Tim Appelo. The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Glenn H Utter & John W Storey. Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2007.
When President George W. Bush was appointed by five Supreme Court justices in 2000, right-wing Christians sang hosannas for the triumph of God’s will over the electorate’s. “President Bush is God’s man at this hour,” said Tim Goeglein, Bush’s liaison to evangelicals. Though the Methodist president dishonestly conceals the whole truth about his apocalyptic religious beliefs, he has acted as an evangelist in office. As Esther Kaplan demonstrates in With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House, he’s doled out millions to far-right Christian groups, systematically crushed secular left and nonright mainstream organizations from Head Start to the Audubon Society, and replaced policy and scientific experts with comically ignorant yet politically cunning fanatic provocateurs. Out with the American Medical Association, in with the American Family Association. Before Bush, the Internal Revenue Service hounded the Christian Coalition; now that Bush is, in extremist Gary Bauer’s opinion, the de facto leader of the Christian Coalition, the government selectively harasses non-Christian groups, and a rightist apparatchik tried to sneak through Congress a bill legitimizing the kinds of politically targeted IRS abuses that would have made Richard M. Nixon proud.
Televangelist and onetime presidential candidate Pat Robertson once rallied millions to lobby God for the deaths of liberal Supreme Court justices, recommending prayers for coronaries and cancer. “We ask for miracles!” preached Robertson. Today, the judiciary’s Clinton-era moderates haven’t even a prayer against the Reagan/Bush rightists. Author Tim LaHaye, whose Left Behind thrillers based on the Bible’s “end times” stories are America’s best-selling books for adults, once helped destroy the Jack Kemp presidential campaign he co-chaired by demanding 25 percent of government jobs for the Christian right’s 25 percent of the population. Today, no way does Bush’s “Evange taliban”—which claims responsibility for winning Bush a second term in 2004—intend to settle for less than 100 percent.
But not every follower of the Prince of Peace is shouting amen to Bush/Robertson/Falwell’s Killer Christians. Granted, the fastest-growing churches are either evangelical—Bible believers out to win your soul—or fundamentalists, out to bend your soul to their bluenose will and so literal when it comes to the Bible that some insist Christ’s parables refer to actual people and events. Fundies also incline to the authoritarianism of Oswald Chambers, the 19th-century Christian whose harsh sermonettes against rational analysis and for a gut response to God Bush reads each morning (perhaps on this Web site: www.gospelcom.net/rbc/utmost).
Yet the more love-thy-neighbor-advocating mainstream church is not dead. In The American Prospect magazine, Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter charges the fundamentalists with “the abandonment of some of the basic principles of Christianity.” And in his brilliant 1997 book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, author Bruce Bawer accuses fundamentalism of replacing Christ’s Church of Love with a Church of Law, lamenting “the horrible monster that 20th-century legalistic Christians have made out of their God and Savior and the hateful institution that they have made out of his church.” He notes acidly that the movement got its biggest boost in reaction not to the Supreme Court’s 1963 school-prayer ban but to the Carter-era IRS crackdown on segregated Christian schools. “The Religious Right didn’t grow out of a love of God and one’s neighbor—it grew out of racism, pure and simple.”
“Kids growing up in Church of Law families nowadays think that the only two sins, or at least the only two really, really important ones, are having an abortion and having gay sex,” Bawer told Seattle Weekly. “The notion that love, tolerance, and inclusiveness are moral values has been dropped down the memory hole.”
A soldier in the U.S. Army e-mailed Seattle Weekly, “I’m just a citizen who was raised in a Christian community and is tired of having my values hijacked by a conservative movement that only applies them selectively at home and hardly at all overseas.” The soldier asks to remain anonymous.
Perversion of Christian Faith?
