Tim LaHaye, co-author of Left Behind and general Christian reality-denier, has just died at the age of 90. Thus ends a career marked by denial, grandiose ideas, wish-fulfillment, and Endtimes fantasizing–and one that led its owner into positions of great influence.
Four Humorous Ideas.
He’s best-known for his Left Behind series, but like a lot of right-wing Christians do, he had some deeply goofy beliefs and teachings. One of the weirdest of the lot of these was his insistence on the medieval-style “four humors.” Yes, seriously: an idea that most people discarded after the Middle Ages was revived and popularized by this guy. Even other out-there Christians object to the idea of humors, noting that “nowhere are the four temperaments more popular than among astrologers and evangelical Christians.” (Though to be fair, I suspect that the idea’s gone out of vogue in recent years.)
Astute readers might also vaguely remember the fellow as being a peripheral part of the Mike Warnke saga. According to Mr. Warnke, he taught the LaHayes about the Illuminati during a visit of theirs to his home; according to Mr. LaHaye, he brought up the idea first and Mr. Warnke seemed curiously unaware of the concept. Who to believe, who to believe? This time, I’ll go with Mr. LaHaye.
Indeed, the idea of the Illuminati–this shadowy conspiracy of people who control the world for their own nefarious purposes–is one of Mr. LaHayes’ favorite bugbears. The conspiracy made its way into his writing in various ways and of course featured in his Left Behind books. As you might imagine, pretty much every group that Mr. LaHaye didn’t like was actually part of the Illuminati: Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, and many others. Amusingly, he claimed that among the “2000 other colleges and universities” that were part of the group were Harvard and Yale–not surprising, considering the anti-intellectual bent of Toxic Christianity.
You’ll also not be surprised to learn that Tim LaHaye was also rabidly anti-gay, having written books about how gay people are secretly totally miserable (and of course their misery had nothing whatsoever to do with anti-gay bigots like himself!). But that fact is almost a footnote; one expects that a darling of the fundagelical movement would be bigoted. Signing off on all of their party lines is an expectation and a given. So yes, along with the anti-gay bigotry-for-Jesus, he also firmly believed that what atheists “don’t realize is they don’t want to have to give accountability to God,” as he put it to BeliefNet during an interview.
I don’t think he ever met a right-wing talking point that he didn’t like. Anti-abortion activism, Zionism, you name it and he was either deeply involved in starting the frenzy or else bought completely into it.
Intelligently Designed Bunkum.
We can also thank this guy for helping start up the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). According to the ICR’s own website, the group was initially part of Christian Heritage College (which itself is now San Diego Christian College) in the early 1970s. Ten years later, the ICR became its own group. Its members claim that they do research in science, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mostly the ICR exists to propagate and create indoctrination materials for fundagelicals–and to slam people who speak against Creationism.
At one point they offered fundagelicals online-education courses in various branches of pseudoscience, but their faux-education was too much even for Texas, which pulled the plug on accrediting their masters’ degree courses. When the ICR tried suing the state for religious discrimination, they failed. In Texas. Let that sink in for a hot minute.
The ICR’s certainly been criticized over the years, with more than a few ex-Christians crediting it at least in part for their eventual deconversions. When I talk about how Christians themselves do more to destroy their own credibility than anything non-believers could ever do, you can bet that I’m thinking about groups like the ICR.
None of that criticism mattered to Tim LaHaye. He gave his followers that feeling of smug correctness that they craved, and they loved him for it. He told them, “No matter what those meanies out there say about us, we’re right and they’re wrong.”
The Institutionalization of a Rapture Scare.
In 1970, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was published. This book of apocalyptic predictions got attention even from non-Christians. My mom even had a copy of it floating around! It was supposed to be a prediction of the end of the world and featured a series of prophecies about how that end was going to happen. I don’t need to say that none of the predictions came true, though nobody in fundagelicalism seems eager to follow their supposedly-authoritative Bible when it comes to false prophets. The book got made into an equally-ludicrous movie that doesn’t appear to have impressed anybody.
