I'm looking for a term that could be used in the place of Sharia (Islam), Halakha (Judaism), or Canon Law (Catholicism) that refers as specifically as possible to Biblical-literalist Evangelical Christianity.

I have seen the term Mosaic Law refer to the Ten Commandments, and Apostolic Law referring to a few books in the New Testament, but I'm looking for a blanket term that covers both of these as well as American right-wing impositions of Christian law which are less strongly based on scripture (Capitalism, Individualism).

A single word would be amazing, but I realize that is unlikely, and a short phrase would do in a pinch.

  • Most "Evangelicals" are American, and so far as I know it's enshrined in the US constitution that religious concerns must be kept separate from judicial and governmental systems. Jul 1, 2015 at 19:13
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    @FumbleFingers Not for lack of their trying, though... The US division of church and state is on rocky ground.
    – Catija
    Jul 1, 2015 at 19:14
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    @Catija Exactly, with RFRAs popping up everywhere I feel like we need a better term for this type of imposition of law.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 19:15
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    Note that canon law refers to the laws of the Church, not the legal system of places where Catholicism is practiced. They say nothing about how civil society is to be run, which makes it a very different concept from sharia, The concept that civil and religious authority are separate, and that their legal systems are separate, is a European idea that evolved over several centuries, accelerated by the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Historically, "Christian law" in Europe was simply "law."
    – choster
    Jul 1, 2015 at 19:52
  • A major complication to your search for a term is the fact that most Protestant religions have always viewed individual churches as relatively independent, with no central authority. Further, connections between church and state have always been viewed with suspicion in many Protestant religions, especially in the US. Significantly, the notorious Salem witch trials occurred at a time when colonial civilian government was especially weak.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 1, 2015 at 21:12

6 Answers 6


The reason this is difficult to find is because Christianity is explicitly anti-legalistic. In particular, many of the letters of Paul draw a sharp contrast between Mosaic Law and (non-legalistic) Christian practice. For that reason there is no acknowledged equivalent within mainstream Christianity to Sharia or Halakha. Given that, your best bet is probably just to describe what you're talking about as evangelical law (or possibly even evangelical legalism) and explain yourself.

  • Googling our terms (Evangelical Legalism vs Christianist Law) gets you a lot of similar articles. Evangelical Legalism seems like it would leave a few more minds open than my term; fewer instantly negative connotations.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 20:08
  • I don't think it would be taken as kindly meant from within the evangelical community --legalism is a serious charge for a Christian. I hadn't gotten the impression you were trying to make friends with this accusation... Jul 1, 2015 at 22:16
  • In Christian theology, 'legalism' doesn't mean 'having a system of dictated laws', but 'of the opinion that faultless obedience to the dictated laws will gain you salvation, and there's no other way'. (Usually with the caveat 'Well, I'm not doing too badly.') Jesus makes this plain: 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.' [Matt 5:17, NIV] And Rom13:1 says 'Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.' [NLT] Jul 1, 2015 at 22:50

Many evangelical Christians trace their ideological source (or to the extent that they see themselves as being true to an original or primitive Christianity, their ideological resurgence) to what Wikipedia refers to as "the Fundamentals, a twelve-volume set of essays, apologetic and polemic, written [and published between 1910 and 1915] by conservative Protestant theologians to defend what they saw as Protestant orthodoxy."

The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth was in part a reaction against historical biblical scholarship (aka higher criticism), which was based on a rationalist analysis of the underlying language (and languages) used in biblical texts. The Fundamentals emphasized instead a literalist reading of the Bible as rendered in the King James version, and stressed the central roles of faith, theological orthodoxy, the factual truth of the Bible, the active involvement of Jesus as "personal savior" in the lives of believers, and acceptance of miracles as core features of true Christianity.

Insofar as evangelical Christianity can be said to comprehend a core set of laws that could be used to govern a civil society along theocratic lines, then, it seems to me that the proper name for such a system would be Fundamentalism or perhaps (for clarity at the cost of near redundancy) Christian Fundamentalism.

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    It's too bad that most Evangelicals have no idea that their doctrine is based in large part on documents that are barely a century old (not that age bares truth or legitimacy). If it was common knowledge we could just use the term Fundamentalist Law. Sadly, most fundies would see that term and assume it refers to everyone except them.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 20:34
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    I don't think the term "fundamentalist" is peculiar to Christianity, it can apply more broadly to anyone who literally implements the basic tenants of a belief system.
    – RobG
    Apr 4, 2016 at 2:35

A term sometimes used by opponents of what they see as the desire of fundamentalist protestant groups to implement an explicitly evangelical legal system is dominionism, based on the concept of "dominion theology" — the desire to establish God's dominion on Earth.

But the term has some disadvantages. It is not a label used by proponents of a Christian basis for law, instead it is usually used by their opponents. In that sense it is basically an attack term. Critics dispute whether there really is an organised or coherent "dominionist" movement at all, in which case "dominionism" is perhaps best interpreted as an imaginary enemy used as a rallying point for progressive activists.

The wikipedia article is quite informative. I would add there is another disadvantage to using the term. "Dominionism" is also the name used by the philosopher Philip Pettit for his quasi-utilitarian republican* theory of government, whereby the state should maximise the dominion (the range of choices and opportunities) of its citizens, rather than try to raise their utility directly and imposing a sort of "greater good" from above. This is a self-appellation so perhaps a more worthy concept to hang the "dominionist" name-badge on, but it seems to be very much the minority usage. There is a huge difference between "dominionism" as a coercive and morally prescriptive Protestant-led theocratic state, and "dominionism" as a way of government that allows its citizens to do as they please (in so far as it does not interfere with the opportunities and life-chances of others) and to make, by and large, their own decisions about what "good" in life they want to pursue.

