Imagining Satan (Part Three)
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 08:41:09 AM 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 Two]

People with religious beliefs outside of mainline Protestantism have long participated in the shaping of culture and politics in the United States.~58 Although fundamentalists tended to withdraw from secular political activity after the public embarrassment of the Scopes Monkey Trial, they retained a vibrant subculture, with a special concern with the possible prophetic aspects of communism.59 As one Christian author put it: "Whether we are able to hold off Antichrist or not, this one fact is evident: the Bible says that Christians should `occupy' until Christ comes. Part of this activity should be given to the opposition of communism, the Kingdom of Antichrist."60

While premillennialist beliefs can lead some to adopt a passive mode, in the 1970s a number of evangelical, fundamentalist, and Christian Right authors (such as LaHaye) developed new or revised justifications for engaging in political activism.~61 This happened at a time when evangelicals began to emerge as a powerful political force.62 Marsden argues that the longstanding tradition of searching for Satanic conspiracies in these subcultures smoothed out the transition from anti-communist activism to activism in other spheres of public life.63 As the year 2000 approached, with the added anxieties over the Y2K computer glitch, apocalypticism was clearly evident in the writings and preparations in three subcultures, Christian evangelicals, the Patriot and militia movements, and computer technologists.64 McMinn found that the specific End Times scenario of their eschatological beliefs shaped Y2K responses by Christian groups.65

The role of apocalyptic belief in influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been studied from a variety of perspectives.~66 President Bush has invoked apocalyptic language to describe his enemies as part of an axis of evil, and one U.S. general framed the conflict in the Middle East using language explicitly invoking End Times prophecy. For some, the End Times involves a war between godly Christians and evil Muslims-an idea with increasing resonance among some Christian evangelicals since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The fulfillment of Bible prophecy is related to current events in the Middle East, and makes up a substantial portion of articles in magazines such as Midnight Call: The Prophetic Voice for the End Times, a Christian magazine that predicts the End Times are close at hand. Arno Froese, the editor of Midnight Call, applauds political assassinations of pro-Palestinian militants by the Israeli forces, and argues more people should be "congratulating Ariel Sharon and his government for eliminating these extremely dangerous murderers."67

Pre-Trib Perspectives, a newsletter described as "A Publication Ministry of the Pre-Trib Research Center" and featuring articles by Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, focused more intensely on Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. LaHaye wrote in the October 2001 issue that the attacks would "contribute to the fulfillment of several...end-times signs"~68; and in February 2002 that "the religion of Islam has always been a terrorist religion."69 Another apocalyptic author is Hal Lindsey, who accelerated Christian Zionism starting in the 1970s when he launched a series of books claiming the establishment of the state of Israel started the End Times clock ticking.70 His new book, The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad, describes the End Times battle as starting with a Muslim and Arab attack on Israel triggered by events at Jerusalem's Temple Mount.71

The early political activism of fundamentalists was viewed with dismay, until it gradually became evident that fundamentalists, at least those living in democratic countries, made poor political partners and were not especially effective at accomplishing their agendas.~72 Today it is the interaction of the political and apocalyptic dimensions of fundamentalism that marshals great concern. In an apocalyptic scenario, the "Other" against whom one struggles is not a political opponent with whom one might hammer out a compromise however painful. At best, they are a means to the end such as the Christian fundamentalist's belief that Jews must return to the land of Israel before Jesus can return. The vast majority of "Others" are objects, representatives of absolute evil with whom no compromise is possible. An apocalyptic worldview substantially informs the rough rationale used to justify contemporary religious violence and terrorism from the takeover of the Moscow theatre in October 2002, to the multiple tragedies of September 11, 2001.

