Give Me that End-Time Religion: The Politicization of Prophetic Belief in Contemporary America

Paul Boyer

In 1998, as presidential hopeful George W. Bush prepared to court evangelical voters, he was clearly taken aback by their hatred of the United Nations. Chatting by phone with his friend Doug Wead, a former Assemblies of God minister, Bush read from an aide’s report on a recent gathering of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition: “The mere mention of Kofi Annan in the U.N. caused the crowd to go into a veritable fit. The Coalition…wants the American flag flying overseas, not the pale blue of the U.N.”

Though we tend to accept as a given conservative Protestants’ vehement hostility to the U.N., it is not self-evident that this should be so. While obviously a flawed institution, the U.N. over its sixty-year history has generally been viewed as a force for peace, conflict resolution, and aid to victims of disease, poverty, political violence, and natural disasters—efforts seemingly in accord with Christian values. Why, then, does it induce such paroxysms of rage among conservative Christians?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the powerful grip on many evangelicals and fundamentalists of premillennial dispensationalism, an eschatological system formulated in the mid-nineteenth century by the British churchman John Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren sect. Darby’s system was popularized in America by Darby himself and by Cyrus Scofield’s influential Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909). Depending on the precise question, opinion pollsters find that from 40 to 60 percent of contemporary Americans embrace key elements of Darby’s end-time scenario: the imminent Rapture of the saints; the seven-year Tribulation dominated by the Antichrist; the Battle of Armageddon, when Christ and the raptured saints will defeat Antichrist and his earthly armies; Christ’s thousand-year millennial reign; and the Last Judgment, ending the great human drama that began with Creation. Following Darby’s lead, dispensationalists also attentively monitor the “signs of the times”—a convergence of events, many centering on the Jews, signaling the terminus of the present dispensation, the Church Age. (For the relevant biblical passages, the website of the Texas-based Pre-Trib Research Center, founded in 1993 by Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, may prove helpful. The “Rapture Index,” described by its webmaster as “a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity,” will also help orient the novice.)

To anyone even dimly aware of contemporary religious trends, this is hardly news. The Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a fictionalized treatment of Darby’s system, has racked up sales of more than 60 million copies. Still active is Hal Lindsey, the modern movement’s John the Baptist, whose The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), a kind of “Dispensationalism for Dummies,” was the nonfiction best-seller of the 1970s. Lindsey went on to produce many more prophecy books, a syndicated radio show, and—inevitably—an Internet website. Other prophecy peddlers, from the venerable Jack (“The Walking Bible”) Van Impe, of Royal Oak, Michigan, to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Hagee preside over their own multimedia empires. All the components of modern mass marketing—blockbuster printings; book tours; TV interviews; tie-in products; movie spin-offs; distribution through mega-outlets such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and keep the prophecy biz humming. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently observed, apropos the many Left Behind spin-offs, from movies to mouse pads, “This isn’t religion; this is brand management.”

This prairie-fire spread of dispensationalism, after decades when a core of believers kept the faith, profoundly impacts how millions of Americans view world events. To be sure, the contempt for the United Nations noted by Bush in 1998 and fully on display during W’s first term has deep historical roots (Thomas Jefferson, after all, was the first to warn against “entangling alliances”), but dispensationalist doctrine strongly reinforces it. According to Darby’s contemporary popularizers, the Antichrist will first present himself as a man of peace, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, but will soon impose a brutal global dictatorship under the sinister number “666” (Rev 13:18).

For dispensationalists, the United Nations is at least a forerunner of Antichrist’s regime. Earlier prophecy writers found Antichrist tendencies in Saladin, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, and even Juan Carlos of Spain. In current dispensationalist fiction, however, including the Left Behind series and Hal Lindsey’s 1996 novel Blood Moon, the U.N. secretary-general is unmasked as the Evil One. Saturated in such propaganda, dispensationalists understandably recoil in horror when contemplating the United Nations and its penumbra of international organizations. Even the U.S. State Department, viewed as a hotbed of internationalist sentiment, is suspect. Pat Robertson’s October 2003 musings on his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) about detonating a nuclear device in Foggy Bottom were wholly in tune with dispensationalist thinking.

