2007-10-20

Millenarians and Nationalists

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by Neil Godfrey

As a past student of American history and society I relished catching up with more recent publications a couple of years ago and one of the more interesting was America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2004) by Anatol Lieven. Sharing some notes from one section of this book — a discussion of the link between millenarian religious beliefs and American nationalism — with anyone else interested.

Background: What and How many?

Premillennialists believe Christ will return before his 1000 year reign on earth.
Postmillennialists believe Christ will return after the millennium has been established by God working through his people.

Majority of mainstream Protestant churches are postmillennialists.
Great majority of leaders of the Chritian Righht are premillennialists or a more extreme form of this, dispensationalists.

Conservative estimate of 8,000,000 American premillennialists in 1977
63% of Southern Baptist pastors declared themselves premillennarian in 1987
36% of a PEW poll believed the Book of Revelation to be a “true prophecy” in May 2004

Many more Americans have some belief in Bible prophecy, especially that the books of Daniel and Revelation provide accurate predictions of future events.

Note the popularity of millenarian religious fiction:

Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth — 35,000,000 copies sold by 2004

Tim LaHaye and Herry B. Jenkins Rapture series — 62,000,000 copies sold making it the most successful series in the history of American print fiction.

These readership figures demonstrate once again a profound distance between a considerable part of the American population and modernity as the rest of the world understands it, as well as the rationalist and universalist principles of the American Creed. Not only is this tradition deeply and explicitly hostile to the Enlightenment and to any rational basis for human discourse of American national unity, it cultivates a form of insane paranoia toward much of the outside world in general. (p.145)

And the moral tone and world view of the believers

Lieven cites Diamond’s sketch of “The End of the Age”, a novel by Christian Rightist preacher and politician, Pat Robertson:

It is a story about a conspiracy between

  • a Hillary Clintonesque first lady, and
  • a Muslim billionaire

to make Antichrist president of the U.S.

Antichrist

  • has a French surname, and
  • is possessed by Satan (in the form of the Hindu god Shiva)
  • while serving with the Peace Corps in India

These books are also utterly, shockingly ruthless in their treatment of the unsaved — in other words, the vast mass of humanity.

In the Rapture series God’s beloved are taken up to heaven while pilotless planes and driverless cars crash all over the world with most of their victims presumably on their way to hell.

The moral tone of such attitudes has real consequences for how these believers think about the world today.

Many believers devoutly rationalize their God’s orders to wage genocide in the Bible by saying that if only the Jews had obeyed those commands back those thousands of years ago there would be no troubles in the Middle East today.

One of the most significant consequences of millenarian thought among religious conservatives has been to help cement an alliance with hard-liners in Israel.

This alliance has become one of the most important practical connections between the religious conservatives in America and aspects of contemporary American nationalism. (p.145)

Dominion or Reconstruction theology

This has had a great influence on the thinking of leading figures of the Christian Right like Pat Robertson.

This theology is based on Genesis 1:26-29 in which God gives Adam and eve dominion over the earth. This text has been taken as the basis for attacks on the environmental movement. (Since Lieven’s book I have read that Pat Robertson was persuaded to accept the idea of global warming during a severe heat wave but then dismissed it again with the advent of a subsequent cold spell.)

In addition,

Because America is in the general evangelical view the world’s leading Christian nation, the implications for American power are also clear: “Our goal is world domination under Christ’s lordship, a ‘world takeover’ if you will. . . . We are the shapers of world history.” (p. 146, Lieven citing Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More.)

These beliefs add to the American Right’s “implacable nationalist moral absolutism”. It used to be the Pope, and then the Soviet “empire of evil”. A succession of foreign leaders, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, have been identified as Antichrist or Antichrist’s servant. It makes no difference if the leaders are popular and friendly, was was Gorbachev, since prophecy says the Antichrist will be as beguiling as the Devil.

