August 29, 2011

Richard John Neuhaus, the neoconservative intellectual and editor of the journal First Things, thought that adherents of “dominion theology” were nutty, but he did not think they were inconsequential.

In his May 1990 article “Why Wait for the Kingdom? The Theonomist Temptation,” Neuhaus introduced the prominent players and prominent ideas in play among the “theonomists” or “reconstructionists” or “theonomic reconstructionists” — the gothic Presbyterian wing of dominion theology or dominionism.

Dominion theology also has a creepy Pentecostal wing, the so-called “New Apostolic Reformation” which takes a very different route — more Peretti-esque “spiritual warfare,” less ultra-Calvinism — to arrive at a very similar millennialist political and theological agenda. Neuhaus here is writing before the rise of that branch of dominion theology, although he foresaw its arrival in the growing influence of theonomic reconstructionist doctrine among influential Pentecostals such as Pat Robertson.

Neuhaus’ tone in the piece is glibly dismissive and a bit condescending, but that’s just how Neuhaus wrote about everyone he disagreed with. He did not lightly dismiss what he viewed as the very real danger of the dominionists’ very real and growing influence.

Neuhaus begins with a brief introduction of some of the main personalities and a pithy summary of their shared ideology:

The theonomic movement is in some ways small, with perhaps no more than a dozen prominent representatives. Its influence, however, is disproportionate to its size, and familiarity with its personalities, positions, and purposes is important to understanding the ways in which some fundamentalists and evangelicals are making the connections between religion and public life. …

… To date the leadership of the theonomist movement is the trinity of [Rousas John] Rushdoony, [Gary] North, and [Greg] Bahnsen. Other prolific writers in the movement are David Chilton, Gary DeMar, George Grant (not the distinguished Canadian philosopher), and, at least until recently, James Jordan. In truth, “prolific” is hardly adequate to suggest the veritable flood of publications from these writers. …

Most other Christians … are conventionally given to saying that the Bible contains “no blueprint for the right ordering of society.” That is precisely what the theonomists deny. In fact, one set of books is called “The Biblical Blueprint Series,” and it is nothing if not specific. The determining proposition is that the Mosaic law given at Sinai was not just for Israel but is God’s design for all nations of all times. … As most of the proponents of this viewpoint do not hesitate to say, a theonomic social order is a theocratic social order, and a theocratic social order is a Christian social order. (Some theonomists prefer “Christocracy” to theocracy.)

Bible law requires a radical decentralization of government under the rule of the righteous. Private property rights, especially for the sake of the family, must be rigorously protected, with very limited interference by the state and the institutional church. Restitution, including voluntary slavery, should be an important element of the criminal justice system. A strong national defense should be maintained until the whole world is “reconstructed” (which may be a very long time). Capital punishment will be employed for almost all the capital crimes listed in the Old Testament, including adultery, homosexual acts, apostasy, incorrigibility of children (meaning late teenagers), and blasphemy, along with murder and kidnapping. There will be a cash, gold-based economy with limited or no debt. These are among the specifics broadly shared by people who associate themselves with the theonomic viewpoint.

That’s an extreme agenda, but the details — extreme social conservatism, gold-buggery, economic lawlessness — may be a bit familiar. Those extreme ideas are more mainstream today than they were when Neuhaus published this article in 1990.

Neuhaus wasn’t wrong about dominion theology’s “disproportionate” influence.


April 12, 2021

• David Fleshler provides a pretty good piece of reporting on anti-vaccine attitudes among white evangelicals: “Florida evangelicals on vaccine: Right thing to do or mark of the beast?

The “mark of the beast” stuff was utterly predictable as the reaction some white evangelicals were going to have to the vaccine because it’s the reaction those folks have had to everything in the past 40 years — from bar codes in supermarkets, to credit cards, to ATMs, to the DMV. It’s not surprising that Fleshler’s tour of Florida evangelicals included some examples of that Lindsey/LaHaye End Times folklore.

I’m almost surprised not to have heard more of that. (I mean, it’s still early, but I’ve scarcely even seen any right-wing End Times prophets accusing Joe Biden of being the Antichrist — and he’s a papist!)

