Behind Hagee's Vision of God's End Game
John of Patmos--so named because of the small Mediterranean island where he lived--was an early Christian prophet. His writings, sometimes called “The Apocalypse of John,” form the book of “Revelation,” the last chapter in the Christian Bible. Actually, the words apocalypse, prophecy, and revelation all share the same Greek root--a word that means unveiling what is hidden. Before Christianity, Zoroastrians wove apocalyptic themes into their spiritual tapestry; as did messianic Jews who were looking for signs of the Messiah--a great leader and redeemer--prophesied in their religious texts, which were incorporated into the Old Testament.1
Apocalyptic thinking--especially in the Christian Right--joins other factors influencing U.S. Middle East policy, such as controlling global oil sources, assisting corporate-driven globalization, militaristic imperialism, and more. Why focus on this one factor? Because the Christian Right is a powerful force shaping politics and culture in the United States, and they are the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party, so they can expect politicians to pay attention to their interests.2 That George W. Bush takes his born-again religion seriously and applies it to his political decisions has been discussed widely.3 That’s why we need to understand apocalyptic thinking.
According to history professor Paul S. Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, religious views in the United States have “always had an enormous, if indirect and underrecognized, role [in] shaping public policy.” Boyer advises us to pay attention to this hidden truth because of the “shadowy but vital way that belief in biblical prophecy is helping mold grassroots attitudes toward current U.S. foreign policy,” especially in the Middle East.4
The Apocalyptic Style
Apocalyptic thinking involves the anticipation of a coming confrontation that will result in a substantial transformation of society on a global and historic scale. For some this is a great battle; for others the transformation is peaceful.5 Apocalyptic views in the United States have deep roots. Some early Christian settlers saw the establishment of what became the United States as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They believed that the nation they were building needed to be defended against the subversive machinations of a literal Satan and his evil allies.6
Starting in the colonial period--and as contemporary as today’s headlines--the apocalyptic style has shaped public policy in the United States. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War, was an apocalyptic anthem in which Christians sang that their “eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” And that idea was plucked right out of the pages of Revelation.
There are many ways to read the complex and colorful visions in Revelation. The official Catholic position is that Revelation should be read as prophetic allegory and metaphor and that Catholics should not be watching the clock for Christ’s return. Within Protestantism, the range of apocalyptic views is vast, with most mainline denominations also downplaying the significance of Biblical apocalyptic prophecy.
In Revelation, God tells John of Patmos that one sign of the “end times” is a series of “tribulations” including wars, disease, famine, greed, and widespread sinful immorality. In the mid 1800s, theologian John Nelson Darby claimed to have decoded the timeline by which God had preordained specific historical epochs or dispensations, including the final dispensation in which the end times would occur.7 In this timeline, devout Christians are “raptured” up into heavenly protection before the tribulations begin. Then the sinful are punished, and Jesus Christ returns to rule over his loyal flock for one thousand years--a millennium. This combination of pretribulationist and premillennialist views can encourage passivity, but there are interpretations that encourage religious and political activism as well.
In the early 1900s, a group of theological conservatives defended premillennial dispensationalism while denouncing mainline Protestant denominations. They complained that the leaders of the Presbyterians and Baptists (and to a lesser extent Methodists and Episcopalians) were drifting away from church fundamentals and compromising with modern science, popular culture, and liberalism. Thus was born the religious movement called “fundamentalism.”8 After World War II, a large group of theologically conservative Protestants who rejected the closed and rigid style of the fundamentalists emerged as what are now called “evangelicals.” Some evangelicals who directly experience the presence of the Holy Spirit as part of a conversion event describe their encounter as being “born again.” Though polls vary, a sensible figure is that, broadly defined, evangelicals compose roughly 35% of the population in the United States.9 A large portion believe that Satan meddles in world politics and promotes sinfulness and strife.
Starting in the 1970s, author Hal Lindsey drew a huge audience of fundamentalists and evangelicals with a series of books claiming that the countdown clock of the end times had begun to tick with the founding of the state of Israel in the Middle East, an event that was portrayed as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. For some Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists the text in Revelation is read as a timetable and script for the end times, complete with a massive battle between God and Satan on the plains of Armageddon, located in Israel. A handful of Catholics also read Revelation in this way. When preachers tell them to look for the “signs of the times,” they look for signs that the end times have begun. And when the end time does arrive, the activities--both religious and political--of the faithful must change dramatically.
Such Christians believe that in the end times, an agent of Satan will appear as an actual world political leader who tricks devout Christians into helping build a one-world government and a one-world religion. This figure is called the Antichrist, and true Christians must resist him to protect their soul. They also must reject the Antichrist’s “mark of the beast,” represented by the number 666, which some fear is hidden in supermarket bar codes, security codes in paper currency, computer software, or tiny implantable microchips. They must fight cosmic evil in the secular world through moral persuasion, political activism, confrontation, and sometimes even violence.