“Bush is one of the key figures leading the church away from Jesus,” says Christian author Don Miller, who wrote the nonbluenose Christian best seller Blue Like Jazz. Miller is no pantywaist—he had the balls to run a ministry at Reed College in Portland, Ore., which is so godless that its soccer team is said in campus legend to have once staged a halftime crucifixion in a game against a Christian school. But he couldn’t stomach it when, for instance, Texas Gov. Bush not only allowed the execution of his fellow born-again Christian, the penitent ax murderer Karla Faye Tucker, but made vicious fun of her (“Please don’t kill me!” Bush said, mocking her prayerful plea for God’s mercy). Miller classifies Bush Christians as modern Pharisees—the allegedly proud, rigid, legalistic hypocrites John the Baptist called “a generation of vipers.” “The worst condemnation that Jesus has for anybody, I mean the worst, is for Pharisees,” says Miller. “If you asked Jerry Falwell who the Pharisees are in our society, they can’t point anybody out.” There are no mirrors in Bush’s church.
“People of faith—especially those whose moral values differ from the values exploited this time around—need to figure out a way to be figured into the political landscape,” Philadelphia Presbyterian minister Cynthia Jarvis editorialized in The New York Times. “Maybe four years from now, when the number one issue cited by voters in exit polls is again ‘moral values,’ those values will have something to do with economic justice, racial equality and the peaceable kingdom for which we all were made.”
But few have preached harder against the Christian right’s wrongs than the Rev. Rich Lang of Seattle’s Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard. “This administration is a culture of death, and so is the religious right,” says Lang. In his Open Letter to George Bush, published in Real Change, Lang thunders, “You claim Christ but act like Caesar. There is blood all over your hands with the promise of even more blood to come. You sit atop the nations like the Biblical Whore of Babylon openly fornicating with the military men of might.” His sermon “George Bush and the Rise of Christian Fascism” (posted like Luther’s theses on the church Web site, www.tumseattle.org) rails that “the power and seduction of this administration emerges from its diabolical manipulation of Christian rhetoric … the mirror opposite of what Jesus embodied. It is, indeed, the materialization of the spirit of Antichrist: a perversion of Christian faith and practice.”
Lang is not using “Antichrist” in a tone of bitter sarcasm, as many do. Google “George Bush is the Antichrist,” and you’ll get a startling list of Web sites that argue the case, but with sardonic intent and whimsical 666-numero-logical riffs. Unwhimsical pundit Robert Wright, who attended Calvary Baptist in Bush’s Midland, Texas, hometown, uses modern science to puzzle out what may be God’s plan in his bold book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. When he notes in Slate magazine that he supported John Kerry because “He’s a long way from being the Messiah, but at least he’s not the anti-Christ,” Wright says not to take this as gospel. “Obviously, I was kidding—Bush isn’t literally the Antichrist. But I do think he could conceivably do some pretty cataclysmic damage to the world….” Even Christian Bush-basher Miller urgently distances himself from the Bush-as-Antichrist meme that’s sweeping the Web: “The last thing I want is for someone to say, ‘Don Miller thinks Bush is the Antichrist!”‘
“He’s not the Antichrist, he’s just a cynical, callous politician,” objects Stealing Jesus author Bawer. “I gather some liberal Christians have gone off the rails.” He refers to Lang’s identification of Bush with the “spirit of Antichrist” warned against in the Bible’s 1 John 4:3. “This kind of inane proof texting is the province of the Church of Law types, the right-wing Darbyites,” believers in Left Behind-style apocalyptic prophecy. “It’s depressing to see it practiced by liberal Christians, too.” Bawer is appalled by Bush’s attempt, “in the name of Christianity, to add to the Constitution what would be far and away its most un-Christian amendment. But I’m also unsettled by the extreme way in which he’s been personally characterized by many people.”
Granted, Bawer says the right “worships evil,” and has “warped Christianity into something ugly and hateful that has little or nothing to do with love and everything to do with suspicion, superstition, and sadism [and] denies the name of Christianity to followers of Jesus who reject its barbaric theology.” But “when people start calling somebody the Antichrist, we’re in right-wing fundamentalist, Church of Law territory, and I don’t like it one bit…. Demonizing (literally) individuals in this way is ugly, scary….”
