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When U.S. Foreign Policy Meets Biblical Prophecy

George Bush's apocalyptic rhetoric echoes the belief of evangelists that the destruction of Iraq is part of a divine plan.
 
 
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Does the Bible foretell regime change in Iraq? Did God establish Israel's boundaries millennia ago? Is the United Nations a forerunner of a satanic world order?

For millions of Americans, the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. For many believers in biblical prophecy, the Bush administration's go-it-alone foreign policy, hands-off attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and proposed war on Iraq are not simply actions in the national self-interest or an extension of the war on terrorism, but part of an unfolding divine plan.

Evangelical Christians have long complained that "people of faith" do not get sufficient respect, and that religious belief is trivialized in our public discourse. So argues Stephen L. Carter, a Yale University law professor and an evangelical Christian, in his 1993 " The Culture of Disbelief." Carter has a point, at least with reference to my own field of American history. With notable exceptions, cultural historians have long underplayed the importance of religion in the United States, particularly in the modern era. Church historians have produced good work, but somewhat in isolation, cut off from the larger currents of cultural and intellectual history. That is changing, as evidenced by Mark A. Noll's magisterial " America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln" (2002). But, over all, the critics are on target.

However, I would vigorously challenge Carter's related complaint that religious belief plays little role in shaping public policy. In fact, religion has always had an enormous, if indirect and underrecognized, role in policy formation.

And that is especially true today, as is illustrated by the shadowy but vital way that belief in biblical prophecy is helping mold grassroots attitudes toward current U.S. foreign policy. As the nation debates a march toward war in the Middle East, all of us would do well to pay attention to the beliefs of the vast company of Americans who read the headlines and watch the news through a filter of prophetic belief.

Abundant evidence makes clear that millions of Americans -- upwards of 40 percent, according to some widely publicized national polls -- do, indeed, believe that Bible prophecies detail a specific sequence of end-times events. According to the most popular prophetic system, premillennial dispensationalism, formulated by the 19th-century British churchman John Darby, a series of last-day signs will signal the approaching end. Those will include wars, natural disasters, rampant immorality, the rise of a world political and economic order, and the return of the Jews to the land promised by God to Abraham.

In Darby's system, the present "dispensation" will end with the Rapture, when all true believers will join Christ in the air. Next comes the Tribulation, when a charismatic but satanic figure, the Antichrist, will arise in Europe, seize world power, and impose his universal tyranny under the dread sign "666," mentioned in Revelation. After seven years, Christ and the saints will return to vanquish the Antichrist and his armies at Har-Megiddo (the biblical Armageddon), an ancient battle site near Haifa. From a restored Temple in Jerusalem, Christ will then inaugurate a thousand-year reign of peace and justice -- the Millennium.

That scenario, which Darby ingeniously cobbled together from apocalyptic passages throughout the Bible, was popularized in America by expositors like Cyrus Scofield, whose 1909 " Scofield Reference Bible" became a best seller. More recently, dispensationalism has been promulgated by radio evangelists; paperback popularizers; fundamentalist and Pentecostal pastors; and TV luminaries like Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe, and John Hagee.

Hal Lindsey's " The Late Great Planet Earth" (1970), a slangy update of Darby's teachings, became the nonfiction best seller in the 1970s. Today's Left Behind series, a multivolume fictional treatment of dispensationalism by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, has sold 50 million copies since the first volume appeared, in 1995. Volume 10, The Remnant, topped the The New York Times's bestseller list for several weeks last summer.

During the cold war, Lindsey and other prophecy gurus focused on the Soviet Union, citing a passage in Ezekiel foretelling the destruction of a northern kingdom, Gog, which they interpreted as Russia. Today's popularizers, however, spotlight the Middle East and the rise of a New World Order led by their own "axis of evil": the United Nations and other international bodies; global media conglomerates; and multinational corporations, trading alliances, and financial institutions. This interlocking system, they preach, is laying the groundwork for the Antichrist's prophesied dictatorship.

As for the Middle East, the popularizers view Israel's founding in 1948, and its recapture of Jerusalem's Old City in 1967, as key end-times signs. They also see the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and a future rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple on a site sacred to Muslims, as steps in God's unfolding plan. The most hard-line and expansionist groups in Israel today, including Likud Party leaders, have gratefully welcomed this unwavering support. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States in 1998, he called first on Falwell, and only then met with President Clinton. (Dispensationalist dogma also foretells the mass slaughter of Jews by the Antichrist and the conversion of the surviving remnant to Christianity, but those themes are played down by most current popularizers.)

On the basis of such beliefs, dispensationalists denounce any proposals for shared governance of Jerusalem. As Hagee writes in " Final Dawn Over Jerusalem" (Thomas Nelson, 1998): "Christians and Jews, let us stand united and indivisible on this issue: There can be no compromise regarding the city of Jerusalem, not now, not ever. We are racing toward the end of time, and Israel lies in the eye of the storm. ... Israel is the only nation created by a sovereign act of God, and He has sworn by His holiness to defend Jerusalem, His Holy City. If God created and defends Israel, those nations that fight against it fight against God." Dispensationalists also oppose any scaling back of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Gaza, since those areas lie well within God's grant to Abraham, recorded in Genesis 15:18, of all of the land from "the river of Egypt" to the Euphrates.