As Frances FitzGerald explains:
One destructive tendency that can emerge from this belief system is the search to discern just who is this Antichrist building a “new world order;” what is the religion of the Antichrist, and what group of people are the agents of the Antichrist? According to Robert Fuller: “Today, fundamentalist Christian writers see the Antichrist in such enemies as the Muslim world, feminism, rock music, and secular humanism. The threat of the Antichrist’s imminent takeover of the world’s economy has been traced to the formation of the European Economic Community, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, ...and the introduction of universal product codes.”11
Examples of how this type of dualistic apocalypticism has influenced public policy include colonial witch-hunts in New England; attacks on Catholics in the 1800s; claims beginning in the early 1900s that Jews controlled the media, banks, and colleges; the Palmer Raids against immigrants in 1919 and 1920; the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s; and the 1990s conspiracy theories about a secret homosexual agenda. Although this type of demonizing or dualistic apocalypticism is rooted in a religious tradition, it has morphed into a secular style as well, with examples in popular culture ranging from the movie “Apocalypse Now!” to a series of television shows including “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”12
Belief in apocalyptic prophecy is widespread in the United States During the first Gulf War, 14% of one CNN national poll thought it was the beginning of Armageddon, and “American bookstores were experiencing a run on books about prophecy and the end of the world.”13 In 1993, 20% of those polled thought the second coming of Christ would occur near the year 2000.14
If premillennial dispensationalists believe that they will be raptured before the tribulations, however, why would so many of them be actively involved in secular politics?15 Why not just wait passively for the end? The answer lies in a variety of theological justifications asserting that devout Christians must obey God’s command to achieve “dominion” over the earth.
Protestant philosopher Francis A. Schaeffer and theologian Cornelius van Till urged a more “muscular” and interventionist form of Christianity that became popular in the late 1970s, influencing Christian Right activists such as Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. These activists adapted the interventionist theology, added conspiracism and demonization, and then spread the message that “spiritual warfare” was needed to cleanse society of the sinister influence of secular humanism.16 Falwell went on to launch the Moral Majority, and he currently claims that Jews and Christians are locked in a joint struggle against a violent Islam founded by the “terrorist” Muhammad.17 LaHaye became co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, which portray Israel as under attack by the forces of the Antichrist.18 One heroic mission undertaken by Christian protagonists portrayed in these novels is the assassination of the former head of the United Nations, who is revealed as the Antichrist himself.19 The series has sold over 70 million copies.
The Christian Coalition, Israel, and the Aliyah
Three religious traditions--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity--ground their prophetic history not just in the Middle East and not just in Jerusalem but on a specific hilltop.20 For Jews, the hilltop is called the Temple Mount, where the sacred Temple of Solomon once stood, commemorating the site where God asked the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac--and where God stayed Abraham’s hand after he had demonstrated his loyalty. The first two temples were destroyed, and it is a common element of Jewish religious tradition that Jews must return to Jerusalem (Zion) and rebuild the third Temple of Solomon, at which time the sacred ark--long lost--will be found. the “day of judgment” for Jews also involves Jerusalem, and the western wall supporting the hillside is a holy place of prayer for observant Jews.21
For Muslims, this same hilltop is considered the Haram Al-Sharif (noble sanctuary) and is the site of one of Islam’s holiest shrines--the Dome of the Rock, also called the Al-Sakhrah mosque--enclosing the rock from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.. The larger Al-Aqsa mosque is also located on the hilltop, as are a number of smaller prayer rooms, domes, and minarets. Some Muslims believe there will be events that take place on Haram Al-Sharif to signal the Islamic end times. These end times include the return of Jesus, who is considered a major prophet by Muslims.22
For some apocalyptic Christians, the return of Jesus requires that Jews return to Israel (the ingathering or Aliyah), and rebuild the third Temple of Solomon on the hilltop Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Rebuilding the Temple of Solomon would violate the sanctity--and most likely destroy--the Islamic religious shrines now located on the hilltop. Some messianic Jews and apocalyptic Christians believe rebuilding the Temple of Solomon should take place anyway and this is a key (but not the only) factor in the growth of a movement called Christian Zionism.
