Sunday, July 16, 2006

The American Theocracy - Not Quite A Book Review

I finally read Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy, though I skipped around a lot, mostly because right now (while Israel and Hetzbullah are trying to give us apocalypse) I'm much more focused on the theocracy arguments than the rest of his book which is also about oil and the financial institutions. The book is the last of a trilogy which also includes Wealth and Democracy and American Dynasty, and Phillips uses it to tie together the themes he has followed. But I don't want to discuss the other two books right now. I want to talk about God in this country, and so what follows isn't quite a review of Phillips's book as much as it is a discussion of the Rapturists in this country and their sizeable power in all our affairs.

American Theocracy is a valuable read in that sense. I learned a lot about the history of fundamentalism from it and several myths I had in my head were nicely cleaned out, too. For example, I learned that the waning mainstream religions today are not a new phenomenom, but something Americans have always done. The educated and staid religions don't really apply to the American emotions. Once a church grows and matures in this way its adherents leave for the new fringe churches which make up their own simple theologies and allow lots of speaking in the tongues and magical stuff. It's all very emotional, very primitive (as Phillips calls it) and very simple. And it really doesn't have very much to do with my understanding of the Christian theology. Rather, all these churches make up their own theologies. The Mormons are a good example of the way someone's visions can be incorporated and elaborated on within a framework which looks Christian to an outsider but which might really be something very different.

All this explains why I was always so confused about what "Christianity" means to the fundamentalists who appear to ignore most of the messages actually attributed to Christ in the Bible. American Theocracy made me finally understand that the American fundamentalists are not really Christian except in the name they have adopted and that the best way to understand their religions is to actually look up what they say they believe. Silly, I know. But I'm silly that way, always looking for the logical in things which are not logical.

In hindsight I can see the error of my ways quite clearly. I started my explorations from the wider theological framework of Christianity, whereas the proper starting point would have been the market system of the United States, and the proper question would have been: What sells in a religion? Then the correct answers would have flown in like the wind. What sells is the promise of easy salvation, combined with lots of psychological good feelings and perhaps even the promise of money, wealth and influence in this valley of the tears we secularists call reality. And these are the things most fundamentalist churches offer their adherents, believe it or not, wrapped into a package which centers on the idea of personal and individual salvation. Phillips writes:

We have seen in previous chapters that evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention adherents, and others oppose government social and economic programs because they interfere with a person's individual responsibility for his or her salvation. One recent scholarly analysis updated evangelical economic thinking to include the role of televangelists, specifically Falwell and Robertson, in upholding "a marriage between religion and American capitalism" during the 1980s. It further elaborated on "theology increasingly espoused by Pentecostal and charismatic preachers: ...that God's blessings are not confined to the next life. Indeed, God desires to bless his children materially in this world. By naming what you want (a new car, better job, good health), claiming it in the name of Jesus, and living in the faith that it will come to you, these believers no longer tied private property to the notion of hard work.

Less kind people would name all this magical thinking, and that sounds to me like the proper description of what is going on in much of American fundamentalism.

The most interesting and frightening aspect of this magical thinking is Rapturism, the belief that we are living in the end-times, that Jesus's second coming is near. End-timers have always existed in Christianity, but only in the last few decades have they actually had the political power to cause the world to end, and only in the United States. Doesn't that make shivers run up your spine? That you might live in the country which sort of likes the idea of an apocalypse, because then all the "good" Christians will be sucked up by the heavenly vacuum cleaner, while the rest of us sinners will be put through the heavenly torture mangle? Well, believe it or not, but there are many millions of Americans who are sighing happily right now while listening to the news reports from Lebanon. Every additional death takes them closer to the happy moment when Christ will open up his arms and these Christians will leap into his lap. Later in this post I will share with you some of that happiness of the True Believers Who Have Been Saved.

But first I need to talk a little more about the end-times belief. There is a psychological explanation for its popularity, of course. Whenever the world looks to have gone off its track, whenever everything is all gloomy and awful, whenever we are powerless to prevent the next disaster, that is the very moment when Jesus might be coming back to kick the sinners in the butt! This makes all the horrors quite all right and bearable, nay, orgasmically wonderful! And think of the fact that if You Are Saved and the next door neighbor is not you will be safe and comfortable whereas that rotten person will burn in eternal flames of damnation!

