This article was originally published on AlterNet.
The Christian right in America, like all organized religions, claims to have a correct and exclusive understanding of God’s will. To hear them tell it, the almighty creator of the universe has strong opinions about corporate tax rates, firearm ownership, and what consenting adults do with their genitals, and he’s delegated them to speak on his behalf.
But if they want us to believe they have this authority, it seems only fair to consider their track record. After all, the Bible itself tells how to identify false prophets, saying that if they’re not really speaking for God, then what they predict won’t come true – a very sensible test!
And it’s a test that the American religious right should be worried about, because their history, to put it politely, doesn’t inspire confidence. Many of the most powerful and influential members of their movement, including presidential candidates, media moguls and the founders of churches, have repeatedly claimed to have God-given visions of the future that proved to be completely and utterly wrong. Here are some of the more notable (and hilarious) examples of their prophetic blunders:
Failed doomsday predictions. The world-renowned Harold Camping was just the latest in a long line of Christian preachers who’ve made a profitable career out of erroneously predicting the apocalypse. If anything, Camping was only unusual in that he admitted his blunder after falling flat on his face (although he didn’t offer to refund any of his followers who spent their life savings on spreading his message).
Other prominent Christian sects who’ve gotten it wrong are still around, in some cases recycling decades-old predictions as if they were brand-new. As I’ve written before, the Jehovah’s Witnesses made a habit of erroneously predicting the apocalypse throughout the 20th century. One of their founders, J.F. Rutherford, wrote a book in 1920 called Millions Now Living Will Never Die, in which he claimed among other things that the patriarchs of Israel would be resurrected from the dead by the year 1925.
A little more recently, there was Hal Lindsay, author of such 70s-era classics as The Late Great Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. Along the same lines, a Christian author named Edgar Whisenant who wrote a popular book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. Whisenant’s book was influential: most infamously, Paul and Jan Crouch’s Trinity Broadcast Network preempted their regular programming on Rosh Hashanah in 1988 to run a prerecorded tape of instructions for those who’d been left behind by the Rapture.
To be fair, when it comes to end-of-the-world hysteria, it’s not just devotees of the Rapture and the Antichrist who’ve dropped the ball, so to speak. You probably remember that last year, the supposedly significant date of December 21, 2012 saw a surge of excitement and dread among New Age devotees, many of whom flocked to holy sites all around the world in the hopes of surviving whatever they believed was going to happen. (My favorite story was about the mountain of Bugarach in rural southern France: pilgrims believed that there were alien ships hiding out underneath, biding their time until doomsday when they’d emerge and whisk people away from the planet. Wasn’t that the plot of a Nicolas Cage movie?)
Pat Robertson’s dubious prognostications. Pat Robertson, the one-time GOP presidential candidate and religious right media mogul, has repeatedly tried to predict the future, with roughly the same accuracy as a dart-throwing monkey. I could devote a whole column just to Pat’s fizzled predictions, but here are a few of the more significant:
In 1980, Robertson predicted the start of World War III, telling his audience that God said the year would be full of “sorrow and bloodshed that will have no end soon, for the world is being torn apart, and my kingdom shall rise from the ruins of it.” (source)
In his 1991 book The New World Order, Robertson forecast that U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller would be elected president. (source)
In 1998, Robertson threatened that, as punishment for flying rainbow flags during Disney World’s annual Gay Days event, the city of Orlando would be struck by “earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor”. (source)
In January 2006, Robertson predicted that the midterm elections would leave the Republicans in charge of Congress; that year turned out to be a historic Democratic sweep. (source)
In May 2006, Robertson said that the coast would be struck by multiple destructive hurricanes. In fact, no hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. that year. (source)
In January 2007, Robertson predicted that there would be a terrorist attack on American soil that year, possibly nuclear, resulting in mass killings. (source)
In October 2008, Robertson predicted a war between Israel and Iran before the end of the year. (source)
Predictions of a Romney victory. Of course, the 2012 presidential election will be legendary for the number of Republican pundits who blew their calls in spectacular fashion by predicting a Romney landslide. But it wasn’t just secular conservatives who got it so wrong: the religious right, too, was confident that God was on their side and would deliver them a miraculous victory. One of my favorite examples is an activist named James Goll, who claimed that in 2008 he had a prophetic vision about a savior from Michigan with a “big mitt” (get it, get it?):
Then the external voice of the Lord came to me saying, When the nation has been thrown a curve ball, I will have a man prepared who comes from the state of Michigan and he will have a big mitt capable of catching whatever is thrown his way.
There were others as well, like the Orthodox Jewish scholar who claimed that the “Bible Code” foretold a Romney victory. Although he stopped short of proclaiming it a divine revelation, religious-right darling Mike Huckabee got in on the act too, predicting in late October that Romney would decisively win Florida (and by extension, presumably, the election).
