Imagining Satan (Part Two)
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 02:22:58 PM EST

Modern Christian Right Print Culture
as an Apocalyptic Master Frame

by Dr. Brenda E. Brasher and Chip Berlet
Copyright 2004-2006, All rights reserved, crossposting online of this text is prohibited. Presented at the conference on Religion and the Culture of Print in America, Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, University of Wisconsin-Madison, September 10-11, 2004
[Read Part One] - [Read Part Three]

A social movement is "a collectivity acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional channels for the purpose of promoting or resisting change in the group, society, or world order of which it is a part."~25 Social movements interact in a strategic way with political movements, which have an electoral and legislative focus.~26 To be effective, a social movement has to construct an internally coherent ideology, identify grievances, set goals, and instill a sense of purpose, optimism, and collective identity among followers. Movement leaders help accomplish this by skillfully framing their ideas and proposed actions.~27 Stories, whether they are narratives of personal experiences or fictional accounts, help build social movements.~28

At various times throughout history social movements have employed apocalyptic frames and conspiracist narratives, moving them from the margins of the society into the mainstream where they have affected public policy.

Sociological analysis can help explain the dynamics of these and other social movements based around a religion or theological viewpoint.~29A number of sociological studies have specifically looked at Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists.~30


Frames establish culturally appropriate perspectives and viewpoints through which power struggles can be viewed in a way that resonates with a broad audience and helps implement a movement's ideological goals.~31 Movement strategists can construct specific frames for other movement leaders, already-mobilized followers, potential recruits, and the general public.~32

Klandermans explains that the "social construction of collective action frames" involves "public discourse" where "media discourse and interpersonal interaction" interface with "persuasive communication during mobilization campaigns by movement organizations, their opponents and countermovement organizations;" and that the process of "consciousness raising" occurs "during episodes of collective action."~33 Evangelical Christians develop frames, and just as in other social movements, these frames influence actions, even when tied to apocalyptic belief.~34

Master frames are broad styles of constructing a viewpoint that can be used by a variety of groups with highly diverse agendas.~35 There has been some debate as to whether or not the idea of master frames has been used to depreciate the value of studying ideology in sociology.~36 We see no inherent conflict so long as both ideology and master frames are considered as discrete analytical components.

Apocalypticism as a Master Frame

Throughout American history, apocalypticism has functioned as a master frame, an interpretive gridwork organizing the detailed events of daily life.~37 When he studied certain right-wing subcultures in American society, Hofstadter identified a "paranoid style" in American politics.~38 Thompson argued that this terminology failed to reach the root of the phenomena, which derives from apocalyptic belief.~39 From the American Civil War to the Cold War, the two part apocalyptic narrative provided a major organizing principle for American political as well as religious leaders to explain world events, as well as for the American people to relate to them. ~40 This continues today.

Still, it is important to realize that while apocalypticism functions as a master frame in American culture, it does so as a style with many variations. Groups and individuals across the political spectrum have utilized apocalypticism to achieve a wide variety of ends. Though apocalypticism is dualistic in structure, it does not necessarily lead to dualistic or demonizing action. When it does, conspiracist narratives are not always generated. When they are, conspiracist narratives can include generic targets such as "liberal secular humanists" or the Trilateral Commission; or identify specific targets such as individual Jews or "abortionists." Thus, while apocalypticism is one of the master frames of American culture, it is a framework whose components have proven to be rather flexible.

Left Behind

Christian apocalyptic fiction is not new.~41 Some fifty apocalyptic novels appeared in the United States between 1909 and 2004.~42 In the contemporary Left Behind series of novels, the primary focus is the post-Rapture tribulations and the struggle of the remaining Christians (aghast that they failed to be considered worthy of Rapture) to return to the path of piety. They must struggle against a vast Satanic conspiracy to construct a collectivist global New World Order and one-world religion led by the Antichrist and the False Prophet.

