The Republic of T.

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Caught Up in the Raptured (Like It Or Not)

It may be wrong, but I find it easy to poke fun at people who are “rooting for the Rapture” these days (I’m not the only one, even the folks at Christian Alliance for Progress find it worth a chuckle or two); the people who are breaking out the party favors over what’s happening in the Middle East these days. Maybe that’s because it’s easier and less frightening than taking them seriously. Maybe that’s because taking them seriously feels something like being wedged into the back of a bus that’s being driven over a cliff by escaped asylum inmates,

Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson thinks we should take them seriously. Or at least CNN should take them seriously the next time they produce a show about the belief in impending apocalypse. (Or is that “longing for”?)

ZAHN : Welcome back. Our top-story coverage continues with our look at the question of why so many conservative Christians in the U.S. are taking the fighting in the Mideast as a sign that the end of the world may be near. And joining me now, the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

CARLSON: Now, two things about this. Conservative Christians believe that fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is a sign of the End Times? And they trot on Jerry Falwell to prove it? As if he stands for all conservative Christians?

Only at CNN could people have such contempt for the intelligence of so-called conservative Christians that they could believe that they believe this skirmish — these series of skirmishes constitute the beginning of the Apocalypse. And second, the obvious point: If not breaking news, then the end of the world. How is that for a grabber?

Well, based on their own comments, at least some of them do, Tucker. (Do Tucker? Hmmm.) But you don’t even have to take the Rapture Ready Forum commenters at their word. There are whole organizations of these folks, like the one I blogged about, and they’re advising this administration on Middle East foreign policy.

What’s more they get results. The post I just mentioned links to a Village Voice article about how the Bush administration subtly changed how it talked about the Middle East after a “come-to-Jesus-meeting” with the Apostolic Congress. (Check out the big picture of Dubya and Laura on the homepage.) Now AlterNet has another article about a similar organization the Bush administration seems to be listening to pretty closely.

At the center of it all is Pastor John Hagee, a popular televangelist who leads the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. While Hagee has long prophesized about the end times, he ratcheted up his rhetoric this year with the publication of his book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” in which he argues that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which, as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said would cause “a political earthquake.”

At CUFI’s kick-off banquet at the Washington Hilton, attended by over 3,500 members, Republican support for both Hagee’s effort and his drumbeat for war with Iran were on full view. Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman told the group that “no regime is more central to the global jihad” than Iran. Just two days before, Newt Gingrich and John McCain made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to sound the same message, leading Benny Elon, a member of the Israeli Knesset, to comment to the Jerusalem Post that their remarks originated with Hagee. Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback also addressed the group, and Bush sent words of support to the gathering. Republicans, and even some Democrats, spoke at CUFI events to show their “support for Israel.” But while public and media attention was on the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Hagee’s focus continued to be on Iran.

… Hagee doesn’t fear a nuclear conflagration, but rather God’s wrath for standing by as Iran executes its supposed plot to destroy Israel. A nuclear confrontation between America and Iran, which he says is foretold in the Book of Jeremiah, will not lead to the end of the world, but rather to God’s renewal of the Garden of Eden. But Hagee is ultimately less concerned with the fate of Israel or the Jews than with a theocratic Christian right agenda. When Jesus returns for his millennial reign, he tells his television audience, “the righteous are going to rule the nations of the earth When Jesus Christ comes back, he’s not going to ask the ACLU if it’s all right to pray, he’s not going to ask the churches if they can ordain pedophile bishops and priests, he’s not going to ask if it’s all right to put the Ten Commandments in the statehouses. He’s not going to endorse abortion, he’s going to run the world by the word of God The world will never end. It’s going to become a Garden of Eden, and Christ is going to rule it.”

Now, in light of the influence wielded by people like Hagee and organizations like his, I think maybe they do warrant taking seriously. Even if they don’t speak for a majority of christians, they do seem to speak for a religious demographic that seems to have the ear of the White House, Republican leadership, and even a few Democrats. So, it’s worth paying attention, and assuming that they mean what they say.

In that case, I’d have to disagree with Ross Douthat that talk of theocracy and books like Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us, and American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury (I’ve finished the first two, am 1/4 into the third, and may attempt a triple review when finished) amount to “paranoia.”

This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy.

… The paranoia hasn’t yet burned down to embers. The term theocrat has become a commonplace, employed by bomb-throwing columnists, otherwise-sensible reporters, and “centrist” Republicans such as Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, who recently complained that the GOP was becoming the “party of theocracy.” And now the specter of a looming Khomeini’ism has migrated into the realm of pop sociology, producing a spate of books with titles like The Baptizing of America, Kingdom Coming, Thy Kingdom Come—and, inevitably, American Theocracy, the Kevin Phillips jeremiad that shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list this spring.

Most of these books aspire to be anthropologies, guides for the perplexed that lead the innocent reader through what the subtitle of American Theocracy calls “the perils and politics of radical religion.” There isn’t perfect agreement on what to call the religious radicals in question: Everyone employs theocrat, but Kingdom Coming also proposes Christian nationalist, while The Baptizing of America favors the clunky Christocrat. Others have suggested Christianist, the better to link religious conservatives to Osama bin Laden—and of course there’s the ubiquitous theocon, suggesting a deadly mixture of Oliver Cromwell and Paul Wolfowitz.

