There are many different beliefs in the world that contain a truth, however small, at their core. It is the better part of wisdom, then, to seek the truth within all, than to reject that which, on the surface, cannot be understood.
What follows is an overview of a very complex subject, only a portion of which can be dealt with here. For this overview, an attempt has been made to create a vocabulary and an understanding of certain basic concepts concerning what is generally called the ‘Christian’ or ‘religious right’, its relationship to ‘end-times theology’, and its influence on present government policy. With this as a foundation, we can hopefully, in the future, look more deeply at the thoughts and feelings motivating this group and come to a deeper understanding of what exists at the core of ‘Christian fundamentalism’ and why it is such an active force in American religious and political life.
Instrumental in this overview is the excellent article by environmental writer Glenn Scherer which is a source of much information regarding the ‘religious right’ and the ‘end times’. I have included, below, a number of quotes from this article. Acknowledgment also to Bill Moyers, whose moving acceptance speech of the Global Environment Citizens Award at Harvard Medical School on Dec. 1st, offers an impassioned perspective with which to begin this journey of understanding.
The ‘religious right’ has been called by many names — Christian right, Christian conservatives, Evangelicals, Christian fundamentalists, Christian Zionists, Born-again Christians — some used exclusively by those who reject the ideas of this group, some of more general usage. Also, within the above, are the more particular subgroups called Dispensationalists and Reconstructionists— the first, a large sub-set within the ‘Christian right’, the second, smaller in number but not in importance according to Scherer.
‘Dispensationalists’ include Tim Lahaye — best-selling author of the “left-behind” series, and John Hagee, pastor at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Dispensationalists feel that the social and environmental crises of our times are portents of ‘the Rapture’, when born-again Christians, living and dead, will be taken up to heaven. Preaching in San Antonio, John Hagee says: “On the heels of that Rapture, nonbelievers left behind on earth will endure seven years of unspeakable suffering called the Great Tribulation, which will culminate in the battle of Armageddon, followed by peace and the reign of Christ on earth.
‘Reconstructionists’, by contrast, a smaller but politically influential group, put the onus for the Lord’s return not in the hands of biblical prophesy, but in political activism. They believe that Christ will only make his Second Coming when the world has prepared a place for Him, and that the first step in readying His arrival is to Christianize America.
While the ‘religious right’ is not homogeneous in all respects in relation to ‘end times theology, it shares, in common, a relationship to the Bible as literal truth, including an interpretation of the Book of Revelation and of other prophetic passages from the Bible, all held in a similar way. In the eyes of the ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ left, this point of view has been ridiculed, deemed irrational, and called ‘delusional’. Yet it has caused more than a tremor of fear within the ‘reality-based’ left’, due to the influence it demonstrated within the recent U.S. presidential election.
Members of the ‘religious right’ are also called ‘fundamentalists’ — though ‘fundamentalism’ can be found within all religions and does not just belong to Christianity. Here is one definition of fundamentalism, excerpted from a source whose bias I have tried to exclude:
“Fundamentalist” describes a movement to return to what is considered the defining or founding principles of (a) religion. It has especially come to refer to any religious enclave that intentionally resists identification with the larger religious group in which it originally arose, on the basis that fundamental principles upon which the larger religious group is supposedly founded have become corrupt or displaced by alternative principles hostile to its identity… The term can also refer specifically to the belief that one’s religious texts are infallible and historically accurate.
From: Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia
The ‘infallibility’ or ‘non-errancy’ of the Bible does not mean that all fundamentalists think exactly alike about the ‘end times’, since the entire Bible, and especially the Book of Revelation from which much of relevant prophecy is drawn, is open to interpretation. Therefore, even if this interpretation is intended to be ‘literal’, that is, faithful to the meaning and content of the original, there is still room for variance regarding what this original says and means.
