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This is part 4 of a 5-part series.Part I: The Lure of Christian Nationalism
America's Religious Right - Saints or Subversives?
Part IV: Pie in the Sky
Tuesday 26 April 2005
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Building on a theological twist that dates back to the 1830s, he deftly tells of the End Time, when the Lord raises born-again Christians bodily into the heavens. LaHaye and his fellow believers call this the Rapture, and find their biblical inspiration in Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. ( I Thes. 4:16-17).
Thanks largely to LaHaye and a dedicated cadre of like-minded prophecy preachers, the mainstream of America's 80 million evangelicals now read Paul's words to mean something radically different from most earlier interpretations. In growing numbers, these born-again Christians fervently expect the Rapture to come within their lifetimes.
For believers, it doesn't get any better than this. They get their pie in the sky. They need not wait for the sweet bye and bye. And they never, ever have to die.
The belief - premillennial dispensationalism, to use the theological mouthful - has obvious appeal, and has fueled a quintessentially American messianic movement, the latest and possibly most powerful of our country's recurrent Christian revivals.
But the prophecy has a downside, which its adherents often fail to spell out fully.
As LaHaye reads the Holy Writ, the Rapture leads to the Great Tribulation, with floods and earthquakes, pestilence and epidemics, anarchy in the streets, and demonic battles against the one world government of the anti-Christ, whom he portrays in his novels as the Secretary General of the United Nations, a suave Romanian named Nicholae Carpathia. The forces of good finally defeat this Emperor of Evil in a famous victory at Armageddon, after which Jesus Christ returns to rule the earth.
Oh, and one other small point: According to the prophecy, most of the world's Jews - or perhaps most of those in Israel - will perish in a second Holocaust. "The Remnant," as LaHaye calls them, must then accept Jesus Christ as the true Messiah or face eternal damnation.
"And the Jews?" he asks in one of his Left Behind novels. "Well two-thirds of them will be wiped out by now and the survivors will accept Jesus at last."
Others - notably the Palestinians - have to pay in advance. For the prophecy to be fulfilled, for the Rapture to come, for Christ to return, the Jews must first rule all of Eretz Yisroel, the biblical Land of Israel.
"Ever since Israel was recognized as a nation, we knew that such perilous times would come," wrote LaHaye. "That event, more than any other, started God's prophetic time clock of end-time events."
No wonder zealous Christian Zionists give millions of dollars to help build and defend new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
No wonder they oppose any serious effort to make peace in the Holy Land, even to the point of publicly threatening President Bush whenever he dares to sound even-handed.
And no wonder so many American evangelicals support Mr. Bush's war in Babylon as a prelude to Armageddon.
The Hand of God?
With more than a dozen novels selling over 60 million copies at last count, plus twice as many non-fiction books, LaHaye has become the most successful Christian writer since the Bible. And, with no sense of irony, he has now helped turn the Bible's authorship from a question of religious belief and historical scholarship into an intense political dispute.
Fundamentalists like LaHaye see the hand of God in both Old and New Testaments, treating the words as Gospel, unfailingly true and authoritative, though open to prophetic interpretation. Many other Christians, believing Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, pagans and polytheists all hold their own differing views, while millions who heed the Enlightenment rather than Revelations reject any faith-based approach to old lore as lacking in hard evidence.
As for probing ancient Biblical passages to predict the future, many Christians find that silly beyond belief.
In a free country, such differences only make life more interesting. The same First Amendment that keeps government from meddling with our religious beliefs also permits us to express our opinions freely, no matter how much they may outrage our fellow Americans or even blaspheme their gods. At least, we now have those freedoms. We won't if LaHaye wins the war he has fought most of his life.
Considered by many of his peers as the most influential evangelical of our time, even more so than Pat Robertson or Billy Graham, LaHaye inspired Jerry Falwell to create the Moral Majority. He also gave millions of dollars to Falwell's Liberty University to build the Tim & Beverly LaHaye Student Center and the Tim LaHaye School of Biblical Prophecy.