I’d also have to disagree with Jesus Politics that Douthat is “half right.”

There is no single Christian politics, and no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen. But this doesn’t free believers from the obligation to strive in political affairs, as they strive in all things, to do what God would have them do. And the moments when God’s will is inscrutable, or glimpsed only through a glass, darkly, are the moments when good-faith arguments between believers ought to bear the greatest fruit.

In today’s America, these arguments are constantly taking place—over issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy; over the potential, and potential limits, of interfaith cooperation; over the past and future of the Religious Right. But they are increasingly drowned out by cries of “theocracy, theocracy, theocracy” and by a zeal, among ostensibly religious intellectuals, to read their fellow believers out of public life and sell their birthright for the blessing of the New York Times.

If you ask me, all one need do is take statements like Hagee’s (bolded above) at face value, and then consider the success that this religious/political demographic has had in terms of (a) getting their own into positions of power, (b) getting the ear of those in power and (c) bending foreign and domestic policy into closer alignment with their beliefs (along with the very structure of our government, if the above-mentioned books are to be believed).

Take them at their words, look at their actions, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they mean what they say and they’re well on their way to accomplishing much of what they’ve stated as their goals. Take a wait and see approach and by the time you realize what’s happened, you’ll wake up in a country you don’t recognize anymore and it might be too late to go back.

But don’t take my word for it, or Michelle Goldberg’s, or James Rudin’s, or Kevin Phillips’ word for it. These folks even give religious historian Karen Armstrong the willies when she considered what it means for America and the world.

The fundamentalists’ rejection of science is deeply linked to their apocalyptic vision. Even the relatively sober ID theorists segue easily into Rapture-speak. “Great shakings and darkness are descending on Planet Earth,” says the ID philosopher Paul Nelson, “but they will be overshadowed by even more amazing displays of God’s power and light. Ever the long-term strategist, YHVH is raising up a mighty army of cutting-edge Jewish End-time warriors.” They all condemn the attempt to reform social ills. When applied socially, evolutionary theory “leads straight to all the woes of modern life”, says the leading ID ideologue Philip Johnson: homosexuality, state-backed healthcare, divorce, single-parenthood, socialism and abortion. All this, of course, is highly agreeable to the Bush administration, which is itself selectively leery of science. It has, for example, persistently ignored scientists’ warnings about global warming. Why bother to implement the Kyoto treaty if the world is about to end? Indeed, some fundamentalists see environmental damage as a positive development, because it will hasten the apocalypse.

This nihilistic religiosity is based on a perversion of the texts. The first chapter of Genesis was never intended as a literal account of the origins of life; it is a myth, a timeless story about the sanctity of the world and everything in it. Revelation was not a detailed programme for the End time; it is written in an apocalyptic genre that has quite a different dynamic. When they described the Jews’ return to their homeland, the Hebrew prophets were predicting the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC – not the second coming of Christ. The prophets did preach a stern message of social justice, however, and like all the major world faiths, Christianity sees charity and loving-kindness as the cardinal virtues. Fundamentalism nearly always distorts the tradition it is trying to defend.

Whatever Bush’s personal beliefs, the ideology of the Christian right is both familiar and congenial to him. This strange amalgam of ideas can perhaps throw light on the behaviour of a president, who, it is said, believes that God chose him to lead the world to Rapture, who has little interest in social reform, and whose selective concern for life issues has now inspired him to veto important scientific research. It explains his unconditional and uncritical support for Israel, his willingness to use “Jewish End-time warriors” to fulfil a vision of his own – arguably against Israel’s best interests – and to see Syria and Iran (who seem to be replacing Saddam as the “enemy of the north”) as entirely responsible for the unfolding tragedy.

Fundamentalists do not want a humanly constructed peace; many, indeed, regard the UN as the abode of Antichrist. The willingness of the US to turn a blind eye to the suffering of innocent people in Lebanon will certainly fuel the rage of the extremists and lead to further acts of terror. We can only hope that it does not take us all the way to Armageddon.

And how are we to avoid taking that trip? How are we going to change course if we can’t even talk honestly about what it is these people say they want, and how far they’ve come towards getting it? If we’re all crammed into the back of that aforementioned bus, hurtling towards the cliff, how are we to avoid taking the plunge (no jumping out, as the doors appear to be welded shut) if questioning the directions and the intent of those in the driver’s seat is dismissed as paranoia?

Chances are, if you’re in the back seat and wedged between moderates on either side of the political spectrum, your concerns are dismissed as hysteria. You an only then assume that they either want to go where things are headed, or at least they don’t mind the trip. And if by chance they realize at the last minute that these maniacs really do plan to take us over the cliff, and finally attempt to take the wheel, you can only hope (pray?) that it’s not too late.

But that’s all. Because the reality is you’re not diving or navigating. You’re just along for the ride. Like it or not.

One Comment

  1. And how are we to avoid taking that trip? How are we going to change course if we can’t even talk honestly about what it is these people say they want, and how far they’ve come towards getting it?

    er, can we wait until they have no credibility whatsoever and move on then? It looks like we’re getting close frankly, at least in the US. Or are we too pessimistic to believe that the US and the world cannot repair itself eventually from the problems these excesses have caused?

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