One of the most compelling subjects derived from biblical prophesy — from the Book of Revelation, from 2 Thessalonians, and from other prophetic passages within the Bible — a subject that is central to the idea of the ‘end-times’, is the idea of ‘the Rapture’. Clergy and lay people alike have written extensively on the subject and there are a variety of views as to when ‘the Rapture’ will occur, with greater agreement about what ‘the Rapture’ is said to be. Here is one view from what is called the “Pre-Trib (Tribulation) Research Center“:
“I believe that there is a strong possibility that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is speaking of the rapture. What do I mean? Some pretribulationists, like myself, think that the Greek noun apostasia,usually translated ‘apostasy’, is a reference to the rapture and should be translated ‘departure’. Thus, this passage would be saying that the day of the Lord will not come until the rapture comes before it. If apostasia is a reference to a physical departure, then 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is strong evidence for pretribulationism.”
Here is another perspective, occurring within a review of “The End of the Age,” a novel by Pat Robertson:
“While the notion of the “Rapture of the Saints” can be found in the Epistles of St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:17), there it is coincident (italics mine) with the Second Coming of Christ. The notion of a pre-Tribulation Rapture dates only from the 1830s, when it was expounded by John Nelson Derby, former minister of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland and founder of the Plymouth Brethren. However, it does chime with certain older patterns of apocalyptic expectation. In medieval times, standard popular eschatology had it that the degeneration of the world would be temporarily halted by the appearance of a figure called “the Emperor of the Last Days.” He would purify Christendom and recover the Holy Land from the infidel, among other things. However, the end of his career was usually expected to be the beginning of the reign of Antichrist. Thus, the Emperor of the Last Days, like the Rapture, allowed for a lessening of tension in the story of the world. Before the bad times start, people would have something to look forward to.”
The generally accepted idea concerning ‘the Rapture’ is that the followers of Christ, the true believers, will be ‘taken up’ to heaven prior to a great tribulation which will befall the earth — many say lasting for seven years — and that during that time they will be seated at the right hand of God, watching the trials of those who have remained below. Also, that following the tribulation, the Second Coming will occur — Christ will return to the earth to engage in a last victorious battle with the forces of the Anti-Christ and the ‘Day of the Lord’ will occur. After this, a new era of peace will take place upon the earth.
Because of this outlook which presumes a massive and sudden change to present life circumstances (the Rapture and the Great Tribulation) in the very near future — many would say during the next few years — those who await ‘the Rapture’ may see little need to get involved with policies to save the earth from environmental or other difficulties, since the purposes of the Rapture and the Tribulation which follows are much greater in import than these concerns. The purpose of the precipitant events are to bring about the return of the Messiah, to institute the ‘Day of the Lord’, and to bring into being the millenial reign of the Christ on earth. Scherer writes:
“People under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the Apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a Word?” (Scherer, op. cit.)
The possession of a life-view centered on the fulfillment of ‘end-times’ prophesy is, generally-speaking, not a problem for those who hold to this view, for their belief is a testament to their faith and to the faith of those with whom they associate. This outlook only becomes a problem when the proponents of these views form a significant voting bloc as they did within the last election, or, when they are in positions of authority and power and can make policy-decisions for an entire nation for whom these views do not have equal credibility. There are, for example, many within Congress as well as within the White House who consider themselves advocates for ‘Christian values’ in relation to government policy, who also believe in ‘end-times’ theology. Some statistics have been collected about this group which are inferential, based on their voting records — records which have been rated by both the Christian Coalition and the League of Conservation Voters — the latter, a political voice for more than nine million members of environmental and conservation organizations. Generally speaking, these groups are polarized around environmental issues.
The results as reported by Scherer are that more than 40% of Congress are backed by the ‘religious right:’ “forty-five senators and 186 representatives in 2003, (all but 5 of whom are Republicans), earned 80- to 100-percent approval ratings from the nation’s three most influential Christian right advocacy groups — the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Many of those same lawmakers also got flunking grades — less than 10 percent, on average — from the League of Conservation Voters last year.” Tables showing the nothing-less-than-astonishing breakdown of individual voting records for major political figures in the Senate and House and their ratings by the Christian Coalition and by the LCV can be found at Christian Coalition Scorecards compared to Environmental scorecards by League of Conservation Voters. What you see may surprise you.
“And those politicians are just the powerful tip of the iceberg. A 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the Book of Revelation are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks.” (Scherer, op. cit.)
