Demonizing Muslims: a Christian Tradition
Despite their hopes for Muslim conversions, American Christians have also anticipated that Islam would meet its demise in the end times, when Jesus would return to earth and establish his kingdom. In early America, many Protestants believed that Islam and Roman Catholicism would be destroyed simultaneously. Some even saw the two as the eastern and western Antichrists. The expectation of Roman Catholicism and Islam's downfall, and the imminent return of Christ, led to bold date-setting in the early 19th century, capped by the forecasts of William Miller and his followers, who expected the end to come in 1843.
Jesus' failure to appear at the appointed hour helped to transform standard Anglo-American interpretations of Bible prophecy, and by the early 20th century "dispensational" theology had become dominant in conservative circles. Dispensationalists began to anticipate the re-establishment of the state of Israel, where the final battle between good and evil would transpire. The founding of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent struggle between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states has become the frame for many conservative Christians' interpretation of prophetic scenarios.
There remains a common expectation among American Christians of Islam's coming downfall. Many now interpret the mysterious description of the attack by "Gog and Magog" against Israel in Ezekiel 38 and 39 as forecasting a time when Arab Muslims would unite with Russians to destroy Israel. Their attack would be miraculously foiled in a hail of fire and brimstone, and this event would set the stage for the rise of an atheistic Antichrist, who would launch a genocidal campaign against the Jews. This would lead to the final battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ to earth.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, inaugurated a sharply heightened interest in Islam among American Christians, and in time we may also see that it generated lasting departures in prophetic interpretation, as some conservatives have begun to put Islam squarely at the center of end-times theology. Some have even begun to argue that the messianic Mahdi expected in some Muslims' beliefs actually represents the Antichrist.
Despite some post-9/11 novelties, the history of conservative American Christian thought regarding Islam is largely a story of continuity, not change. Although they have often seen Islam as an inherently violent, malevolent religion, traditional Christians have also maintained persistent hopes of mass Muslim conversions to Christianity. Those who did not convert would ultimately fall before a returning Christ in the last days. Although the details may have changed over time, their convictions about the end of days have helped assure many American Christians that their God, the father of Jesus, would triumph in the end.
This article first appeared at History News Network, and is reposted here with the permission of the author.
Mr. Kidd is associate professor of history at Baylor University and the author of American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton, 2008), and The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale, 2007).