I've been trying to put Norman Geisler's normative theory on the map of positions I'm aware of, because I think he makes a genuine contribution to the field, and he's been pretty much on the sidelines in terms of ethical theory given that he's only published with Christian publishers for Christian audiences. He calls his view Graded Absolutism, which I think is a misleading term (and arguably a misapplication of the term, depending on how he means it).
Here are four views along a spectrum:
1. Consequentialism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, G.E. Moore) -- consequences are the only determinant of whether an act is right or wrong; genuinely moral principles never conflict, because there is only one -- to seek the best consequences [but much of the work is determined by what counts as the best consequences, with utilitarians focusing only on pleasure and pain and more comprehensive consequentialists including many other consequences)
2. Rossian deontology (W.D. Ross) -- several moral principles are relevant, and consequences play a role as one of them; different principles take precedence in different situations
3. graded absolutism (Norman Geisler) -- several moral principles are relevant, but not consequences; the same hierarchy of importance exists for these principles no matter the circumstances
4. Kantian deontology (Immanuel Kant) -- moral truths are absolute in the sense that they never have exceptions, no matter how serious the consequences are; moral principles never conflict
Consequentialism and Kantianism are absolute in the sense philosophers usually mean when they use the term about an ethical theory. Moral rules are absolute, and there is never any genuine conflict between them. There is at least one moral principle with no exceptions for consequentialists, because there is only one, and it never has exceptions. For Kant, there are several principles, but he thinks they will never conflict. Deontologists think either that there are more principles that matter than just consequences (as Ross thinks) or that consequences are entirely irrelevant (as Geisler and Kant think). Many deontologists find Kant's view implausible, because there are often cases where moral principles conflict. But they also want there to be moral principles besides just consequences. Ross and Geisler offer different views on what happens next.
According to Ross, there are sometimes several moral principles that play a role in a given case, and one of them will take precedence in each case. But it's not according to a pre-existing hierarchy. Sometimes the situation will make one principle more appropriate than another, but in a different situation the hierarchy is reversed. Perhaps the lying principle is more important than the principle of seeking the best consequences when not much is at stake in terms of consequences. It might make things a little better in the world if you tell a lie, but the principle against lying is more important when the difference in your self-interest and the interest of others is not much changed whether you lie or not. But in a case where hundreds of lives are at stake, the principle of not lying becomes less significant than the principle of promoting the good of others (which is a consequence). When I teach ethical theory, I teach consequentialism and Kant and then present Ross as a moderating position, taking aspects of each but rejecting other aspects of each. Geisler seems to have found a different moderating position along this spectrum, one that's closer to Kant in two respects than Ross's view is.
One Kantian element Geisler wants to retain that Ross rejects is in not counting consequences at all. There might be cases where lying is all right, according to Geisler, if a more important moral principle is at stake. But that principle won't be framed in terms of consequences, and how serious the consequences are plays no role in the moral status of the action. (On this point, I side clearly with Ross. Of course consequences can play a role in determining how good or bad an action is, even if they are not always decisive.)
Second, Ross thinks which principle is more important will vary from situation to situation. Geisler doesn't like that. He wants a rigid hierarchy that is the same in every case. The only thing that determines which moral principle applies is which ones are relevant, and then you go with the highest one in the list that's relevant. This is in fact why Geisler misleadingly calls his view absolutist and why he would not think Ross's views is absolutist. What is absolute is the structure of the moral hierarchy. That never has exceptions and doesn't vary from situation to situation. But only the very top moral principle is absolute, strictly speaking, because the others all allow for exceptions. So it's not absolutist about most moral principles, like Kant's view, just about the top one and about the relative positions of all the moral principles in the hierarchy. Most ethicists who speak of absolutism are thinking in terms of whether moral principles in general are absolute, and Geisler's view would say no to that. But if absolutism is the view that at least one moral principle is absolute, then Geisler would agree with that. The top moral principle in the hierarchy is absolute.
I want to distinguish both of these moderating positions from a number of views that they get confused with fairly easily. First, there's situational ethics. Situational ethics is itself often confused with relativism. Situational ethics in reality is a consequentialist position that takes love to be the only important consequence. It is not relativism, and neither is consequentialism in general or utilitarianism in particular, despite all these views sometimes being called relativism.
The views most commonly called moral relativism are meta-ethical views about the nature of moral language. They find ways to account for moral language without there being objective moral truths. Subjectivism says what's right is just whatever the individual person considers right. Cultural relativism says what's right is whatever your culture says is right. Emotivism says there are no truths or falsehoods about right and wrong, and attempts to say something is right or wrong are more like expressing your approval (they mean, roughly, things like "Hooray for helping people out!" and "Boo! Abortion!" but don't express any content that can be true or false). There are other variations, but what all these views have in common is that there is no truth or falsity of moral statements except, possibly, to express truths about the person making the statement or about that person's culture.
Sometimes an incoherent view common among college students is called relativism. This view is basically an inconsistent combination of one of the above meta-ethical views (usually subjectivism or cultural relativism or an inconsistent adoption of both) with the moral absolute that we ought not to criticize other people's moral views or other culture's moral views. I don't consider that a genuine view, just a confusion and an attempt to combine incompatible claims.
