“Is [Jesus] gonna kill a bunch of people here, like He is over there?”
“I’m afraid He is. If they’re working for the Antichrist, they’re in serious trouble.”
— Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Glorious Appearing: End of Days
I see things this way: The people who did this act on Americaare evil peopleAs a nation of good folk, we’re going to hunt them downand we will bring them to justice.
— George W. Bush, September 25, 2001
As a professor of comparative religion and cultural studies, I have long been fascinated by the strange intersections between religion, politics and popular culture. One of the most striking such intersections occurred to me this summer as I sat down to read the twelfth and last volume of the wildly popular Left Behind series by evangelical preacher Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry Jenkins. For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read any of LaHaye and Jenkin’s series, the story is basically an evangelical interpretation of the Book of Revelation set in the context of contemporary global politics: the Rapture has taken place, the Antichrist has taken control of the U.N. and created a single global economy, while a small group of American-led believers battles the forces of evil in a showdown in Jerusalem.
At the same time that I was immersed in this entertaining mixture of Stephen King-esque thrills and fundamentalist rhetoric, I had also been reading much of the recent literature on the Neoconservative movement and its powerful role in the Bush administration. As Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke have persuasively argued in their recent study, America Alone, the election of George W. Bush and the confusion following 9/11 allowed a small but radical group of intellectuals to seize the reins of U.S. foreign policy. Led by figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the members of the Project for a New American Century, the Neocons have been able to put into effect a long-held plan for asserting a U.S. global hegemony, in large part by dominating the Middle East and its oil resources.
The two narratives that I was reading here — the Neocon’s aggressive foreign policy, centered around the Middle East, and the Christian evangelical story of the immanent return of Christ in the Holy Land– struck me as weirdly similar and disturbingly parallel. The former openly advocates a “New American Century” and a “benevolent hegemony” of the globe by U.S. power, inaugurated by the invasion of Iraq, while the latter predicts a New Millennium of divine rule ushered in by apocalyptic war, first in Babylon and then in Jerusalem.
I was tempted to dismiss the similarity as an amusing but insignificant coincidence. Yet the more I began to examine the Neocon’s strategies and the ties between George W. Bush and the Christian Right, the less this link seemed to be either coincidental or unimportant. I am not, of course, suggesting that there is some kind of conspiratorial plot at work between Neocon strategists and evangelical writers like LaHaye, or that the two are somehow working secretly together behind the scenes. Rather, I am suggesting that there is a subtle but powerful “fit,” or what sociologist Max Weber calls an “elective affinity,” between the two that has helped them to reinforce one another in very effective ways. The otherwise vacuous figure of George W. Bush represents a crucial link or structural pivot between these two powerful factions, helping to tie them together: Bush presents the Neocons’ radical foreign policy in a guise that is acceptable to his large base of support in the Christian Right, even as he reassures his Christian base that their moral agendas (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, faith-based initiatives, etc) will be given powerful political support. In Bush, America as the benevolent hegemon of the Neocons and the American-led “Tribulation Force” of LaHaye’s wildly popular novels come together in a disturbing, yet surprisingly successful way.
Glorious Appearing, End of Days: LaHaye and The Council for National Policy
In the last two decades, Tim LaHaye has emerged as not only the theological brains behind the best-selling Left Behind series, but also as one of the most influential figures in the American Christian Right. Indeed, when the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals decided to name the most influential evangelical leader of the past 25 years, they chose not Billy Graham, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but Tim LaHaye, in large part because of his work in evangelical politics. Not only is LaHaye an influential preacher and interpreter of prophecy and revelation, he has also become a remarkably powerful force in domestic and now even international politics through the highly secretive Council for National Policy, founded in 1981. Called by some “the most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of,” the CNP includes among its members Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jesse Helms, Tom DeLay, Oliver North, Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony and, formerly, John Ashcroft (himself a Pentecostal Christian). Recent speakers at the Council’s highly private meetings have included Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Timothy Goeglein, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Although the group initially focused primarily on domestic agendas like abortion and homosexuality, LaHaye’s Council has recently begun to turn to larger international issues such as U.S. policy in the Middle East and the state of Israel.
Published from 1995-2004, the Left Behind series has provided a key outlet for spreading LaHaye’s political agendas to a massive audience of American readers. The twelve-volume story is not simply an evangelical reading of the Apocalypse, but also a Christian Right perspective on contemporary global politics. LaHaye’s interpretation of the final days is “pre-millenarian” (as opposed to post-millenarian or a-millenarian): Christ must return to defeat the Antichrist before the great Millennium of divine rule and peace can be established. The events of the series take place immediately after the Rapture, when a few chosen souls have been suddenly taken up to heaven, and the rest of those “left behind” must struggle against the rising power of the Antichrist. A small group of former sinners-turned-believers forms a “Tribulation Force” to fight this divine war, led by pilot Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, journalist Buck Williams, and pastor Bruce Barnes.
Much of the narrative is clearly a commentary on the processes of globalization and America’s role in a transnational era. The Antichrist, in the person of a sinister Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia, has progressively taken over the United Nations and the world’s economic system, unifying all political states (“Global Community”), media (“Global Community Network,”), and religions (“Enigma Babylon One World Faith”) under a Nicolae-appointed supreme pontiff. The millions of the Antichrist’s followers are branded with a loyalty mark and even “vaccinated” with a bio-chip embedded with their personal information. Eventually, the Antichrist establishes “New Babylon” as the epicenter of the world’s political and financial networks, spreading its digital tentacles into every aspect of life and commerce in the new global order. Meanwhile, the Tribulation Force is led by (mostly white male) Americans, who manage to persuade a few converts from other countries and religious faiths to join their brave coalition and resist this global menace.
In the penultimate volume of the series, “New Babylon” is destroyed by the Lord’s ongoing series of apocalyptic dispensations, throwing the world’s entire economic structure into chaos. This leads the way for Christ’s return in the last volume, Glorious Appearing, in which the Tribulation Force and the armies of the Antichrist gather around Jerusalem for the final conflict. As the apocalypse unfolds, the Jews at long last begin to return to Christ and accept Him as the true Messiah (though the millions of those branded by the Beast refuse to do so, God having “hardened their hearts”). In the spectacularly violent final battle, the returning Christ mows down the Antichrist’s massive armies in the most gory fashion, splitting bodies apart and spilling entrails across the earth with the sharp two-edged sword of His Word. In the end, only the small remnant of believers survives to “populate the Millennium” and inhabit the New Jerusalem.
As Amy Frykholm has argued in her study of the series, Rapture Culture, the Left Behind books contain a strong political message and a “conservative, patriarchal, even racist agenda that mirrors the agenda of the Christ Right.” On the domestic front, LaHaye’s books advance a strong pro-life message, while targeting feminism and homosexuality as instruments of the Antichrist. On the international front, the books contain a deep message of “racially charged American chauvinism.” The leaders of the Tribulation force are white American men, such as Rayford Steele, while all “others” women, African Americans, Arabs, Asians, and non-Americans — either submit dutifully to their leadership or are destroyed. The entire series, moreover, contains a disturbing kind of anti-Semitism, portraying Israel as too stubborn to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, while making heroes of Jewish converts to Christianity.
Benevolent Hegemony: The Neocons’ Middle East and Geopolitical Strategy
Going a step further, however, it is difficult not to see striking reflections of the Neoconservative agenda in the Left Behind narrative. Indeed, these novels provide a weird kind of fictional, evangelical and astonishingly popular counter-part to the Neoconservative’s rather elite and intellectual geo-political vision.
According to Irving Kristol, who first used the term in a positive sense, Neoconservatism does not represent so much a coherent movement or party as a kind of “persuasion,” or a moral and political attitude. As Halper and Clarke suggest, the Neocon persuasion can perhaps best be characterized by three features: first, “a belief deriving from religious conviction that the human condition is defined as a choice between good and evil and that the true measure of political character is found in the willingness by the former to confront the latter;” second, “an assertion that the fundamental determinant of the relationship between states rests on military power and the willingness to use it;” and third, a “focus on the Middle East and global Islam as the principal theater for American overseas power.”