In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins have conveyed to millions of Americans what they perceive to be manifestations of moral relativism such as the feminist movement, abortion, and homosexuality. This reprised the principle theme of a series of non-fiction books LaHaye wrote in the 1980s. In The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye amplified on and added a conspiracist theme to the conservative Christian evangelical critique of secular humanism articulated by popular theologian Francis A. Schaeffer among others.~43 The LaHaye book is dedicated to Schaeffer.~44

LaHaye writes in a chapter entitled "Is a Humanist Tribulation Necessary?" 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 claims there is another potential period of tribulation, however, that he dubs the "pre-tribulation tribulation-that 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." LaHaye warns that adultery, pornography, and homosexuality "are rampant" and reminds readers of "Dr. [Francis] Schaeffer's warning that humanism always leads to chaos."~45

Practitioners of apocalyptic conspiracism regularly trade ideas across many boundaries, not just between fiction and non-fiction, but also over time and across political lines. As Katz and Popkin observe:

The works and ideas of everyone from Joachim of Fiore to Nesta Webster have been reprinted many times, and are available from bookshops in Cecil Court in London to Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, sold in one form or another from the Rosicrucian Bookshop in San Jose to the mail-order catalog of the Aryan Nation[s] in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Call it plagiarism, call it intertextuality, but the repertoire of texts and ideas continues to be played.~46

Barkun refers to this process as an "improvisational style" that helps build a bewildering array of apocalyptic conspiracy theories. ~47

Apocalyptic has become a major market. Boyer notes the ironic situation of materialist and multinational publishers making profits from books that contain text used to demonize them in a generic way. For example, Oxford University Press publishes the essential dispensationalist guide, the Scofield Reference Bible; while contemporary prophecy writer Michael D. Evans recently moved from a small Christian publisher to Warner Faith books, a division of the huge conglomerate AOL Time Warner.~48

Not all readers of the Left Behind series can be assumed to embrace apocalyptic conspiracism as a worldview that shapes their secular political life. Reading fiction is not a passive one-way process explains Radway.~49 She argues that the theories of the Frankfort School cover part of the process-that of consumption and ideological indoctrination. Only considering those aspects, she contends, leads to the false assumption that readers completely lack agency or the ability to generate multiple nuanced interpretations, and are merely passive vessels into which one-dimensional text is poured by cynical manipulators.~50 Frykholm conducted lengthy interviews with numerous readers of the Left Behind series and found they read the novels in the context of their daily lives. This lead readers to discuss a wide range of ideas prompted by their reading-speaking with those who agreed with the themes and claims, and those that disagreed-and generating outcomes that were diverse and unpredictable.51 A similar process was found by Mojtabai through in-depth interviews in a Texas panhandle town where nuclear weapons were assembled. Mojtabai established that premillennial dispensationalist apocalyptic beliefs were incorporated into everyday beliefs and attitudes, but that the specifics of the beliefs were often idiosyncratic.~52

Readers are torn between two interpretations of apocalypse. One is that "We" are chosen to survive on an individual level because we each have alone passed a test. The other is the utopian vision of the ideal community in which "We" all survive because we help each other to pass a test.~53 This is true whether the test is the survival of humanity in the era of nuclear weapons or the final judgment of God in the End Times.~54 A number of contemporary Christian authors have argued for a rethinking of biblical prophecy and the meaning of apocalypse.~55 Some have explicitly criticized the doomsday interpretations of the most alarmist premillennial dispensationalists such as LaHaye and Hal Lindsey.~56

While it is important to recognize the Left Behind series is fiction, the apocalyptic frame and conspiracist narrative in the books is "fiction explicitly intended to teach," according to Gorenberg, who adds:

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.~57

When placed in the context of a large evangelical apocalyptic subculture in the United States, the themes in the Left Behind series should be a cause for concern for those who champion civil society. These and other works of fiction and non-fiction contain theological apocalyptic concepts based in premillennialism, but for tens of millions of Americans they shape substantial cultural and political activities.