Obama’s coming Antichrist reign. The counterpoint to the Romney-landslide prophesies are the religious-right pundits who warned darkly of the catastrophic consequences of an Obama reelection. For example, the preacher Dutch Sheets wrote about those who saw the election as “a sign of the end-times“, whereas he himself merely believes it will bring “our most severe judgment to date”. Columnist Erik Rush similarly argued that Obama’s reelection “lends credence to Armageddon dogma“, and Sherry Shriner writes about how Obama is ushering in “one world government… as that old Bible on your shelf has foretold“. (Here’s a long list of more: my favorite prediction is “a thousand years of darkness”).
Will gay marriage be the end of the family? Many religious-right power brokers think so: Rick Santorum, for instance, predicted that marriage equality would “destroy the family” and also “destroy and undermine the church“. Not to be outdone, evangelical spokesman James Dobson claimed that same-sex marriage would “destroy the Earth“. Who knew that gay and lesbian couples possessed such fearsome, planet-annihilating power?
We have a reality check for these claims, however, which is states like Massachusetts where same-sex marriage has been legal for years. As Nate Silver has written, the states with marriage equality have some of the lowest divorce rates in the country. The institution of the family hasn’t disintegrated there; nor have those states been swallowed by the depths of the earth.
Gays and immodest women cause natural disasters. Ever since Sodom and Gomorrah (which weren’t destroyed for homosexuality according to the Bible), it’s been a truism of the Christian right that God indiscriminately smites people with natural disasters whenever we do something he doesn’t like. For example, Rick Perry’s one-time campaign co-chair, the evangelical Pam Olsen, claimed that gay marriage causes floods, fires and tornadoes. Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Isaac have also been blamed on increasing acceptance of LGBT people. And in one of the weirder variants, an evangelical Christian named Cindy Jacobs claimed that mass bird kills were caused by the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Since it’s always possible to claim, after the fact and with no evidence, that a natural disaster was caused by God’s anger at some sin, these specific assertions are unprovable. However, the claim that sinful behavior in general causes destruction is eminently testable, and has been tested. In April 2010, Kazem Seddiqi, an Iranian cleric, said that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes. This remark inspired “Boobquake“, a tongue-in-cheek experiment where women wore “immodest” clothes for one day to note the seismological effects. In case you were wondering, there was no detectable change in the number of earthquakes on that day.
The imminent triumph of creationism. The “intelligent design” creationist movement, which arose in the late 1990s, claimed to be more strictly scientific and more respectable than the old-fashioned, Adam-and-Eve-riding-dinosaurs school of creationist thought. And they weren’t shy about predicting that their ideas would soon take the scientific community by storm.
For instance, the so-called Wedge Document, a strategic memo written in 1998 by the pro-intelligent-design Discovery Institute, listed as one of its five-year goals “To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory,” and as one of its twenty-year goals, “To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.” (It’s pretty safe to say that the former goal has failed, although they still have five years to fulfill the latter one.) Similarly, intelligent-design advocate Nancy Pearcey wrote in 2005 about “why intelligent design will win“, and creationist William A. Dembski wrote in 2004 that within ten years, he expected a “Taliban-style collapse of Darwinism“.
These goals turned out to be empty bluster. Intelligent design suffered a crushing blow when it was ruled unconstitutional to teach in public schools by a George W. Bush appointee, Judge John Jones, in the 2006 Dover trial, and since then the movement has largely faded into obscurity. But this is nothing new: creationists have been continually predicting the imminent demise of evolution since the mid-1800s.
You may notice that, other than the self-serving predictions of their own success, most of the religious right’s prophecies are of disaster and calamity. They almost never forecast greater peace, increased prosperity, or the advance of democracy and human rights. There’s a good reason for this.
The religious right as a movement thrives on fear, because it depends on the unthinking obedience of its followers, and fearful people are far easier to shepherd and control. A person who fears the worst will do anything, follow anyone who promises security and relief from that fear: it’s not difficult to persuade them to donate money, to follow marching orders, to vote as instructed if it will turn back the imaginary evils that menace them. A secure, self-confident person, by contrast, is more likely to engage in the kind of calm reflection that might lead them to wonder, say, how a gay couple getting married could pose a threat to any existing straight marriage.
This has been an effective strategy, but it means that secularists and progressives can win people over if we offer them freedom from fear. And the best way to do that is to point out that the prophets of doom have failed over and over again. Normally their followers are only too happy to count the hits and ignore the misses, but when the evidence is all collected in one place, the conclusion becomes much harder to ignore: the people who claim to be the conduits of God’s will to the rest of us are scam artists, falsely claiming to know things they don’t know. Whether they’re intentionally lying or sincerely deluded makes no difference.