That form of End Times delirium is ebbing, I think, partly because it’s being replaced by a more efficient and explicit form of right-wing indoctrination, as Fleshler discusses with a sociologist from Tim LaHaye’s hometown:

Much of the anti-vaccine sentiment comes less from religious beliefs themselves than from the right-wing political convictions of many evangelicals, whose historic anti-elite outlook makes it easier to question the advice of scientists, doctors and political leaders, said John Evans, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on the relationship between science and religion.

“A lot of this is that white evangelicals tend to be conservative Republican Trump supporters,” he said. “They watch a lot of Fox News. And therefore they will take on the perspective of Sean Hannity and Fox News and come up with some sort of religious rationale. But what’s really driving things is they’re conservative, Trump-style Republicans.”

There’s no need to work through LaHaye’s baroque allegory of Bircherism-as-“Bible prophecy” when you’ve already got a media ecosystem feeding people straight-up Bircherism.

Another part of this, I think, is the shift toward postmillennial-ish ideologies, particularly in the charismatic and Pentecostal branches of white evangelicalism where you’re more likely to encounter dominionism or reheated Reconstructionism or some other variant of crypto-theocratic white Christian nationalism rather than the pessimistic fatalism of 20th-century Last Days “Bible prophecy” nonsense. You can see that in Fleshler’s survey, where the really bonkers (even by Florida standards) responses to the vaccine come mainly from the MAGA-“prophets” of charismatic/Pentecostal/INC churches.

• But the charismatic/Pentecostal stream of white evangelicalism does not have a monopoly on bonkers-stupid responses to the vaccine and the pandemic. Consider, for example, the fiercely anti-charismatic fundamentalist icon John MacArthur: “COVID-Denying Pastor: Wearing Face Masks Means Promoting a Secular Religion.”

MacArthur’s fiefdom in Southern California has been spiraling through an accelerating cycle for the past year: Denialism, outbreak, cover-up, litigation. We’re on the second or maybe third iteration of that cycle now with MacArthur back in court, fighting again for his “religious liberty” and his Free Exercise right to expose and infect as much of his congregation as possible.

The fact that MacArthur has recently been railing against the very idea of religious liberty for the non-elect and that he’s spent years condemning “rights-based” arguments only underscores the feverish dishonesty of everything this man has been saying since the pandemic began.

A big part of MacArthur’s shtick has always been his insistence that fundamentalism should avoid “legalism.” The nuances of that intramural fundie argument get arcane and weedy and it’s hard to convey all the shades of what fundies mean by “legalism” for non-natives. (It has to do, among other things, with the assumption that Galatians is a Pauline polemic against 16th-century Roman Catholicism.) This is expressed in his legal argument against public health and hygiene restrictions, in which he writes:

Grace Community Church regards the wearing of masks in worship first of all as a matter of conscience — and since we are forbidden by the teaching of Christ not to make extrabiblical religious rules that bind men’s consciences … we neither mandate nor forbid the wearing of masks in worship.

If you want to see what this rule against “extrabiblical religious rules” looks like in practical terms, check out the Student Handbook for MacArthur’s mostly accredited university. The first half is a long throat-clearing preamble arguing that this is not a rulebook because we’re not legalistic here. The second half is a rulebook. And it’s a rulebook in which every rule includes an elastic clause involving “submissive dependency” with the divine right of authority figures. So, yeah, MacArthur’s church does not “forbid the wearing of masks,” but it forbids the displeasing of the senior pastor, and masks displease the senior pastor. So.

That Student Handbook includes some very strict rules about social media and “electronic media,” rules that John MacArthur himself has almost certainly violated given the amount of QAnon nuttiness he’s credulously swallowed and rechristened as “gospel.” I’m sure that didn’t involve MacArthur surfing the message boards at 8kun or watching the YouTube channels of the many Q apostles. My guess is he’s just using Facebook, restricting his follows and followers to only the most pious, and thus inviting a steady stream of the toxic Christian nationalist disinformation that Facebook’s algorithms provide for users who seem to enjoy engaging with that stuff. And it’s not possible to spend any amount of time in “Christian Facebook” without violating MacArthur’s non-rule rule of “Always seek to avoid gossip and slander (1 Peter 2:1) and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit when writing or talking to others (Galatians 5:22-23).”

