The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy - Part Five
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Dec 26, 2005 at 03:44:42 PM EST
The day after Christmas, Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind Prophecy Club" sent out its daily e-mail message with a 2005 "Year in Review" summary The teaser stated: "Are we living in the End Times? Could events of today signify that the Rapture and Tribulation could occur during our generation? Five important Signs from 2005 say yes!"

What were the five signs?

  •  1) Devastating natural disasters foreshadow the coming of Christ.

  •  2) The Jewish population converges in Israel to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

  •  3) A union between Europe and Iraq could set the stage for the emergence of the Antichrist.

  •  4) Islamic extremists lash out with London bombings and France riots.

  •  5) Putin consolidates power in Russia, as the empire rebuilds.

In the text that follows, we learn that "events in Russia are exactly what we should expect to see if we are nearing the end times....the rule of the Antichrist may not be too far behind...[the] Bible prophesies that the city of Babylon will be rebuilt as headquarters for the antichrist. Babylon lies on the Euphrates River, just 50 miles south of Baghdad."

We also are told that "...continued tensions may make Israel ripe for a covenant with the Antichrist," and that the "ancient Sanhedrin, the official legal tribunal in Israel...issued an official call to rebuild the temple [of Solomon in Jerusalem], an act that God's Word predicts must occur before the return of the Messiah."

Meanwhile, natural disasters may be "a foreshadowing of the overwhelming chaos that is to transpire during the tribulation, prompting many to repent before it's too late."

That last piece of advice is what the Left Behind series is all about.  It is future narrative devoted to encouraging current salvation through a particular premillennial reading of the Bible. It's not enough to be a Christian, you must embrace a narrow and specific version of Christianity. Otherwise, you are not just going to Hell, but you will be persecuted and maybe tortured and murdered as well.

That's the basic theme of the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The 13 volumes have sold some 70 million copies, regularly hitting best seller lists. As pop theology, the messages of the series and the Left Behind Prophecy Club are troubling, but as popular political ideology, they are dangerous.

As part of its sales pitch for a subscription service, we are told that "The Left Behind Prophecy Club has the news you need to know" about:

Islamic Terrorism
Middle East Peace Process
The War in Iraq
Europe's Power Struggle
Natural Disasters

The way these current events are woven into a discussion of Biblical prophecy creates frames of reference that help move people toward specific political viewpoints, not just concerning U.S. policies in the Middle East, but also about domestic issues.

Central to this process is a particular way of reading the Bible's book of Revelation that establishes a timetable and sequence of events for the End Times and the Tribulations that are related to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

According to polling by Barna research, "nearly nine out of ten evangelicals who believe in the end times (88%) maintain that is it very likely that Jesus will return during the last days, and 77% of born agains who believe in the end times indicated the same."

Tim LaHaye has spent decades melding his conspiracy theory of history into the End Times beliefs of evangelicals. In his 1980 non-fiction book The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye added a conspiracist theme to the critique of secular humanism put forward by popular theologian Francis A. Schaeffer, a conservative Christian evangelical. LaHaye dedicated the book to Schaeffer.

In a chapter entitled "Is a Humanist Tribulation Necessary?" LaHaye writes that the "seven-year tribulation period will be a time that features the rule of the anti-Christ over the world." LaHaye explains that this "tribulation is predestined and will surely come to pass." LaHaye, however, describes another period of tribulations that he calls the "pre-tribulation tribulation."

LaHaye, explains that the  "pre-tribulation tribulation is:

"...the tribulation that will engulf this country if liberal secular humanists are permitted to take control of our government--it is neither predestined nor necessary. But it will deluge the entire land in the next few years, unless Christians are willing to become much more assertive in defense of morality and decency than they have been during the past three decades."

According to LaHaye, adultery, pornography, and homosexuality "are rampant" and this is evidence of the warning by Schaeffer's "that humanism always leads to chaos." In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins write about the spread of humanist moral relativism in the forms of the feminist movement, abortion, and homosexuality. The Left Behind series takes the conspiracist themes of LaHaye's non-fiction books and spreads them through a huge audience.

The apocalyptic frames and conspiracist narratives in the Left Behind series are a form of "fiction explicitly intended to teach," according to author Gershom Gorenberg, who warns:

"Inspiration is part of the appeal. Subliminally, so is the all-encompassing paradigm the books offer for understanding the world. Here's how the global economy (which may have cost me my job or halved my retirement savings) works. Here's what lies behind debate over abortion or foreign policy. Some people serve God, and some serve falsehood. Here's why a believing Christian can feel left out: Today's society is controlled by evil. And here's why cataclysmic war between the forces of good and the axis of evil is inevitable."

The LaHaye conspiracy theory about secular humanism provides a powerful theological justification for Christians to establish "dominion" over sinful secular society.

The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy: A Series
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
= = =
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

It's actually quite interesting they list both Putin consolidating power in Russia and Europe and Iraq getting together being "one of the final signs".

In the premillenarian-dispensationalist style of dominion theology preached in pentecostal circles since literally the late 1940's-early 1950's, Russia and its leadership have always been seen as Gog and Magog (aka the Antichrist and the homeland of the Antichrist).

Yes, this fun strain of Red Terror has actually been in place in these churches since the 1950s, and in part is probably responsible for "dominion theology" crossing over politically.  (There were several initiatives, including a failed bid to amend the Constitution to declare the US "under the authority and law of Jesus Christ", that were specifically proposed to differentiate the US from the "Godless Communists" of the USSR.)

One of my own memories growing up--one which still gives me nightmares to this day--is of leaders of the church I walked away from almost going into orgiastic displays over the end being near and the "Rapture being at hand" during an especially tense moment at US and USSR relations where it appeared a nuclear war could break out.  Oliver North (yes, the same one as in Irangate) later came to the church and claimed that Irangate was essentially a Mission from God to run the "commies" out of Nicaragua (and at that time the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International was actually running support packages to the Contras).

Of note--during this time, it was also actively promoted, both in religious and political circles, that the Democrats were in fact "pinkos" and--in premillenarian dispensationalist eyes--literally in league with the Devil himself.  (People have wondered how the Republican party and dominionist movements came together--well, at least in the Assemblies of God traveling-preacher circuit, it was because it was actively being claimed that Democrats were closet Communists and that Communists were Satanists.  This was even going on during Carter's time in office, if not before that.)

The fall of the Iron Curtain did little to dissuade the premillenial-dispensationalists; in fact, a new conspiracy theory came up that the Russians were actually faking the fall of Communism and that, when we were complacent, they would throw off their disguises and say "Fooled you!", thus launching the Armageddon Scenario.

(The Armageddon Scenario, for those unfamiliar with this particular bit of premillenial dispensationalist theory, is that Russia will invade Israel at some point and that this is to be the Last Battle.  This has not changed once in the sixty-plus years this has been promoted in the pentecostal community.)

I am afraid to note that, even fully ten years after not only the fall of communism in the USSR and the breakup thereof, this conspiracy theory is still actively promoted.

During Gulf War I, a new strain of this came about--the claim that the Russians were actively supporting Saddam Hussein because Hussein, with assistance of the Russians, would invade Israel (yes, it's starting to sound like a bad version of Steve Jackson's "Illuminati", isn't it?).

This has actually been brought back up in Gulf War II, along with another piece of the Great Russian Conspiracy Theory being promulgated.  

After the European Union came into being, a new version of the Russian Conspiracy Theory started taking shape in premillenial dispensationalist circles--that the Russians secretly controlled, or even overtly controlled, the European Union as puppetmasters.  

(This is actually an extension of another part of the Russian Bugaboo Story that dates all the way back from the beginning of the Cold War--that the USSR secretly controlled the United Nations.  This, too, is still being actively promoted and is one reason why dominionist groups have as a large part of their political platform either cutting back dealing with, or pulling out of, the UN.  One might even legitimately argue this could be a reason Bush has refused in general to deal with the UN on issues like Iraq.)

In the "USSR Controls the UN" or its later "Russia controls the EU" flavours of the Russian Conspiracy Theory, it's taught that Russia is secretly controlling those organisations in an effort to bring about a "one world government" under the rule of the Antichrist.

During Gulf War II (and even to an extent before that), it was taught that Russia (using the EU) was still secretly controlling Iraq and other countries so that (with the assistance of the EU, the United Nations, and Iraq) it could take over Israel and start Armageddon.

