In the 1940s, an argument erupted among a group of American Christians far from the mainstream.

Pentecostals, the spirit-filled worshippers known mostly for speaking in tongues, were at a crossroads, divided over the extent of God's modern-day miracles. If God made apostles and prophets during the New Testament era, did he still create them today?

Most Pentecostals said no, and went on to build the movement's major denominations.

A minority disagreed — and amazingly, their obscure view is now in the crosshairs of a presidential race. Some critics, fearing these little-known Christians want to control the U.S. government, suspect that Republican Rick Perry is their candidate.

The Texas governor opened the door to the discussion with a prayer rally he hosted in August, a week before he announced his run for president. Organizers of the Houston event, such as Lou Engle, leader of The Call prayer marathons, and Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, had for several years been under the watch of mostly liberal writers alarmed by the preachers' rhetoric.

The end of the world is an intense focus of many of the religious leaders involved in the rally. Engle has said that the tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., last May was evidence of God's judgment on the country over abortion. Bickle views acceptance of same-sex marriage as a sign of the end times.

These preachers believe demons have taken hold of specific geographic areas, including the nation's capital. They also promote a philosophy of public engagement known as the "seven mountains," which urges Christians to gain influence in business, government, family, church, education, media and the arts as a way to spread righteousness and bring about God's kingdom on earth. The language seems close to dominionism, the belief that Christians have a God-given mandate to run the world.

Ever since Perry gave the leaders a broader platform, religion scholars and activists have been debating whether these church leaders represent a real threat, an apocalyptic vanguard maneuvering to establish a Christian government. The task of measuring their influence is complicated by the preachers' wide range of teaching and practice, and by the many different expressions of dominionism under various names.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow warned that dominionists want to prepare the world for Jesus' return by "infiltration and taking over politics and government." Michelle Goldberg, author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," wrote at The Daily Beast, "We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before."

Randall Stephens, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., who researches Pentecostals and politics, called warnings of a conservative Christian plot an overreaction. "I think this is a rabbit hole people fall down and it has a whiff of conspiracy," Stephens said.

Anthea Butler, who has written extensively about dominionism with author Sarah Posner on the liberal website, considers the outlook troubling and worth examining, but cautioned against overstating its strength.

"I don't know if 'threat' is the right word. I think 'problem' is the better word," said Butler, a religion scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

Perry has never said anything that would directly link him to dominionism. However, he fueled speculation about his views at the rally by quoting from Joel 2, a Bible book the preachers favor, which tells of a prayer assembly of spiritual warriors as the world ends. On stage with the governor was Alice Patterson, author of "Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform A Nation," who believes there is a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party."

Robert Black, a Perry campaign spokesman, said the GOP governor is an evangelical who attends Lake Hills Church in Austin. In a recent appearance at Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Perry explained that he had turned to God in a time of need — a personal testimony common for born-again Christians.

"Gov. Perry believes that Americans of all faiths should be active in dictating the course of our country," Black wrote in an e-mail. "He supports our republican form of democracy and trusts the American people to decide who should lead it."

Critics have also questioned whether Michele Bachmann's religious and political views have crossed a line into dominionism. In a 2006 appearance in Minnesota, the year she was first elected to Congress, she prayed, "We are in the last days" and called separation of church and state "a myth." In the 1980s, Bachmann was a law student at Oral Roberts University, a Pentecostal school which emphasized the biblical basis of U.S. law. However, that approach is shared among a range of conservative Christians and is not the definitive marker of someone who thinks only Christians should govern.

Many evangelical leaders are incensed by the discussion. The allegation that Christians are plotting to build a theocracy has dogged Christian conservatives since the 1970s and '80s, when evangelicals stunned both Democrats and Republicans by emerging from political hibernation to regain their voice in public life.

Chuck Colson, the Watergate figure and founder of the Prison Fellowship ministries, said labels such as "dominionist" are epithets meant to discredit all Christian activists. David French, senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, wrote an article in the National Review with the mocking headline, "I'm a Dominionist? I had no idea."

However, many religion scholars argue that some watered-down dominionist principles have long influenced conservative Christian activists, who hope to shape society according to a biblical worldview. (A true dominionist not only wants Christians to shape the world, but also run it.)

Bruce Barron, a Christian scholar and author of the 1992 book "Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology," wrote that many early leaders of the Christian right said they had been influenced by the social analysis of Rousas John Rushdoony, who believed the nation was in a moral and cultural crisis and advocated replacing democracy with biblical law, mostly from the Old Testament. This way of thinking is known as Christian Reconstructionism.

By the late 1980s, many evangelical leaders felt that dominionist ideas had gained so much attention that they could no longer simply dismiss the teaching as fringe, Barron wrote. Among the critiques was a February 1987 cover story in Christianity Today, the prominent evangelical magazine founded by the Rev. Billy Graham, which quoted scholars saying that ignoring the stream of thinking is no longer an option. "They haven't been taken seriously enough," one scholar told the magazine.

Mel Robeck, a specialist in Pentecostalism at Fuller Theological Seminary, cautioned against concluding too much from the preachers at Perry's event. Robeck is a minister with the Assemblies of God, one of the largest Pentecostal groups, which posts a 13-page theological statement on its website explaining why the denomination does not believe in contemporary apostles and prophets.

"To see potential political leaders courting these people — what they're really doing is looking for the votes that they think these folks can deliver," Robeck said.