I can see the appeal. And thousands of people have seen it in the past. Historically, end-times have been proposed often, starting around the year one thousand for Christians. Almost every major war has been explained as the beginning of the end and as Jesus's second coming. When He has not actually turned up, not to worry; the predictions were a little bit off and the end will take place at the next worrisome international events. Thus, until quite recently, it was the Soviet Union who was supposed to be the evil anti-Christ which sets off the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Then it was Saddam Hussein (yes, that Saddam). Now it is Iran, perhaps. Whoever the anti-Christ might happen to be, the end times are always near, and their not happening doesn't disprove anything except the wrong timing.

The Biblical roots of the Rapturist thinking are fuzzy. This is one summary of the ideas, though you may also safely skip it if you're not interested in theology:

We referred to the fifth-century Council of Ephesus, which condemned belief in a future, historical millennium. Clearly the idea is very old. But with a lot of added features, it has become popular in the U.S. only very recently. We speak about the New Right in religion, as well as in politics, only since the late '70s. The preachers of these "new" teachings are the leaders of the new religious right. We will start our survey with a more moderate and serious view.

The Pre-millennialist picture. As we defined this teaching it holds that the Second Coming of Christ will be followed by a thousand years of Christ's earthly reign. George Eldon Ladd of Fuller Seminary, an exponent of this view, writes, "...the New Testament for the most part does not foresee a millennial kingdom"; and again, "The New Testament nowhere expounds the theology of the millennium, that is, its purpose in God's redemptive plan" (in The Meaning of the Millennium, op. cit. p. 39). Having made this careful statement, Ladd outlines the whole program to the end.

Before you read any further, I urge you to read Revelation 19:11—20:15 and take notes. This is important so that you yourself can judge and are not left between Professor Ladd's and my perceptions. For your independent view read the passage carefully: what happens, to whom, who does what? What are you reading about? What does it all mean? Try to visualize what you read. Then come back to this text and find out if your notes agree with what follows.

The Second Coming, says Ladd, brings Christ as conqueror who now destroys his enemies: first the Antichrist and all his supporters, then the one behind the Antichrist -- the dragon, or Satan, who is bound and imprisoned for a thousand years. The "first resurrection" of the saints takes place, they share Christ's millennial reign. At the close of this period Satan is released and finds supporters among the unregenerated who are prepared to stand against God. A final, eschatological war ends with the devil being cast into the lake of fire. The second resurrection -- of those not raised before the millennium --takes place, and they stand before God's judgment throne.

Finally death itself is vanquished; like the devil and the wicked, it is thrown into the lake of fire. To most of us this, as a prophecy about the end of time, is all new. How is it that some Christians know this much about the "program" of the end times while the rest of us do not? They are reading the book of Revelation, from chapter 19, verse 11, to the end of chapter 20, a sequence of apocalyptic visions, as if they were prophecies. And inevitably they interpret those chapters. If you read Revelation 19:11—20:15, did you find all of the above? I did not, and needed the interpretation of millennialists to make "sense" of some of the events. Millennialists like Ladd are restrained interpreters because they hold that apocalyptic literature is about the end time -- and as we noted, they read apocalyptic as if it were prophetic fore-telling. But they do not turn other passages into end-time predictions.

Dispensational approach. The restraint noted above is singularly lacking in this school of thought. John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and C.I. Scofield following him, developed a scheme of dispensations. They taught that God has two distinct plans for two distinct communities. God has an earthly plan for Israel and a heavenly plan for "born-again" Christians. The rest of humanity has the possibility of joining one or the other. This view was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.

In the 1917 edition, Scofield writes in the introduction: "...the dispensations are distinguished, exhibiting a majestic, progressive order of divine dealings of God with humanity, the increasing purpose which runs through and links together the ages from the beginning of the life of man to the end of eternity."

Darby and Scofleld claimed to have discovered a doctrine of ages or dispensations in the Bible. The past is seen as a line of distinct, distinguishable periods; the present and the future are also part of the scheme of dispensations. They have discovered seven distinct dispensations:

1. Dispensation of innocence -- which ends with Genesis 3.

2. Dispensation of conscience -- ends with the flood.

3. Dispensation of human government -- ends with tower of Babel.

4. Dispensation of promise -- ends with Abraham's descendants going to Egypt and slavery.

5. Dispensation of law -- ends with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

6. Dispensation of grace -- ends with Second Coming of Christ.

7. Dispensation of the kingdom that will bring .history to an end.

The endings of the first five ages indicate that humanity failed completely and God thought up another dispensation and gave another opportunity in which humanity failed once again. Scofield warned of ruin, disaster, catastrophe to the end. There is no possibility of peace on earth until the millennium. Only true Christians need not fear because they will be with Christ. These and a number of other characteristics present in Scofield's dispensationalism became stronger and more obvious among his followers.