LaHaye raised the money to create The Institute for Creation Research, which leads the fight against Darwin's theory of evolution.
LaHaye served as the most visible founder and first president of the secretive Council for National Policy, which brings together leading evangelicals and other conservatives with right-wing billionaires willing to pay for a conservative religious revolution.
Active in electoral politics as well, LaHaye used his Californians for Biblical Morality to help make Ronald Reagan governor. He created the American Coalition for Traditional Values to mobilize evangelical voters to put far-right candidates into office nationwide. And he personally joined the small group of religious conservatives who met with George W. Bush in 1999, grilled him on his presidential aspirations, and gave him their Christian seal of approval.
Yet, for all of Tim LaHaye's enormous clout as a Christian leader, his political ideas have little in common with the love-thy-neighbor teachings of Jesus Christ, as proclaimed by so many other Christians, including evangelicals like the Rev. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners.
A Christian Nationalist, he would use government coercion to enforce "Biblical morality." No more separation of church and state. And no free speech to say what God doesn't want to say. As for which Christians would govern the nation, he has frequently attacked the Catholic Church and accused mainline Protestants of not being Christians at all. He has also blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Christ and regularly lambastes Islam.
Other of his political notions have an even less exalted pedigree, harking back to the far right strongholds of Southern California circa 1960, where the Reagan Revolution first took root. In the ideologically charged hothouse of the time, Dr. Fred Schwarz and his Christian Anti-Communism Crusade regularly convinced apparently sane people that Communist conspirators might soon take over the country.
LaHaye, a young Baptist preacher from Bob Jones University, did his part by lecturing and running training seminars for the similarly-obsessed John Birch Society.
The Birchers set the tone. Founded in 1958 by a leading Massachusetts Republican named Robert Welch, they took their name from Capt. John Morrison Birch, a Baptist missionary who became a behind-the-lines intelligence officer in China during World War II. Birch died in August 1945, executed by Chinese Communist revolutionaries.
Welch portrayed the missionary spy as "the first victim of the Cold War," and blamed "the loss of China" on a Communist fifth column that included Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Picking up where the discredited Senator Joseph McCarthy left off, Welch publicly and repeatedly called Ike "a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy."
Welch also accused the president's brother Milton Eisenhower of being Ike's superior in the Communist apparatus and charged David Rockefeller and the Council of Foreign Relations with actively trying to impose a world tyranny.
LaHaye never outgrew this paranoid world of devilish conspiracies. But instead of hysterically bashing Bolsheviks, he has increasingly targeted "secular humanists." As LaHaye throws the invective about, it embraces everyone from avowed atheists and Darwinians to wobbly Christians who've somehow fallen short.
"Most of the evils in the world today," LaHaye wrote in The Battle for the Mind (1980), "can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV and most of the other influential things in life."
"We must remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders," he urged.
Twenty years later, in Mind Siege, LaHaye again rallied his brand of Bible-believers for an all-out crusade against a Satanic conspiracy of secular humanists, liberals (who are really socialists at heart), atheists and evolutionists, moral relativists and abortion providers, homosexuals and one-worlders.
Repeal the New Deal
From its beginning, the John Birch Society put forward a comprehensive program that went far beyond the Cold War. The Birchers campaigned vigorously to "Get the US Out of the UN," which they saw as trying to build a one-world Socialist government. They also worked to impeach Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, stop school bussing, end social security, and abolish the progressive income tax.
Many of the leading Birchers were wealthy, and wanted to protect their wealth from reforms that helped the less fortunate members of society.
LaHaye pushes the same approach, using religion to subvert the Constitution, repeal the New Deal, and turn America into a an undemocratic "Christian nation" that favors the rich.
He and his fellow preachers systematically back "Christian" politicians who hurt the poor and middle classes, short-changing many, if not most, evangelical worshippers. But, don't despair. America's religious revivals historically wear thin, and should the Rapture fail to come, as it likely will, no one can say how long the believers will continue to buy the Rev. LaHaye's pie in the sky.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.