Palin's Apocalyptic Nightmare?: The End Times and Christian Right Dominionism
The Apocalypse actually is one of those terms that is widely misunderstood. It doesn't mean a Mel Gibson movie. It does mean, however, the idea that there's an approaching confrontation that will change the nature of society and history, and during which hidden truths will be revealed. That's how Brenda Brasher, a sociologist, describes apocalypticism as a kind of way of thinking.
The words "Apocalypse," "revelation" and "prophecy" are all related. And that's an important thing to understand, because it goes to a particular reading of the Bible's Book of Revelation. Apocalypticism comes from a religious base. It's woven into our political culture. You can trace it back to the Zoroastrians and the early messianic Jews. It gets picked up in early Christianity and, in the Bible, is found primarily in the last book of the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation.
Apocalypticism can be a drive toward speaking truth to power. Apocalypticism can be confronting injustice. Apocalypticism, however, can be built around demonization and scapegoating.What I want to deal with today is the different interpretations of biblical prophecy, and how they can be framed and reframed to achieve very different political ends.
Christian activist Ruby Sales writes about the difference between what she calls "imperial Christianity" and "liberation Christianity" and her thesis goes to the heart of how Biblcal prophecy is interpreted within Christianity.
Apocalyptic millennialism is a particular kind of apocalypticism. What that means is that there is a particular interpretation of the Apocalypse that is built around the idea of a thousand-year period; and how that thousand-year period, or this long period of time, (perhaps a thousand years), is interpreted is incredibly important. Why? Because back in the early days of Christianity, John of Patmos, who lived in a cave, had visions and he wrote them down, and he said that they were a revelation from God.
The people who put together the Bible originally thought that John of Patmos was the same John who wrote one of the Gospels that open the New Testament. Many scholars now argues that, perhaps, this is not the case. But no matter how you come down on the question of who John was, John was into some pretty heavy stuff.
I urge you to go read the book of Revelation. I would point out that in the Catholic Church many versions of the Bible have a disclaimer at the beginning of the book of Revelation that says something like: This is a magnificent, poetic work of all kinds of imagery...and you shouldn't read it literally.
The dilemma is that many evangelical Protestants have been taught to read the book of Revelation literally, and look for signs of the End Times. This creates a certain problem because if you read the book of Revelation in a particular way you can read it as a warning that, at a particular moment in history, Christians will find themselves in the situation of a literal struggle with Satan that will culminate in a battle of Armageddon. Now, specifically, Armageddon refers to the plains of Megiddo, which are at the foot of a mountain in Israel in the Middle East. So a lot of evangelical Protestant biblical understanding of prophecy focuses on current events in the Middle East
How do we know that the End Times have arrived if we are one of those Christians who reads the book of Revelation in this literal sense of futuristic prophecy of something that we may experience in our lives as Christians? Well, there are signs of the times: there is sinfulness, there is depravity, there are wars and rumors of war, there are diseases.
There is also a specific set of people who show up. One is the Antichrist, who is a very popular world leader, who is seen as building a one-world government, or a New World Order. And if you're really a little bit paranoid, you can take out your dollar bill and see words written on it that mean "New World Order." (However, if you were taking Latin you'd get an F, because that is not really what it says. But a lot of people believe that to be true.)
And during this period of the End Times, the forces of evil get together and create a False Prophet, who builds a one-world religion. And you can interpret, then, the book of Revelation as the idea that in the End Times, powerful political and religious leaders will sell you out. You have to be scrupulously on guard against being betrayed by powerful political and religious leaders, and you have to engage in spiritual warfare with agents of Satan. Now, most Christians don't read the Bible that way around the world. But in the United States, there is a particular group of Christians who do read the Bible that way.
The Millennium comes from the idea, then, of a thousand-year reign. Christianity is divided into those who are postmillennial and premillennial. Now, all that means is that if you believe in premillennialism, Christ comes back at the beginning of the Millennium and reigns and rules for a thousand years -- the Millennium. If you're postmillennialist, you believe that Christ comes back after godly Christians have seized control of secular society for a thousand years.
Postmillennialists tend to be naturally politically active, because they think they have to take control of secular society and hold it for a thousand years, or a long period of time. Christian Reconstructionists, a form of Dominion theology, are postmillennialists who believe that they must take control of secular society.