While few outside their numbers grasp the intricacies of fundamentalist apocalyptic beliefs, the basic outlines of fundamentalist apocalyptic narratives have become part of global popular culture through apocalyptic fiction such as the Left Behind series and an ongoing subgenre of apocalyptic film. These have helped transform apocalyptic ideas and images into a new argot of political discourse, one that at times is exploited by mainstream politicians. In the United States, Ronald Reagan was among the earliest to engage in the practice.~73

For politicians, the appeal of the apocalyptic lies in its stark images of good and evil, and its powerful imagery that can convey the moral weighting of a situation in an instant. Yet, when an apocalyptic scenario is employed as an interpretive master frame for a political clash, resolution of that conflict becomes almost unthinkable.~74 The apocalyptic delocalizes a conflict by situating it on a holy plane. In the process, it casts political disputes onto a transcendent backdrop, making them appear more irresolvable than they may be.75

When you take a local conflict over land, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians, and you put a global apocalyptic framework in place, the local conflicts become globalized and made part of an unfolding universal story with cosmic dimensions. This brings in players that you may or may not want aligned with you. For instance, the Israeli government sees benefits when it cooperates with conservative Christian evangelicals who believe in an apocalyptic role for Israel and the city of Jerusalem. But the downside is that as the conflict gets generalized into an apocalyptic framework with notions of good and evil and cosmic significance, it makes it harder to take a conflict over land and find a practical resolution.

Conclusions

Plainly fictional, the Left Behind series constructs a narrative platform that conveys a message: what appears to be chaotic destruction may actually be part of a divine plan. It is, as well, fiction with a slippery relationship to Christian tradition. Under the agaeis of fiction, it is a platform that enables its message to elude critical engagement. Should anyone want to critically question its content, the critics can easily be dismissed. After all, it is only a fiction. The people consuming these narrative stories encounter an apocalyptic, conspiracist worldview set in the context of a major world religion. Those with little or no background to understand or critique them may simply assume its message represents mainstream Christian tradition.

Regardless, Left Behind and the wider literary genre in which it participates have helped make a stark, simple unreflective apocalypticism a common element of American culture, and made it a meaning system people can draw upon to make sense of their lives when chaos threatens. Left Behind is just one project in a fiction and non-fiction milieu that have helped make apocalyptic master framing an American interpretive pastime that stretches back to the late 1800's. The resulting anxiety and anticipation is real. It creates situations where local ministers and priests are confronted by parishioners asking what they can do to prepare for the End Times and resist the evil global conspiracy.

Historians, theologians, and literary scholars have thoroughly examined apocalypticism. They have addressed the "who, what, where, when, and why" of apocalyptic thinking. We have used a sociological lens to examine the "how" for one subculture: contemporary right-wing Christian premillennialism. Our main contention is that apocalypticism as a master frame plays a powerful yet largely underexamined role in mainstream culture and politics. When we call apocalypticism a master frame, we do so in the sense that it is so broad that it exists as what is often called a "style" in other academic disciplines. Populism, for example, has been called a style by Kazin.~76 On this meta-level, stylistic master frames are not necessarily rooted in a particular ideology, and people with different ideologies use them to achieve different goals. There is some ambiguity involved in studying apocalypticism as a master frame since it can appear in different forms. It is often destructive, but sometimes it can be constructive.

Apocalyptic frames are drawn upon by people in distress or faced with horrific conditions trying to sustain themselves, to provide dignity, and preserve a sense of community. An example would be the role of apocalyptic Christianity among African slaves brought to the United States. This is also true of the anti-slavery abolition movements and the Civil Rights movement. In this beneficent form, apocalyptic belief provides a moral framework that resists the effects of chaos and provides a means by which communities can survive and endure. Too often scholars have responded to apocalyptic and conspiracist beliefs by laughing them off, or pushing them aside. Apocalyptic belief needs to be studied systematically and critically in the same way scholars have studied race and gender, so that the social sources of one of our major sources of public hope as well as public fear can be better understood.


End Part Three

[Read Part One] - [Read Part Two]
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.