Iraq has played a role in this in part because of the location of the historical Babylon within Iraq's borders.  (Interestingly, Babylon and its role in Armageddon was originally seen as symbolic, but is increasingly seen as literal in premillenial dispensationalist writing.)

So yes, in other words--the whole "THE RUSSIANS ARE OUT TO GET US ALL!" thing has literally been around since the days of "Duck And Cover" in the premillenial dispensationalist set, and in part it can be seen as the need to have a Really Big Enemy--in a way, they've never quite accepted that the Cold War ended fully ten years ago, the only large Communist country left (China) is largely a capitalist dictatorship in Communist drag, and about the only country left that has both the means and desire to start the end of the world--is the United States itself. :P

by dogemperor on Mon Dec 26, 2005 at 05:07:22 PM EST

Your quote from Gorenberg: "Here's how the global economy (which may have cost me my job or halved my retirement savings) works," goes a long way toward explaining how exactly the Democrats have failed to get traction with issues of basic economic justice.  

John Q. Voter loses his job, has been exposed to these conspiracy theories, and instead of looking at Republican economic policies, has been led to believe that the Democrats are in league with the Devil.  And votes accordingly.  

What's interesting about this, is that the extreme right's strategy combines both emotional reinforcement (the perverse pleasure of believing in conspiracies and indulging in feelings of paranoia) and a rationalization for economic woes.  This is a powerful combination: like food spiked with dope, one gobbles it because it makes one high, and rationalizes it as being nutritious.  

We are going to have to fight this particular fire with an even hotter fire: emotional and rational at the same time.  And here I would argue that the central message of Christianity: love of God and of one's fellow humans: is more powerful than the false prophesy of paranoia.  What we need is a compelling case that combines the core values of faith with a more complete and well-reasoned rational explanation for our political and economic predicaments.  But if we put dry reason forward first, we will lose: we have to lead with the power of feelings that are more nourishing of the heart and soul; that by their depth and breadth expose the falsehood of paranoia and fear.  

This is not an easy task.  It is easier to push a boulder down the hill than up.  But I don't see another way.  

by gg on Tue Dec 27, 2005 at 03:00:10 AM EST

I disagree as to the importance of economic factors in shaping one's beliefs in this area. The concept that a poor man is easily duped by the right (or by the left for that matter) seems to me to be a red herring. While conspiracy theory is certainly used as a tool for reinforcement, I don't think any movement could have sustained itself for any amount of time or developed such a power base if paranoia and social insecurity were such key underlying elements.

I grew up as an agnostic and then became a Pentecostal in my teens. In my experience the economic aspect is not particularly significant in answering why 'Left Behind' theology appeals to so many people, especially middle class, young, white people. Premillenialism, pre-tribulation dispensationalism and hot-button conservativism may, for some folks, provide easy answers to some of life's vicissitudes, and maybe some turn to it at least in part for such reasons. But I think many of us were seduced into that movement for far more complex and interesting reasons, and that the wilder theological and political aspects were grafted on later. Modern Christian fundamentalism has something of a pedigree and speaks in a number of important ways to various emotional and spiritual (as well as economic and social) anxieties that prevail in this day and age.

For me personally, getting 'fired up' for the end times and pursuing a positively contrarian form of 'christian' discipleship that emphasized black-and-white certainties in the face of an uncertain world, was in part a response to my own personal struggles over identity, family, belonging, loneliness, sexuality, boredom, etc. Some of the theology seemed silly to me at first and thing parts of it always nagged at something deep inside as being not quite right. But it was all part of a deeper framework of discipleship, community, believing, adventure, personal longing, ambition, etc. I followed Christian-right leaders to the extent that their narrative reinforced the one I had begun to internalize. One must never forget that within the religious right and within each of its myriad movements there is a multitude of slight variations on a them. In some cases (such as in the exact timing of the 'Rapture' or length of the tribulation) there can be vehement and even sometimes violent disagreement between people who, to the outside world, are virtually indistinguishable in their beliefs.

This is important because it is wrong to look at the masses of people who support the dominionists and their ilk as idiots or dupes who can't think for themselves. I don't think I was any less intelligent as a fanatical right-wing fundamentalist born-again believer. I had less tolerance for ambiguity and was perhaps less critical in certain key areas of thought than I would be today, but one should never classify these people as dupes.

Numerous writers on fundamentalism(s) have posited that such a stance represents a more or less 'consistent' response to the contradictions of modernity/post-modernity. In order to break through to this segment of society (and thus break the powerful influence the dominionists and others on the right have over their thinking and voting) we as liberals/progressives/whatever need to learn to speak as powerfully to their human condition and aspirations. This means recognizing that from a phenomenological perspective not everything reduces to arguments about economics and politics. Worldviews are generally overturned not through clever argument (however important and critical it is to develop such arguments) but by introducing a more powerful and compelling worldview to replace the one being usurped.

by prodigal on Wed Dec 28, 2005 at 12:31:04 AM EST

Hi Prodigal-

Bad me for not being more clear about this.  

I agree with you that spiritual and social issues come first with most people in the religious right, and that they're not dupes.  

What I was trying to get at was this:  Someone who's in the religious right could identify with the Republican candidates based on their apparent espousal of religious and social issues.  Then when our hypothetical voter gets hit with the downside of Republican economic policies (unemployed, downsized, no health coverage, etc.), the Democrats come along and say "you're being screwed, vote for us, we represent your (economic) interests..."  But then the religious right counters the Democrats' message by promoting various economic conspiracy theories that sum up to "the Democrats are in league with various shady interests and conspiracies that are the real cause of your economic woes..." and that message effectively counteracts the Democrats' message and keeps the religious right voters from voting their own best interests.  


I think you're right on target with your item about "emphasized black-and-white certainties in the face of an uncertain world..."  I've come to the same conclusion and it seems this is really the key to the whole thing.  

That is, why does someone opt for rightwing Christianity rather than progressive Christianity (or for that matter some other faith entirely)?  A large part of the answer may be the item about "certainties in an uncertain world."  

So can you tell me: how do we reach out to people who are deeply seeking certainties...?   What can we tell them?  

Do we offer a different set of certainties?  For example the moral absolutes about sins such as greed?  Or do we offer people a way of reconciling with uncertainty itself?  

Here I should say that personally I believe that uncertainty is a direct manifestation of God's presence:  The universe itself has fundamental uncertainties built-in, reflected at all levels from quantum physics (Brownian motion, the Heisenberg principle, randomicity) all the way to the level of the individual person and society as a whole.  As a scientific matter, many of these uncertainties are well-proven, as clearly as the facts that zebras have stripes and elephants are larger than mice.  As a spiritual matter I believe that humans' God-given free will is a manifestation of the reality of uncertainty; that is, free will is uncertainty applied to humans; Creation is parsimonious; "as above, so below."  

Once you accept the existence of randomicity (for example in radioactive decay) and the existence of free will, the rest necessarily must follow.  

And this is not even incompatible with Calvinist predestination:  God exists above and beyond four-space (the three spatial dimensions and time), so from the perspective of God, time is traversible just as space is traversible to us: all is simultaneous, our futures are within God's present; God knows the trajectories of each of our souls even though from our perspective within four-space this creates a fundamental paradox (one of the deeper mysteries, as it were, akin to contemplating infinities).  

For me, contemplation of uncertainties is a way of seeking to know the mind of God: a joyous exercise, not a cause of anxiety.  And then the daily working of that, despite the fact that occasionally it is downright frustrating, is an exercise in translating contemplation into action, into the mundane world of daily life where unknowns expand faster than knowns can catch up.  

Does this make any sense...?  And is any of it likely to reach people who are wrestling with uncertainty and seeking the clear boundaries of black and white?  

by gg on Wed Dec 28, 2005 at 06:13:39 AM EST

To be honest, I don't know of any easy answers to your question.

Here's one way of approaching it though: Why do certain forms of bigotry and ignorance seem to persist over millennia, adapting to different environmental conditions like viruses? Ideas and ideology can take on a life of their own, far divorced from the original context in which they were conceived. One only has to look at the recent development of protestant Christian fundamentalism in Africa to shake off any preconceived idea that this is a particularly American weakness.

The viral analogy may provide some useful pointers. More `benign' viral infections can spread rapidly from host to host, because they do not immediately destroy the host. The virus must do its poisonous work without affecting the host in such a way as to prejudice its own chances of survival. It must also be able to adapt or mutate as it finds itself subject to in new environmental conditions.