Dispensational interpretation of Scripture. Any passage from the prophets or apocalyptic writings can be used by dispensationalists as if it were speaking about the millennial reign of Christ. There is no justification for this, least of all by people who claim to interpret the Bible literally. The original meaning of the text -- that is, the intention of the writer in the historical, cultural context of the writing -- is disregarded by dispensationalists.

It is true that Jesus and the early Christian community reinterpret some texts, in the light of the Christ event and only in that light, not with reference to something yet to come. Matthew 2:15 reinterprets Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt have I called my Son." Philip reinterprets Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch as speaking of Christ (Acts 7:30-35). But no other figure or event save Christ -- his cross and resurrection -- is ground for reinterpretation.

One example may show how differently biblical texts can be handled. We will look at Daniel 7:7-8, as commented on by John Calvin and C.I. Scofield. The verse speaks of the fourth beast, a dreadful creature with ten horns and "among them another little horn." When interpreters get to the little horn, says Calvin, they quickly point to the Pope or the Turks, that is, whoever opposes or threatens the faithful in their own day. But Calvin rejects this, because "they think the whole course of Christ's kingdom is here described," but instead God is showing to the prophet "what should happen up to the first advent of Christ." The convulsions of the age before Christ were too many, says Calvin. Dominion in the Near East went to the Persians, then the Macedonians -- "afterwards those robbers who made war under Alexander suddenly became kings" -- and strife and hostility were experienced. Then the Roman Empire took over. "Thus this vision was presented...that all the children of God might understand what severe trials awaited them before the advent of Christ." Daniel "does not embrace...the whole kingdom of Christ" (Commentary on Daniel 7:8). As here, so Calvin reads the entire book of Daniel as addressed to contemporaries at the time of writing with understandable historical and social references, therefore relevant for those who first hear or read it. It is speaking about the time before the first coming of Christ and needs to be interpreted in its historical context

According to Scofield the vision speaks of the end of Gentile world-dominion. The "little horn" is identified with "prince that shall come" (Dan. 9:26,27), the "king" (Dan. 11:36-45), "the abomination" (Dan. 12:11 and Matt. 24:15), the "man of sin" (II Thess. 2:4-8) and the "Beast" (Rev.13:4-10). What a horn!

Scofield's end of the Gentile world-power is still in the future. "The 10 kingdoms, covering the regions formerly ruled by Rome, will constitute, therefore, the form in which the fourth or Roman empire will exist when the whole fabric of Gentile world-domination is smitten by the 'stone cut out without hands' = Christ." How did Scofield know this? What reason can one find to say this is prophecy about the end of this world? None, according to the rest of us -- outside dispensationalism. That Scofield is really speaking of the end time he makes clear both by the phrase "Gentile world power" and by cross-referencing the Daniel 7 passage with a footnote to Revelation 16:14: "The time of the Gentiles is that long period beginning with the Babylonian captivity of be brought to an end by the destruction of Gentile world-power,...i.e., the coming of the Lord in glory (Rev. 19:11,21). Until which time Jerusalem is politically subject to Gentile rule (Luke 21:24)." And again on Daniel 2: "Gentile world power is to end in a sudden, catastrophic judgment," that is, in Armageddon

That wasn't the clearest possible explanation of the belief in Rapture, perhaps, but the whole belief is pretty fuzzy. The clearest part of it is the idea that somehow the Bible can be used in a manner not that different from Nostradamus's predictions: to divine when the world will end. And the end of the world will be preceded by the coming of the anti-Christ, a war in Israel and lots of natural catastrophies. All good Christians (to be defined as one wishes, it seems) will be raised to the Heavens with Jesus while the rest of us will be subjected to incredible tortures by the Good Lord Jesus. Then there will be a second Rapture of a few additional "good" Christians and a handful of converted Jews.