You don’t end up as a pandemic-denialist unless you have been seeking out gossip, willfully embracing slander, and knowingly bearing false witness against your neighbors. John MacArthur needs to repent of all those sins.

• Those sins — the moral choices that make one a willing captive of conspiracy theories and Satanic baby-killer nonsense — tend to be social sins. It takes two to gossip, and it takes more than two to sustain the willful false pretenses of conspiracy theories. That requires a group — a community of players to keep the game alive. And that, in turn, requires associating with those also playing the game while scrupulously avoiding those who are not.

This is why I sympathize with this editorial from the Buffalo News, but I’m not optimistic it will work: “Trusted advisers need to help persuade reluctant evangelicals to be vaccinated.”

“The key to changing minds has been to bring trusted advisers into the task,” the paper’s editorial board writes. “We all need to do our part. Evangelicals who understand that have work to do with their fellow believers.” They want to see trusted, influential white evangelical leaders encouraging their followers to get vaccinated.

That makes sense. The problem is that once those trusted, influential evangelical leaders start saying that, their anti-vaccine followers will cease to regard them as trusted. (“Trusted,” for those playing the game, means “trusted to maintain kayfabe at all costs.”) Here’s what I wrote about that years ago:

P&G had also collected an impressive array of letters from religious leaders — the archbishop of Cincinnati, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, among others — all of whom urged their followers not to believe this stupid, stupid lie.

In retrospect, this desperate, shotgun appeal to religious authority demonstrated why the dossier itself was probably futile. It was an acknowledgment that the people they were attempting to convince were beyond the reach of mere fact or reason — people who did not find reality compelling. The only hope of persuading them, then, was to call upon religious leaders from across the spectrum in the hopes that the pronouncement of one of these random bishops and evangelical pseudo-bishops might be regarded as trustworthy.

If you’re forced to resort to such an attempt then you’ve got to realize that it’s not likely to work either. Any audience so far gone as to require this sort of argument is also likely to have already adopted the mechanisms of self-reinforcing stupidity. Thus if they read that Billy Graham denies the rumor, their response won’t be “Oh, OK, Billy Graham. I trust him,” but rather “OMG! Billy Graham is in on it too!” (cf. “biased media”).

The Buffalo News editorial is accompanied by a picture of Southern Baptist President J.D. Grear. Like Russell Moore, Grear is often cited as a trusted and influential leader in the SBC. But, like Moore, he is also a widely distrusted leader in the SBC who inspires reflexive opposition from a big chunk of that denomination who recognize that he’s not playing the same game of make-pretend they are and thus denounce him for being “in on it too.”

And, as I’ve said before, “When conspiracists accuse someone of being ‘in on it,’ what they actually mean is that person is, disappointingly, not ‘in on it’ — that they have not accepted the bounds and the rules of the game they know themselves to be playing. (This is true of conspiracism and of just plain racism too.)”


January 30, 2020

Here is your open thread for January 30, 2020.

Today is Phil Collins’ 69th birthday. Nice.

(The cool drum bit happens around the 3:15 mark in that video if you just want to skip to that.)

If you don’t remember the 1980s, it’d be easy to underestimate how huge Phil Collins was or for how long. He was everywhere — all over the pop charts as a solo artist and with Genesis, sitting in on drums with Zeppelin and the Who, guest-starring on Miami Vice, zipping across the Atlantic on the Concorde to play Live Aid on two continents.

Collins was so omnipresent that a bit of a backlash was probably inevitable. (See the long section of his Wikipedia page devoted to the Everybody Hates Phil Collins consensus that rose up in the ’90s.) Partly I think those of us who wanted to be cool felt we had to take Peter Gabriel’s side in the whole Genesis divorce. I remember hearing that Collins-led, post-Gabriel Genesis had “sold out” and “gone pop.” Even if they did, take a moment to appreciate that nothing about doing that would have been easy or automatic. (“Hey, guys, new plan: We’re gonna write a bunch of chart-topping songs that will have broad appeal to millions of people, sell a ton of records, and sell-out big arenas.”) And then take another moment to decide whether Top 40 pop really is less cool than prog rock.