Apocalyptic, millennialist, and dispensationalist thinking has greatly influenced Pat Robertson and other Christian evangelical rightists including Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and Joyce Meyer. This common worldview explains both their activist interest in U.S. foreign policy generally and their particular focus on the Middle East. The impact of such thinking is especially evident in their unqualified support for Israel and their Islamophobic opposition to Palestinian self-determination. The result of this politico-dual-religion amalgam is a movement called Christian Zionism, a source of Christian Right support for the U.S. wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and for a general U.S. presence in the Middle East. However, Christian Right support for Israel does not mean an unequivocal embrace of Jews. Anti-Jewish as well as anti-Islamic and anti-Arab themes have long formed a common stream running through Christian Right ideology and activism.
Christian Right support for Israel comes in many forms, such as lobbying Congress and the administration to adopt pro-Israel policies, intervening in the foreign policy debate on the Palestine-Israel issue, and funding the migration of Eastern European Jews to Israel. The immigration funding is in keeping with a Christian evangelical/fundamentalist belief that the second coming of Christ is preceded by the Aliyah and the rebuilding of the third temple in Jerusalem. This is also why most Christian rightists oppose Palestinian statehood and the removal of Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip--because God promised all of the Biblical land of Canaan to the Israelites.
A major display of the Christian Right’s support for Israel was the 2002 Road to Victory conference, organized by the Christian Coalition and quite unlike any previous Road to Victory conference.23 The keynote speaker was Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, who was invited to address the Solidarity with Israel rally. The galaxy of right-wing stars appearing at the conference either in person or through video included, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), former chair of the foreign relations committee Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), Lt. Col. Oliver North, Alan Keyes, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to the Religion News Service: “Pat Robertson told the Solidarity with Israel rally: ‘We should not ask (Israel) to withdraw (from the occupied territories)--we should stand with them and fight.’… Robertson, who said his support for Israel is longstanding, cited the Book of Genesis, in which God granted Abraham and his descendants the ancient land of Canaan, now believed to be modern Israel.”24 The report added that the “Solidarity with Israel rally…is just one element of a broader program called ‘Praying for Jerusalem.’ The campaign aims to recruit 1 million Christians in 100,000 evangelical churches for a mass prayer for Jerusalem, as well as to promote Christian tourism and purchase of Israeli products.”25
The Road to Victory conference exhibit hall, usually filled with Christian evangelical ministries and organizations, also had a large number of conservative Jewish sects and Christian tourism groups represented. These included: the Israeli Ministry of Tourism; the Manassas, VA-based Christians for Israel/USA, which operates an “Exobus” project that transports Jews from Eastern Europe and the former USSR to Israel; the Front Royal, VA-based Church and Israel, coordinator of the Christian Aliyah Network, which also helps Jews to migrate to Israel; and the Jerusalem-based Bridges for Peace, “a Bible-believing Christian organization supporting Israel” that publishes Dispatch from Jerusalem and features a range of programs including migration and aid.
Also at the conference were groups with more obviously Zionist agendas, such as the Shawnee Mission, KS-based National Unity Coalition for Israel, which boasts 200 Jewish and Christian groups who “stand staunchly in support of a safe and secure Israel;” the New York-based Americans for a Safe Israel, which publishes Outpost and rejects land-for-peace deals in favor of “peace for peace;” and the Washington, DC-based hawkishly pro-Israel Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which publishes Security Affairs.26
Most Christian Zionists support any action of the Israeli government and dismiss the rights of Palestinians,27 but most sectors of Christianity, especially mainline denominations,28 reject such blanket endorsements of Israel. While some Jewish leaders such as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League welcome Christian Zionist support for Israel, others are unhappy with the arrangement.29 Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He cautions that “If, as a reflection of their End Times theology, the message of the Christian Right to U.S. policymakers is ‘don’t be involved in getting the parties to the negotiating table,’ then they certainly are going to be an impediment to the peace process, and that isn’t helpful.”30
Gershom Gorenberg points out that for Christian Zionists, Jews are actors in a play where the final curtain forces them to either convert to Christianity or die in a blaze of fire sent by God.31
Progressive Jewish groups warn American Jews that by forming a coalition with Christian Zionists, the domestic agenda of the Christian Right is given support. One group, Jewish Women Watching, sent out a post card titled “Strange Bedfellows,” enumerating troubling statements by Christian Right leaders Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed. The back of the card was adorned with a condom, the slogan “Practice Safe Politics,” and the warning: “This condom will not protect you from the real intentions of the Christian right wing…abstinence from strange bedfellows is advised.”33
Christian Zionism can easily spill over into religious bigotry against Muslims. According to Paul Boyer, “anti-Islamic rhetoric is at fever pitch today.”34 One source of such rhetoric is the glossy magazine Midnight Call: The Prophetic Voice for the Endtimes. Recent promotional mailings from Midnight Call have included letters headlined: “The Prophetic Return to Israel,” “Islam, Israel and the USA,” and “Revealing the Hidden Truth about the Middle East.” The latter is an advertisement for the book Saddam’s Mystery Babylon: Revealing the Hidden Agenda of the Most Sinister Entity in the Bible. Although bashing Arabs and Muslims as possible agents of the Antichrist is common in this sector of Christian fundamentalism, the most maleficent warnings are reserved for global peace efforts by the European Union and the United Nations, which are seen as part of the Antichrist’s plan for a “new world order” and one-world government.