You won’t often see fundagelical Christians reminding anyone of this series of failed prophecies, of course. But their worldview was influenced by this book and other apocalyptic works like it. Christian authors couldn’t have failed to notice that these kinds of books sold well to fundagelicals with a sudden interest in these occult-ish ramblings. These works quickly became fanon, which is to say a fan-made fiction that assumed the status of canon with believers (btw, that’s a TVTropes link; you have been warned). Back in my day, we called these end-of-the-world fantasies “the Endtimes.” (The formal study of what the Bible says about the end of the world is called eschatology, but I don’t think anything that fundagelicals are saying about it reaches that level of rigor.)Tim LaHaye burst onto the Endtimes-fantasizing scene with the Left Behind series. The books caught fundagelicals’ imaginations in a way that no previous Rapture books had. (Yes, there were even then plenty of books about the Rapture; I’d even read one as a Pentecostal teen–which I borrowed from a classroom at my church’s little private school.)
The Party Can’t End Now!
Like a lot of fundagelicals do, Tim LaHaye thought that the Rapture would happen in his lifetime. Certainly, he said, “we’ve prayed that way.” Apparently his god heard those prayers and did what he wanted anyway. How awkward!
I knew a lot of older Christians who believed that the Rapture would happen before they died. Nobody ever wanted to think that they’d probably live and die before it ever happened–or that it might not happen at all. The idea was always, always that it would definitely happen and that it’d happen before they died. After a while I began to notice that these Christians died anyway, even after loudly protesting that the Rapture would ensure they never died.
I began to wonder why this idea was so powerful among older right-wing Christians. Younger people like me had mixed feelings about the Rapture, but older folks sure liked the idea. Eventually I figured out that fantasizing about the Rapture was a way for such people to avoid confronting their own mortality. The sheer narcissism of the fundagelical mindset won’t allow for such thoughts.
When I was Christian myself, there was a certain grandiose satisfaction in thinking that now that I was here, the party could well and truly begin. I heard rumblings of the same mindset from my leaders and peers alike–that we were special. We were the last generation. We were the final call, the last trumpet, the claxon sounding through the world. We were it. If humanity didn’t listen to us, they were wasting their very last chance.
Faced as I was with the prospect of the world ending at literally any moment, every action I took or even considered taking became invested with greater importance–and greater stress. It’s downright exhausting to live in a state of near-terror all the time. But that’s where I was. The terror would crest with predicted dates, and then wane slightly after each date came and went with no Rapture. Preachers who loved the drama (and effectiveness) of Rapture scares didn’t let little details like failed prophecies get in the way of driving their adherents into a frenzy about the next big prediction.
I can see that nothing’s changed since I left the religion. If anything, this tendency to fetishize the Endtimes has only gotten worse. I’m not surprised, either.
Little details like reality aren’t going to stop this party.
Where Dreams Come True.
A while ago I wrote, regarding the Left Behind movie reboot, that fantasies like the Rapture give fundagelicals a sense of importance and success that they cannot achieve in real life. They’re losing more and more often in the real world, so I’m not surprised in the least that their fantasies are becoming richer, more detailed, and more pervasive.
Left Behind fits into the Toxic Christian worldview alongside movies like God’s Not Dead, which we covered extensively a year or so ago. In the wish-fulfillment universe these movies inhabit, Christians are the heroes who win in the end, non-believers are the villains who lose in the end, and miracles really happen. With victories coming increasingly less often in the real world, imaginary ones are becoming more and more important to keep adherents’ faith and spirits up.
Tim LaHaye, whose finger seems like it was in every Christian pie available in the 1970s and 1980s, knew this truth. He knew his tribe better than any other leader of his time did. He knew what they wanted–needed, even–to hear. And he gave it to them. His entire career could be viewed as a long process of refining that wish-fulfillment message he’d begun preaching in the 1970s.
So what if naysayers criticized his work from here to there? So what if even other Christians (notably Catholics, who have been offended on the regular by his anti-Catholic screeds and rants; his virulently anti-Catholic leanings cost him his position as co-chair of Jack Kemp’s Presidential campaign in 1987) were repelled by his vision of the future and his obvious glee in seeing non-believers get what was coming to them for rejecting his overtures and overreach? He sure didn’t care. His career led him all over the world–even to influence with various Presidents of the United States of America. He is even credited with helping some of them get elected. I’d be willing to bet that a big part of fundagelicals’ current obsession with politics comes from the work he did.
That work is now over at last. He got his reward in this lifetime for it. Which is good for him, because it sure seems like that’s the only place that’s gonna happen.
Fred Clark’s takedown of Left Behind on his blog Slacktivist remains the definitive takedown of any Christian work. Join the party here and enjoy the snark.