I needed a devout villain — two devout villains, actually — for my new crime novel, The Inquisitor's Key.
The novel is set in Avignon, France, where a series of French popes reigned for most of the 1300s. The plot includes two crimes, a medieval murder and a modern one, so I needed two killers. And because the book warns about the match-meets-gasoline perils of mixing religion with politics, both bad guys had to be fueled by a high-octane mixture of faithfulness and ruthlessness.
It didn't take long to pick my medieval heavy. In 1317 a shrewd, severe young monk named Jacques Fournier was made bishop of a diocese in southwestern France. Fournier pounced on his new parishioners like a wolf on lambs. He accused hundreds of villagers of heresy, finding many of them guilty, and burning five at the stake.
Fournier's heretic-hunting earned him a cardinal's hat; he joined the papal court in Avignon, where he became Pope John XXII's doctrinal watchdog. In the late 1320s he oversaw the heresy trial of Meister Johannes Eckhart, a renowned theologian and popular preacher. While awaiting the pope's verdict, Eckhart disappeared without a trace. Was Fournier the culprit? No one knows, but he had motive, opportunity and means aplenty.
But whom to cast as my second villain — a 21st-century zealot, driven to murder by religion and rage? In my research, I began running across articles about Dominionism, a Christian evangelical movement that seeks to gain control — "dominion" — in arenas such as government, business, education and media. Dominionism has found many eager followers in Florida. In Lakeland in the summer of 2008, an especially fiery Dominionist — a Canadian preacher named Todd Bentley — led months of nightly revival meetings, attracting as many as 10,000 worshipers each night, plus a vast worldwide television and Internet audience.
Bentley, who claims to have visited heaven and chatted with the Apostle Paul, sports a pair of tattooed dog tags on his chest reading "Joel's Army." According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose HateWatch project tracks more than 1,000 hate groups nationwide, "Joel's Army" is Bentley's name for "an Armageddon-ready military force of young people with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian 'dominion' on nonbelievers."
Todd Bentley's star appears to have faded since the Lakeland revival, dimmed by an ABC Nightline investigation that dredged up his violent youth and cast doubt on his claims to have healed the sick and raised the dead. But plenty of other Dominionist soldiers march onward, some of them headed toward the pinnacle of worldly power, the White House. "Since the Garden of Eden, the struggle has been who is going to rule the Earth," one Dominionist preacher, Ryan Wyatt, told fellow believers at a conference in 2011. "You are in a war," Wyatt proclaimed, then posed a rhetorical question: "You do understand that this is about world domination?"
These are not the meek, hoping to inherit the Earth. They want to take it by force. "Not just influence," another outspoken leader, Dr. George Grant, has said of the movement's goal. "It is dominion we are after. World conquest." Grant wrote those words in 1987, in his book The Changing of the Guard; he repeated them in 2011, at a rally where he endorsed Michele Bachmann's run for the White House.
But Bachmann's out, so no worries, right? Wrong. The Dominionists are in it for the long haul — or the short haul, if the End-Timers are right about these being the Last Days. Besides, Bachmann was just one of a throng of presidential hopefuls with ties to Dominionism. At least five other recent players — Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum — have ties to Dominionism.
Perry's unofficial campaign launch last August was a prayer rally spearheaded by two particularly militant Dominionists, Mike Bickle and Lou Engle, both of whom have proclaimed the need for martyrs willing to fight and die in the struggle against evil. "The most dangerous terrorist is not Islam," Engle rasps in a creepy video clip, "but God. One of God's names is 'the Avenger of Blood.' Have you worshipped that God yet?"
I have not worshipped that God yet — that bloody, vengeful God — even though I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt (and in fact served as a student lay pastor in my youth). And I can't escape the thought that the self-righteous, self-proclaimed "apostles" of Dominionism bear a scary likeness to the leaders of both the modern Taliban and the medieval Inquisition. Isn't a zealot a zealot, no matter what faith or what century?
What if the Dominionists win, I wonder, in some not-too-distant election cycle? What if America gets a president whose nuclear trigger finger is itching for Armageddon? What if "homeland security," in One Nation Under Dominion, prescribes inquisitorial waterboarding — or public stoning — of unpatriotic unbelievers?
In the extremes of Dominionism, I found the inspiration for my novel's murderous modern zealot. I created a fictional composite character, the Rev. Jonah Ezekiel, who's so eager to wield the sword of the Lord that he seeks to bring on the Apocalypse.
The novel is fiction … for now, at least. I just pray that the barrier between fact and fiction — like the wall between church and state — doesn't topple anytime soon.
Jon Jefferson has written seven crime novels in collaboration with forensic anthropologist Bill Bass. The sixth — "The Bone Yard" — was inspired by the real-world horrors of the now-closed Dozier School for Boys, where a forensic team is currently mapping the graves of dead boys. The seventh novel — "The Inquisitor's Key" — was published by William Morrow on May 8.