The Last Crusade
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
During the Cold War, president after president, from Truman through Reagan, faced the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. Even the bellicose Reagan managed to avoid it and instead signed an arms reduction agreement with Premiere Gorbachev. Although the Soviet Union is long gone, and its nuclear arsenal surreptitiously dispersed throughout the Asian continent, one huge and powerful population of Americans continues to prepare for the Final Days. They do so eagerly, even enthusiastically. And they are W’s most energetic supporters.
Tim LaHaye could be regarded as the midwife and kingmaker of today’s religious right. A graduate of the evangelical Bob Jones University — where man remains sundered from woman and white from black — LaHaye really began his career in San Diego, where he and his wife Beverly worked closely with the McCarthyite John Birch Society in the 1960s, then widely and justly known as Crackpot Right. From their base at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in the 70s, the LaHayes launched local and then national campaigns against Planned Parenthood and the Equal Rights Amendment.
It was Tim LaHaye who convinced Jerry Falwell to organize the Moral Majority at the end of the 70s to inject the church into affairs of state. Under their leadership during the Reagan era, a generation of fundamentalist missionaries was welcomed by a Republican Party needy for a populist base. Although LaHaye suffered some setbacks in the 80s for anti-Semitic remarks and high church corruption, his revolution had already succeeded: the evangelical agenda had been married to the GOP. “No one individual has played a more central organizing role in the religious right than Tim LaHaye,” acknowledges Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
In the 90s, LaHaye rose from the dead with the Left Behind series of fantasy novels, born again as an author in collaboration with holy ghostwriter Jerry Jenkins. Over the course of multiple volumes, the duo fictionalize the events of Revelation — plagues, brimstone, flesh scorched from the bones of sinners, and all. Their openly stated purpose is to get believers ready for the coming Apocalypse (from the Greek word for “revelation”), which they fully expect to happen in the lifetimes of their readers. The series has become an unprecedented best-seller in Christian bookstores and the evangelical community.
LaHaye and his faithful fans look forward to Rapture — a fancy not found in Revelation, but borrowed from 1 Thessalonians — when all true believers bodily ascend to the bosom of the Lord, leaving behind their clothing and the unsaved. They thrill at the prospect of the ruthless battles, the rivers of blood, the global pain and suffering that will mark the return of Christ. They are particularly enchanted with the gruesome punishments to be levied upon the Enemies of God — the United Nations, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, Europeans, liberals, homosexuals — indeed, the list has not changed much since Bircher John Stormer’s 1963 screed None Dare Call It Treason.
The Revelation of St. John the Divine has provided a text for militant millenarians ever since it appeared in the first century C.E. In historical context, it represents the eschatological messianism of many Jews who pined for liberation from Rome, punishment of the ungodly, and a restored kingdom of their own. Filled with hallucinatory imagery of the bad trip variety, Revelation has inspired various Christian cults over the centuries, in our own time notably the wacko Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. In riffing off of it for Left Behind, however, LaHaye seems to have missed the warning at its conclusion: “If any man shall add unto these prophecies, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.”
The rational response is to pass off LaHaye’s books as the loony tomes they are, further evidence — as if we needed it — of the infinite distance separating these wingnuts from reality. The problem is that, thanks to the Republican right, their fractured fantasy is now ours.
About the time he published the first volume of Left Behind, it was Tim LaHaye who personally vetted George W. Bush, gave him the Seventh Seal of Approval, and recommended him to the Christian conservative community as God’s Right Arm. For Tim LaHaye and his fellows, in other words, Bush is the political leader best able to guarantee Armageddon. For the community of the Elect, he is the One chosen by God to write the final chapter of history (in cahoots with some holy ghostwriter, of course). And the horrendous terminal prophecies of Revelation? Bring ’em on!
Central to the plans of these Branch Davidians writ large are two nations: Israel and Iraq. Israel has been a major obsession of the LaHaye-Falwell-fundamentalist consortium ever since their rise to political influence in the 1980s. Revelation, after all, specifically mentions the triumph of Jerusalem over its enemies as a necessary function of Apocalypse. Despite a long history of anti-Semitism that has occasionally gotten these spokesmen of the religious right in trouble, they are all avid supporters of modern Israel. They have lobbied hard in Washington for the unconditional support of Israeli hawks, often to the dismay of more liberal and dovish Israelis. They have helped push American foreign policy in the hardline direction of the Sharons and Netanyahus; they are opposed to compromise with the Palestinians or Israel’s Arab neighbors. As a result Falwell and other evangelical leaders have won a number of honors from rightwing Israeli governments. By favoring an expanded Israel that becomes the undisputed superpower of the Middle East, their agenda falls into sync with that of neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, architects of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy.
Given the self-imposed obtuseness of the fundamentalist, the Babylon of Revelation is read not in historical or symbolic context, as a probable code word for Rome, but literally as the modern Iraqi state in which Babylon’s ruins reside. As the home of the Anti-Christ, Babylon has to be defeated by the armies of the righteous before the final cataclysm can arrive with all its warm showers of hellfire and blood. Although the agendas of both the neocons and the oil industry helped drive the invasion of Iraq, Bush framed the crusade against Hussein as a battle in the general war of Good against Evil — something more than the Hitler-of-the-Hour rhetoric with which we usually justify attacking a Third World dictator who disobeys orders. As Bob Woodward noted in his book Bush at War, “The President was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God’s master plan.”
If Bush really rules in the throes of an apocalyptic fit, it would certainly explain the rest of his policies. Who cares about record budget deficits when there is no future? Why would you have to protect an environment that will not survive this generation? Global warming? Hey, once the brimstone starts flowing, we’re toast anyway. If you belong to Bush’s wealthiest five percenters, you might as well disinvest in society and have a Grand Old Party.
Is it mere paranoia to think that Bush pursues the fundamentalist path of apocalyptic prophecy in the Middle East? No less a Christian personage than the Reverend C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance is worried; he grew so alarmed at the signs and portents that he wrote Bush a formal letter in October 2003 begging him to “assure the American people that you are not developing foreign policy on the basis of a fundamentalist biblical theology that requires cataclysm.” He received no answer.
Advisory: Those of us rooted in reality should steel ourselves for the end of the world as they know it. Watch this space for suggestions.
And then prepare to inherit the earth.