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Is Apocalyptic Religion Bad for America?

Copyright 1995 News World Communications, Inc.

The Washington Times

June 19, 1995, Monday, Final Edition SECTION: Part SYMPOSIUM; Pg.  18

Question: Is apocalyptic religion bad for America?
Yes: It is breeding intolerance.

by Frank K.  Flinn

Students of American religion always have claimed that America is a millennial nation.  The United States, they say, has perceived itself as the harbinger of the perfect 1,000-year reign of God foretold in the Book of Revelation, that most apocalyptic of all books in the Christian Bible.

This American self-perception is partly true and partly false.  On the false side, the Americas were not settled first by a millennium-thinking people but by great Amerindian tribes.  In those earlier civilizations, the Great Spirit was not a God of time, calling people forward to a future apocalyptic kingdom.  Rather, God was, and remains, a God of space - one who is present in the mountains and valleys, rivers and plains.  America as a whole has yet to lay claim to this rich theological tradition.  We give it only halfhearted lip service in a politicized ecological movement.

No one can deny that millennialism has contributed untold variety to the lively experiment of religion in America.  Without a doubt, American preachers, including America's preeminent evangelist, Billy Graham, continue to espouse a healthy-minded apocalyptic faith.  It is significant that Graham led the mourning at a worship service for bomb victims in Oklahoma City with President Clinton in April.  But Graham neither targets the "enemy" nor menacingly sets the day or the hour of the Second Coming.

On the other hand, no one can deny that something has gone awry in our penchant to live in the apocalyptic future.  If we have a "paranoid style in our politics," as historian Richard Hofstadter has written, we also have an apocalyptic penchant in our religion.  What is most distressing in our present-day apocalypticism is the ever-increasing tendency to materialize the dense and symbolic language of the Bible.  This tendency was present from the very start.  As early as 1919, The King's Business, a dispensational premillennial journal, identified signs of the Great Beast as heresy, higher (biblical) criticism, social service, socialism and, most ominously, bolshevism.  In time, premillenialists have expanded the list to include the cabal of Jewish bankers described in the bogus Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the Rothschilds, the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.  Among radical patriots, minions of the Great Beast now include agencies and personnel of the U.S.  government.  Just underneath this material interpretation of the Scripture lurks not only anti-Semitism, an ever-present danger in a Christian "redeemer" nation, but also an anti-Catholicism that views the papacy as the whore of Babylon.

Our Puritan forebears were a millennium-imbued people.  They crossed a Red Sea (the English Channel), sojourned in a desert (Holland) and passed over a Jordan (the Atlantic) on the way to the Promised Land.  They came in hopes of setting up, in the words of John Winthrop, a "city upon the hill," a new Jerusalem that was to be a light unto all nations.  The Puritan God was a God of time, one who acted in history and was to come again to judge the living and the dead.  This millennial vision sustained the new land through the peaks of the 18th Century's Great Awakening and the foundation of the Republic, as well as the pits of the Half-Way Covenant and the Civil War.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), the chief theologian of the Great Awakening, sensed that the 1737 revival of religion among young people and their families in Northampton, Mass., signaled the preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  Edwards' theopolitical position came to be known as postmillennialism.  Christ was to appear at the end of the great events depicted in Revelation 20:1-10.  The postmillenialists were both optimistic and progressive.  American history, despite the aberrations of slavery and demon rum, was a continuous record of God's election of this land as a redeemer nation.

But there were weaknesses in the postmillennial position.  The divinely spontaneous awakening of 1737 turned into a humanly engineered revival of the 1820s led by evangelist Charles Finney.  The social gospel turned into social action.  By the middle of the 20th century, theologian Harvey Cox sang the praises of the secular city, not the new Jerusalem.  In short, postmillennialism became secularized into the liberalism of Baptist advocate William Nelson Clarke (1841-1912) and antifundamentalist tractarian Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969).

