Would you take advice on politics from a man who believes the end of the world is nigh? The answer for millions of people in the US is yes
Last year the Texas pastor John Hagee presided over the ninth annual summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which describes itself as “the largest pro-Israel organisation in the United States”. Five thousand evangelicals gathered in Washington to hear a distinguished roster of speakers including six US senators, a former director of the CIA and the Israeli ambassador to the US. Binyamin Netanyahu sent a recorded message; he couldn’t be there because Israel was at war in the Gaza Strip. Nearly a thousand civilians had already been killed, and even Israel’s staunchest allies were calling for restraint. But Hagee demanded that Netanyahu be allowed to “finish the job” in Gaza. When he had finished, the pastor led other delegates up Capitol Hill to lobby those lawmakers who hadn’t shown up.
Hagee’s journey from a San Antonio megachurch to the halls of Congress has not been without setbacks. In 2008, after he endorsed the Republican presidential candidate John McCain , newspapers reported that Hagee had called Roman Catholicism a “false cult system” , and that he believed God had permitted the Holocaust for the higher good of establishing the state of Israel. Last November, he called Barack Obama “one of the most antisemitic presidents in American history”. Hagee later insisted that he had meant “anti-Israel”, though he didn’t retract his claim that God sent Ebola to punish humanity for Obama’s Middle East policy. If Hagee’s career seems impervious to the gaffes that would sink most politicians, perhaps it’s because he’s always led a double life as a public figure. When he isn’t demanding that the US bomb Iran, or Israel annex Palestinian land, Hagee writes bestsellers mapping the bad news of today’s headlines on to the bizarre landscapes of Bible prophecy. Would you take advice on the Middle East from a man who believes the world is about to end? The answer for millions of Americans, perhaps even for conservative members of Congress, is yes.
Matthew Avery Sutton’s new book locates prophecy belief at the heart of the modern evangelical movement. At the start of the 20th century, conservative Protestants reacted to the populist politics and theological liberalism of their age with righteous defiance. The stereotype of religious conservatism throws up images of rural churches in the southern Bible belt, but Christian fundamentalism was born in the big cities of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, funded by wealthy businessmen such as Lyman Stewart, a California oil tycoon who bankrolled The Fundamentals (1910-15), the book series that gave the movement its name. Initially, fundamentalists struggled to endorse candidates for Congress, let alone the presidency. Most loathed Franklin Roosevelt , who won an unprecedented four presidential elections despite their disdain. Politicians became aware of the power of evangelical voters in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jimmy Carter himself was a born-again Christian (though not a fundamentalist). But it was only with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that the religious right gained entry into the White House.
Throughout the 20th century evangelicals imagined that the “end times” were at hand. Some wrote to Woodrow Wilson during the first world war to alert him to the prophetic significance of the conflict, but then shrank from the president when he proposed the formation of the League of Nations in 1919. (Hadn’t the Book of Daniel warned that the antichrist would create a world government?) In the 1930s, prophecy writers were suspicious of Roosevelt’s “socialist” policies but electrified by the rise of dictators in Europe. When two American missionaries met Benito Mussolini in 1932 and asked him if he intended “to reconstitute the Roman empire”, Il Duce embraced the role of antichrist with unseemly delight. “Is that really described in the Bible? Where is it to be found?” Mussolini, like the League of Nations, failed to live up to his apocalyptic billing.
The central paradox of Sutton’s book, which he acknowledges but never quite resolves, is why anyone expecting Armageddon would waste time on politics. For more than a century, prophecy adherents have largely agreed on the end times sequence: war in the Middle East, world government and the rise of the antichrist will mark a seven-year period known as the tribulation. Jews will suffer particular torture, but will ultimately find refuge in Christ. Evangelicals can afford to be sanguine about this because they think God will teleport them to heaven just before things turn bad. Prophecy is an obvious recruiting tool for Christian fundamentalists, who can implore sinners to become “rapture ready” by emphasising the horrors of the tribulation.
But if the fate of the world is sealed, why bother trying to take over the US government? American Apocalypse suggests a range of answers. “No matter what happens,” wrote the celebrated evangelical William Blackstone in the 1920s, “we are under marching orders” to advance God’s cause. Billy Graham hinted that a religious revival in the US might delay the apocalypse, allowing more time to win souls for Jesus. According to Sutton, some evangelicals in the mid-20th century even imagined they could shield the US from God’s harshest judgments, a kind of religious version of American exceptionalism.
The idea of impending doom has always allowed outsiders to make a virtue of their marginalisation. We can see this in the in the 20s and 30s, when American evangelicals struggled to break into the political mainstream. It seems less true of the period after the second world war as Christian fundamentalism found a foothold in the Republican party. The most iconic postwar evangelicals – Graham, Jerry Falwell , Pat Robertson – occasionally predicted that the end times were approaching, but focused their energies on mending a broken world. The religious right rejected the idea that vice and godlessness would sweep the US towards apocalypse, looking to mobilise a “moral majority” behind conservative principles.
If the Book of Revelation was less central to postwar evangelicalism, as than Sutton suggests, how should we account for the revival of belief in the past 20 years? Hagee’s prophecy bestsellers continue to promise that, as the subtitle of one he published in 2013 puts it, “Something Is About to Change”. For those of us who have fretted about the revival of end times enthusiasm, Sutton’s book supplies a comforting irony: liberal critics have been waiting for apocalyptic Christianity to capsize American politics for almost as long as evangelicals have been predicting the end of the world.
But I can’t resist pointing out two things that might be different about contemporary apocalyptic fervour. First, there are signs that evangelical conservatives are retreating from the frontline of American politics. The Baptist leader Russell Moore recently told evangelicals that “t he Bible belt is collapsing” under cultural and demographic pressure. If evangelicals “can no longer pretend we are a moral majority”, they might instead become a “prophetic minority”. Moore wants evangelicals to bear witness to their moral values if they can’t enshrine them in law. But as immigration and liberal values carry the country away from the religious right, we are likely to see a resurgence of Bible prophecy among evangelicals who feel the sting of rejection.
The social agenda of Christian conservatism may be losing influence on Capitol Hill, but the sway of evangelicals over foreign policy shows no sign of letting up. The apocalyptic spectacle of 9/11 invited the biggest jolt to prophecy enthusiasts since the founding of Israel in 1948. The US government’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have inflamed the region, and reassured evangelical extremists that the prophetic clock is fast approaching midnight. This would be less troubling if Hagee weren’t able to persuade US senators, diplomats and White House officials that his views on the Middle East are worth hearing. “Israel is not a political issue,” he tells them. “Israel is a Bible issue.” Given the parts of the Bible that most preoccupy Pastor Hagee, this is bad news for everyone – Israelis included.
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