End Part Two

[Read Part One] - [Read Part Three]

Dr. Brenda E. Brasher received her Ph.D. in Religion/Social Ethics (sociology emphasis), at the University of Southern California, in 1995. She is the author of Give Me That Online Religion (2nd edition), Rutgers University Press, 2004 (named a Top Ten Non-Fiction Book of 2001 by the Christian Science Monitor; and Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power, New Jersey, Routledge, 1998, (named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book). Brasher served as the Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, Religion & Society series, New York, Routledge, 2001, which was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2002. She was awared a Fulbright Scholar for field work in 2001-2002.

Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates and co-author (with Matthew N. Lyons) of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, (New York: Guilford Press, 2000). He edited Eye’s Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, (Boston, South End Press, 1995). Both books were awarded a Gustavus Myers Award for outstanding scholarship on the subject of human rights and intolerance in North America. Berlet has also contributed to edited collections, scholarly journals, academic conferences, and popular periodicals ranging from the New York Times to the Progressive.


25 Doug McAdam and David Snow, introduction to Social Movements: Readings on Their Emergence, Mobilization, and Dynamics, ed. Doug McAdam and David Snow (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1997), xviii.

26 William A. Gamson, The Strategy of Social Protest, second edition (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, [1975] 1990).

27 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Doubleday, 1959); _____, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1974); John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, "Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory," American Journal of Sociology 82:6 (May 1977): 1212-1241; David A. Snow, E. Burke Rochford, Jr., Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford, "Frame Alignment Process, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation, American Sociological Review 51 (August 1986): 464-481; Reprinted in Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues, ed. Steven M. Buechler and F. Kurt Cylke, Jr., 211-228, (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1997); David A. Snow, and Robert D. Benford, "Ideology, Frame Resonance and Participant Mobilization," in From Structure To Action: Comparing Social Movements Across Cultures, International Social Movement Research 1, ed. Bert Klandermans, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Sidney G. Tarrow, 197-217, (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1988); David A. Snow, and Robert D. Benford, "Master Frames and Cycles of Protest," in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, ed. Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, 133-155, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1992); William. A. Gamson, "Constructing Social Protest," in Social Movements and Culture, Social Movements, Protest, and Contention 4, ed. Hank Johnston and Bert Klandermans, 85-106 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995); Hank Johnston, "A Methodology for Frame Analysis: From Discourse to Cognitive Schemata," in Social Movements and Culture, ed. Johnston and Klandermans, 217-246; Doug McAdam and David Snow, introduction to Social Movements: Readings on Their Emergence, Mobilization, and Dynamics, ed. McAdam and Snow (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1997).

28 Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey, "Subversive Stories and Hegemonic Tales: Toward a Sociology of Narrative," Law & Society Review 29:2 (1995): 197-226; Joseph Davis, ed., Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2002).

29 Rhys H. Williams, "Movement Dynamics and Social Change: Transforming Fundamentalist Ideology and Organization, in Accounting for Fundamentalisms, ed. Marty and Appleby, 785-833; _____, introduction to issue, "Promise Keepers: A Comment on Religion and Social Movements," Sociology of Religion, 61 (1994): 1-10.

30 See, for example, Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Boston: South End Press, 1989); _____, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); _____, 1997, "Political Millennialism within the Evangelical Subculture," in The Year 2000, ed. Strozier and Flynn (1997); _____, 1998. Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right (New York: Guilford Press, 1998); Brenda E. Brasher, Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998); Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).

31 Mayer N. Zald, "Culture, Ideology, and Strategic Framing," in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framing, ed. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, 261-274, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996); Gamson "Constructing Social Protest."

32 Snow, et al., "Frame Alignment Process;" Johnston "A Methodology for Frame Analysis; Gamson, "Constructing Social Protest."