During the Cold War, Russia preoccupied the prophecy popularizers. Van Impe, freely interpreting a cryptic passage in Ezekiel, proclaimed The Coming War with Russia. Falwell’s Nuclear War and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (1983) speculated that an all-out U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange would trigger the destruction prophesied in 2 Pet 3:10 (“The elements shall melt with fervent heat,” etc.). Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth described with ill-concealed glee the annihilation awaiting Moscow’s armies.

Such images retain their pornographic fascination for today’s popularizers, as in the description of the Second Coming in Glorious Appearing (2004), the latest volume of the interminable Left Behind series:

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 the veins and skin. … Even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.

Born-again Christians excepted, millions meet their doom: “Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches, and … they tumbled in[to Hell], howling and screeching.” (For readers frustrated by an inconclusive war on terrorism, what a satisfying fate for evildoers!)

The apocalyptic wishful thinking has persisted, but the Cold War’s end shifted attention from Russia to the Muslim world. The Islam-as-Antichrist theme is actually very old. It helped fuel the Crusades and it loomed large as Muslim armies marched on Europe and the Ottoman Empire extended its reach. It faded somewhat after 1917, with the Ottoman collapse and the communist revolution in Russia, but surged back with the Persian Gulf conflict of 1990–91. While even some biblical literalists have interpreted the “Babylon” whose destruction is foretold in the Bible as an allegory of the Antichrist’s world system, recent works such as Charles Dyer’s The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times (1991) focused on the ancient city itself and Saddam Hussein’s grandiose project to restore its ancient glory. In the Left Behind series, Nicolae Carpathia, the U.N. secretary-general- turned-Antichrist, moves the world organization to a rebuilt Babylon, laying the groundwork for the simultaneous destruction of both the hated U.N. and the doomed city of Revelation 18.

With 9/11 and the Iraq War, the anti-Muslim theme reached feverish levels. In Beyond Iraq: The Next Move (2003), prophecy-writer Michael Evans labeled Islam “a religion conceived in the pit of hell.” Televangelist John Hagee, preaching at his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, called the Iraq War “the gateway to the Apocalypse” and a sign of Christ’s imminent Second Coming. House majority leader Tom DeLay, present in the audience, then rose to proclaim: “Ladies and gentlemen, what has been spoken here tonight is the truth from God.”

Lt. General Jerry Boykin, a top Pentagon intelligence official, delivered sermons in full-dress uniform in fundamentalist churches portraying the war on terrorism in apocalyptic religious terms: “Why do [radical Muslims] hate us so much?… [B]ecause we’re a Christian nation.” For Boykin, the real enemy “is a spiritual enemy, … called Satan,” and his earthly agents will be defeated only “if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” As for domestic politics, George Bush is “in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.” A Boykin clone, Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, a commander in Iraq, rejects talk of a “faceless” enemy: “[T]he enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Since John Darby’s day, dispensationalists have fixated on the Jews’ end-time destiny. England’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, supporting “a national home for the Jewish people,” stirred intense excitement. So, too, did the founding of Israel in 1948, Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967, and the planting of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Prophecy believers hailed these events as thrilling prophetic fulfillments, foreshadowing the Jews’ eventual occupation of all the land from the Euphrates to “the river of Egypt,” promised them in Genesis 15:18, and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple preparatory to Christ’s millennial reign. (Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims as Haram al- Sharif, is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, marking the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven.)

In this scenario, several million Palestinians and the vast Arab world beyond—the eschatological enemy—are simply ignored, or worse. In Lindsey’s novel Blood Moon, Israel answers a nuclear threat by launching a massive nuclear attack that annihilates “every Arab and Muslim capital…, along with the infrastructure of their nation.” Genocide, in short, fulfills God’s prophetic plan for the region.