Part of that backlash too, I think, had to do with the fact that Collins wasn’t a larger-than-life rock star. How dare some short, balding guy try to substitute for John Bonham and Keith Moon without having the decency to provide us with the catharsis of watching him destroy himself with drug abuse and alcoholism?

I’ll admit that I liked Phil Collins back in the ’80s when everyone liked Phil Collins, and that I pretended to hate him in the ’90s when everyone else was doing that too. Neither one of those made me any cooler. (Also, uncoolly, I didn’t resent him for not being Peter Gabriel — I resented him for not being Menken & Ashman. Tarzan was no Aladdin.)

I hereby grant you permission to form your own opinions about Phil Collins: fandom, hatred, indifference, whatever you like.

As for me, my favorite Phil Collins performance these days is probably his odd, kind appearance on This American Life, when Starlee Kine calls on him to help her write a break-up song and he mostly, instead, just tries to help her get through her break up.

Wikimedia photo by Jag9889

The Lower Trenton Bridge opened on January 30, 1906 in my mother’s hometown. The iconic “Trenton Makes The World Takes” lettering was added in 1935, and has gradually acquired its bitterly ironic meaning ever since.

January 30 is the birthday of Edward Bransfield, the Irish sea captain who may have been the first person to see Antarctica. Almost every other purported “discovery” of some “new” land is bogus — ignoring the people already living there. But in the case of Bransfield and Antarctica, “discovery” is, for once, appropriate.

Academy Award nominee Christian Bale and Academy Award winner Olivia Colman were both born on January 30, 1974 (on opposite sides of the island). I would be happy to purchase a ticket to a movie starring Christian Bale and Olivia Colman. It could be about almost anything.

Authors Barbara Tuchman and Francis Schaeffer were both born on January 30, 1912. If you’re at all interested in pondering the question “How Shall We Then Live?” then I heartily recommend reading Tuchman, and avoiding Schaeffer. I’ve written quite a bit about Schaeffer and his pernicious legacy here, see, for example:

Today is the birthday of great American Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who made enormous progress toward making this nation a more perfect union. And it is the birthday of great American Fred Korematsu, who resisted the greatest moral failure and failure of leadership of FDR’s presidency.

On Fred Korematsu Day, let’s revisit a famous passage from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu v. United States:

Once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes.

Talk amongst yourselves.

March 22, 2018

Gregory Alan Thornbury has turned from writing books about the life and work of Carl F.H. Henry to writing a biography of Larry Norman. That’s a strange turn for an academic career, but there’s a certain logic to it, which becomes clearer when you read Thornbury’s recent Washington Post op-ed: “What evangelicals looked like before they entered the political fray.”

Thornbury’s essay capably covers the partisan transformation of white evangelicalism that started back when I was in junior high:

The public’s impression of evangelicals changed, too. During the ’70s they were seen, at best, as people with trite bumper stickers like “Smile, God Loves You,” and at worst, people who served up Jesus as an answer to things people didn’t see as problems. But in the minds of the new mass media radio and television evangelists, preaching Christ meant choosing sides. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was not only a favorite hymn but their frequent theme.

Within Christian circles, Hollywood, rock and roll and anything that sounded “liberal” were now the enemy in the minds of the televangelists and their legions of followers. The culture wars proceeded apace, and they kept the faithful mobilized. Subsequent evangelicals didn’t get contracts with secular record labels, as Norman once did. If they did manage to do so, they stayed silent about their religious views. So increasingly evangelicals doubled down on building their own record companies, publishing houses, and increasingly, their own subculture. And the only time they poked their heads above their own wall was to hand out a voter’s guide or endorse a political candidate. By the time University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture wars” in 1991, the die had been cast. No longer could evangelicals be a part of the cultural mainstream, and eventually they would come to be known in the mind’s eye of the public as little more than the Republican Party, now Donald Trump’s party, for the foreseeable future.

Thornbury is pretty clearly a big fan of the long-haired godfather of “Christian rock,”* and his effort to make Larry Norman a touchstone for the pre- and post-partisan white evangelical subculture seems a bit forced. I think the same argument might’ve worked better if he’d used Carl Henry instead.**

But the subject of Larry Norman ties in neatly with what we’ve been discussing here recently — thanks to Michael Gerson — about the relationship between the transformation of white evangelical politics and white evangelical eschatology. Larry was a premillennial dispensationalist — a Rapture-obsessed, End Times, “Bible prophecy” devotee.

