Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/23/2014

“Prophecy, Politics, and the Popular. . . American Christian Fundamentalism’s New World Order.”



This post is long and serious. I trust any American who wants to understand American foreign policy, especially relating to Israel, will find time to read it.

While this article concentrates on somewhat earlier times (the 1970s and 1980s), it discusses the influence of the dispensationalists on George W. Bush. Leadership for the religious/political ideas and influences of the fundamentalist Christian right has passed to John Hagee of San Antonio –but the thrust of their message and work has not changed. If anything, with Hagee’s Christians United for Israel they have become better organized and more vocal.

This article is specifically about the Left Behind novels, but it discusses the theological/political background of the novels which has not, of course, changed.

This excerpt begins on the sixth page of the article. I have removed footnotes because it was not possible to include the sources. Anyone who would like a copy of the entire article may comment here or message me, and I will send you a copy.

NOTE: changes in type face below indicate only problems with copying into WordPress and are not significant.

McAlister, Melani. “Prophecy, Politics, and the Popular: The Left Behind Series and Christian Fundamentalism’s New World Order.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 102:4 (Fall 2003): 773-798.

The Left Behind series is deeply embedded in a long-established tradition in fundamentalist thought that looks to the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation for information about the end times and the Second Coming of Christ. Fundamentalists generally regard the Bible as literal truth, but, in the face of the allusive and elusive texts of the prophecies, they must become hermeneutic experts, unpacking highly metaphorical passages for their predictive value. Drawing on the interpretations developed by John Darby in the nineteenth century and popularized in the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, generations of fundamentalists have held that the Bible’s accuracy can be tested and confirmed by political developments, especially those concerning Israel. While the doctrinal specifics vary among different groups, all agree that in the Bible, one important signal of the approach of the Second Coming of Christ is the return of Jews to the Holy Land.

Then, according to prophecy, as the ‘‘end times’’ approach, an Antichrist will arise, claiming to bring peace. During the ‘‘tribulations’’ under the Antichrist, both Jews and Christian believers will be persecuted. (Various groups disagree about whether the Rapture of believers will happen before or after the Tribulation. The Left Behind novels are exemplars of the theory of ‘‘pre-Tribulation Rapture.’’ Pat Robertson is a well-known proponent of the belief that the Rapture will happen after the Tribulation.) All agree that as God shows his hand and the truth of the Christian Bible’s prophecies are revealed, there will be mass conversion of Jews to the recognition that Jesus is their Messiah. At the end of seven years, Israel, threatened by a confederacy of most of the nations of the world, will face down her enemies at a final, terrible battle of Armageddon, during which Christ himself will return to do battle for Israel. After Christ’s return, the millennial reign of one thousand years of peace begins.

Evangelical enthusiasm for prophecy study quickened after the founding of Israel in 1948, but it was mobilized to a near frenzy when, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Israelis occupied all of Jerusalem, just in time for the revival of fundamentalism in the United States. For many, Israeli control of the Holy City was a crucial indication—perhaps the indication—that ‘‘this generation’’ will see the coming of Christ. In 1970, Hal Lindsey published The Late, Great Planet Earth, a popularization of fundamentalist doctrines of the end times that used accessible language and a pseudo-hip writing style to target worried baby boomers on the edge of the counterculture. It went on to become the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s.

Lindsey, like others before and after him, highlighted the political significance of his interpretations of biblical prophecy: the Middle East wars that had happened—and those that were coming—were predicted and explained in the Bible. Lindsey also aimed to bring the study of prophecy a new kind of panache: he wanted to reach audiences, particularly young audiences, who might be interested in politics first and convinced of Christian revelation as a result. At the same time, he also pushed hard against traditional fundamentalist opposition to ‘‘worldliness’’: Christians must begin to pay attention to politics, he argued, and in particular to foreign policy, because the Middle East, particularly the nation of Israel (and its allies and enemies) would be central to the greatest religious test of all time. In this context, political events become important because of how they fit into a biblical scheme, and interpreting that scheme is a complex and politically saturated process. Many mainline Protestant leaders have spoken out against end-times theology in general, and even evangelicals some- times have strong theological disagreements with an approach that focuses heavily on the possibility of an imminent Second Coming. Yet the appeal remains quite powerful. Left Behind uses images, character types, and even whole scenes from the subcultural industry of novels and movies that, since the early 1970s, have been making prophecy, the Rapture, and Armageddon staples of evangelical popular culture. As one scholar of evangelical- ism has pointed out, evangelical fascination with end-times theology can in part be explained by the fact that prophecy interpretation can be fun: when fundamentalists debate what the founding of the European Union signifies or how the oil crisis or Desert Storm fit into the prophetic scheme, both politics and religion get energized by their relationship to each other.