33 Bert Klandermans, The Social Psychology of Protest (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 45.

34 Lisa G. McMinn, "Y2K, Apocalypse and Evangelical Christianity: The Role of Eschatological Belief in Church Responses to Y2K," Sociology of Religion 62 (2001): 205-220.

35 Snow and Benford, "Master Frames and Cycles of Protest."

36 Pamela E. Oliver and Hank Johnston, "What a Good Idea! Frames and Ideologies in Social Movement Research," Mobilization: An International Journal 5:1 (2000): 37-54; David A. Snow and Robert D. Benford, "Clarifying the Relationship Between Framing and Ideology in the Study of Social Movements: A Comment on Oliver and Johnston," Mobilization, An International Journal 5:1 (2000): 55-60).

37 We collected and reviewed over sixty-five books and pamphlets with Christian Right apocalyptic themes published in the U.S. between 1970 and 2004, as well as over fifty books with general apocalyptic themes published in the U.S. since the 1790s.

38 Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 37-38.

39 Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, [1996] 1998), 307.

40 Strozier, Apocalypse.

41 Crawford Gribben, "Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition," Literature and Theology 18:1 (March 2004): 77-94.

42 Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 205-207).

43 Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Mind (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1980).

44 Ibid. 5.

45 Ibid. 217-218. See also Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Family (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1982); _____The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism's Threat to our Children (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1983).

46 Katz and Popkin, Messianic Revolution, xv.

47 Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy.

48 Comments by Paul Boyer, made as a respondent to the conference paper on which this chapter is based.

49 Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, [1984] 1991), 166-222.

50 Ibid., 166-222; see also Frykholm, Rapture Culture, 179-180.

51 Frykholm, Rapture Culture.

52 A. G. Mojtabai, Blessèd Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, 1986).

53 Ibid., 220-226; Frykholm, Rapture Culture, 180-182, 187).

54 Mojtabai, Blessèd Assurance, 220-226).

55 Dale Aukerman, Reckoning with Apocalypse (New York: Crossroad, 1993); Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001); Sandy, D. Brent, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002).

56 Tom Sine, Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995); Gregory S. Camp, 1997. Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-Times Paranoia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997); Richard Abanes, End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon? (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998); Richard V. Pierard, "Millennial Madness: An Ethical Crisis," Christian Ethics Today, 5:3 (June 1999), online version,; Barbara A. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004). This in turn has prompted a biblical defense of the Left Behind series: Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice, The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times (Sisters, Oreg.: Multnomah Publishers, 2004).

57 Gorenberg "Intolerance: The Bestseller."

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

Thank you for posting a substantive look at this phenomenon.

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of the story but you mention that:

Groups and individuals across the political spectrum have utilized apocalypticism to achieve a wide variety of ends. Though apocalypticism is dualistic in structure, it does not necessarily lead to dualistic or demonizing action. When it does, conspiracist narratives are not always generated.

I'm curious as to how those at the liberal end of the political spectrum have used apocalypticism and, where they have, is it qualitatively different?

by Psyche on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 04:54:55 PM EST

There is a growing body of literature on how apocalypticism appears in different type of social and political movements.
One overview that I like is:

Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

I am not familiar with other stuff specifically on the left off the top of my head, although there are articles on apocalyptic aspects in environmentalism; as well as forms of Marxism.

Let me poke around and see what else I can find.


_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 09:16:45 PM EST

Ironically, while we rightly see the notion of a realized apocalypse as nuts, there is a reality-base to it. Fanatics are other-directed, so they don't take such things as the book of Revelation in an inner-directed way, as a possible symbolic description of the individual's journey to personal realization; what has been called "the dark night of the soul," or the struggle to get beyond ego.

I don't mean to suggest that egolessness can't be pursued fanatically, by feeling driven to get rid of a hated ego. No, mental health is central. One gives up what one doesn't have to give up.

Thank you for the articles.

Monty Johnston
More for free in my non-fiction book: google "Rabid Fanatic" +"Monty Johnston"

by Monty Johnston on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 04:06:04 PM EST

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