* "Republican" in the sense of following the values of rule by the citizenry as established in the medieval Italian republics, rather than the US or French partisan terms or the UK/Australian monarchy abolitionist sense.

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    I love the term, but it sits in a special niche as a near-denomination (like Gothardites and Providentialists) and is difficult to generalize outward. It does fit in every other way, though.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 20:42
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    I think there is a subtle difference between "dominion theology" (which is essentially a very particular shade of evangelical Christianity) and "dominionist" which when used as an attack term is often generalized outwards (sometimes even to moderate social conservatives with no intention of creating a theocratic state) even though the origins of the phrase are far narrower. This certainly can't be the definite answer to your question because you clearly need a wider term and preferably one which is used as a self-appellation.
    – Silverfish
    Jul 1, 2015 at 20:48
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    Dominionism is a good term, although another less loaded term is Christian reconstructionism, associated with theologians such as Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, and preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Although as with dominionism few people admit to being reconstructionists. There is a strong taboo in the US against calling for theocracy or totalitarian rule in contradiction to the Constitution, very different to Sunni and Shia or Zionist Judaism, where theocratic rule seems more accepted.
    – Stuart F
    May 11, 2022 at 9:00

The term "canon law" applies to more than the Catholic Church. The Anglian, Episcopal and Orthodox Churches also use the term. It includes the doxology and rules that govern the apparat for enforcing discipline in both operation and belief. This would includes things like ecclesiastical courts.

I don't believe there is such a term in use for most Protestant denominations in the United States. In the US, the larger denominations are governed by constitutions and by-laws. They do have tribunals and courts, but they don't have the legal traditions of religions that have historically held power in theocratic governments. The AME Church calls its rules of governance The Book of Discipline; the Presbyterian Church calls its rules The Book of Order; the Southern Baptist Convention has The Baptist Faith and Message. But this last is a doctrinal statement rather than the rules for a religious judiciary.

The Southern Baptist Convention has very little direct control over its individual churches, which means there is no controlling law or methods of enforcement. Part of this arises from suspicions about ecclesiastical hierarchies that interfere with the congregants' personal relationship with Jesus; part from Biblical teaching and religious tradition that disputes should be resolved on a personal, not an institutional level.

For an interesting review of religious law and its terminology among denominations, go here.

  • Thanks so much for the information, and the link at the end was enlightening.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 20:16

Both "biblical law" and "Christian law" describe what you're asking for here. I suspect they don't quite have the flavor you're looking for, given the context you describe, but I think they are what you need.

Any other word is likely to be more obscure, and make it look like you're intentionally attempting to start from a position that you consider such law archaic, which will lose you allies.

If you require more specificity, then I suggest you use common terms there too. "Fundamentalist Christian law", for instance, to describe laws that would derive from the Christian corpus, but not necessarily be inline with modern Christian mainline teaching.

You may also need to describe a proposal for such a law as a step back from current law, in which case the adjective "regressive" might be appropriate. A "regressive biblical law" would be a law based on sound bible text, but one which would return society to an ostensibly worse state.

What might be really interesting to pursue is a redundant adjective to use when disambiguating "real" law from these other laws. I've heard "secular law" and "humanist law" in the past year, but both also sound combative in contrast. "Logical law" or "ethical law" both also sound patronizing in contrast. I'm afraid I have nothing better to offer here.

  • +1 for "Fundamentalist Christian Law". If we could just collapse that into one word without losing much meaning it would be perfect. Thanks for the combative terms for contrast as well.
    – Gavin42
    Jul 1, 2015 at 19:48
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    I don't see secular law as necessarily being a controversial term --to my ears it's relatively neutral. I would go with secularist law if I wanted something less neutral. Jul 1, 2015 at 20:00
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    Well, secular by definition can be taken as, "expressly not religious", and so when discussing as a contrast to religious laws puts you squarely in the other camp. What would be a really useful word (and which actually is the word "Law" imho), is one that described the laws that are based on universally acceptable reason and compassion, which don't necessarily conflict with religious laws and often might actually align with them. In effect a corpus of law that is a superset of all good religious law, implicitly excluding bad religious law. Jul 1, 2015 at 20:33
  • I think you are unfair to the term 'secular law'. There is no reason to assume a judge applying secular law is not a believer; what distinguishes it is that the law itself applies to everyone, and does not depend on accepting one particular faith. (So a court may decide which of two factions owns church property, but will refuse to decide which is more faithful to the founders beliefs). This is in theory based on universally acceptable religious tenets, but of course there is no such thing. Jul 7, 2015 at 10:38
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    I can't respond to comment flags directly, but so you know, there are not sufficient comments here for me to move the rest of the comment chain to the chat room. I think what's here is a sufficient teaser to get people to go to the chat room if they are interested in the discussion.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jul 10, 2015 at 13:59

Christianist Law could be very good in this context, although it works for the same reason that it is divisive; it describes Christian Fundamentalism's similarity to "Islamism".

The term Christianism / Christianist is used here without qualification to refer to "The establishment of a state religion" and "Legislation of their [...] moral agenda".

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