These general views about prophecy and politics were explicitly part of the fundamentalist Christian activism of the late 1970s, when evangelicals began making themselves felt as a political force. In 1978, Jerry Falwell told reporters, and later repeated in his preaching, that he believed that Christians must involve themselves politically in such a way as to guarantee that the United States would support Israel: ‘‘I believe that if we fail to protect Israel, we will cease to be important to God. . . . We can and must be involved in guiding America towards a biblical position regarding her stand on Israel.’’ When the Moral Majority was founded in 1979, one of its founding principles read, ‘‘We support the state of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere . . . ’’

The writers of the Left Behind novels hail from that earlier era, in the 1970s and 1980s, when fundamentalism’s political power was on the rise. LaHaye was active in the Moral Majority, and in 1987, was deposed as cochairman of Jack Kemp’s presidential campaign for having called Catholicism a ‘‘false religion’’ and for blaming Jewish suffering on the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Jenkins, who does all of the actual writing for the series, was a staff writer for the fundamentalist powerhouse, the Moody Bible Institute, as well as the collaborator on Billy Graham’s autobiography and ghostwriter for several sports autobiographies before he turned to the series. Although LaHaye has, until recently, enjoyed less visibility than television preachers like Falwell and Robertson, his intellectual and cultural influence has been tremendous. He is one of the founders of the Council for National Politics, the New Right network that has included among its members John Ashcroft, Pat Robertson, and Joseph Coors. He is also married to Beverly LaHaye, founder of the conservative Concerned Women for America, the antigay, antifeminist, antiabortion, and pro-creationist enterprise that currently claims to be ‘‘the largest public policy women’s organization’’ [still very much alive and influencing people—see their webpage] in the country. Even before the Left Behind series, LaHaye had published more than forty books on marriage and family, ‘‘sexual adjustment,’’ and, of course, biblical prophecy. Recently, Jerry Falwell established the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Given these credentials, it is perhaps not surprising that the other major response of secular commentators has been to see the novels as the vanguard for a revival of 1980s-style political fundamentalism. And at one level, this view is entirely justified. As Michelle Goldberg argued in an article on last year, it is surely significant that ‘‘the most popular fiction in the country creates a gripping narrative that pits American Christians against a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping, abortion-promoting, gun- controlling globalists—all of it revolving around the sovereignty of Israel.’’ And with Representative Dick Armey (R–Texas), Tom DeLay (R–Texas), [Note: both have lost their seats in Congress] and Jim Inhofe (R–Oklahoma) vying to become the most visible and hardline of Israel’s congressional supporters—in an MSNBC interview last year, Armey called for the transfer of the Palestinian population out of the West Bank, before offering a half-hearted retraction the next day; Inhofe said on the House floor that Israel should keep the West Bank ‘‘because God said so’’— the on-the-ground political power of Christian Zionism is undeniable. And grassroots churches are increasingly in the mix, raising money to fund Jewish immigrants to populate Israeli settlements, for example, or joining the estimated 16,000  congregations who participated in ‘‘Pray for Israel’’ day in October 2002.

When President Bush called for Sharon to withdraw Israel’s tanks from Palestinian territory in the spring of 2002, Falwell and others organized the religious right to send nearly 100,000 e-mails to the White House to protest the request. When the Christian Coalition held its Rally for Israel in October 2002, President Bush sent a videotaped message, while Tom DeLay and the mayor of Jerusalem both gave speeches. In fact, the enthusiastic embrace of Israeli ‘‘security’’ and Israeli settlements includes not only a strong push in Congress, but also a close alliance with the Israeli leader- ship—an alliance that goes back to Labor’s embrace of fundamentalism in the 1970s, when the Israeli government began courting evangelical leaders, in part by hosting Holy Land tours for well-known preachers (including Falwell, and Bailey Smith of the Southern Baptist Convention). Those connections only intensified under the right-wing Likud government elected in 1978 and they continue into the present. In January 2002, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., held the first of a series of meetings with conservative Christian leaders and launched a drive to encourage Christian tourism to Israel; later in the year, Sharon spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of evangelicals in Jerusalem. Observers argue that these activities are making a real difference, not because of Bush’s evangelical belief (or his advisors’ Jewish ones), but  for  quite  pragmatic  political  reasons. While one theory argues  that  President  Bush  is  aiming  to  secure  the  position  of Jeb Bush in Florida, where his strong support for Israel is also winning him increasing support from Jewish voters, this is only a small part of the story. Many Congressional Republicans have few Jewish constituents but a large number of conservative Christian ones, and their support has been instrumental in pushing Congress to more hawkish positions. As one commentator in the Jerusalem Post put it, ‘‘The US is Israel’s best friend largely because the American Christian community wills it to be so.’’

To the degree that critics of the Christian right see these actions as only as a revitalizing version of Reagan-era Christian activism, however, they are likely to miss the important ways in which the political culture of fundamentalism is changing—maintaining deeply conservative views on Israel and U.S. foreign policy generally, but revamping its cultural politics. In the Left Behind novels, we see not only what one reviewer has called the ‘‘conspiratorial balderdash’’ of fundamentalist political ideology, but also a significant outward reach, in terms of both style and content. The Left Behind novels claim to be about the future—‘‘Prophecy is history written in advance,’’ LaHaye once said—but they are also very much about the present, and a new kind of fundamentalist self-fashioning that self-consciously reaches out to the larger world, in part to evangelize that world, certainly, but also in part to construct a complex set of connections to it. As evangelical performance, these novels struggle to enact modernity, and to establish both for their protagonists and implicitly for their readers the kind of broad cultural reach that might authorize fundamentalist mappings of American global politics.


%d bloggers like this: