Apocalypservice

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.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

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.

P.P.S.: Apologies to Don McCloskey for stealing the title of this post from the title of this song.

  • Chris

    Something that is disturbing from this encounter though is that these people are so easily bought off. They see themselves as fierce crusaders in the final struggle against darkness, but a few patronizing words from a Republican staffer and a wave from the President and they are happy little bunnies, even if it upsets their precious apocalypse plans. You would think that they would be suspicious of people putting them.
    If the Antichrist were to come, he would probably appear as a Republican, burn Hollywood, ban abortion, start a few wars, and drown gays. Then the “crusaders” would fall at his feet like puppies.

  • Chris

    Something that is disturbing from this encounter though is that these people are so easily bought off. They see themselves as fierce crusaders in the final struggle against darkness, but a few patronizing words from a Republican staffer and a wave from the President and they are happy little bunnies, even if it upsets their precious apocalypse plans. You would think that they would be suspicious of people putting them.
    If the Antichrist were to come, he would probably appear as a Republican, burn Hollywood, ban abortion, start a few wars, and drown gays. Then the “crusaders” would fall at his feet like puppies.

  • Amanda

    Is the Rapture going to get here anytime soon and whisk all these people away so that the rest of us can get on with our lives? That would be helpful.

  • Ross A Lincoln

    The Slate article is pretty good, but it fails to make a critically important distinction between the two series: Readers of the Left Behind series believe, literally, that some version of those events will happen within our lifetime. Tthey also believe it’s their duty to work to bring about, as you said, the end of the world.
    The Potter series, on the other hand, is beloved by people who know they’re reading fiction. Although if Harry Potter enthusiasts started carrying Harry Crosses and the next movie was called The Passion, I’d be fairly amused.

  • Abigail

    The Slate article is an excellent demonstration of laziness and bad research. I’d be shocked if the author had done more than leaf through the Harry Potter books. The similarities he notes range from simple factual mistakes (Harry does not break up with his girlfriend because he’s too busy fighting evil, he does so because he has the emotional maturity of a sea sponge), to grand generalizations (the fact that both series posit a battle between good and evil is significant? Hey, I’ve got another one – both series were printed! On paper!). It’s a classic example of using a popular phenomenon to bolster the appeal and inflate the word count of an article that would otherwise have very little to say.

  • Deana Holmes

    I don’t think people realize how fringe of the fringe the Apostolic Congress is. They have a particular religious belief, based in Acts 2:38. They believe if you have not been baptized in Jesus’ Name and then been filled with the Holy Ghost, you’re headed off to the Hot and Dark Place. John Ashcroft? He’s Assembly of God, he may speak in tongues, but he got baptized the wrong way, so he’s off to hell. Just about everyone else you can imagine on the right-wing Christian side will meet a similar fate.
    I can’t even begin to describe to you the feeling I had reading this article. Thirty years ago, these Apostolics craved this kind of access, but they didn’t have it. I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would have that access. I’m gobsmacked.

  • Rick Perlstein

    Fred, you’re right on. I hate to blame editors, but a draft of my piece explained exactly what I meant: not that these people are deciding Mideast policy, but that Elliott Abrams (not a second tier staffer, and neither is Matt Schlapp) telling a constituency that “the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph’s tomb or Rachel’s tomb and therefore is a piece of the land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace” obliges him to explain to the public whether the White House would avoid peace-settlement options if they DID involve territorial concessions with “significant Biblical influence” for exactly the POLITICAL reasons you explain very well.
    That paragraph was cut. They pay me by the word, maybe they wanted to save a few bucks.
    Thanks for calling my attention to how the article can be read. I’m going on Air America tomorrow night, and I’ll try to make the LIMITS of my claim extra clear. But there’s this limited claim, understand, is damning enough, as you clearly understand.
    Damn, who are you? You’re smart.
    Rick Perlstein
    rperlstein@villagevoice.com

  • Ophelia Benson

    Great article, Mr Perlstein. You’re pretty smart yourself.

  • Thomas Ware

    Bush IS the Anti-Christ.
    My feelings are best summed up in paraphrasing a line from an old, 1492?, play… ” First, lets kill all the…”.

  • Echidne

    It is a complicated dance the administration is practising with these groups: give this one the health issues, that one women and minorities and so on, and now they must do the same with foreign policy. Yet the whole enterprise has so far left the fundamentalists without any real power in the earlier Republican administrations.
    This time I think there’s a difference, and that’s what scary. It may not be an intended one, but their influence is seeping through all the fortifications there may be, and another four years of Bush may well show some very long-lasting damage.

