The Apocalypse and American Politics

“The US is an apocalyptic nation,” writes the terrorism scholar Frances Flannery. For example, according to a Pew poll, seventy-nine percent of American Christians believe that Jesus will someday return, and forty-one percent expect this to occur before 2050. Furthermore, nineteen percent believe that Obama is the Antichrist. And the most powerful religious lobby in the US, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is run by a Texas megachurch pastor named John Hagee who once wrote that “We are standing on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty.” CUFI has fostered close ties with a large number of Republican leaders, including some recent presidential candidates, such as Mike Huckabee, Lindsay Graham, and Ted Cruz.

The influence of apocalyptic beliefs on American policies is more significant than most people realize. The late historian Paul Boyer observed in 2003 that there’s a “shadowy but vital way that belief in biblical prophecy is helping mold grassroots attitudes toward current U.S. foreign policy.” For example, many Christians support Israel for Biblical reasons. Not only does God assure those who bless the Jewish people that they too will be blessed, but the most common interpretation of prophecy among evangelical Christians today identifies Israel as major a player in end-times events. Thus, if Israel is destroyed, God’s plans for humanity would be disrupted, and this means that Christians must do whatever they can to ensure that Israel remains safe.

While apocalypticism often hides in the shadows of American culture, there are plenty of instances in which leading figures made its influence explicit. Consider Ronald Reagan’s words at a 1971 dinner, while he was still Governor of California: “Everything is falling into place. It can’t be too long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now, and they never did in the past.” Regan then added, “Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None.”

According to the Ezekiel, the battle of Gog and Magog will (probably) happen before the battle of Armageddon, when Jesus makes his glorious return to Earth for eternity.

Similarly, George W. Bush reportedly told the former French president Jacques Chirac in 2003 that “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. … the Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. … This confrontation [the Iraq War] is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.” This isn’t the only time Bush mentioned his religious beliefs in the context of America’s wars. He also apparently said to a Palestinian delegation that he pursued the Iraq War because he was “driven with a mission from God.” Bush elaborated: “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

More recently, Sarah Palin weighed in on the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). The EU is religiously significant because, according to many evangelicals, the Antichrist will come to power through the EU. This is what Hagee teachers. Once this occurs, he will establish a “one-world government” that will control global commerce and require everyone to receive a “mark” on either the right hand or forehead (perhaps in the form of an implantable microchip). Thus, Palin wrote on her Facebook page, “Congratulations, smart Brits. Good on you for ignoring all the fear mongering from special interest globalists who tend to aim for that apocalyptic One World Government that dissolves a nation’s self-determination and sovereignty… the EU being a One World Government mini-me.”

Even more, Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, believes that God will “anoint Christian ‘kings’ to preside over an ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ from the wicked to the righteous.” According to Rafael Cruz, Ted is just such a “Christian king.” The purpose of this transfer is to relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.” And earlier this year, Ben Carson (who’s since been offered a place in Donald Trump’s administration) was asked whether he believes the “end of days” are approaching. His response was, somewhat eerily, “You could guess that we are getting closer to that.”

And while Trump is clearly irreligious — he couldn’t even pronounce “2 Corinthians” before a crowd at Liberty University, of all places — his popularity is based in part on his ability to exploit the apocalyptic tendencies of American voters. As Chip Berlet notes, a confluence of factors including immigration, demographic shifts in the US, and Islamic terrorism have produced a pervasive sense of apocalyptic urgency among the white working class. This situation calls for a messianic figure to swoop in an “save” America from an imminent catastrophe by building a huge wall between the US and Mexico, banning Muslims from entering the US, and bringing back torture.

Trump fits the bill perfectly: he’s a charismatic leader who exhibits (or appears to exhibit) many of the same properties as God. For example, he presents himself as infallible (never admitting mistakes), omniscient (he has the best memory in the world), and omnipotent (only he can solve the problem of Islamic terrorism). For his mostly uneducated based of supporters, he appears to be the messiah that white working class folks have been waiting for.

What’s confusing about contemporary evangelicalism is that its adherents often can’t decide whether a sooner-rather-than-later apocalypse is desirable or not. On the one hand, Palin expresses relief that the Brexit vote confounds the formation of a one-world government. Other evangelicals bemoan the “moral decay” of American culture, where abortion, homosexuality, and drug use are seen as ominous “signs of the times” that indicate a rapidly approaching apocalypse.

Yet, on the other hand, many of the same individuals celebrate prophetic events like military confrontations and environmental tragedies. As the philosopher Jerry Walls writes in the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, the apocalyptic ideology of evangelicals (called dispensationalism) “inclines its adherents not only to despair of changing the world for good, but even to take a certain grim satisfaction in the face of wars and natural disasters, events which they interpret as fulfilling the prophecy pointing to the end of the world.”

For instance, after war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the Christian radio host Janet Parshall proclaimed “in a voice brimming with joy” that “these are the times we’ve been waiting for. … This is straight out of a Sunday school lesson.” And the former Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann once exclaimed that “Jesus Christ’s return is imminent,” and “these are not fearful times, these are the most exciting days in history.” On another occasion, she referred to the world’s end as “good news.” (Incidentally, Bachmann was recently named a member of Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board.)

Scholars have even coined the term “Armageddon lobby” to describe American Christians who “make up the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party and have become a mainstay in US politics.” This lobby played a role in the 2003 preemptive invasion of Iraq and the earlier 1990 Gulf War led by George HW Bush. According to polls, a shocking fifteen percent of Americans saw the Gulf War the beginning of Armageddon, and sales of Hal Lindsay’s apocalyptic classic The Late Great Planet Earth increased by eighty-three percent.

A growing number of Americans today are aware that the Islamic State is an apocalyptic movement. It believes that its current caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the eighth of twelve caliphs in total before the world ends. And it expects an Armageddon-like battle to soon take place between the “Romans” and the Muslim forces in the small Syrian town of Dabiq, after which the victorious Muslims will proceed to conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul). This is why the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine is called Dabiq, and its Turkish language magazine is called Konstantiniyye (which translates as Constantinople).

Even more, Iraq contains numerous Shi’ite militias motivated by apocalyptic beliefs, such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is named after Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure, the Mahdi. And until recently, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was an outspoken apocalyptic enthusiast who frequently mentioned the Mahdi in his public speeches, including one to the UN General Assembly. As Ahmadinejad said in 2005 to Friday Prayer leaders from around Iran, “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi. Therefore, Iran should become a powerful, developed and model Islamic society.”

But it’s important to remember that apocalyptic beliefs are no less widespread in the US. Anticipating an imminent end to the world is not unique to other cultures, traditions, and religions — such as that great “Other,” Islam. Christian apocalypticism pervades the electorate, influences our politicians, and shapes (if only in a “shadowy” way) the domestic and foreign policies of America. As George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” This is precisely the case with end-times beliefs in the US. Once one tunes into the apocalyptic frequency, though, it becomes apparent just how dangerous beliefs about the world’s end can be. The first step toward combating this insidious zeitgeist is to recognize its existence.

(Originally posted here.)

I study all things human extinction: its nature and causes, its ethical implications, & the history of the idea. Philosopher, but MS in Neuroscience.