Within the larger group of evangelicals or fundamentalists concerned with the ‘end-times’, there is a sub-group called ‘Christian Zionists’ who concern themselves in particular with the role of Israel in ‘end-time’ prophesy. Many began the countdown of the ‘end-times clock’ at the time of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and are watchful over what takes place in Israel today. They believe that the fulfillment of prophesies relating to the return of the ‘biblical lands’ to Israel and the founding of the ‘Third Temple’ at the disputed Dome-of-the-Rock, are necessary events that make possible the Second Coming.
Here is what Pat Robertson had to say in remarks titled “Why Evangelicals Support Israel,” made to a group of Israelis at the Herzliya Conference, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, December 17, 2003. Comments that are italicized (italics mine) may be considered to be implied references to prophesies concerning Israel’s participation in the ‘end-times’ and the Second Coming. Robertson states:
“Yes, the survival of the Jewish people is a miracle of God. The return of the Jewish people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a miracle of God. The remarkable victories of Jewish armies against overwhelming odds in successive battles in 1948, and 1967, and 1973 are clearly miracles of God… Yet what has happened was clearly foretold by the ancient prophet Ezekiel, who, writing at the time of the Babylonian captivity, declared this message for the Jewish people concerning latter days:
“For I will take you out of the nation; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back to your own land… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.” (Ezekiel)
Ladies and Gentleman, evangelical Christians support Israel because we believe that the words of Moses and the ancient prophets of Israel were inspired by God. We believe that the emergence of a Jewish state in the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was ordained by God… We believe that God has a plan for this nation which He intends to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.
“Having affirmed our support, I would humbly make two requests of our Israeli friends:
First, please don’t commit national suicide. It is very hard for your friends to support you, if you make a conscious decision to destroy yourselves.
Second, the world’s Christians ask that you do not give away the treasured symbols of your spiritual patrimony.
Ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake-the entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle. The fight is not about money or territory; it is not about poverty versus wealth; it is not about ancient customs versus modernity. No — the struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme.”
Another connection between Israel and American evangelicals reported by a different source during the Summer of 2002, shows a similar engagement:
“CitizenLink, a news service of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus in the Family, recently reported that Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was extremely moved when he received a letter of support from U.S. Christian evangelicals that was hand-delivered by (Gary) Bauer during a fact-finding mission. Other Christian leaders who signed the letter included: Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Christian radio talk show host Janet Parshall, Dr. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University, and Dr. James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family.
Bauer said that the letter “had an electrifying impact. The meeting with Sharon was only supposed to be a brief meeting. It turned into an hour meeting. He brought in members of his cabinet into the room to show them the letter,” CitizenLink reported.
One may ask how this rapprochement between the Israelis and the Christian right is possible, given that the purpose of the evangelicals is to bring about the Second Coming of Christ and that in one of the primary scenarios, the Jews are converted in the process. One writer believes that many conservative Jewish leaders prefer to look the other way in relation to the controversial issue of Christian evangelical ‘end-times’ beliefs. There is also the critical matter of financial and political support which pours into Israel from the U.S., supporting its policies toward the Palestinians while much of the world rejects these policies. According to a July, 2002 Time magazine cover story titled “The Bible & the Apocalypse: Why more Americans are reading and talking about The End of The World,” 36% of the American public “support Israel… because they believe in biblical prophecies that Jews must control Israel before Christ will come again.”
How shall we look at this on the level of belief and on the level of activity? Among members of the ‘religious right’, it is one thing to have beliefs concerning the ‘end times’ and to be watchful about the evolution of what looks like the fulfillment of specific prophesies. It is another thing to engage in a deliberate and sometimes costly effort to hasten the fulfillment of these prophesies through bold action. One view allows things to happen within God’s time through the will and agency of God, in some ways aligning with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins who were instructed by Jesus to wait and keep watch like a Bride waiting for her Groom. The other view seeks to add human action and agency to God’s will in order to ‘hasten’ the inevitable because the ‘inevitable’ is so greatly prized and because such action is believed to be the expression of Divine will. It is the latter view that seeks, today, to shape public policy in the direction of this ‘hastening’.
