An Empire of Their Own
If he's right, then the United States must matter to God a great deal these days. The remarkable influence of the Christian right and more specifically Christian Zionism on the current Bush Administration's Middle East policy has been hard to miss. Right-wing figures in Congress like Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe and House majority leader Tom DeLay have close working relationships with evangelicals like LaHaye, Falwell and Ralph Reed. These evangelists and politicians are in turn deeply connected to the Israeli right, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his financeminister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The relationship has deepened in recent years--it seems as if some Jewish pro-Israeli organization is always giving Pat Robertson an award, and among grassroots Christian conservatives, there are multiple campaigns to raise money to settle immigrant Jews in the West Bank and Gaza--but the connections pay off particularly well in times of crisis. When the Israelis pushed into Jenin last year, for example, killing dozens of Palestinians and leaving thousands homeless, Falwell organized a massive e-mail campaign to call for the United States to "stand firm" behind Israel, while DeLay spearheaded Congressional opposition to any weakening of the Bush Administration's pro-Sharon stance. At about that time, DeLay discussed his recent trip to the Middle East before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "I didn't see any occupied territory," he told the appreciative audience. "What I saw was Israel." More recently, DeLay declared himself "an Israeli of the heart" in a rabid speech before the Knesset.
Not surprisingly, some Israelis and American Jews have expressed profound unease with this kind of support. Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, has called this evangelical embrace a "strangely exploitative relationship," in which evangelicals love Israel primarily because they believe its existence proves that biblical prophecies are true. The history of conservative Christian anti-Semitism is no small issue here, and LaHaye himself is no small contributor to that history. LaHaye was active in the Moral Majority in the 1980s and was later forced to resign as co-chairman of Jack Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign for having called Catholicism a "false religion" and for blaming Jewish suffering on the Jewish rejection of Jesus. More recently, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in Slate magazine, LaHaye announced that "some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind." "The Jewish brain," he added kindly, also "has the capacity for great good." LaHaye's crude views are hardly the norm among evangelicals, but the suspicion remains that the pro-Israeli positions emerging from the Christian right are at best instrumental and at worst a dangerous enthusiasm for the impending destruction and/or mass conversion of Jews. The criticisms have led a few evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson, to deny that biblical prophecy plays a primary role in their pro-Israel positions.
This general caveat undoubtedly holds some truth; many evangelical Christians, even those who don't hold a particular interest in prophecy, are deeply committed to a pro-Israel stance. But if we pay attention to the lively world of evangelical popular culture, it becomes clear that prophecy narratives mobilize a particular kind of energy and enthusiasm. A generic sense of support for God's Chosen People becomes something far more exciting and more emotionally powerful when placed in the context of what many evangelicals believe to be the most religiously significant events of all time. On the multiple web message boards on leftbehind.com, for example, enthusiastic posts situate Israel's history and current politics within an ongoing series of discussions about "Are We Living in the End Times," or "How Soon Will It Be?" Recently, one contributor wrote in to say that she is anxious and feels the world is spiraling out of control. The reply from another poster: "Relax! Enjoy seeing the Bible come to life! It's proof that it IS REAL!"
Quite a few moderate and liberal evangelicals have criticized the theological bent that turns every current event into an occasion to prove that the end is near. Randall Balmer, an evangelical who has written a series of influential studies of the movement, says that the focus on prophecy emerges out of a "theology of despair" based on a "slavishly literalistic" reading of Revelation. He describes Left Behind as "camp fiction," and calls it both triumphalist and self-righteous. Other commentators aren't nearly so generous: Christian Century magazine described Left Behind as simple-minded "beam me up theology."
But that "beam me up" theology is central to the books' appeal. At the level of fundamentalist doctrine, the Left Behind series is unreconstructed and proud of it: There is only Jesus Christ, and Christianity is the only truth. Winning converts is the primary moral duty of the characters (and, one presumes, of the novels themselves). The narrative inveighs repeatedly against abortion, sexual "immorality" and false religion. At the same time, the fast-paced chase scenes, direct visitations by angels and humorous banter among the tough-minded fly-boys lend excitement to the long didactic messages in which Tsion Ben-Judah details the meaning of particular biblical verses, or the endless repetition of scenes in which yet another character recounts how he or she found Jesus. What makes these novels work is that they seamlessly integrate an apocalyptic religious view with a strongly conservative political vision, and locate both in a universe of supernatural action adventure in which good and evil are fully and finally revealed.