In this scenario, the Islamic world is allied against God and faces annihilation in the last days. That view is actually a very ancient one in Christian eschatology. Medieval prophecy expounders saw Islam as the demonic force whose doom is foretold in Scripture. As Richard the Lionhearted prepared for the Third Crusade in 1190, the famed prophecy interpreter Joachim of Fiore assured him that the Islamic ruler Saladin, who held Jerusalem, was the Antichrist, and that Richard would defeat him and recapture the Holy City. (Joachim's prophecy failed: Richard returned to Europe in 1192 with Saladin still in power.) Later interpreters cast the Ottoman Empire in the Antichrist role.

That theme faded after 1920, with the Ottoman collapse and the rise of the Soviet Union, but it surged back in the later 20th century, as prophecy popularizers began not only to support the most hard-line groups in Israel, but also to demonize Islam as irredeemably evil and destined for destruction. "The Arab world is an Antichrist-world," wrote Guy Dury in "Escape From the Coming Tribulation" (1975). "God says he will lay the land of the Arabs waste and it will be desolate," Arthur Bloomfield wrote in " Before the Last Battle -- Armageddon," published in 1971 and reprinted in 1999. "This may seem like a severe punishment, but ... the terms of the covenant must be carried out to the letter."

The anti-Islamic rhetoric is at fever pitch today. Last June, the prophecy magazine Midnight Call warmly endorsed a fierce attack on Islam by Franklin Graham (son of Billy) and summed up Graham's case in stark terms: "Islam is an evil religion." In Lindsey's 1996 prophecy novel, " Blood Moon," Israel, in retaliation for a planned nuclear attack by an Arab extremist, launches a massive thermonuclear assault on the entire Arab world. Genocide, in short, becomes the ultimate means of prophetic fulfillment.

Anticipating George W. Bush, prophecy writers in the late 20th century also quickly zeroed in on Saddam Hussein. If not the Antichrist himself, they suggested, Saddam could well be a forerunner of the Evil One. In full-page newspaper advertisements during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the organization Jews for Jesus declared that Saddam "represents the spirit of Antichrist about which the Bible warns us."

Prophecy believers found particular significance in Saddam's grandiose plan, launched in the 1970s, to rebuild Babylon on its ancient ruins. The fabled city on the Euphrates, south of Baghdad, which included one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, owed its splendor to King Nebuchadnezzar, the same wicked ruler who warred against Israel and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., for which impiety, according to the Book of Daniel, he went mad and ended his days eating grass in the fields.

In Revelation, Babylon embodies all that is corrupt, "a great whore ... with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication." It stands as the antithesis of Jerusalem, the city of righteousness, and Revelation prophesies its annihilation by fire. Since Babylon cannot be destroyed unless it exists, Saddam's ambitious public-works project is seen as an essential step toward prophetic fulfillment.

Charles Dyer's " The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times" (1991) elaborates the theme. Along with the emergence of modern Israel and the European Union (forerunner of the Antichrist's world system), writes Dyer, Saddam's restoration of Babylon signals the approaching end and offers "thrilling proof that Bible prophecies are infallible." "When Babylon is ultimately destroyed," he continues, "Israel will finally be at peace and will dwell in safety."

That theme resonates powerfully with today's calls for Saddam's overthrow. Indeed, the cover illustration of Dyer's book juxtaposes Saddam and Nebuchadnezzar. Hal Lindsey's Web site recently featured a cartoon of a military aircraft emblazoned with a U.S. flag and a Star of David and carrying a missile with a label targeting "Saddam." The caption quoted the prophet Zechariah: "It shall be that day I will seek to destroy all nations that come against Israel."

All of these themes converge in the Left Behind novels. As the plot unfolds, the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, becomes secretary general of the United Nations. ("I've opposed the United Nations for 50 years," boasts one of the authors, Tim LaHaye, a veteran activist on the religious right.) Carpathia moves the U.N. from New York to a rebuilt Babylon, laying the groundwork for the simultaneous destruction of both the city that in the grammar of dispensationalism represents absolute evil and defiance of God's prophetic plan, and the organization that more than any other prefigures the Antichrist's satanic world order.

To be sure, some current Bush-administration policies trouble prophecy believers. For example, the expansion of Washington's surveillance powers after 9/11 (led, ironically, by Attorney General John Ashcroft, darling of the religious right) strikes some as another step toward the Antichrist's global dictatorship. Counterbalancing that, however, other key administration positions -- its hostility to multinational cooperation and international agreements, its downgrading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its muted response to growing Jewish settlement in Palestinian territory, and its unrelenting focus on Saddam Hussein -- strike prophecy believers as perfectly in harmony with God's prophetic plan: a plan that will bring human history to its apocalyptic denouement and usher in the longed-for epoch of righteousness, justice, and peace.

Academics do need to pay more attention to the role of religious belief in American public life, not only in the past, but also today. Without close attention to the prophetic scenario embraced by millions of American citizens, the current political climate in the United States cannot be fully understood.

Leaders have always invoked God's blessing on their wars, and, in this respect, the Bush administration is simply carrying on a familiar tradition. But when our born-again president describes the nation's foreign-policy objective in theological terms as a global struggle against "evildoers," and when, in his recent State of the Union address, he casts Saddam Hussein as a demonic, quasi-supernatural figure who could unleash "a day of horror like none we have ever known," he is not only playing upon our still-raw memories of 9/11. He is also invoking a powerful and ancient apocalyptic vocabulary that for millions of prophecy believers conveys a specific and thrilling message of an approaching end -- not just of Saddam, but of human history as we know it.

Paul S. Boyer, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and currently a visiting professor of history at the College of William and Mary, is the author of "When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture" (Harvard University Press, 1992).