Under prime ministers Begin and Netanyahu, the links between Israel’s hard-line Likud  party and American evangelicals grew extremely close. Begin invited Falwell to Israel in 1978, and top Israeli officials addressed U.S. prophecy believers on their Holy Land pilgrimages. When Netanyahu came to America in 1998, he first met with Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia, then proceeded to Washington.

In this context, the prophecy brigade bristles whenever Mideast peace threatens to break out. Criticizing a short-lived 1998 agreement based on the principle of land for peace, the prophecy magazine Midnight Call declared: “What we are witnessing … is … the stripping of the Holy Land from its rightful owners, the Jews. The Bible calls it a ‘covenant with hell.’” When the Bush administration floated its 2003 “road map” envisioning land concessions by Israel and shared governance of Jerusalem, Michael Evans declared: “The only road map for peace is the Bible.… God gave [the Jews] that land and forbade them to sell it.” Gary Bauer, prominent evangelical and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate, told the American-Israel Political Action Committee: “God owned the land; he gave it to the Jewish people, and neither the U.N. or Russia or any [other nation] can give [it] away.” John Hagee in Final Dawn Over Jerusalem (1998) agreed: “[N]ations that fight against [Israel] fight against God.… There can be no compromise regarding … Jerusalem, not now, not ever.… Israel is the only nation created by a sovereign act of God, and He has sworn … to defend … His Holy City.” A coalition of organizations purchased space on more than 100 billboards urging the administration not to violate “God’s covenant with Israel.”

Challenging administration policy, Tom DeLay denounced the road map and assured Israeli hard-liners that congressional support for them remained strong. (When the Zionist Organization of America gave DeLay its 2003 “Defender of Israel” award, ZOA president Morton Klein mused that DeLay might become Israel’s prime minister—a career move Texas Democrats would welcome, suggested the iconoclastic Texas Observer.)

The edginess in prophecyland continues. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has kept the dispensationalists at arms’ length. “Sharon has not reached out to the evangelicals in America,” Michael Evans recently complained; “Taking this group for granted is a huge mistake on Sharon’s part.” Sharon’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas’s election as Palestinian leader, and revived peace talk have unsettled the prophecy mavens. Writes Hal Lindsey in his website:

I am appalled at how quickly the United States is leaping at the same old bait offered by the Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, following the orders of our dear but naïve president, is shoving Israel toward a disastrous agreement to grant a Palestinian state.

The Pre-Trib Research Center’s Thomas Ice, insisting that “God’s ordained pattern for Israel” remains in force and that “Old Testament promises made to national Israel will literally be fulfilled,” urges the faithful to “cast your allegiance with the literal Word of God, lest we be found fighting against God and His Sovereign plan.” Pat Robertson, burned by controversies over his off-the-cuff pronouncements, more cautiously voices “some reservations … about what may happen. I am afraid that the Israelis may be pressured into making a peace.” (Combining eschatology and marketing, Robertson’s CBN website, under the banner “Bless Israel. Show your support for Israel by blessing their economy,” offers El Al airline tickets; Gan Shmuel Citrus; “Essence of Jerusalem Fragrance and Anointing Oil”; and a line of cosmetics “formulated from the rejuvenating minerals of the Dead Sea.”)

Michael Evans, denouncing Mahmoud Abbas as a “Judas,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and “the terrorist in the Brooks Brothers suit,” acknowledges that most U.S. Jews back Sharon’s plan and favor a Palestinian state, but boasts: “[M]ore than 90 per- cent of Israel’s lobby of Bible-believing Christians do not support Sharon’s proposal to withdraw, nor do they support a Palestinian state.” Evans has recruited such luminaries as Robertson, Hagee, LaHaye,  and former teen heartthrob  Pat Boone to front his “Jerusalem Prayer Team,” a coalition of 1,700 churches pledged “to guard, defend, and protect the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael [a term encompassing present-day Gaza and the West Bank] … until the Redeemer comes to Zion.”

