When congressional stenographer Dianne Reidy got pulled from the House floor for screaming “prophetic pronouncements” at voting representatives, most of us simply viewed her as someone worthy of pity.
But to others she was the victim of “religious persecution,” because, they believe, she spoke what the Spirit led her to say—that being, of course, that the government is run amok (since, as everyone knows, the Holy Spirit is a fiscal conservative). To these folks, slavery, Civil War, two world wars, and decades on the brink of possible nuclear annihilation were not enough to bring about the End Times. For that, it took a debate about health insurance.
But this is not really about Obamacare; it’s not about whether the government should provide health care at all; it’s not about the proper role of government in people’s lives. Legitimate philosophical debates about the role of government have been around since (before) the founding of the republic.
But one subgroup on one side of that debate has now decided that such discussions must always be about something much larger than that. And in retrospect this turn of events was inevitable. Fiscal conservatives have been courting religious conservatives for decades, and now, finally, they have now successfully wedded the two. So we can’t be too surprised that, for some, whether the government sets up private insurance exchanges or outlaws policy rejections based on pre-existing conditions—whether the government does anything at all—has become a matter, first and foremost, of religious conviction.
That, in and of itself, is not a problem; their faith motivates plenty of progressive Christians to campaign for policy changes. But the conservative Christians who are now effectively paralyzing our government are (largely) part of a sect of evangelicals who subscribe to dispensationalism, a 19th-century end-times ideology that, in every decade since its advent, has seen in contemporary political events the “fulfillment of prophecy,” and the coming of The End.
Because so many of the Tea Party subscribe to this apocalyptic viewpoint, negotiating or compromise with them is futile. These individuals are not engaging in an honest philosophical debate about the role of government; they find no facts, evidence, or reason in the least bit compelling. Because in their minds they are speaking with prophetic voices God’s truth that Obamacare is going to “destroy America.” The way they see it, they are not politicians debating policy. They are prophets of God warning an unholy nation.
Within the dispensational narrative, those “speaking prophecy” are inevitably mocked, scorned and rarely heeded. So when the rest of the country does not take seriously the things Dianne Reidy said during her deranged outburst, the dispensationalists claim the sad incident as proof positive that America is, in fact, in the End Times—and that they (of course) are God’s chosen voices, who (of course) will not be believed. Any attempt to argue otherwise is readily dismissed by them as nothing more than predictable deceptive devilry.
This viewer e-mail that Fox & Friends saw fit to read aloud on air nicely sums up this mentality:
Amazingly, this religious and obviously sweet lady gets fed up and speaks her mind, something we all have tried to do. She brings up our dear Lord and she gets a mental evaluation? I think it should be the other way around.
Ironically, the dispensationalist Christian “politicians” have something in common with their ancient forebears. While such Christians—and, indeed, many conservative Christians generally—often think the books of Daniel and Revelation are predictive of future events, Biblical scholars think otherwise: they know that these books are in fact aimed at contemporary political concerns—that is, that the authors of those books were taking aim at events within their own lifetimes.
Scholars know this for several reasons, chief among them being that we have several examples of ancient apocalyptic literature (some that were not included in the Bible) which make this clear, but also because these books are themselves pretty thinly veiled attacks on the rulers of their day: the Seleucid rulers of the second century BCE (Daniel), and the Roman rules of the first century CE (Revelation).
Nor is it even ahistorical that conservative Christians today sneer at their liberal counterparts for their rejection of the dispensational narrative: as Elaine Pagels argues in her latest book Revelations, John of Patmos may have in fact been in (critical) dialogue with Pauline Christians, whom he faulted for failing to follow Jewish law.
But the difference falls, of course, in the fact that today’s apocalyptic prophets point to ancient documents, and argue what their predecessors have argued for nigh on 200 years now: that those documents prove that now, right now today, we are in the End Times. And decades from now dispensational Christians will be arguing the same thing for then, right then. And so on and so forth, into the future.
There is a lot of talk today about whether or not religion matters; here we have a good example of why it does. You don’t have to believe in dispensationalism to understand it, and to understand the statements and actions that it is fueling in a sizable portion of our electorate.
If you are a reasonable person, conservative or liberal, who desires to return to the time when it was possible to have rational debates about the role of government without an attending threat of global economic catastrophe (which, by the way, dispensationalists welcome as yet another certain sign of The End), then this underlying religious ideology must be tackled first. If it is not, then the religious far-right just might create for us all something of the terrible end for which they so zealously hope.
About Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.