Most Americans don’t comprehend how our nation’s foreign policy is affected by a small minority of religious fundamentalists. This Vanity Fair piece on the best-selling “Left Behind” novels provides a glimpse into their worldview:
“Far from being a Prince of Peace, the Christ depicted in the ‘Left Behind’ series is a vengeful Messiah so vengeful that the death and destruction he causes to unconverted Jews, to secularists, to anyone who is not born again, is far, far greater than the crimes committed by the most brutal dictators in human history. When He arrives on the scene in Glorious Appearing, Christ merely has to speak and ‘men and women, soldiers and horses, seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.’ Soon, [Tim] LaHaye and [Jerry] Jenkins write, tens of thousands of foot soldiers for the Antichrist are dying in the goriest manner imaginable, their internal organs oozing out, ‘their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.’
“After the initial bloodletting, Nicolae Carpathia gathers his still-vast army, covering hundreds of square miles, and prepares for the conflict at Megiddo. As the battle for Armageddon is about to start, Rayford Steele climbs atop his Hummer to watch Christ harvest the grapes of wrath. Steele looks at the hordes of soldiers assembled by the Antichrist, and ‘tens of thousands burst open at the words of Jesus.’ They scream in pain and die before hitting the ground, their blood pouring forth. Soon, a massive river of blood is flowing throughout the Holy Land.”
The “Left Behind” series is also very politically current, with its focus on Israel, the United Nations representing evil world government, and Iraq playing a key role for the Antichrist. In the words of Melani McAlister, these novels show vividly how “the conservative obsession with biblical prophecy is increasingly shaping our secular reality.” I once tried to read one of the books and opened a page where giant grasshoppers (locusts, in Biblical terms) were stripping the flesh from live sinners, post-Rapture. I got bored and concluded that the books were horror stories for Christians who would have felt guilty reading stories about blood and gore if they were not “religious.” (I did, however, see the movie Left Behind, based on the first book.)
The foundation for Armageddon beliefs is the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Revelation has a controversial history: Martin Luther doubted its canonical status and included it only as an appendix to his translation of the Bible. In addition to their focus on Revelation, American fundamentalists of the “dispensationalist” variety stress the vengeful God of the Old Testament. They believe that nearly all of humanity (including Jews who don’t convert) will be “left behind” to die horrible deaths, after which Christ will establish a thousand-year reign of paradise on earth.
Arab, Egyptian, Armenian, and other Middle Eastern Christians interfere with their thesis, so the Armageddonites try to hide their existence. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, for instance, refused to show a segment about Christian Arabs. Jerry Falwell’s tours of Israel purposely avoid them, according to Grace Halsell, who traveled with Falwell’s group and wrote several books about the Armageddon lobby. And far from merely believing in an apocalypse at a time of God’s choosing, the dispensationalists work to “hurry up God” by opposing any peace efforts in the Middle East. In March 2004, after being bombarded with letters protesting President Bush’s “roadmap for peace,” the White House held a special meeting with leading Christian fundamentalists to explain that removing Israeli settlements from Gaza would not interfere with God’s plans for Armageddon (because Gaza has no sites of Biblical significance).
A major reason the Armageddonites have become so powerful is that most journalists can’t comprehend that millions of Americans could really want, in this day and age, their God to destroy most of the human race, much less that they are donating millions to promote it (subsidizing settlements on the West Bank and paying for Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel in order to fulfill prophecies faster). Nor do most Americans know that Armageddonites are in the highest levels of government. But it was erstwhile House Majority Leader Tom DeLay who argued that the Iraq war should be supported because it is a precursor to the second coming of Christ. He also tried to undermine the Bush “roadmap for peace” when he visited Israel.
The Armageddonites have also backed brutal tactics in pursuit of their favored policies. Lt. General William G. “Jerry” Boykin is deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and was heavily involved in the torture scandals. Christian Zionist Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma was the only senator to publicly condone torture of prisoners of war. Other torture-supporting politicians were almost all from insular, religious red states with little knowledge of or concern for the outside world. Almost none of the leading fundamentalists outside of government have condemned torture (with the notable exception of Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship).
The aforementioned Vanity Fair article explains the fundamentalists’ chief motivation: vengeance.
“As befits the manifesto of a counterculture, the ‘Left Behind’ series is a revenge fantasy, in which right-wing Christians win out over the rational, scientific, modern, post-Enlightenment world. The books represent the apotheosis of a culture that is waging war against liberals, gays, Muslims, Arabs, the UN, and ‘militant secularists’ of all stripes whom it accuses of destroying Christian America, murdering millions of unborn children, assaulting the Christian family by promoting promiscuity and homosexuality, and driving Christ out of the public square.”
This is how the dispensationalist ideology, dreamed up in the mid-19th century in the poor hills of Scotland and dispersed to the backwoods of Virginia and the deserts of Texas and Oklahoma, became a major factor in American foreign policy. (For another interesting analysis of pop apocalypticism, see this piece by Gene Lyons.)
A few educated evangelicals, however, are now questioning where their brethren are trying to take America. In January, the New York Times carried a piece by Charles Marsh, a self-declared evangelical, about how many ministers agitated for war on Iraq, even telling their congregations that it would help expedite biblical prophecy. Eighty-seven percent of white evangelical Christians supported the attack, and some even linked Saddam Hussein with wicked King Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame. Marsh:
“Recently, I took a few days to reread the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead up to the Iraq war. That period, from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003, is not one I will remember fondly. Many of the most respected voices in American evangelical circles blessed the president’s war plans, even when doing so required them to recast Christian doctrine.
“Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, whose weekly sermons are seen by millions of television viewers, led the charge with particular fervor. ‘We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible,’ said Mr. Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. ‘God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.’
“Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the hugely popular ‘Left Behind’ series, spoke of Iraq as ‘a focal point of end-time events,’ whose special role in the earth’s final days will become clear after invasion, conquest, and reconstruction. For his part, Jerry Falwell boasted that ‘God is pro-war’ in the title of an essay he wrote in 2004.”
The common theme is that America must do God’s work, which is surely the sin of pride for real Christians. One of the “Left Behind” characters muses about how the few survivors in America after Christ’s bloody return could “start rebuilding the country as, finally for real, a Christian nation.” Their desire to violently reshape society brings us full circle back to Stalin, Pol Pot, and other secular horsemen of the apocalypse.
“What will it take for evangelicals in the United States to recognize our mistaken loyalty? We have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global Church, and there is no denying that our Faustian bargain for access and power has undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world. The Hebrew prophets might call us to repentance, but repentance is a tough demand for a people utterly convinced of their righteousness.”
Many influential evangelicals reject the Armageddon agenda. For example, Tim Wildmon’s American Family Association’s magazine, in its review of a movie about the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, notes “the futility of Christian efforts to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
“Such a ‘war of the cross’ should strike Christians as a contradiction in terms. A literal war in the name of Jesus a ‘Christian war’ is an oxymoron, like ‘hateful Christian.’ Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world, otherwise His followers would draw swords to defend Him and presumably the kingdom itself (John 18:36).”
The large World magazine doesn’t promote the “Left Behind” mentality, and non-evangelical leaders of the religious Right also disagree with dispensationalism. One of the first critics to write about the phenomenon was Gary North.
The Armageddonites, despite their self-proclaimed goodness, are a brutal, ignorant, and vengeful people. They have also become a major force dragging America to the abyss of endless war, a domestic police state (they care little for constitutional freedoms), financial ruin, and the enmity of the world.