Like most pre-LaHaye Rapture-Christians, Larry Norman was nominally a-political. “What a mess this world is in, I wonder who began it? Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet.”

But this a-political pose wasn’t credible. That’s partly because declaring oneself to be “a-political” is never credible. Carl Henry wanted to avoid partisan politics, so he kept Christianity Today “a-political” and “neutral” during the Civil Rights Movement. Being a by-stander doesn’t mean you’re not taking sides — it means you’re taking whichever side relies on the tacit support of by-standers. As Bishop Tutu put it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

More importantly, Norman’s End-Times Rapture obsession fiercely promoted a narrative of decline. The world, he proclaimed and sang, was spiraling toward Armageddon. “It’s all in Revelations, it part of the design / And if you’re truly wise you’ll keep your eyes on Palestine.” The injustices and social ills he rightly railed against in some of his attempted “protest songs” were all just signs of the times, evidence of the inevitable and inexorable downward slide.

This pessimistic premillennialism may be politically fatalistic, but the narrative of decline it reinforces is also a political call to action. And that call is explicitly reactionary. There’s a straight line from “It’s all in Revelations” to “MAGA.”

For an illustration of that trajectory, consider these lyrics from another 20th-century CCM relic:

It’s true, we look to Heaven and our mansions in the sky
And it’s true we’ve got the gaze of eternity in our eyes

But before this church is raptured
There’s no way we’re gonna leave here quiet
We want a righteous invasion of truth
We want a R.I.O.T.***

Yeah, that’s Carman — the novelty-song rock-star, perennial Charisma magazine favorite, and most successful Italian “rapper” ever to come out of Trenton. He’s still a big star in charismatic/Pentecostal/INC circles. The eschatological views of that branch of white evangelicalism are an unholy mess. They love premillennial dispensationalism and the Rapture and the “theology” of Left Behind, but they also — sometimes in the same breath — love postmillennial dominionism and “seven mountains” teaching.

It’s impossible to say how this mish-mash of pre- and post-millennial eschatologies influences the political ideology of INC Christians, but I also think that’s the wrong way to consider this. The eschatology/theology does not produce the politics. The politics is the starting point, and the eschatology/theology will be whatever jumble of beliefs it takes to retro-engineer that political preference.

See earlier: “My Top 10 Larry Norman Songs”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I haven’t read Thornbury’s biography: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. He apparently had access to all of Norman’s copious journals, correspondence, and recordings — offering a more detailed and definitive look at the tormented rocker than we’ve previously gotten. Byron Borger loved it. And Ryan Vlastelica gives it a very positive review at the AV Club:

When it comes to telling the story of an artist, what makes a good biography is not the fame or even the talent of the book’s subject, but the complexity of the figure and how that manifests itself through their life and work. Norman’s story has this in abundance. Why Should The Devil also serves as a primer on Christian rock, a critical analysis of the genre, and a compact history of Christianity in the latter half of last century, a period where Jesus went from a counterculture hero to all outcasts to a cynically deployed tool of the religious right.

But there are two sides to every story, and when it came to Larry Norman, those two sides often broke down into Larry’s side vs. everybody else’s. I suspect I’m a bit more Larry-skeptical than Thornbury is, but it could be that my own fanhood for Randy, Terry, et. al., colors my view the same way I’m suspecting Thornbury’s fanhood for Larry colors his. Anyway, in the interest of balance, you may want to check this out too:

** Henry’s 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was an early, seminal call for white evangelical Christians to become more engaged in society and culture. He lived long enough to see the Monkey’s Paw grant him that wish in the form of the religious right. (I worked for “Evangelicals for Social Action” and can very much relate. When Ron Sider toyed with the idea of changing the group’s name in the 1990s, I suggested “Evangelicals for Social Action — No, Not Like That.”)

For my take on Carl Henry, see: “Five sentences that contain the entire history and explanation of white evangelicalism in America.”

*** This song is in the news at the moment because it was the namesake for the evangelical Bible club in which the now-deceased Austin bomber grew up.