Mathew Rothschild has dubbed the current Bush administration foreign policy “messianic militarism.”35 This tendency is not unique to the current administration but echoes the history of dualistic apocalypticism and a demonizing form of anticommunism that dominated U.S. culture for most of the 20th century.36 When Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and launched a massive military buildup in the early 1980s, his actions were based on apocalyptic claims from both the Christian Right and a new movement built by hawkish cold war ex-liberals dubbed neoconservatism.
With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the apocalyptic predictions of neoconservative militarists garnered even more support, especially after the neocon-generated Team B reports. Khurram Husain in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues that the neocon “claims were all drawn from worst-case scenarios. But the Team B reports are more significant for the thinking they reveal. The authors made projections of Soviet stockpiles and built up a picture of a Soviet Union bent on dominating the world based on wild speculation.”37
With the collapse of communism in Europe, the United States was reframed as the defender of global civilization against the heathens and barbarians in “rogue states,” where terrorism still festered. This opponent-swap drew from an even earlier apocalyptic focus than anticommunism--a worldview extension of the earliest Christian millennial visions, which came to the United States “from the original, English-speaking heartland, itself grafted on the crusades and the voyages of discovery.”38 According to Kees van der Pijl, a European scholar: “Today, the missionary ideology constructed around the civilisation/barbarity dichotomy must satisfy the tastes of a Western public…because every hegemonic strategy has to build on the available foundation of attitudes and dispositions in the wider population if it is to be effective.” Therefore in the current Bush administration, “the End of History/Axis of Evil line of thinking …argues that for the world to reach its definitive form in terms of civilisation….[it is necessary to] neutralise the states ‘mired in history’ as potential rabble-rousers, the ‘rogue states’ beyond the pale.”39
Such a dualistic apocalyptic vision is shared by most of the Christian Right and many militarist hawks in the neoconservative movement. This coalition of “messianic militarism” eclipses the power of other sectors that helped elect Bush: moderate corporate internationalists, anti-interventionist libertarians, and paleoconservatives--so named because of their allegiance to the isolationism, unilateralism, and xenophobia of the Old Right. (See Glossary of Right Web.)
The Christian Coalition finally collapsed, but Christian Zionist groups continue to flourish.
Revelation and Resolution
It is important to avoid stereotyping all evangelicals as backward, ignorant, uneducated, socially marginal, ultraconservative, fanatical, or dualistic. Some of the most theologically conservative Christian groups who embrace apocalyptic scenarios have long been involved in working for peace, social justice, and economic fairness. Though many white evangelicals vote Republican, most do not vote at all (like most citizens), and some are independents or Democrats. Meanwhile, more than 90% of black evangelicals vote Democratic.40 Glib phrases such as “religious political extremist” and “radical religious right” may make great applause lines for liberal or secular politicos, but they hamper serious public discourse about the appropriate ground rules for the intersection of spiritual belief and political activism.
The problem is not religion, evangelicalism, or fundamentalism but rather dualism and demonization by any belief system--spiritual or secular--wielded in order to cast one’s opponents as wholly evil while declaring one’s own group as wholly good. Employing such dualism, a bully can justify aggressive action and disguise self-serving motives behind the cloak of greater good, Manifest Destiny, or God’s will. If we as a nation wish to steer our political leaders away from generating a global apocalypse of the violent confrontational variety, then we need to ensure that a vigorous policy debate about the politico-religious juncture becomes a priority.
(Copyright 2003-2008 Chip Berlet and Nikhil Aziz)
This article originally appeared on Right Web as "Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy," December 5, 2003. This version has a few small updates.
Chip Berlet and Nikhil Aziz are contributors to the Right Web, (online at www.irc-online.org). Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive Boston think tank, and has written about the political right for over 20 years. He attended the University of Denver where Dean John Rice (Condoleezza's dad) was a progressive mentor. Aziz, when this was written, was director of research at PRA. He has a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Denver, and is curently the Excutive Director of Grassroots International.
More on the Christian Right and Apocalyptic Millennialism
The World According to Tim LaHaye: A Series by Chip Berlet
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Behind Hagee's Vision of God's End Game | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)
Behind Hagee's Vision of God's End Game | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)