But the views I'm talking about here are very different from what's usually called relativism. They are not situational ethics, because they are not consequentialist, and situational ethics is a consequentialist theory involving love as the only important consequence. They are not meta-ethical relativism. The meta-ethical position they endorse is objectivism. The moral principles for Ross and Geisler are objectively true. It's just that sometimes one principle is more important than another (for Ross) or some principles are always more important than certain others (for Geisler).In both cases, the facts that determine which principles are relevant in a case are objective. For Geisler, the hierarchy of principles remains constant across situations. For Ross, it doesn't. But even for Ross there are objective facts about the situation that make certain principles more appropriate for that situation than other principles. Contrast the view that your psychological makeup, moral views, or cultural background is what determines which principles are important. These views are not relativism but genuinely objectivist moral theories.
I’ve determined that there’s a political faction out there that needs a name, because it’s a group of conspiracy theorists with a particular agenda that’s becoming somewhat influential, and it’s achieving its agenda fairly well. Its agenda is to discredit mainstream evangelicalism by confusing it with extremist figures who have nearly zero influence on much of any importance. I’m going to call this group the Dominionismists, because their whole agenda depends on this fictional line of thought called Dominionism.
Dominionismism begins, as far as I can tell, with a sociology Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, by a woman named Sara Diamond. Diamond’s dissertation sought to expose a group of Christians she was calling Dominionists, who held the view “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”. Dominionismists like to lump together such diverse figures as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, R.J. Rushdoony, James Dobson, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Randall Terry, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and Nancy Pearcey as influential figures in the development of Dominionism.
Now while most of these people are nearly household names to me, many people reading this might not know who any or many of them are, so let me break it down a little. Abraham Kuyper was a prime minister in the Netherlands a little more than a century ago, and his vision of a Christian interaction with politics was that Christianity includes both (a) influencing non-believers with the good news of salvation and (b) attempting to do what good we can in the world, and that involves seeking to implement policies that Christians agree with. He thought it was perfectly proper for people of any mindset to seek to implement the policies they thought would be best, and therefore Christians should implement policies that are based on principles they hold as part of their Christian worldview. He didn’t think there was some biblical obligation for Christians to take over all the positions in every secular institution. He did think it was appropriate for Christians to seek a biblically-aware worldview that informs how they influence society for good, including occupying positions of influence.
Francis Schaeffer was of the same mindset, basically, and he was influential in bringing Protestants to care about the abortion issue, which before Schaeffer was mainly a Catholic issue. Schaeffer is more importantly credited with bringing evangelicals to care about theology, philosophy, and intellectual endeavor more generally, playing a large role in influencing evangelicals to go back into the academy that fundamentalists had left in the early 20th century as it was becoming more dominated by secularists and theological liberals. Schaeffer’s main influence in evangelicalism is in opposing anti-intellectualism and calling on evangelicals to think through their worldview and the worldviews of those around them, considering what sorts of views are out there and influencing them and how to think more carefully for themselves whether their views fit with scripture and whether they fit together consistently. He emphasized the gospel message’s importance in influencing every aspect of someone’s life, with an impact on how you live, how you pursue your career, and what sorts of intellectual pursuits you engage in if you have a career that has any relation to such pursuits. Nancey Pearcey is a Schaeffer-influenced contemporary author who has published works that continue largely in the pattern of her mentor.
Some of the figures in the list are politically-active evangelicals of various stripes. D. James Kennedy was a Presbyterian minister who had a TV ministry that was very much not like most televangelists. His Reformed theology set him apart for one thing, compared with Baptist Jerry Falwell and Pentecostal Pat Robertson. All three spent time arguing on behalf of particular causes associated with the religious right, but Kennedy’s theological background was much closer to Schaeffer’s. Schaeffer spent time trying to rein them all in, according to Schaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middelmann (see his 9:52am comment here on 8-11-11), [note: comments are now paywalled, unfortunately] preferring to influence society with the gospel and to change people’s minds with argument, rather than simply putting Christians in government positions with a disproportionate representation without changing the opinions of those whose worldviews did not support the agenda of those Christians. So here we have a further distinction among the figures in the list between those who want Christians to seek to occupy positions in government or to influence policy directly (without necessarily thinking Christians somehow have a right to all such positions, as Dominionism purportedly holds, and those who think Christians shouldn’t even bother with that sort of thing but should instead seek to influence people’s hearts, and then they’ll vote their conscience.