One aspect of Neoconservative thinking that is often overlooked, however, is the centrality of religion in much of their agenda. As Kristol argues, strong religious faith and a belief in the transcendent basis of moral law is crucial to the health of the country and the strength of the economy: “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth. Of these religion is easily the most important, because it is the only power that can shape people’s characters and regulate their motivation.” The loss of a strong moral and religious compass, in turn, has led to the intense crisis that modern liberal America faces, which he described as a “steady decline in our democratic values, sinking to new levels of vulgarity.” Thus, in 1995 Kristol argued that the Republican Party needed to reach out and embrace the strong religious core of the American population — despite its tendency toward un-democratic attitudes– if it was to triumph over the liberal malaise of Clinton’s America: “conservatives and the Republican Party must embrace the religious if they are to survive. Religious people always create problems since their ardor tends to outrun the limits of politics in a constitutional democracy. But if the Republican Party is to survive, it must work on accommodating these people.”
[One of the more striking examples of this Neoconservative outreach to the Christian Right is Michael Ledeen, an influential Fellow at the Neocon think-tank, American Enterprise Institute. Not only was Ledeen one of the most vocal proponents of the Iraq War, but since the 1980s, he has also appeared frequently on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club promoting an aggressive Neocon political vision. In a 2004 interview with Robertson, Ledeen argued that Iraq is only the first step in the re-structuring of the Middle East and should be followed by use of military force against Iran, as well.]
By now, the Neocons’ role in the preemptive invasion of Iraq is fairly well known (Indeed, most of their plans for Iraq and its oil resources can be easily read in articles going back to the early 90s available on the Project for a New American Century web-page ). Already in 1992, toward the end of the Bush I White House, then undersecretary of defense Wolfowitz and secretary of defense Cheney came up with a bold new plan to rethink US military policy, which was circulated in the top-secret Defense Policy Guidance report. So disturbing was this report that it was leaked by a Pentagon official, who believed this strategy debate should be carried out in the public domain. Indeed, it was described by some as nothing less than a plan for the US to “rule the world,” without acting through the U.N. and by using pre-emptive attacks on potential threats.
Although this plan was quickly shot down after its leak, it resurfaced in a new form in 1997, with the founding of the Project for a New American Century by Irving Kristol’s son, William. As William Kristol and Robert Kagan had already argued in Foreign Affairs in 1996, America now has an opportunity to exercise a “benevolent hegemony” over the world while promoting democracy and free markets — an opportunity it would be foolish to let slip away. Kristol and Kagan’s PNAC soon emerged as the leading think-tank and a who’s who of the Neocon establishment, advocating a powerful new vision of America’s role as global leader through its military strength and moral principles.
The ousting of Saddam and the rebuilding of Iraq (and by implication, the Middle East) was a key part of this program for American leadership. In the words of Raymond Tanter — a member of Reagan’s National Security Council and now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — “the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad. The road to Tehran goes through Baghdad. The road to Damascus goes through Baghdad[I]f you change the regime through force in Baghdad, American military power will cast a long diplomatic shadow, and it will be America’s decade in the Middle East.” This became the mantra of the Necon’s foreign policy. In 1998 eighteen associates of the PNAC, including Richard Armitage, William Bennet, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz , wrote a letter to President Clinton. In it they warned of the need to secure the “significant portion of the world’s oil supply” in Iraq, advising the President that the only acceptable strategy is to “undertake military action” and remove “Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”
Although Clinton chose not to take their advice, the PNAC did not give up its bold vision for America’s benevolent global hegemony. In September 2000, the PNAC issued a report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century.” Its authors lament the lack of effort to “preserve American military preeminence in the coming decades” and criticize Clinton for squandering his opportunity to make the U.S. the sole, indomitable Super-power. The removal of Saddam and the US. Occupation of Iraq would provide both the crucial justification and the ideal precondition for this larger global agenda. Achieving this goal of undeniable U.S. power, the authors suggest, would require a radical transformation in public opinion and government policy. But they also caution that “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a New Pearl Harbor.”
From Prodigal Son to Christian Crusader: George W. Bush as the link between the Neocons and the Christian Right
Not long after the publication of the PNAC document, two things occurred that handed the Neocons their “catastrophic and catalyzing events” on a silver platter. The first was the election of George W. Bush to the White House. The second was the terrorist attack of 9/11.
As Halper and Clarke argue, the relatively naïve and unformed Bush allowed a small group of Neocon thinkers like Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle, Cheney and others to suddenly have a much more central and active role in shaping American foreign policy. Kristol himself observed that Bush was something of a fortuitous gift to those of the Neocon persuasion: “by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did.” Among other things, Bush provided the perfect liaison to the Christian Right that the Neocons needed in order to win popular support and promote their vision of American power both at home and abroad.
The narrative that Bush and his biographers tell is clearly modeled on the parable of the prodigal son — the young man who fritters away his early life on alcohol and sin, only to find God and return to his rightful place in his father’s former occupation. As he recounts his own redemption narrative, Bush had been mired in the world of business and overuse of alcohol, and so turned in his darker hours to the study of scripture. The beginning of his conversion occurred during a summer weekend in 1985, when evangelist Billy Graham visited George and Laura at the Bush summer house in Maine. The reverend, with his magnetic presence and warmth, planted a “seed of salvation” in W.’s soul that soon blossomed into a new birth and helped him “recommit [his] heart to Jesus Christ.”
This recommitment to Christ proved to be not only a spiritual awakening within George W. himself but an important part of the Republican party’s own re-connection with the Christian Right. The senior Bush had actually had a great deal of trouble reaching out to the religious right, which regarded his Episcopalian, aristocratic airs with some suspicion. In his 1988 campaign, therefore, the elder Bush gave his newly-reborn son the task of working with the campaign’s liaison to the Christian right, Assemblies of God evangelist Doug Wead (who also wrote H.W. Bush’s campaign narrative Man of Integrity). The younger Bush was far more successful in connecting with the Religious Right; as Craig Unger put it, he was “deeply attuned to the nuances of the evangelical subcultures” and “replaced his father’s visionless pragmatism with the Manichaean certitudes of Good and Evil.”
George W.’s religiosity became even more explicit, however, once he decided to run for president in the 2000 election. As he confided to James Robinson, he believed that he in fact been called by God himself to he lead the United States: “I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need meGod wants to me to do it.” As he considered the prospect of his candidacy, Bush met frequently with evangelical leaders. In October 1999, in fact, he addressed LaHaye’s Council for National Policy — though there is a much difference of opinion as to what he actually said in that particular address, which was recorded but has never been publicly released.
Yet it was the attacks of 9/11 that really brought out the most powerful use of religious rhetoric by Bush and his speech-writers. After the attacks, Bush began to cast the global situation as a vast war between Good and Evil, the forces of liberty and democracy against he forces of tyranny and terror: “Our responsibility to history”, he declared on September 14, 2001, is “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” As he put it in on September 25, 2002, in ruggedly down-home, no-nonsense, black and white terms, “I see things this way: The people who did this act on Americaare evil people. They don’t; represent an ideologyThey’re flat evil. That’s all they can think about, is evil. As a nation of good folks, we’re going to hunt them downand we will bring them to justice.”
So impressive was Bush’s powerful religious rhetoric that he soon came to be recognized as the new leader of the Christian Right in America. On the day before Christmas, 2001, the Washington Post reported that “Pat Robertson’s resignation this month as President of the Christian Coalition confirmed the ascendance of a new leader of the religious right in America: George W. Bush.” In the words of Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s former President, “God knew something we didn’tHe had a knowledge nobody else had: He knew George Bush had the ability to lead in this compelling way.”
However, if Bush’s intense religiosity could be used to rouse the American people to respond to a devastating terrorist attack, it would also soon be used to persuade Americans to accept, largely without criticism, the Neocon’s long-held plan to invade Iraq — one of the key links in the “Axis of Evil.” As he explained to Bob Woodward, the decision to invade Iraq did not come from his political advisors or even from former President H.W. Bush, but from a much higher authority: “He couldnot consult his Secretary of State about going to war and not need to look for strength to his father, the former President, because he was consulting a ‘higher father.'” In his January 2003 State of the Union Address, in which he made the strongest case for war against Iraq, Bush made an explicit appeal to God, divine will and Providence to justify the sacrifice of American lives; for they will be dying not just for the American people, but for freedom which is “God’s gift to humanity.”