Beginning in the 1840s, another version of the millennium began to take hold on the nether side of American Protestantism.  The advocates of this position came to be called premillennialists.  They taught not that things were getting progressively better but catastrophically worse.  The Second Coming was to occur not at the end of the millennium but at the beginning.  The most famous premillennialist of the early 19th century was William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher who predicted in ads taken out in the New York Herald Tribune that Jesus would return Oct.  22, 1844.  Many heard Miller's trumpet call and experienced a great disappointment when the day came and went.  Out of those ashes was born the Seventh-day Adventist Church which, along with the Mormon Church and numerous other millenarians from Oneida in New York to New Harmony in Indiana, began to dot the religious landscape of North America.

But far and away the most pervasive premillennialist to touch American shores was Irishman John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), founder of the Plymouth Brethren and inventor of a form of premillennialism called dispensationalism.  Believing he was "rightly dividing the word of truth" (Timothy 2:15), Darby conflated the texts of Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel, coming up with seven dispensations, or divinely appointed periods, that show humans their utter failure to effect their own salvation.  In contrast with the postmillennial theology of the "liberals," the premillennial schema of Darby was pessimistic.  This world was slated for destruction and devastation.  Christ would come at the beginning of the millennium, snatch away to heaven the true spiritual church from the apostate (i.e., liberal) Protestants and (whorish) Papists.  Then God would let loose the events of the last days: wars, famines, earthquakes, the Great Beast and the Antichrist, the restoration of the earthly Israel (Jews), the conversion to Christ or damnation to hell, a short reign of Christ with his saints (a Third Coming!), the loosening and final binding of Satan, the final destruction of this world and the creation of a new heaven and new earth.

Darby evangelized Canada and the United States between 1859-1874.  When he returned to England, he took his Plymouth Brethren into an ever-more separatist stance, away from the "corrupt" church-state arrangement in the Church of England.  Today, the branch of the church he founded is called the Exclusive Brethren and has so separated itself from the mainstream of society that it has lost its "charity" status in British law.  In America, Darby left behind a vast and long-lasting theological heritage.  He directly or indirectly shaped the theological visions of Dwight L.  Moody, Congregational evangelical revivalist of Chicago; James Hall Brookes, Presbyterian preacher of St.  Louis and cofounder of the Niagara Bible Conference; and A.J.  Gordon, Baptist cofounder of the the Bible Conference and founder of Gordon Theological Seminary.  Darby's heritage is enshrined at Dallas Theological Seminary, home of the world-famous Scoffield Reference Bible (1909) and alma mater of Hal Lindsay, author of the latter-day apocalyptic best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970).

If the principles of dispensationalist interpretation were heady stuff in the 19th century, what happened in the 20th makes for a real steamy brew.  Dispensationalism became sequentially merged with evangelism, fundamentalism, anti-Darwinism and anticommunism.  Finally, Darbyite or Darby-like millennialism has, in varying degrees, entered the theological vocabulary of numerous Christian conservative groups, ranging from the Christian Coalition to the Christian patriot and militia movements.  In the Christian Identity movement, millennial dispensationalism allows the separatist "true" patriots (like the "true" church of the century earlier) to identify themselves as the "authentic" lost tribes of Israel.  The followers of Christian Identity are ready to trigger the woeful events of the last days in the name of Christian "values," the Constitution - as they see it - and the Bible.  In their mind, the prevailing liberal, socialistic politics have written these founts of cultural authority out of the American social contract.

Hitherto, America largely has been exempt from wars of religion, something the founders of this republic wanted to avoid at all cost.  However, the Missouri and Illinois state militias were called out against the Mormons in the 19th century; more recently the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI were used against the apocalyptic sect (not "cult") of the Branch Davidians.  The theopolitical landscape is radically changing.  America's penchant for the apocalyptic no longer is creative but incendiary, both on the side of religion and on the side of the state.

At times one would wish for a return to the balanced millennialism of Jonathan Edwards.  His vision of the end of all things always was tempered by a creation faith that celebrated what he called "the beauty of the world." At other times it seems that society has burned out both ends of the millennial candle.  Now is the time to listen to the great unlearned lesson from our primal Amerindian forbearers.  All of us - Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Hindu, believer and nonbeliever - belong to the same creation and partake of the same land.  God's rain falls on all alike.

Flinn is adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University and coeditor of Interreligious Dialogue: Voices From a New Frontier.