Lang, though, stands his ground against his famous accuser, and insists that he’s missing some crucial distinctions. “This is not about George Bush, this is about this whole administration. It’s about Karl Rove, it’s about the neocons, some of whom are Christian, some who aren’t, but who are using Christian rhetoric. James Dobson [of Focus on the Family] has direct access to the highest echelons of American government. And Robertson and Falwell.”
Still, Lang means what he says about Bush. “He has the spirit of the Antichrist. Literally, break the word apart. It is a spirituality that is anti-Christ.”
Meet the Beast
So what’s an Antichrist, anyhow? The concept has evolved bewilderingly throughout biblical history. As definitively explained in Bernard McGinn’s Antichrist: 2,000 Years of the Human Fascination With Evil and Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession, the character can be traced to Old Testament authors’ horrified response to the oppression of ancient colonizers. When Alexander the Great’s conquests led to a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews envisioned a final conflict story wherein the Syrian Greek tyrant Antiochus, reimagined as a beast, got burned in God’s “fiery stream” on Judgment Day.
Early Christians grafted the Roman Emperor Nero onto the tradition as the Beast from the Abyss in the Apocalypse, known to current Christians as the book of Revelation, the Bible’s astonishing finale about the final days. Nero dressed in animal skins to ravage men’s and women’s genitals, burned Christians in ghastly dramas, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was rumored to have disappeared to the East, threatening to return one day to rule the world from Rome, or Jerusalem. Actually, he killed himself, but he lives on in beastly legend. To this day, the word for Antichrist in Armenian is “Nero.”
Though the story of the Beast and various other biblical verses are associated with the Antichrist, the word itself, “Antichrist,” only appears four times in the Bible, in the letters of John. Christians have eternally argued about the Antichrist. Revelation was nearly banned from the Bible, and permitted strictly on condition it should never be used as it is by fundies today. Church father Augustine ordered Christians to quit reading apocalyptic Left Behind-style scenarios into scripture and think of the Antichrist as anyone who denies Christ—and he said the first place to hunt for him is in your own heart.
In my evangelical Lutheran childhood I often feared the Rapture had left me behind, even though my church was liberal with Christ’s love. But now I’m with Augustine—and also with Robert Wright, who finds in his book The Moral Animal a biological basis for original sin. For a Darwinist Christian, the Beast is within: the lizard brain fighting the higher mind for control of one’s soul. As Darwin cried out to heaven in his notebook: “The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!”
But people crave apocalyptic stories and an easy answer to spiritual struggle. As the narrator says of a character in Left Behind, “He wanted to believe something that tied everything together and made it make sense.” The most popular story today was concocted by an English law-student-turned-self-taught-theologian named John Nelson Darby in the 1840s, and popularized by a Kansas City lawyer named C.I. Scofield with his best-selling 1909 Scofield Reference Bible. The Scofield Bible cross-referenced Old and New Testament verses to illuminate the hidden figure in the bewildering carpet of scripture, weaving the phantasmagoria of apocalyptic visions into a single system—a magic carpet of narrative to whisk them safely out of time and into heaven. Its systematic beauty was designed as a kind of counterscience to rebuke and refute Darwinism and historical biblical scholarship.
And man, is it a great story. It’s not a literal interpretation, but an imaginative deduction as breathtaking as Charles Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Charles Manson’s prophetic interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album. The Bible describes Christ’s Second Coming and the Rapture of the Saints—the whooshing of Christians bodily into heaven. Anybody reading it for the first time would think these are supposed to happen at the same time, at the end of time. But Darby hawked the notion that the Rapture happens first. Exeunt Christians. Enter the Beast/Antichrist, who perpetrates a hellish seven-year Great Tribulation. Then Christ returns, kicks Beast butt, and reigns for 1,000 years—the Millennium. Fifty-one percent of Americans voted for Bush; 59 percent believe Revelation will come true. Without one scrap of scriptural evidence, almost one-quarter of Americans believe Revelation predicted 9/11.