December 18, 2017

President Donald Trump’s core supporters are celebrating his announcement earlier this month that the United States will be moving it’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is something white evangelical Americans have been wanting to see for many years, and they’re elated it’s finally happening.

What’s that all about? Well, it has to do with “Bible prophecy.” And with white evangelicals’ insistence that America must demonstrate “support for Israel.”*

Some really smart people who understand this particular intersection of sectarian Protestantism and foreign policy have written a bunch of very good articles providing an overview of just why this is something of such great concern for white American evangelicals. I recommend all of these:

• Julie Ingersoll, “Why Trump’s evangelical supporters welcome his move on Jerusalem

• Sean Illing, “This is why evangelicals love Trump’s Israel policy

• Diana Butler Bass, “For many evangelicals, Jerusalem is about prophecy, not politics

• Jonathan Merritt, “Understanding the Evangelical obsession with Israel

• Matthew Avery Sutton, “Jerusalem: Trump’s gift to evangelicals

Julie Ingersoll and Matthew Avery Sutton, in particular, put their finger on just what makes this announcement so exciting for Rapture Christians. Here’s Ingersoll:

The nation of Israel and the role of the city of Jerusalem are central in the “end-times” theology – a form of what is known as “pre-millennialism” – embraced by many American conservative Protestants. ​

While this theology is often thought of as a “literal” reading of the Bible, it’s actually a reasonably new interpretation that dates to the 19th century and relates to the work of Bible teacher John Nelson Darby.

According to Darby, for this to happen the Jewish people must have control of Jerusalem and build a third Jewish temple on the site where the first and second temples – destroyed centuries ago by the Babylonians and Romans – once were. In Darby’s view this was a necessary precursor to the rapture, when believers would be “taken up” by Christ to escape the worst of the seven-year-period of suffering and turmoil on Earth: the Great Tribulation. This is to be followed by the cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon at which Satan will be defeated and Christ will establish his earthly kingdom. All of this became eminently more possible when the modern state of Israel was established in the 1940s.

And here’s Sutton:

For the last century and a half, a long line of evangelical preachers, theologians and media personalities have insisted that the re-establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people with Jerusalem as its capital would set the stage for Jesus’ Second Coming.

In recent years, best-selling authors and theologians have reinforced such conclusions.

In the 1970s, the heavily mustachioed, Mississippi-River-tugboat-captain-turned-evangelist Hal Lindsey published “The Late Great Planet Earth,” a book that sold more copies in the 1970s than any other work of nonfiction in the United States. It has remained in print ever since.

Israel occupied the center of Lindsey’s analysis. He believed that as the world moved toward the battle of Armageddon, three events would occur. First, the Jews would retake Palestine. Second, they would repossess old Jerusalem and its sacred sites. Third, they would rebuild King Solomon’s temple on its original historical site.

The first of these steps was accomplished in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. The second occurred in 1967 when Israel captured Jerusalem during the Six Day War. The final event has not happened. Yet.

It’s all about dates and check lists and the final countdown. And, as Sutton says, the key date for late-20th-century Rapture Christians was the creation of the modern political nation of Israel in 1948. That event set the stage for a late-20th-century revival of this Darbyism. It set the final countdown in motion. Starting in 1948, the clock was ticking, and Rapture mania roared back to life.

The timing for this seemed providential for white evangelicals in America. It came just in time to reassure them that all the cultural changes their fervent prayers had failed to prevent — the Civil Rights Movement, the end of (sectarian Protestant) prayer in schools, Medicare, feminism, hippies, peace protests, Woodstock, Elvis. Aron. Presley. — were not horrors to be lamented, but horrors to be celebrated as Signs of the End. Their once comfortable world was going to Hell in a hand basket, but that was Good News, because it was just exactly what their “Bible prophecy” said would happen in the Last Days!

Premillennial dispensationalism’s pessimistic theology of accelerating decline was perfectly congruent with the increasing pessimism white evangelicals were feeling about an American society in which they felt increasingly at sea. They were losing their cultural influence and their moral authority. Kids these days with their long hair. And those other people — women, black people, gay people — no longer seemed to accept their ordained place in the scheme of things. Surely some revelation is at hand; surely the Second Coming is at hand.

