small world,” says Worthen, who studies these groups.

Christian PR man Mark DeMoss put it this way: “You would be hard pressed to find one in 1,000 Christians in America who could even wager a guess at what dominionism is.”

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