Here's the catch -- there aren't that many Christian Reconstructionists out there. The vast majority of Christian evangelicals in the United States are called premillennial dispensationalists. All "dispensationalist" means is a person who believes that all of time is divided by God into certain "epochs."
"Premillennial" means Christians who expect Christ to come back anytime now, and they're looking for the signs of the End Times. What can the signs of the End Times be? Plagues. Is AIDS a plague? Is AIDS a sign that we're in the End Times? Natural disasters? The tsunami? The Hurrican? Perhaps that's a sign that we're in the End Times. Widespread immorality? Just watch the CHristian RIght program "The 700 Club" -- we're awash with immorality. So there are a lot of folks who have come to the idea that what is going on is that the world has enterered the epoch of the End Times.
Premillennialists who believe in this have been hastened along by a very popular series of fiction books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins called The Left Behind series. And this series begins after something called the "Rapture" has taken place. Not all premillennialists believe in the Rapture. But if you do, you believe that when Christ is coming back there will be this moment when godly Christians will be pulled up into a safe heavenly embrace. And they will miss what are called the "tribulations" -- some part or all of them.
If you think you are going be Raptured before the tribulations, why bother voting? Why bother becoming politically active? There is no theological reason, then, to become politically active. And the vast majority of Christian evangelicals in the United States are premillennial. And those that believe in the Rapture...what is going to motivate them to get involved in politics?
Well, it turns out that premillennialists as a major force in Christian evangelicalism are a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout the history of Christianity, this has not been the major mode of thinking about the End Times, and the study of the End Times, which is called eschatology. What is it that gets these premillennialists back into the voting booths and back into political activism?
There are a couple things. One is that throughout history we have to understand that Christian participation in the political process is nothing new. If you are looking at apocalyptic forms of Christian evangelical behavior, or Christian activism, you can look at the abolition movement; you can look at "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which is an apocalyptic anthem: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." That's the Apocalypse.
You can look at the Temperance Movement; and you can look at all sorts of periods where this kind of Christian activism has had a very progressive outcome. And, of course, the most obvious example would be in terms of Frederick Douglass and the abolition movement using apocalyptic language. But Martin Luther King Jr. also used apocalyptic language, and he used it for good to talk about speaking truth to power, to confront injustice so that there would be a very different world that followed.
This is to say, then, that apocalypticism, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. Apocalypticism tied to demonization and dualism generally has a bad outcome. If you read the book of Revelation there is betrayal by trusted political and religious leaders in the End Times. They might be conspiring against you. And you see evidence of that in the idea of the Mark of the Beast, the number 666. In the book of Revelation there is a particular interpretation of a passage that says: In the End Times, Christians will be asked to betray the true religion and deny Christ. And they might receive a Mark of the Beast.
If that is the setup, you are creating a way of viewing the world that is completely dualistic. There is a good us, and we're with God; there is a bad them, and they're with the devil. And this creates a dynamic that is profoundly antidemocratic because where do you then get into a compromise and a debate with people who are working with the devil? What's the compromise? This is what Brenda Brasher writes about.
Now, the idea of this kind of biblical understanding created a problem for evangelicals. It was very hard, after the Scopes monkey trial, to get evangelicals active politically. Some of you may recall that the Scopes monkey trial was back many, many decades ago in 1925. And we tend to forget that as pluralists, us democratic pluralists of the world, we lost the Scopes trial. Creationism was certified by the state of Tennessee as the instructional method, not evolution.
But what happened in that struggle was that evangelicals and fundamentalists were stigmatized in the popular culture as irrational and stupid. Now, in fact, that wasn't particularly fair, but it was widely thought to be true, and so a lot of evangelicals and fundamentalists retreated from political participation in the1930s. It's important, then, to look at what brought them back. It was the Cold War, and people like Billy Graham and others worrying that many evangelicals and fundamentalists were not participating and voting, and that weakened democracy in its battle against godless Communism. Therefore, there were all these get-out-the-vote campaigns. The Cub Scouts in the '50s did little get-out-the-vote, Liberty Bells on people's doorbells, to get people back into the voting booth. I did that tagging along with my older brother in 1956.