If we extend this analogy to the various religious right movements, we see that some have functioned as deadly viral outbreaks but with little persistence over time. Heaven's Gate is an example. Such experiments might be considered the Ebola or Marburg virus strains of religious extremism. The virus is deadly but since it destroys its host it is generally quickly contained and immobilized. Some aspects of the ex-gay movement seem to conform with this pattern as well.

On the other hand there are pre-millennial dispensationalist and `family values' religious groups in all their variations. These seem to propagate easily and adapt well to whatever the prevailing socio-political climate happens to be - whether that adaptation takes the form of accommodation to a neo-conservative establishment or is dressed up as `opposition' to the `liberal, secular-humanist elite'. The relationship to society is much more symbiotic and it could be argued that these movements exhibit characteristics reminiscent of influenza. They prey largely on the `weak', although nobody is necessarily immune from their impact. The influence of such groups wax and wane from year to year, often from one hot-button issue to the next. There are occasional epidemics (as evidenced by phenomena such as abortion clinic bombings, the Toronto blessing, or the current `defense of marriage' movement).

Mild viruses likely Influenza can become deadly however in two ways: Firstly, they adapt so well and are transmitted widely through the population, so over time the impact and death toll are noticeable just through sheer size and scope. Any large and well-financed movement can have an accumulating impact over time just through sheer force of will. Secondly, relatively harmless strains have been known to jump the divide and cause horrific epidemics. It could be argued that this has happened within certain elements of Islamic fundamentalism, and that it is quite possible a similar mutation could occur within Christian fundamentalism (perhaps as a result of `gene-swapping' with neo-conservatives?) that would lead to a more virulent and dangerous strain.

Disease can be prevented or treated. From a public health perspective, it is generally considered that prophylactic (preventive) measures are more effective in preventing the spread of disease than simply relying on treatment of already infected patients. To extend the analogy further then, while it is important on humanitarian grounds to seek a cure for those already affected, it may not be the best use of scarce resources. And in most cases the patient does not want to be cured or does not possess the resources to improve their health. However, with many viral illnesses it has been shown that early intervention (before symptoms become too acute or entrenched) offers the best hope for disease management and/or recovery.

I was a committed fundamentalist for 6 or 7 years, and it took probably much longer to undo the effects of the `virus'. For a lifelong adherent, a cure might be less imaginable (although never impossible). So individual `conversions' are important but it may be that these will occur to some extent or another at a relatively fixed rate due to a range of different factors. I do not underestimate the importance of cognitive dissonance as a factor in breaking down the hold that religious rigidity can have on a person. At least this was so in my case. No amount of argumentation from family or friends persuaded me I was wrong. What did persuade me was seeing people say one thing and then do the opposite: talk about love but demonstrated hatred. There was also the sudden loss of loved ones and an internal struggle over how a God of love could consign any part of creation to an eternal hell of torment and torture.

Historically, the most effective forms of prophylaxis against disease have included immunization, quarantine and improvements in public hygiene. Looking at each of these in turn we might draw particular conclusions about how to respond to the threat posed by the religious right. We might rephrase the prophylaxis in terms of education, containment and democratic action. None of this is news to anyone on this forum.

To get back to your question though, as progressives perhaps our best hope for those entrenched within wing-nut religion is to recognize that people do frequently make the exodus in spite of everything, and that in a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty there are certainly more and more opportunities for fractures to occur. Fundamentalism is largely both a reaction to and an accommodation with modernity, but like the giant statue in Daniel it has feet of clay. Rigid regimes (whether political, intellectual or spiritual) do not endure forever. Most intense fundamentalisms (at least those that don't go supernova) tend to settle down over time. Many modern liberal denominations began life as conservative or even fundamentalist movements. You can't sustain a contrarian approach to the universe indefinitely.  When Jesus doesn't return in the clouds, Armageddon doesn't take place, and theocracy doesn't take over the world, many people just get tired of it all and begin to move on with their lives. Perhaps the greatest antidote to religious fervor is eventual boredom?

by prodigal on Thu Dec 29, 2005 at 01:07:52 PM EST

Brilliant analogy & analysis there.  (I'm at work right now but will try to reply in more detail tonight.)  

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WWW Talk To Action

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