Monday, March 28, 2005

With God on their Side

John Whale
04 February 2005

AN ANGEL DIRECTS THE STORM. Apocalyptic religion and American empire. By Michael Northcott. 200pp. Tauris. £19.50 (US $35). 1 85043 478 6
WITH GOD ON THEIR SIDE. How Christian fundamentalists trampled science, policy, and democracy in. By Esther Kaplan. George W. Bush's White House. 322pp. New Press. £15.99 (US $24.95). 1 56584 920 5

Optimistic once, Evangelical Christianity in America has turned more and more towards pessimism; and political effects follow. For three centuries many American Evangelicals, living by an eclectic biblicism, have also been millennialists. They have believed in the imminence of a thousand years of world government by saints, former Christians returning from heaven. In the early and encouraging form of the thesis, present Christians could start preparing for those thousand years at once.

That was postmillennialism: the Last Judgement would happen only after the saintly millennium. In the nineteenth century, and after the miseries of the Civil War, that reading of biblical prophecy began yielding to premillennialism: the Judgement would precede the millennium, and before either of them there would come a divinely ordained time of tribulation, from which true believers would be saved by being caught up alive to heaven.

(The main biblical passages appealed to are in Revelation 20 and I Thessalonians 4.) This second form of the belief seems now to be widely held among Republican activists and voters. Its political interest is that it spikes that ancient religious conundrum, the problem of evil. If the appalling state of the world (earthquakes et al) fulfils God's controlling purposes rather than denying them, then human attempts to improve things are pointless and worse.

Michael Northcott, Reader in Christian Ethics at Edinburgh University, discusses in An Angel Directs the Storm the origins of this baroque belief and the extent of its divergence from Christian norms. Esther Kaplan, a New York journalist, records in With God on Their Side the pessimism, whether or not from a millennialist contagion, besetting many Evangelicals who serve or advise the present Republican administration. The prime task becomes not so much to put the ills of the world right as to address them righteously, biblically. Although both authors wrote before George W. Bush won his second presidential term, his re-election will have only sharpened their arguments.

Northcott draws his title from Bush's first inaugural address, for which the presidential speechwriter had borrowed words of John Page of Virginia to Thomas Jefferson after the Declaration of Independence: "Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?". At that time, any angels in the saddle were riding with the rebels and against the British imperium. Now, in Northcott's exposition, America itself wields imperial power, using worldwide military deployment and the client rulers of states thus guaranteed. Chief among these states is Israel. In the premillennialist vision, the Jews are to help bring on the tribulation by reoccupying all the biblical lands in Palestine and ousting Muslims from Jerusalem; the few Jewish survivors of the resulting struggle would then acknowledge Christ when he came again in Judgement.

This theory had its part in the late nineteenth-century birth of American Zionism, and maintains support among Evangelical voters for the extension of American imperium in the Middle East.

Northcott's argument is that there is an inconsistency here which passes many American Evangelicals by. They perceive neither that America runs an empire nor that empires are deplored in the Bible: of its two main apocalyptic books, Daniel celebrates opposition to the Babylonian Empire; Revelation, opposition to the Roman. Jesus himself, as Northcott sees him, resisted empire and opposed violence.

In Jesus, God stood with the victims of empire, acting once for all in history to change its meaning. The misfortune of the faith thus founded was to be adopted, three centuries later, by the very Empire it had at first withstood. It was Constantine, the Emperor convert, who turned Christianity from a pacifist and subversive creed into an imperial ideology and a religion of violence.

That is the case presented in An Angel Directs the Storm, sometimes heatedly. For Northcott, it is the American media, "in almost complete thrall to the corporate elite who rule the empire", that conceal from many Americans the imperial trend of their country's foreign policy. It is imperial ritual that demands blood sacrifice in foreign wars. He will change few minds among millennialists. He meets them on their home territory, the supernatural. In arguing that God has already made his intervention in history, Northcott may be assailing bad Christian theology with good, but it is still theology. Proof is not to be had.

He contends that Bush's own links among premillennialists show the President to be one himself. Non sequitur: politicians, like journalists, become adept at implying agreement with useful interlocutors without either saying or meaning as much. Part of Esther Kaplan's submission in With God on Their Side is that entwined in Bush's original cultivation of the Christian Right was an electoral purpose, first on his father's behalf and then on his own. It was a new Southern strategy. Certain of the attitudes he encountered, notably intolerance of homosexuals, he was not at the outset disposed to accept.

Kaplan's book is a piece of high-grade journalism, full of names and quotes and dates and figures, lightened by her command of current political metaphor. The area she surveys, Evangelical attitudes to American politics, overlaps Northcott's. In one passage she adds to his account the detail that, of a series of twelve novels by Tim LaHaye about the coming tribulation and how to be hoisted out of its way, premillennialists are now numerous enough to have bought 55 million copies. But her business is not so much with belief as with its practical outcome.

The charge she documents is that Bush has allowed the Christian Right to dictate his administration's approach to several ethically awkward problems in domestic policy: medical research, abortion, homosexual rights, AIDS, education about sex.

Evangelical conservatives have won this continuing influence by giving their votes, to Bush and to sympathetic Republicans in Congress, conditionally; and the conditions are regularly renewed. The lobbying is vigilant and swift. It is brought to bear on Congressional votes, on the choosing of officials and judges and members of advisory councils, on the distribution of federal money.

Ideologically acceptable bodies remain funded; the unacceptable find themselves (useful new term) defunded. And the problems themselves are no longer dealt with by people interested in evidence.

A sufficient example is the sexual abstinence campaign, prized by both the Evangelical lobby and the President. The pitch is that the one right place for sexual activity is heterosexual marriage: hang on till you attain that. Certainly, if the advice were universally taken, child abuse and schoolgirl pregnancy would cease, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases would grow rare, and homosexuals would change their ways. So abstinence is taught in schools, urged by workers at pregnancy centres and clinics, advocated by America's representatives at international conferences, offered as an answer to AIDS. A flood of federal money irrigates all this talk; funds drain away from concerns that dare mention contraception. Indeed, it is an extra article of faith for many Evangelicals that condoms don't work anyway. Yet what in fact doesn't work, as the figures for sexual mishap continue to show, is teaching abstinence. Human nature is somehow unreceptive of the lesson.

The teachers are not much abashed. They are imparting values, saving souls. And those of them who are also premillennialists can draw comfort from a further assurance: it is within the divine intention that things should get worse before they get better. Before the millennium, the tribulation.


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