But until the mid-1970s, you could not predict the voting pattern of a Christian evangelical or fundamentalist, based on their denomination or their specific religious beliefs. There was not a divide that could be measured statistically in a significant way based on denomination and religious belief.
That all began to change, partly because Jimmy Carter announced in 1976 he was born-again. When Jimmy Carter announced that he was born-again, a number of previously nonvoting evangelicals and fundamentalists went back to the polls to vote for him, because they were so ecstatic that someone who announced themselves as born-again could be running for President. It legitimized their religious faith and their religious outlook in many ways.
What happened, of course, was that some of the political activists who in '64 had parlayed Goldwater into a doomed Presidential run, looked at what Carter had achieved by bringing voters back to the polls from the evangelical and fundamentalists communities, and these right-wing organizers said: that's really a powerful bloc of voters. We could organize people like that, too.
And these are conservatives -- like Weyrich and Falwell--and in 1979 a bunch of them met and decided that Falwell should start a mass movement among evangelicals called the "Moral Majority" and that it should be built around stopping abortion as a way to get evangelicals to start voting Republican.
But they were faced with this theological problem: If you were a literal, Bible-reading Christian fundamentalist or evangelical, you needed a theological justification to engage in political activity of any sort. You can't just decide that you have two realms, the secular and the religious, and there is no connection. There is always a connection. So you need a theological justification for political participation.
Starting in the 1960s, the postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists, especially R.J. Rushdoony, began to write polemics at the broader premillennial community, and what they argued was that there was a failure to take back America for God. America was becoming increasingly secular, it was straying away from God, and, as postmillennialists, they obviously saw the need for political participation. They thought that people who didn't see that need, no matter what their eschatological outlook, no matter what their view of the End Times, needed to deal with political struggles in some way because they saw widespread sinfulness around America.
Francis Schaeffer was a very popular theologian based in Switzerland, and Schaeffer and Rushdoony had a sort of intellectual dialogue about the proper role of Christians in a society that is increasingly secular. And Schaeffer started to write a series of books and appeared in a series of films that were very influential in the late 1970s, early '80s. Rushdoony actually once went and met Francis Schaeffer, but the main influence is intellectual in that Schaeffer was at times clarifying his views in relation to the views of Rushdoony.
Scaheffer appeared in a series of 16mm films with C. Everett Koop -- at the time a neo-natal intensive care surgeon. What they argued was that Protestants had shown their failure to uphold God's will by their resistance to participating in the anti-abortion movement. And Schaeffer and Koop did a series of films that argued that there was a connection between abortion, euthanasia, the Holocaust and slavery.
For decades there had been a concervative Catholic anti-abortion movement.What's interesting is that there was a pre-existing Catholic movement called The Seamless Garment Movement that also opposed abortion and euthanasia. But they also opposed war, nuclear weapons and the death penalty. Now, this is a completely consistent theology of life -- you can make an argument for that viewpoint. It's much more difficult to make an argument that you are against abortion, you are actually against euthanasia, but you are for the death penalty, you are for war and you are for nuclear weapons.
But Schaeffer and Koop pulled it off -- it's all about framing, after all. And they did it by distracting people, by trying to make the link with slavery and the Holocaust. These were very hot-button issues, tremendously emotional, real issues of oppression and genocide. So what they were able to argue was that if you are against slavery, if you are against the Holocaust, you should be against abortion. And soon millions of Protestants were active in the anti-abortion movement along with the mostly conservative Catholics.
These Schaeffer and Koop films, "Whatever Happened to the Hunma Race," were shown in Protestant churches across America and there began to develop this idea that political participation was necessary. But for some, a theological element was still missing.
What Tim LaHaye did, when he was writing his nonfiction books, was to take this idea of political participation and say: Look. Sure, the tribulations are coming, and we believe that we're going be Raptured up before the tribulations. But before the real tribulations, there are the "pretribulation" tribulations.
Now, if there are pretribulation tribulations, all bets are off. It doesn't matter when or if you think you're going be Raptured , this is a whole other game. And in these pretribulation tribulations, there is a secular-humanist conspiracy, in league with the devil, to destroy Christianity before the Rapture. And if that happens, there will be no Rapture, there will be no Christians going to heaven, and we are all in deep trouble.