  • Riggsveda

    “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?”
    Not so very different from a bunch of Armageddonhead Texas cattle ranchers trying to breed an all-red heifer because they read somewhere in Revelations that its appearance would herald the beginning of the Apocalypse. NPR’s Morning Edition did a piece on it awhile back.
    Makes you wonder about these people’s concept of their relationship to the Creator…that they think they can “fool” it into hurrying up the end times with their little artificial tinkerings. Maybe they don’t think their God is so powerful after all, or maybe they just hanker after godhood. In either case, it belies their posturing as “servants of Christ”. But then, hypocrisy and bald ambition was always a big player in religion.

  • Bill Rehm

    Riggsveda, you touch on an interesting theme. Of course, you might want to ignore this, because it’s pretty much only interesting to fantasy literature fans.
    Lots of fantasy novels use prophecy as a central plot device. Although there are variants, they deal with it in one of two ways — prophecies as checklists that require human agency for fulfillment before they will come to pass and prophecy as precognition, an unavoidable fate.
    Obviously, these red-heifer ranchers (and the Apostolic Congress folks) are “human agency” fans. Well, in the original sense of “fan”.

  • Bill Rehm

    Riggsveda, you touch on an interesting theme. Of course, you might want to ignore this, because it’s pretty much only interesting to fantasy literature fans.
    Lots of fantasy novels use prophecy as a central plot device. Although there are variants, they deal with it in one of two ways — prophecies as checklists that require human agency for fulfillment and prophecy as precognition, an unavoidable fate.
    Obviously, these red-heifer ranchers (and the Apostolic Congress folks) are “human agency” fans. Well, in the original sense of “fan”.

  • Norwood

    Is Bush the Anti-Christ? We’ve been asking that in Tampa for about a week now.

  • http://jollyblogger.typepad.com/jollyblogger/2004/05/are_harry_potte.html Jollyblogger

    Are “Harry Potter” and “Left Behind” Pretty Much the Same Thing?

    No Wizard Left Behind – Harry Potter and Left Behind are more alike than you might think. By Steven?Waldman This article from Slate contends that the Harry Potter and Left Behind books are pretty much the same, at least as

  • Mark

    “Bush IS the Anti-Christ.”
    And thus the discussion sinks to the level of the Rapture freaks who, a few years ago, were saying Clinton was the Antichrist.
    It’s not an argument. It’s not even much of an insult.
    Bush displays the same kind of petty corruption we’ve seen among politicians since Brutus and Cassius. It’s a very human kind of evil, lacking the scale and efficiency characteristic of the work of Satan.

  • bellatrys

    Yo, Fred! You go, man! Thanks for addressing our worries. This “magical” aspect is exactly what I said in my rants on Gibson’s Passion about these apocalyptic morons straight from Good Omens, only I compared it to Sumerian sex-magick, using intercourse to force the sky-god and the earth-goddess to get it on so that the economy would prosper.
    The Buffy analogue is *perfect.*
    And Mr. Perlstein, you go too. Technology *has* changed the world, in ways no one, ahem, only SF readers could imagine.

  • bellatrys

    follow up – some visual confirmation via atrios.

  • http://www.longstoryshortpier.com/vaults/2004/05/20/hey_rube Long story; short pier

    The triumph of William Jennings Bryan.

    The chances are that history will put the peak of democracy in his time; it has been on the downward curve among us since the campaign of 1896. He will be remembered, perhaps, as its supreme impostor, the reduction…

  • Bill Humphries

    Mark:
    >Bush displays the same kind of petty corruption we’ve seen among politicians since Brutus and Cassius.
    >It’s a very human kind of evil, lacking the scale and efficiency characteristic of the work of Satan.
    Great line. But I think there’s more than petty corruption going on here. Bush, while not the Antichrist*, is part of a faith community** operating under the hubris that they can fix the Middle East. And as their grand plan fails, they’ve committed a great many sins/crimes in the name of their ostensibly honorable goal.
    If you want to see a fictional treatment of the Immitze This! crowd getting screwed over, read John Shirley’s Eclipse. There’s a nasty scene where a couple of home grown Neonazis show up at the Big Bad’s Home Office to pay their respects.
    * I’m not a believer, so I don’t even get pin that tail on any donkey.
    ** Using the term very loosely, in the same sense of JFK’s Best and Brightest.


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