Notes

60 W. S. McBirnie, The Real Power Behind Communism, pamphlet, (Glendale, CA: Center for American Research and Education, n.d., circa 1968), 31; See also Dan Gilbert, The Red Terror (Russia) and Bible Prophecy, pamphlet, (Washington, DC: Christian Press Bureau/Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon, 1944); Louis Bauman, Russian Events in the Light of Bible Prophecy, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1942); Kenneth Goff, One World a Red World, pamphlet, (Colorado: by the author, 1952); Olivia Marie O'Grady, The Beasts of the Apocalypse (Benicia, CA: by the author, 1959); Billy James Hargis, Communist America...Must it Be? (Tulsa, OK: Christian Crusade, 1960; updated and republished by the author, 1986); David A. Noebel, Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles, (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Christian Crusade Publications, 1965); Gordon Lindsay, Will the Antichrist Come Out of Russia? (Dallas: Voice of Healing Publications, 1966); David A. Noebel, Rhythm, Riots and Revolution (Tulsa, OK: Christian Crusade Publications, 1966); _____, Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on Communist Subversion of Music (Tulsa, Oklahoma: American Christian College Press, 1974).

61 Harding, "Imagining the Last Days," 68-71; Linda Kintz, Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997); Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 206-210; Carol Mason, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-life Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002).

62 Diamond, Roads to Dominion; William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996); Didi Herman, The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

63 Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, especially 109.

64 Andrea Hoplight Tapia, "Y2K: Apocalyptic Opportunism," Enculturation, 3:1 (Spring 2000), online, http://enculturation.gmu.edu/3_1/hoplight.html, accessed September 1, 2004; _____, Subcultural Responses to Y2K, Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2002.

65 McMinn, "Y2K, Apocalypse and Evangelical Christianity."

66 Gorenberg, The End of Days; _____, "Intolerance: The Bestseller;" Paul S. Boyer, "John Darby Meets Saddam Hussein: Foreign Policy and Bible Prophecy," Chronicle of Higher Education, supplement, February 14, 2003, B10-B11; Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Ann E. Hafften 2003, "Challenge the Implications of `Christian Zionism,'" Journal of Lutheran Ethics, February 19, 2003, http://www.elca.org/jle/articles/contemporary_issues/article.hafften_ann_e.html accessed December 1, 2003; Chip Berlet and Nikhil Aziz, "Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy," IRC Right Web, Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, online essay, 2004, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/analysis/2003/0312apocalypse.php, accessed July 4, 2004.

67 Arno Froese, "`And a Mighty King Shall Stand Up,'"Midnight Call, July 2004, p. 6.

68 Tim LaHaye, "The Prophetic Significance of Sept. 11, 2001," Pre-Trib Perspectives, October 2001, p. 3.

69 Tim LaHaye, "[Tim's] Pre-Trib Perspective," Pre-Trib Perspectives, February 2002, p. 1.

70 Hal Lindsey with C. C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1970).

71 Hal Lindsey, The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad (Murrieta, Calif.: Oracle House Publishing, 2002).

72 Steve Bruce, Fundamentalism (Oxford: Polity Press, 2000); _____, Politics and Religion (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003).

73 FitzGerald, "The American Millennium;" Grace Halsell, Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1986); Ruth W. Mouly, The Religious Right and Israel: The Politics of Armageddon (Chicago: Midwest Research (now Political Research Associates), 1987); Richard V. Pierard and Robert Dean Linder, Civil Religion & the Presidency (Grand Rapids, Mich: Academie Books, 1988).

74 Brasher, "When Your Friend is Your Enemy."

75 Ravitzky, Aviezer, 2004, "Clinging to the Middle Ground: The Survival of the Jewish People Requires that It Stay as Remote from the `Clash Of Civilizations' as East is from West," Haaretz, Pesach Supplement, April 11, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=414246&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y, accessed December 20, 2004.

76 Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995).


Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
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