This is a very powerful argument. And so let's look at apocalyptic dualism, this particular reading of the book of Revelation in which we think that there is a conspiracy of political and religious figures in the End Times, and they are out to destroy America through this thing called secular humanism.
What is the evidence of this? Well, the evidence of secular humanism as part of the satanic plot domestically is abortion rights, gay rights, the feminist movement, any kind of acceptance of non-Christian religion. All of this is evidence, in domestic policy, of satanic attempts to destroy America. And this plot involves sending community organizers across America to stir up trouble and overturn tradition, family, and property rights.
In foreign policy what is it? According to Midnight Call magazine, not only are abortion and the feminist movement and gay rights all signs of the End Times, and part of the satanic end-times plan to betray Christianity, but they imply strongly, and sometimes state outright, that The Antichrist is part of the system that is building world cooperation through the United Nations and other groups. They specifically think that the one-world religion of the Antichrist is probably Islam. Now, this provides a tremendous motivation for the so-called "war on terror." Because this is not just a war on terror, it is a war on the satanic religion of Islam.
I would think in a civilized society this would be recognized as outrageous religious bigotry, and the fact that it is not being condemned is terrifying to me. But, beyond that, if Christ is coming back for the premillennialist, where does Christ land? Why, he lands on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. What is currently on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? A mosque and several Islamic religious shrines.
This is how one gets into an intractable battle where there is no solution for the Middle East. If, in fact, Israel represents God's plan for the return of Jesus, there is no reason to have any criticism of any Israeli government policy whatsoever. If you think this is not important in the Bush Administration, I suggest you do a little reading into the role of Christian Zionism in building the most hardened kind of support for aggressive policies by the Israeli government..
I would urge you to understand that there are also people who are critics of Israel who are also outrageous anti-Semites. We need to find a balance here between being critical of Christian Zionism as a kind of plan for which there is no compromise and also, at the same time, be able to criticize those folks who invoke anti-Semitic imagery and criticism of Israel. I think that decent people can find that balance.
Brenda Brasher explains that the core dilemma is that if you convert a battle over land, or policy or politics, into a struggle between cosmic good and evil, there is no compromise. And that is true in both foreign and domestic policy. If we frame our political enemies as agents of Satan, there is no compromise with them because we, of course, would be betraying our religion and our ethics by having any compromise. So I argue that this whole dualitic narrative needs to be confronted.
So when we enter into this dialogue over the outcome of these erligious beliefs, and where it is going to take America, we need to avoid terms like "religious political extremists" or "lunatic fringe."
Largely, this kind of demonization got transferred in America from the idea of the Red Menace, to the idea of the New World Order. I think that we can have a sense of humor about this and really engage people in conversation.
Now, Dominionism ranges across a lot of different views. There are the pretribulation perspectives that demonize Islam. There is Christian Reconstructionism, which is kind of Calvinism on crack. And, at the same time, there are soft Dominionists. There are people who think a Christian nation is a good idea, but they are not really prepared to move toward theocracy. So we need to say there is a range of beliefs.
I do think that this conference is a very good start. I think it is really heartwarming to know that we are still living in a society where we can have this kind of conference, and I would urge all of us to get involved and really begin to learn about some of these distinctions, some of these understandings of the Bible and of the End Times.
This is a slightly revised transcript of a speech Given in April 2005 at the conference Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right, organized by the New York Open Center, Lapis and The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
The background to this worldview is explained in detail in a HuffPost Off the Bus blog I wrote last May: Pastor Hagee’s Armageddon Politics.
More on the Christian Right and Apocalyptic Millennialism
Palin's Church Promotes Gay Conversion -- by Fred Clarkson
The World According to Tim LaHaye: A Series by Chip Berlet
Chip Berlet is Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates
Election cycle disclaimer: These are my personal essays written on my own time.
For additional reading, try: The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates and More on the Christian Right.
Palin's Apocalyptic Nightmare?: The End Times and Christian Right Dominionism | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
Palin's Apocalyptic Nightmare?: The End Times and Christian Right Dominionism | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)