Whether or not George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was divinely inspired, it does seem to have fulfilled the Neocon’s long-held plans on both the domestic and the international fronts. As David Harvey argues in his recent book, The New Imperialism, the attacks of 9/11 and Bush’s evangelical response to it have provided the ideal rationale for imposing the Neocon’s larger agendas of “establishment of and respect for order, both at home and upon the world stage.”
On the domestic front, 9/11 has provided the excuse to impose extremely invasive new measure like the USA PATRIOT Act, championed by conservative Christian Attorney General John Ashcroft. On the international front, it has also provided the ideal motivation– and spiritual justification — for the Neocon’s plans for Iraq dating back to the early 90s. As Harvey observes, the Neocon strategy for occupying Iraq has behind it a much larger and more disturbing global agenda. With Iraq as its base of operation, and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran close at hand, the U.S. will be uniquely placed to dominate the flow of oil from the Middle East and, by extension, the flow of capital throughout the world in an age still fuelled by oil and petro-dollars: “The U.S. will be in a military and geo-strategic position to control the whole globe militarily and, through oil, economically.The neo-conservatives are, it seems, committed to nothing short of a plan for total domination of the globe.”
Left Behind: Elective Affinities and Double Ironies
So what are we to make of the strange parallels between this popular series of evangelical fiction and this aggressive Neoconservative strategy for American hegemony? On the one hand, we have the wondrous vision of a New Millennium established after a small American-led group fights against the global forces of the Antichrist in the Holy Land; on the other, we have the bold vision of a New American Century established after American unilateral military force defeats the Axis of Evil and asserts its benevolent hegemony in the Middle East. But how are these two narratives related? Is it a plot hatched secretly in one of LaHaye’s Council for National Policy meetings? A coded message woven subliminally into the Left Behind books themselves?
Probably not. Instead, I think this connection is not so much an explicit or even necessarily intentional link, but rather a subtle yet powerful kind of “elective affinity,” in Weber’s sense of the phrase. As Weber argued in his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it is not simply the case that Protestant Christianity caused the rise of early modern capitalism, or vice-versa. Rather, the two shared an affinity that was mutually beneficial and reinforcing. The Protestant ethics of hard-work, thrift, restraint in consumption and asceticism fit well with an early capitalist system based on labor and accumulation of profit and allowed the latter to flourish in ways that no other religious worldview could.
So too, I would suggest, there is a fit or affinity between the evangelical vision of the New Millennium and the Neoconservative ideal of a New American Century. Updating Weber somewhat, we might call this affinity “the Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Neo-Imperialism.” The Neocons and the Christian Right may not be conspiring together secretly behind the scenes; but they do need each other to promote their respective agendas, and they do have enough similar interests to find common ground in the Prodigal Son, George W. As a relatively empty, unformed “floating signifier,” Bush serves as the key link in this elective affinity, the point at which the otherwise conflicting interests of the Neocons and the evangelicals come together in a disturbingly powerful way.
In all of this, however, there is a disturbing kind of double irony. As David Harvey has argued, the aggressive foreign and domestic strategies of the Necons carry with them a twofold danger. First, the extremely invasive and intrusive domestic policies put into place after 9/11 — of which the USA PATRIOT Act is the most obvious example — risk turning the United States into the same sort of oppressive regime that we so despised in the former Soviet Union. Second, this intense militarism and reckless pattern of deficit spending threatens to bankrupt the United States in much the same way that the Soviet Union was destroyed by its massive military expenditure during the Cold War: “If the Soviet Empire was really brought down by excessive strain on its economy through the arms race, then will the U.S., in its blind pursuit of military dominance, undermine the economic foundations of its own power?” And by the time we finally secure the oil wealth in the Middle East and proclaim our benevolent hegemony, is it possible that most of the world will have already realized the finitude of the earth’s oil supplies and moved on to alternative energy sources, anyway?
The danger, in effect, is that America really will be “left behind” in the new global order.