The dangers of a wide-spread belief in the Rapture for the rest of us nonbelievers are obvious. Those who expect end-times all the time will not be bothered about the tsunamis, for example. They will quite rejoice in them. Neither will they worry about environmental degradation or people dying in unnecessary wars, because all these are just signs of the great events to come soon. And no believer in Rapture wants peace in the Middle East, because a war in Israel is a necessary prerequisite of the second coming of Christ.

It's not hard to see how a belief in Rapture, as general as it seems to be in the United States, could actually bring the world to an end by such effects. It's a totally different question whether we'd actually then observe the second coming of Jesus. But let me ask of those believers in Rapture this question: What do you think Jesus would say to you if it was you who caused the world to end when He wasn't yet at all ready to come back to kick your asses?

To return to Phillips's American Theocracy: These are the people who are now ascending in power. These are the people who affect the foreign policies of the United States. He makes it quite clear how the Left Behind-series has popularized the idea of Rapture (to tens of millions of people, mind you). He even suggests how it has worked as a blueprint for the policies of the Bush administration. To take one example, consider the removal of Saddam Hussein from the dictatorship of Iraq. A believer in Rapture would have seen the whole pre-emptive war as totally logical. After all, Saddam was supposed to be the anti-Christ. It didn't matter if Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Even democracy or its lack in Iraq didn't matter for these people. And you might be interested in learning that the evil anti-Christ in the Left Behind-series works for the United Nations and has the backing of a French banker. This puts a very different light to the U.N. hating factions of the Republican party and to their habit of making fun of the French, doesn't it?

Here you may want to get up and stretch your shoulders a little, if you just realized that we may have been running foreign policies based on magical thinking. Then you can sit back and read a couple of messages from the RaptureReady chatsite, a place where the believers in end-times meet and congratulate each other for belonging to the Chosen Few:

Originally Posted by bazza
Some of the old testament prophecies confuse
me regarding the time frame....but I have read
before that the following chapter-Isaiah 18- re-
fers to a country/people that could be the U.S.
If this chronologically follows Isaiah 17, then it
is time to really start to look UP!


I have heard that too, but I have no idea if it's true. No one except Israel is hated more than America. It makes me really sad, because I love my country. My prayer is that Jesus raptures us before that happens. It would break my heart to see the destruction of this beautiful land.
Hizbullah, though primarily in Lebanon & Israel is currently holding Lebanon accountable, is under SYRIAN Control (with the help of Iranian funding and support). The fact that they have just today kidnapped 2 Israeli soldiers and Olmert has declared this an ACT of WAR (against Lebanon for now), it's not hard to see how this could easily and rapidly escalate into the fulfillment of the Isaiah 17 prophecy.

Incredible times that God is allowing us to live in – May He be Praised !!!
Wars and rumors of wars, boys does this not sound true,, middle east, korea, Iran, ten nation union and other hot spots around the world... as in the new superman movie "the world says it does not need a savior, but every day I hear it calling out for one!" but their savior will not be the Prince of Peace
Do you ever wonder, of all the time in history you or me for that matter could have been born, that we are born now... sure makes the hair on my neck stand up... everytime the world seems it is slipping out of God's hand "contol".... bam... God slap's us awake and makes us take a good hard look at who is really in control.. Now with Syria in the news and knowing what can and will happpen to Damascus makes you look up and see if the clouds are parting and the Lord Jesus Himself is standing there....
was watching Hannity & Colmes on Fox News with Oliver North giving his comments on the situation with Israel/Hizbollah. Oliver North actually said:


I almost fainted, as Damascus was on my mind as well.

He was great, defending Israel, and placing the blame squarely on Syria and Iran. He said Israel is surrounded, and they won't back down.

Hope we are going home soon!
Damascus becomes ruinous heap, this eventually leads to the attempted Gog-Magog invasion of Israel. Russia is supernaturally obliterated. Makes sense to me.
As much as it is to stir the pure hearts in Christians. That Syria is in the news--on the front page with a plausible path towards its destruction before our very eyes--should quicken the hearts of you who understand.

Keep an eye on Damascus. This is getting more interesting every day. And me thinks G-d is about to take center stage (for those who know what to look for). I get chills just thinking how priviledged we are to see the signposts through the clutter!

I also do not believe that non-Christians are going to turn to G-d because of the obvious signs we are and will be witnessing. Again, prophecy is meant to stir the hearts of Christians.

There are many excellent posts regarding Damascus and Syria on RR right now. May G-d continue to stir your hearts.