Then there’s a very different mindset out there called Christian Reconstructionism. R.J. Rushdoony, Gary Bahnsen, and Gary North argue that the proper Christian view of law and politics is a Christian theonomy, which means applying God’s law as revealed in the Bible fairly directly in the laws of whatever society we’re part of. Rushdoony argues for imposing penalties from the Torah for our day, including putting people to death for having gay sex or for getting married under false pretenses of virginity. Rushdoony also argued independently for several theses that have caught on among non-theonomists, such as the idea that the founders of the United States saw this country as a Christian nation and did not intend for the First Amendment to prohibit states from endorsing a particular Christian denomination but that it simply prevented the federal government from taking a stance among the Christian denominations. He saw the American Revolution as motivated in significant part by an orthodox Christian resistance to a secularized British government, and many in the homeschool movement have been attracted to those ideas, without necessarily buying into the whole theonomist project. He also saw the institution of slavery as relatively benevolent, opposed forced integration and interracial marriage, and bought into Holocaust deniers’ claims that the number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany has been wildly exaggerated.
It’s not hard to see the huge gap between standard Religious Right social conservatism and its claims of this being a Christian nation that needs to be restored to its roots and the kind of vision Rushdoony had, even apart from the racial elements I just mentioned. It strikes me as irresponsible to lump him together with Francis Schaeffer and those influenced by him, especially given Schaeffer’s many recorded instances of resisting exactly the kinds of views Rushdoony developed. Indeed, it strikes me as an error of the magnitude of some of Rushdoony’s own historical nonsense to consider there to be such a view called Dominionism [sic] that Rushdoony, Schaeffer, James Dobson, and all the other people in the list somehow share and that it seeks to get Christians and only Christians into all the influential positions in secular society. Those who are perpetuating this lie are conspiracy theorists, and it strikes me as irrational and contrary to the evidence as Birtherism and Trutherism.
Dominionismism is of the same sort, except for one thing. Terry Gross (most recently here but see also here) and Diane Rehm (e.g. here) of NPR regularly have these people on their shows and let them spew forth this historically inaccurate and slanderous nonsense with hardly a critical comment or request for genuine support, and then they treat it as a big secret conspiracy that no one is interested in investigating. A recent article in The New Yorker (see Ryan Lizza’s hit piece on Michele Bachmann) presents this conspiracy theory as investigative reporting. Dominionismism has mainstream support among influential purveyors of information. That’s the big difference between it and Birtherism and Trutherism, because prominent people have raised suggestions along Birtherist and Trutherist lines, and the mainstream media just laughs at them. Just look at how Donald Trump was treated by Fox News when he was spouting off questions suggestive of the Birther thesis. They gave him time on their shows, as they probably should do with someone of his influence claiming to run for the presidency, but it was obvious that no one who actually worked for the network thought what he was saying had anything to it.
There are figures in the Dominionismist movement who are more careful, for example Chip Berlet (and he says the work of Sara Diamond is too, but I can’t testify to that, and it’s obvious to me that many using her work are not very careful). Even so, some of what he says strikes me as still very problematic. For one thing, he sees Sarah Palin as a dominionist. I’ve seen no evidence that Palin thinks Christians and only Christians should occupy every position in secular society. I have seen evidence that she thinks it’s good for Christians to seek office and to transform society for the better, with what’s better determined in part (and for all I know only in part, for all I’ve seen) by what can be gleaned from the Bible. He thinks there’s this large class of people who think the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to have dominion over the planet is really about Christians having dominion over everything rather than the far more common (and far more plausible) interpretation that we all have an obligation to be stewards over God’s creation, and it’s just those with the right views who are doing so responsibly (and Christians should think their views are more in line with what’s right, just as any other group would think their views are more in line with what’s right, or else they obviously wouldn’t happen to have those views but would have other views). Dominionismists would do well to look at Bertlet’s chart showing views along the continuum between Triumphalism and Christian Reconstructionism, and I would inform them that people like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry are at most Triumphalists, as far as I can tell, and certainly not in the non-existent camp of Dominionists as Diamond defines the term.
I should also note a massive misuse of the term “Dominion Theology”. There is actually a view called Dominion Theology, but it has nothing to do with these issues. It’s associated with the Vineyard third-wave Pentecostalism and people like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner, who see Christians’ duty as not taking the government and secular institutions back from secular society but as taking the world back from Satan’s control, which has been the reigning order since the fall. Christians have the right and authority, according to this view, to exercise dominion over demons and reclaim God’s authority over the fallen world by prayer and confident assertion of God’s reign. People who practice Wagner’s methods will walk around cities proclaiming that God has reclaimed this and will speak to demons declaring them no longer to have dominion over the city. This, as should be obvious to anyone thinking about it, is such a clearly distinct phenomenon from anything to do with the relation between Christians and the government that it’s amazing not only that they’ve been so often confused but that so many people have now attached the name of their theology to the non-existent Dominionism that it’s largely taken over Google’s searches for the term. It’s actually hard to find any references to actual Dominion Theology by searching for that expression, and the first one I turned up was someone confusing them as a wing of Dominionism (one of three wings, according to that site, and Rick Warren has somehow managed to unite the three, as if that could make any sense; Warren is well-known as a political progressive/liberal except for some socially-conservative views).
[Note: cross-posted at First Things; that version of this post parodied a stylistic oddity of a well-known philosopher with a popular blog, who puts "[sic]" after the names of views he doesn't like, in a way that is out of step with normal practice for that expression, but the joke was lost on a good portion of readers, and I have removed it in this version for clarity.]
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.