A struggle is under way for the hearts and minds of American evangelicals. While the LaHayes, Lindseys, and Evanses peddle an eschatology that views the U.N. and Islam as literally satanic; opposes any compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and foresees an imminent eschatological crisis in which millions of human beings will perish in agony, some evangelicals resist the dispensationalist tsunami. Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) dismisses dispensationalism as a cobbled- together eschatology that has derailed evangelicalism’s once-acute intellectual tradition. Jim Wallis in God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (2005) reminds his fellow evangelicals how myopically selective is dispensationalism’s reading of scripture, essentially ignoring the countless passages proclaiming an ethic of peace and reconciliation.

The dissidents face a tough battle. The dispensationalists’ supposedly biblical eschatology appeals to a public that reveres the Bible but knows little of hermeneutics or the dismal record of failed prophecies. The popularizers confidently link their end-time scenario to current events, creating the illusion of certitude in uncertain times. And the terrible simplifications of the apocalyptic mindset, with good and evil starkly opposed and no ambiguous gray areas, exert a powerful attraction. In a post-election column last November, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman spoke kindly of Christian fundamentalists’ “spiritual energy,” but lamented their tendency to “promote divisiveness and intolerance.” This tendency is, in fact, no inexplicable aberration, but a defining feature of apocalyptic thought, from its ancient Mesopotamia origins to the present day. Garry Wills’ post-election op-ed piece in the Times was closer to the mark, noting the appeal of “moral zealots” and of wishful thinking over unpalatable facts in unsettling times. Fundamentalism’s cur- rent ascendancy, Wills suggested, might be seen as “[William Jennings] Bryan’s revenge for the Scopes Trial.”

Paradoxically, with the prophecy-fueled fundamentalists riding so high, some observers lament the alleged silencing of “voices of faith” in public discourse. In The Culture of Disbelief (1994), Yale’s own Stephen L. Carter, in a Rodney Dangerfield mood, complained of the lack of respect for religion in politics and the law. In a 2003 Daedalus symposium on “Secularisim and Religion,” ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain similarly insisted that religious dogma deserves a place in the public arena:

One enters political life as a citizen. But if one also has religious convictions, these convictions naturally will inform one’s judgments as a citizen. My religious views help to determine who I am, how I think, and what I care about. This is as it should be. In America, it makes no sense to ask people to bracket what they care about most deeply when they debate issues that are properly political.

Fair enough. The First Amendment remains in force. And believers from the Grimké sisters and Harriet Beecher Stowe to the Berrigan brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., have played a vital public role. But not all faith-based discourse is morally enriching or of the thoughtful Elshtain variety. The religious beliefs that millions of citizens “care about most deeply” and bring to the political arena lead them to attack international peacekeeping efforts, to fight attempts to resolve specific conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and to predict—indeed to welcome—a coming apocalypse involving the mass extermination of millions. Far from being marginalized, these beliefs are pumped into the public arena by high elected officials and pious hucksters, only loosely tethered by denominational or institutional ties, using all the techniques of today’s mass media and mass marketing.

The rude beast slouches on toward Bethlehem. On January 22, 2005, eight hundred people paid $25 each for a day-long orgy of prophecy preaching by Tim LaHaye and others at the cavernous Village Baptist Church near Pensacola, Florida. Wrote an incredulous Canadian journalist: “I have never heard so much venom and dangerous ignorance spouted before an utterly unquestioning, otherwise normal-looking crowd in my life.” Americans—secular or religious—who find the dispensationalists’ nightmarish visions appalling have scarcely begun to grasp their pervasiveness, let alone consider how to combat them. In the 1920s, liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick battled the fundamentalists tooth and nail, giving as good as they got. Today’s enfeebled liberals, their ranks dwindling with each new religious census and opinion poll, seem struck dumb.

Paul Boyer, Merle Curti professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992).