Because Antichrist is supposed to extend his dominion over the whole earth, these millenarian beliefs fuse with nationalist ones in absolute, untrammeled American national sovereignty to produce the widespread and pathological hatred of the United Nations on the American Right, and the dark fantasies associated with these views — which are extraordinarily widespread in American society, and by no means just in the Bible Belt. (p.146)

Ecology of fear

Lieven speaks of these millenarian beliefs feeding into a wider American “ecology of fear” (coined by Mike Davis) and hence “a wider culture of national paranoia and aggression”. It is evident in Hollywood films, science fiction novels and pop music.

Often these fantasies have a racial edge. . . Hal Lindsay was possessed by pathological fear of the “Yellow Peril” — a fear which he has now transferred to Islam. (p.147)

The dispossessed and their fantasies

Lieven points to the strong undertones of class resentment in the millenarian tradition, as was made well-known by Norman Cohn’s study in The Pursuit of the Millennium. While Cohn was studying this phenomenon in medieval Europe Lieven remarks that he overlooked the very same phenomenon in the U.S. with similar roots. The whole social outlook ties in with traditions of defeat and paranoia and aggression. Fantasies of an egalitarian kingdom to come and the destruction of all unrighteous rulers and economic masters are common in both contexts. Lieven points to “a very strong correlation between such beliefs and poverty, residence in the countryside and small towns and above all lack of education.” (p.147)

Millenarian fiction repeatedly sees the wealthy, the educated, the famous all go to hell because of their wicked lifestyles. They are replaced by “simple, ordinary, God-fearing believers”. Hedonism and consumerism are savagely denounced.

As throughout history, American millenarianism is to a great extent a religion of the disinherited, a form of spiritual socialism for people who are not able for whatever reason to be socialist. (Citing Carpenter in “Revive Us Again”) Thus Billy Graham can make a memorable declamation in which he warns that God will “shake America” not with a PhD or a DD, but with a country boy or a shoe salesman. The Kingdom of God on earth is often described in terms that strongly echo the Utopian vision of Karl Marx: no more poverty, all will be kings, work and life will be rewarding in every way.

The elites and their paranoia

But this belief is not reserved for the poor and marginalized of American society. It has considerable influence among regional elites of the South and West and among Republican national elites. Pentecostalists who are closely related to millenarian beliefs include John Ashcroft and senior military officers.

Since Lieven’s book was published one can find ready access to social background and beliefs of some of the individuals he singles out, such as Pat Robertson (and his quotes) and General Boykin.

Boykin’s comments about the role of his God and Satan in his job highlight his section of society’s intense nationalism.

As for the English and Scottish Puritans of the seventeenth century, from whom they derive their religious culture — as indeed for the Israelites of the Old Testament — their God is essentially a tribal God, a Cromwellian “God of Warre” who fights for them against Amalekites, Irish papists, Red Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, Germans, Japanese, Communists, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslims and any other enemy who comes along. (p.149)

The unfinished religious warring of the seventeenth century

They also highlight that their religion-based culture is very largely premodern and definitely pre-Enlightenment. Lieven compares Boykin’s counterparts in other Western armed forces, noting that French and British officers would definitely feel comfortable among their aristocratic and post-Enlightenment predecessors of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, and would be decidedly out of place (unlike Boykin) in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The extent of this ideologically premodern sector in the United States is greater than almost anywhere else in the developed world — except for Northern Ireland. This kind of religious nationalism is fueled both by religious moralism and by a paranoia fed in turn by a feeling of cultural embattlement. In the words of Richard Hofstadter: “Since what is at stake is always a conflict between good and evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things to the finish. Nothing but total victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and utterly unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated. . . . This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustration.” (p.149, citing Hofstadter, Paranoid Style, p.31)

My comment, not Lieven’s: One wonders how such a society will respond when they eventually must face up to the defeat and collapse of their ambitions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Can the likelihood of an attempt to bring in a fascist state be easily dismissed? Hopefully Spong is right and the Christian Right’s influence has peaked.


Related post: Christian Zionism: assumptions . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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