For example, financial supporters within the U.S. of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and of Israeli claims to the al-Aqsa mosque — the presumed location of the prophesied Third Temple, can and do have a significant effect on American foreign policy in the Middle East. Similarly, those who see the war in Iraq as a precursor to Armageddon will welcome the ‘clash of civilizations’ that the Islamic ‘jihad’ combined with the ‘war on terrorism’ imply, rather than seek a way to ameliorate it. Such support seeks to influence policy on congressional and executive levels in order to ‘help God’ by assisting in the fulfillment of his plan. In this context, Bill Moyers, in his recent speech at Harvard said, regarding the ‘religious right’:
“I’ve reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act… (and) war with Islam in the Middle East… not something to be feared but welcomed.”
This, of course, is true in relation to environmental policy as well. Again, from the Glenn Scherer article:
“Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed — even hastened — as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.”
Of course this point of view is immensely distressing to those who care for the earth and who seek to make incremental changes to address the serious challenges that the earth faces today — global warming, Arctic ice melt, depletion of the ozone layer, air pollution, extinction of wildlife, changes in weather patterns worldwide, etc. The relative lack of concern for the earth and the purported desire on the part of portions of the Christian right to promote the chaos, conflict, and global deterioration that are precursors to the Second Coming, create an understandable sense of alarm in those who watch governmental policy being influenced by such ‘end-times’ theology.
Though there are an estimated 100 million born-again evangelicals in the United States, by one estimate there are only half that number — 50 million — who make up the group greatly influenced by end-times thinking. The rest “are by no means uniformly right-wing anti-environmentalists. In fact, the political stances of evangelicals on the environment and other issues range widely; the Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, has melded its biblical interpretation with good environmental science to justify and promote stewardship of the earth. But the political and cultural impact of the extreme Christian right is difficult to overestimate.” (Scheuer, op. cit.)
Bill Moyers, (op. cit.), said recently concerning these numbers:
“The delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.”
Here is a comment from an article reflecting a similar concern by Ron Suskind, New York Times reporter, on the ‘faith-based reality’ of George W. Bush and its effect on political decision-making:
“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
What concerns most environmentalists and others who care about the future of the earth, is the cost to the earth and to its inhabitants of an outlook based on such views. While waiting for the salvation of faithful souls through the Rapture, it seems that some are willing to let the rest of the earth suffer trials and tribulations never before seen. In this situation, the presumption is that faith is all that is important, and that the meaning of the present is either to act in a way that will bring about the future, or to prepare for that imminent future which will bring in rapid succession, the Rapture, the Tribulation, Armageddon, and the Second Coming of Christ. Human effort to counteract present difficulties and challenges is of less importance in the face of coming changes. Glenn Scherer offers the following parable in relation to the prophetic point of view taken to an extreme, and its consequences:
“Many years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to his “religious grandparents,” who, whenever they were asked about the future, proclaimed, “Armageddon’s comin’!” And they believed it. Christ was due back any day, so they never bothered to paint or shingle their house. What was the point? Over the years, I drove by their place and watched the protective layers of paint peel, the bare clapboards weather, the sills and roof rot. Eventually, the house fell into ruin and had to be torn down, leaving my friend’s grandparents destitute.
In a way, their prediction had proven right. But this humble apocalypse, a house divided against itself, was no work of God, but of man. This is a parable for the 231 Christian right-backed legislators of the 108th Congress. Their constituency’s cherished beliefs may lead to the most dangerous and destructive self-fulfilling prophecy of all time.”
What Scherer concludes from this is the following: “In the past, it was not deemed politically correct to ask probing questions about a lawmaker’s intimate religious beliefs. But when those beliefs play a crucial role in shaping public policy, it becomes necessary for the people to know and understand them. It sounds startling, but the great unasked questions that need to be posed to the 231 U.S. legislators backed by the Christian right, and to President Bush himself, are… Do you believe we are in the End Time? Are the governmental policies you support based on your faith in the imminent Second Coming of Christ? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of our planet depends on our asking these questions and on our ability to reshape environmental strategy in light of the answers.”