Christian “politicians” and the end of time

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.

Don M. BurrowsAbout 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.

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  • Pat O’brien

    just as the republican party is now split between the rational people and the radicals, so it seems is religion. The notion that a group of far right evangelicals imagine that “god is on their side” and everyone else is condemned to hell and the sooner the better is destroying the fabric of religion just as it is destroying the moderate conservative party,

  • I grew up in a church with a version of end time theories being preached at least once a month from the pulpit, All church published literature was heavily steeped in interpretations of prophecy, and the church leadership, twice set dates for the big event that would usher in the Great Tribulation. Members were strongly encouraged to watch the news, but with the mindset of watching for signs to come in regards to prophecy.

    When I left the church, and moved increasingly away from constrictive fundamentalism, I spent some time learning other versions of the theory, and then ultimately rejected it. I found several of the problems listed in this article as well as others, including the fact, people never seem to see a predicted event as happening, but after the fact, also called the armchair quarterback effect.

    I can understand that people can read The Bible and draw such conclusions. It does make some sense, but I wonder if that is what we are supposed to be doing with scripture. Instead of a nebulous future gleaned by playing biblical soothsayer, if we should instead read bible passages, see how people in the past did things, gain insight into their actions and thoughts, and find if there is application for us today.

  • “then this underlying religious ideology must be tackled first.” Easier said than done. Any attempt to critically engage with that ideology is usually viewed as an attack on Christianity itself, and therefore yet another sign of the end: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Matthew 24:24 (KJV).

    • True. Its impossible to change the mind of the true believer, no matter what it is they believe.

      • do you truly believe that?

        • If they are convinced. If they have closed the door to any other way of looking at things, if they make excuses to explain away evidence to the contrary., then yes. Thankfully they are not all that common

          • Brian McComas

            I agree with Allegro63, you see this closed mindedness in many religions and in atheists especially. Broadcasting that their way is right, others are wrong, and laughing at the outcasts because they are blind. So many sides are doing this. And yet they are so blinded by ego they don’t realize they are doing it too. 🙁 You can lead a horse to water……..

          • My encounters with atheists is apparently much more positive than yours Brian. I’ve seen a few that have acted that way, and I’ve seen a few devoutly religious act that way. Ive seen people who are somewhere where in the middle in regards to religious philosophy act that way. You are correct, that ego likely plays a big part, something we should do to try to keep in check, so we aren’t in that “act that way” category.

          • What I grew up in discouraged looking outside the walls of dogma, we were told that everything not of the church is not of God. Even when the house of cards that was that church fell apart, the true believers picked up where things left off. They refuse yo consider that things are anything but those same parameters. That I kept having questions, kept peeking out of the box, and never settled and stopped wondering is why I got the hell out.

          • Sheila Warner

            Me, too! And I am estranged from most of my family because of it.

      • Sheila Warner

        I was a true believer and changed my mind. I did so, ironically, by actually reading the Bible for myself. Dispensationalism cannot be found in the Bible. Period.

  • Elizabeth

    Bloom’s Omens of Millennium is a fascinating précis
    on this phenomenon. Its application to Reagan en famille is triple word score.

  • Kelli Hernandez

    Excellent piece. The problem with fundamentalism is that it is pathological in nature. There is no room for constructive, intelligent open debate or thought. Hate and intolerance are exploited and promoted heavily amongst leadership and within the flock. Dispensationalism is another exploitative tool for the far right to gain more power.
    Evangelicals have pathologized ‘religion’. It attracts many, many disordered and/or vulnerable people.

    Sad, but unfortunately true…

  • azafvet

    The “Fundamentalist” Christians are CINO’s , Christians in name only. Very few subscribe to the vision that Jesus had in what is important in life and how we should be treating others. Jesus was the new promise, the new testament and the Gospels written by his disciples laid out those promises in quite clear terms. For me, to be a self proclaimed Christian, I must accept the words spoken by Jesus straight out or through parables as doctrine overruling old testament law in many cases. I cannot ascribe to his philosophy things he did not say nor today’s popular political and social issues to which he never spoke. Perhaps the CINO’s should actually consider “What would Jesus Do” in fact not just use WWJD as a buzz term.

  • Brian McComas

    Politics and Religion are suppose to be kept out the same sandbox in America. And this article is exactly why! Some people would rather walk over the bones of the past and choke the life out of the children of the future while claiming they know what G-d wants than they would just be still, patient, and seek peace and show love to all human beings. Its sad really I pity these men and women who have destruction in their path, and in their words an actions and yet they speak as if they are connected to the Creator when in reality they are doing the work of ego and darkness.

