An Empire of Their Own
The war between good and evil is the moral heart of the series, and the utter lack of ambiguity in the situations it evokes is the utopian lamp in the dark world of the end times. Religiously, the purity of believers is contrasted with the evil religion propounded by the Antichrist and his henchmen. Those on the wrong side of God suffer the kind of tortures that right-wing radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh have sometimes seemed to wish on "Feminazis": They are bitten by demon-locusts and suffer terribly for five months; they are struck down by flashes of fire and sulfur, trampled by ghostly, death-dealing horsemen who ride the skies and attack only nonbelievers. Believers, on the other hand, are immune from much of this suffering, though they do face death and danger, and occasionally become martyrs for their cause.
A more earthly right-wing political critique is fully integrated into this narrative, and all the traditional far-right bugbears make an appearance. The one-world government of the Antichrist, for example, has its origins in a shadowy conspiracy between a group of Trilateral Commission-like financiers and the fearful members of the UN, who are so desperate for "peace" that they allow themselves to be taken over by a dictator. And that totalitarian rule embodies every conceivable form of liberal tyranny. It is simultaneously economic (the Antichrist introduces a single currency), cultural (he has a monopoly on world media) and political (his police state employs "Morale Monitors" who patrol the streets, hunting down and executing any dissidents). Oh, and the Antichrist also tries to make his lover have an abortion. So it is that when one of the Antichrist's henchmen describes the Tribulation Force members as "right-wing, fanatic, fundamentalist faction," we as readers are invited to consider the source and take it as a compliment. We know whose side God is on, and who will be destroyed at the end.
Of course, the Left Behind series is fiction, and fiction is not a hypodermic needle, injecting beliefs into unwary victims. The fact that we watch a particular TV show or read a particular set of novels doesn't mean we buy their entire world-view. I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I'm not at all inclined to believe that there is a hell mouth in California. (I do, however, occasionally allow myself to imagine that Martin Sheen is President.) We cannot assume, then, that every Left Behind reader is, or becomes, a prophecy-talking, Bible-believing, UN-bashing conservative Christian. Nor can we assume that all evangelicals, even politically conservative ones, share the ideology of the prophecy set. Indeed, there is some evidence that fans of the series read the books as if they were Stephen King novels, and the series has received reviews on both science fiction and horror websites. Even on the official leftbehind.com chat-rooms, many younger readers announce that their other favorite books are the Star Trek and Star Wars series, or novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley and even Anne Rice.
But Left Behind is more than a collection of novels. It exists within an evangelical milieu both broad and deep. That universe is both highly interactive and intimately familiar to most of its readers, filled with stock apocalyptic imagery, detailed biblical exegesis and action-adventure realism that marries contemporary evangelical fascinations, conservative political values and popular-culture pleasures. This kind of thick context makes it much more likely that the Left Behind novels will be received as prophecy, not dismissed as fluff, by the evangelicals who form their core audience.
Left Behind also highlights something important about the way mass culture works. Rather than creating a homogenized McWorld, as so many critics have claimed, popular culture can and does reinforce ideological and cultural divisions, fostering sharp distinctions between communities. The evangelical population in the United States is becoming more numerous, more politicized--particularly around foreign policy--and more powerful than ever before. This transformation is as much cultural as political, or rather, it is inextricably both at once. Those of us who care deeply about the future of politics, domestic and international, cannot afford to ignore the fact that evangelicals are no longer merely a subculture. They are fast becoming a--perhaps the--dominant force in American life. As the Middle East smolders, many people have debated the role of George W. Bush's Christian beliefs in his foreign policy, and we are daily confronted with the lobbying muscle of the Christian right. But if we want to understand conservative Christians as a political force, we must pay attention to the galvanizing power of culture. The astonishing success of the Left Behind series suggests that the conservative obsession with biblical prophecy is increasingly shaping our secular reality. I wish we'd all been ready.