The Independent newspaper called Revelation “that earliest of airport novels.” LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind dazzlingly turns it into one. Planes and cars crash, deprived of pilots by the Rapture. Even fetuses get Raptured, deflating their mamas’ bellies. The Antichrist becomes Nicolae Carpathia, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, seizing control of the U.N. to impose one world government! The faithful get saved! The secular humanists get what they deserve! Since latter-day Darbyites believe end times scripture predicts and mandates Israel’s resurgence to usher in Christ’s return and the Antichrist’s smackdown, they help drive Bush’s rubber-stamp policy for Israel. The real Middle East road map may be the Scofield Reference Bible.
“That’s a completely foolish and erroneous interpretation of the scriptures,” snaps Jimmy Carter. “But this administration, maybe extremely influenced by ill-advised theologians of the extreme religious right, has pretty well abandoned any real effort that could lead to a resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians.”
“It’s deeply dismaying that millions of Americans who call themselves Christians are believers in something that has virtually nothing to do with the gospel message,” mourns Bawer. “Darby, Scofield, and company have been a disaster for Christianity in America. Millions of people think they are adherents of ‘traditional Christianity’ when, in fact, they have been roped into a newfangled religion based on bizarre theological propositions that Jesus would never recognize.”
“It’s so ludicrous!” laments Lang. “Such a twisting of scripture. That history is scripted is something that it seems to me Christians ought to have an instinct to be repulsed against. You follow a code, there’s magical meanings in the text.”
But Lang knows why people cling to millennial dreams—like Dubya’s, his life was saved by a fundamentalist church. “It attracted me because I came out of chaos. Alcohol and drugs; 19 years old and I was dyin’. I needed a strong fence around my life and people who cared for me, and I got both. But after about a year of reading what they taught me, I started to raise questions.”
Further study convinced him that Augustine was on the right track, after all, in reading apocalyptic literature as spiritual advice, not a sneak preview of tomorrow’s headlines. “Revelation is written to the churches in its time, not to the churches in the 21st century. It’s written to seven churches in Turkey.” As for the Antichrist warnings in John, he reads them not as a literal prediction of Bush but as a warning against the eternal danger of his hypocritical, Mammon-worshiping, proudly elitist, heartless, narrowly legalistic spirit. “1 John seems to be obsessed with language like this: ‘How can you say you love God, who you have not seen, if you do not love your brother and sister, who you have seen?’ Who are in need of food, clothing, shelter? The implication of the doctrine of the Antichrist is that there is an economic disparity in the community, and people are using their religion, not practicing it.”
Bush policy is based on what he told his Harvard Business School professor—”Poor people are poor because they’re lazy.” Responds Lang, “Again, anti-Christ. It’s just the opposite [of Christ’s teaching]. The thrust of right-wing Christianity—their solution to poverty is to discipline the poor. Now, there’s a lot to be said for that. I mean, if people would clean up their negative habits. There’s some common ground where we can meet. But the right never addresses what Jesus called ‘that fox Herod’—the systematic problem that has given rise to homelessness and poverty.”
Bringing Back Heresy
Lang argues that followers of Jesus, not Bush, should call an Antichrist an Antichrist—or rather, its spirit. “The progressive church should bring back—and this sounds so crazy—the word ‘heresy.’ The end times theology and this other thing called Dominionism or Christian Reconstruction—those are heresies.” Lang says not to believe Christian Coalition leader-turned-Whore of Enron-turned Bush/Cheney campaign lieutenant Ralph Reed when he claims the Christian right has no plans to upend the Constitution and impose its religion on civic life. “He’s a liar,” says Lang. “Dominionism is the notion that God has given the dominion, the governance of the world, to the church. And so Christians literally are born to rule, by force if necessary, to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth. I believe that the theology that drives the Bush administration affirms this.” When Falwell preached, “We must take back what is rightfully ours,” his ambitions did not stop at U.S. borders. This is a Church of a Law Unto Itself.
