Via Atrios, we read Rick Perlstein's Village Voice report on a meeting between various White House staffers and representatives of the Apostolic Congress — a Pentecostal group that's pretty fringe-y and esoteric, even by Pentecostal standards.
Perlstein correctly points out that this splinter-group of a splinter-group of Christians has some frightening notions of foreign policy derived from their frightening (and heretical) apocalyptic theology. But he also probably overstates the fear factor here — this isn't a group that's influencing the White House, it's a group that the White House is stroking and patronizing.
The group sent "45 ministers including wives" to the White House, where they sat in a room as a series of second- and third-tier staffers came through to assure them that the president appreciates their concerns and is counting on their support. At the end of the day, they were allowed outside to wave as the president departed in a helicopter. It was their only glimpse of him. (Robert G. Upton, the AC's leader, described this as a "heart-moving send-off of the President in his Presidential helicopter.")
The White House shores up support in a fragment of its base, and Upton gets to return to his office and crank out fund-raising letters assuring his deluded followers that he has insider access with "key leaders" in the Bush administration. But Perlstein hints that perhaps this strange bunch may have actually influenced Bush's foreign policy:
Three weeks after the confab, President George W. Bush reversed long-standing U.S. policy, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank in exchange for Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
That implies a kind of cause-and-effect that doesn't seem supportable. Perlstein reports that Elliott "Yes, I lied to Congress" Abrams (whose official title is "NSC Near East and North African Affairs director") had: "attempted to assuage [the AC's] concerns by stating that 'the Gaza Strip had no significant biblical influence … and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace.'"
What this shows is that Bush's disastrous decision to embrace the Sharon plan had already been made — Abrams was just trying to get the holy roller wackos on board. This is actually bigger news, indicating that the decision was made nearly a month before it was announced. (But again, it seems Colin Powell didn't find out about it until the rest of us did.) Also big news: an implied admission that the Sharon plan is a cynical swap of worthless land in Gaza for valued land in the West Bank.
Perlstein pithily summarizes the Apostolic Congress' outlook for the Middle East:
Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.
That, in a nutshell, is their goal: a Greater Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates (so it's actually larger than Old Testament Israel) and a reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem. Their reasoning is not so much theological as magical. By bringing about these things, they hope to make Jesus come back. This is sorcery, not eschatology.
I've mentioned this before, but this so-called-theology precisely parallels the plot of many an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Zealous fanatics loyal to some secretive prophecy try to bring about the signs that will summon their master and bring about the apocalypse and the death of nearly everyone on earth. (Buffy and the gang, contra the Apostolic Congress, regard this as a Bad Thing that should be stopped.)
Perlstein provides an amusing glimpse of the Apostolic Congress' staffperson in Israel, Kim Johnson, whom he describes as:
An ecstatic figure who from her own reports appears to operate at the edge of sanity ("Two of the three nights in my apartment I have been attacked by a hair raising spirit of fear," she writes, noting the sublet contained a Harry Potter book; "at this time I am associating it with witchcraft") …
Johnson's fear of "witchcraft" is ironic in that her organization's entire enterprise is an attempt at sorcerously summoning a powerful spirit, forcing him to reappear in the flesh and to fight against all their enemies. If that's not Black Magic, what is?
Elliott YILTC Abrams has had a good bit of experience in working with Christians from the religious right, including a stint as director of the "Judeo-Christian" Ethics and Public Policy Center (a kind of WPA for out-of-work Neocons). But he blunders here by talking of "the cause of peace."
"Peace" is a dirty word for this bunch. You know who likes "peace"? The Antichrist, that's who. For these folks talk of "peace" or of international cooperation suggests the coming Antichrist and a one-world government. Abrams might as well have said, "In this case, I think Nicolae Carpathia is right." (Carpathia is the fictional Antichrist of the Left Behind novels — we'll get to him eventually, I promise.)
Yet, despite this blunder, it's troubling that Elliott goes to such lengths to reconcile the administration's policies with the esoteric terms of the group's theology. One assumes — or at least desperately hopes — that Bush's support for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is motivated by something more than that territory's limited role in the prophecy theories of post-Christian Rapture enthusiasts.
I understand why the White House is playing nice with these people. They represent a block of voters Bush will need in November. Ideally, the Bush team wanted to pat these folks on the back, make them feel appreciated, and then quietly send them back home. That's why none of the staffers who met with the group were willing to discuss the meeting with Perlstein. Upton also seems to have been told not to discuss the meeting with the media, which is why he splutters a defensive denial when Perlstein asked him about the e-mail he sent describing the meeting. (Tsk, tsk, pastor — lies make baby Jesus cry.)
Tim Goeglein, "deputy director of public liaison and the White House's point man with evangelical Christians," who moderated the Apostolic Congress' sessions, was asked by members of the group what they could do to help the White House. "Pray, pray, pray, pray," Goeglein told them.
In other words: We want to keep you on our side. And we want to keep you out of sight.
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P.S.: Since both Left Behind and Harry Potter are mentioned above, allow me to point you to this Slate article from Steven Waldman, in which he examines the similarities between the two popular book series — and their very important difference.