    • Sheila Warner

      I have no pity for them at all. They could read tons of material which refutes their point of view. They accept hook, line, and sinker everything told to them, without bothering to see if it has any merit at all. Having been raised in a dispensationalist family, it is more annoying to try to talk with them than you can ever realize. It’s why Congress can’t get anything done at all.

  • Deb G

    Very good post Mr. Burrows. Barbara Rossing wrote an excellent book on Revelation too. I can’t recall the name of it right now. It was published in the second half of the 1990s. Rossing is a Lutheran prof at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

    As I was earning my grad degree in theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, I was so fortunate to study under some really excellent scholars. There is a very tall stack of well-documented information that supports exactly what you described regarding just what Daniel and Revelation are about.

    The supporting evidence is found in documents, artifacts, coins, etc. It covers a wide range of sources and media.

    Sigh. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. It is frustrating to point up at the daytime sky and say, “That’s blue.” The response is, “I knew you’d say that. You’ve been brainwashed by the devil to believe that is blue, but us true believers are the only ones who’ve rebuked the devil and recognize forest green when God shows it to us.”

    • The book is entitled, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelations. I’ve not read it, but it sounds intriguing

  • Sheila Warner

    I did not pity the woman who took to the microphone to spew her religious tirade. I was angry at her. Still am. I was raised in a dispensational church, and I see that whole theology as extremely dangerous. She got what she deserved. These people think it is “free speech” to rant publicly, even if that entails an improper mode of communication–that woman had no right to speak at that microphone. I left all of that nonsense decades ago, and I find it quite disturbing that the dispensationalists are gaining ground in politics.

    • TopRahamic

      Yes, clearly they are poised to stage a magnificent coup any day now. That stenographer made it through nearly five sentences before armed guards forcibly ejected her into the street or, more likely, stuffed her into a small concrete cell.

  • Herro

    Don, it sounds to me that you’re trying to say that the problem is this 19-th century ideology (dispensationalism). But everything you say about it (thinking that the end is near, interpreting every world event as a sign of the end time) isn’t exactly a 19-th century invention, but can be found in Christianity from the earliest times…even on the lips of Jesus in the gospels. So if this ideology is the problem, the first step would be to repudiate Jesus’ message 😉

    • Lee

      After getting a distance from Christian theology for awhile, I now realize that despite what I had been taught, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. He made it crystal-clear that he was going to return within the lifetime of his followers. The literalists however have decided that those verses are not to be taken literally.
      St. Paul also believed the end was near and his emphasis on being celebite can be traced to that belief. Christ was to return after the whole world had been evangelized. Of course the world was a whole lot bigger than they knew. But Paul made it clear that Jesus was to be expected very soon. In fact in describing the rapture he said “WE who are alive and remain” will be caught up with the resurrected dead in meeting with Jesus. Why the “we” if it was expected to happen thousands of years later? I guess maybe some people might see that as a prophecy for the far off future, but Paul was talking directly to the church that existed then, not later.
      And of course John was writing a revenge fantasy against the Romans. The expected return of Jesus was tied to the idea of overthrowing the Roman Empire which is what the Messiah was expected to do in the first place. After Jesus’ death then they had to come up with another scenario as to how this was going to happen.
      You are correct that there have always been people hung up on end times theology. A good book on that is called “The History of the End of the World” which documents that right from the beginning until now people have been reading their own historical circumstances into the bible and were convinced that the end was upon us.

  • Y. A. Warren

    What arrogance the “prophets” have,” who predict that when they don’t get their way, the rest will be damned in eternity. Sounds like three-year-old “logic” to me. As for the Tea Party, they sound like anarchistic teen-agers to me. They know everything that’s wrong with everything, but come up with no viable solutions.

    Mental evaluation and imprisonment in actual prisons and mental institutions has long been used to persecute and silence those who speak against religion. The fundamentalists are now reaping what they have sown.

  • Liesl Manone

    This is what I never understood about dispensationalism (and I was raised in a dispensationalist church): If you love you some Jesus and believe that the End Times means he is coming back to get you and this will all be over, why would you fear the End Times or try in any way to stop it? If you believe Revelation is a big prophecy of all the stuff that has to happen prior to Jesus’ return (and your rapture to heaven before or after some big apocalypse), wouldn’t the more logical response be to be totally jazzed about it? Makes no sense to me for these people to fight something they believe that God has ordered MUST happen. -shrug-