In the Greek, the word “anti” doesn’t just mean “against.” It also contains the meanings “equivalent to” or “a substitute for.” Nero was anti-Christ because he falsely claimed to be God. The idea of deception is crucial. The Antichrist isn’t the devil, the opposite of God. He’s an evil human masquerading as a golden god. The Antichrist appears to humanity not as the hideous Beast but as handsome Nicolae Carpathia, who resembles Robert Redford without the facial erosion. “That could be our next Republican president,” quips Lang.
In this sense, the Bush church is Antichrist-like indeed. It is institutionalized deception, anti-American ugliness with a beguiling face, a neocon job. Only when necessary does it employ the perilous bald-faced lie, the outrageously transparent duplicity—the political equivalent of Robertson arguing that “Do unto others” indicates Christ’s support of capitalist selfishness. More often, a smoothly dissembling surface is preferred. Rove notoriously emulates Machiavelli; the Christian right is a stealth movement, infiltrating school boards and mainstream churches and every institution of democracy like a thief in the night—in order to undermine, overthrow, and replace democracy with theocracy. Bush is the father of lies. The Union of Concerned Scientists proclaims Bush’s lies about science “unprecedented.” In With God on Their Side, Kaplan concludes, on mountainous evidence, “The goal is not to engage your opponents in the public square, but to kneecap them, or send them into exile.”
“It is a conspiracy in the sense that they have not been public and accountable to their ideology,” says Lang. “Follow the money! The same filthy-rich foundations that have funded the rise of neocons are funding the rise of the religious right.” He suggests that you check out the expos” Web site www.yuricareport.com for the terrifying particulars.
But—to cop a line from the late Christian-right author Francis Schaeffer, how then should we live? Should we turn the other cheek to the Antichrist? Forgive LaHaye for saying that “Old Testament capital punishment” was less cruel to gays than modern acceptance is? Or counter Robertson’s prayers for a divine Supreme Court fatwa with our own? As a self-scrutinizing Christian, isn’t Lang in danger of succumbing to hate?
“Yeah, I’m there. I have a physical, visceral reaction to Bush, to his image, to when he speaks. I mean, I think the guy is evil. They are willfully deceptive people, and I’m very angry. But … hatred is not a very useful strategy of resistance, nor is it very useful to create an alternative.”
Bawer preaches that the alternative must not employ the church as a weapon. “For liberals to join in the right-wing game of bashing one’s opponents with the Bible only further erodes the wall between religion and government. This, to me, is a major concern—and Bush’s reckless contribution to this erosion is, for me, a major offense. It’s especially offensive in light of 9/11, which was the work of people who hate the West because it is secular, tolerant, inclusive, and democratic. What distinguishes America and the West from most of the Muslim world is those values. I wish we had a president who recognized this fact and helped Americans recognize it, too.”
So does Lang. But he thinks the secular left has to inspire its own flock—with better ministers than dull, brainy Parson Kerry of the Church of God’s Frozen People. “Even though I don’t like him, Bush is probably a funner person,” Lang admits. He insists that the Christian left has its own work to do in saving what he calls “the nation with the soul of a church.” “The right has won. I mean, they’ve seized the language of the church. So against Bruce, I would say, no, the progressive wing of the church has got to reclaim its language and redefine those words. Turning the other cheek wasn’t passive, oh, hit me, it hurts so good—it was a form of resistance. You’re turning your cheek to strengthen your backbone.”
Lang is convinced that secular efforts alone can’t reverse the Antichrist tide. “Evangelical churches have a sense of urgency about the doing of ‘good’ in the world that the mainline church has lost. If the church can’t show a positive, enticing, seductive vision of the future, where people fall in love with God and fall in love with this community, then it really doesn’t have anything to say.” Revelation teaches us what happens to lukewarm Christians.
It won’t be easy. The political and religious left are not organized. “And part of the reason it cannot organize is that the people in the pews benefit from the system as it is,” says Lang. “They can’t work up any kind of passion to change it. As those benefits stop, we’ll see the left arise. But it might be too late.”
Ultimately, despite his despair, Lang is a man of faith. “I really do believe that we’re in for several decades of a very dark time. But that’s not the end of the world.”