And the Third Coming, too, since Rapture Christianity has Jesus returning twice.


That date of 1948 became a major touchstone for Rapture Christians because their “Bible prophecy” also included the belief that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” That’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, and why it can or should have anything at all to do with the founding of the modern nation of Israel in 1948 is neither simple nor obvious, but Rapture Christians seized on that as the assurance that their desperately awaited Second and Third Comings of Jesus were destined to happen within one generation of that date. They latched onto the idea of 40 years as a “biblical generation” (because Moses) and, began feverishly predicting that there was no conceivable possibility that the Rapture could occur any later than sometime in the 1980s.

The most bluntly literal of such “Bible prophecy” prophets was a man named Edgar Whisenant, whose infamously popular book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 could be summed up as “1948 + 40 = 1988.” Poor Whisenant managed to stick to his guns for a few years after that, employing the full array of “Bible prophecy” fudge factors — the year zero glitch, the Julian/Gregorian switch, and a handful of other such complications that really couldn’t be made to salvage the basic arithmetical wrongness of his original prediction.

Most of the more reputable “Bible prophecy” scholars were savvier than Whisenant about trapping themselves in specific (and thus falsifiable) date-setting. After all, “No man knoweth the day or the hour,” etc. But their criticism of Whisenant wasn’t really fair, considering that if you listened to what any of them were saying in 1980, none of them allowed for much possibility that the world would still be here by, say, 1995.

Spoiler alert: The world was still here in 1995.

While the unprophesied arrival of the 1990s was thus awkward for Rapture Christians, they still clung to the prophetic significance of that 1948 date, busily rewriting their earlier insistence on a 40-year “biblical generation.” For a look at one way they went about that, see this revisioning of a 52-year “biblical generation” from contemporary End Times preacher Walter Eugene Brazington. (You remember Brazington? We discussed him last week in, ahem, a somewhat different context.)

The numerology of “Bible prophecy scholars” is remarkably elastic, but it’s still odd to find someone still pushing this 52-year generation idea now, in 2017. That’s a ’90s thing.** The whole point of it was to get past the failed arithmetic of 1948 + 40 to something still defensible, with the added bonus of 1948 + 52 yielding precisely the big round end-of-a-millennium number that allowed late-20th-century premillennial dispensationalism to survive the Great Disappointment of the Rapture-less 1980s. The impending Year 2000 — the end of 20 centuries of stony sleep — surely had to mean something, and the excitement of that helped Rapture Christianity maintain some of its fervor right on up until the Y2K bug proved not to be one of the Seven Seals of Revelation.

The passing of the century and the millennium sapped a lot of the energy and urgency from Rapture Christianity. That big date of 1948 was starting to seem like a very long time ago. That’s not insurmountable — the ever-flexible numerology could be recalibrated to make a “biblical generation” equal “three score years and ten” — but still, the Rapture just didn’t seem quite as any-moment-now imminent as it had back in the 1970s.

The influence of Rapture Christianity has been waning ever since the 21st Century began. I wish I could say that this was due to the quixotic crusade of one blogger’s long, devastating critique of what was then the most popular and influential series of books promoting Rapture mania, but — alas — I don’t think that had anything to do with it. It had to do, rather, with the passing of that Big Round Number milestone, and with the election, then re-election, of George W. Bush. Bush’s ascendancy helped to dispel white evangelicals’ cultural pessimism, thus dampening their enthusiasm for eschatological pessimism. At the same time, premillennial dispensationalism was competing with a new rival framework — a strange form of post-millennial eschatology involving “dominionism” and “seven mountains” theories of restoring Christendom. This competing eschatology has been rapidly spreading among Pentecostal/charismatic churches — a branch of Christianity that is itself growing rapidly, rather than shrinking like the forms of white fundamentalism that had most fervently embraced PMD Rapture folklore.

Along with all of that, Rapture Christianity has also had to contend with its perennial Why Are We Still Here? problem — a problem that gets more acute with each passing year. Tim LaHaye recently died of old age. “Bible prophecy” scholars were never supposed to reach old age, let alone to die from it (or to die at all). The final countdown had ticked down to zero years ago, and it was getting harder and harder to argue that we were still lingering only in some kind of divine stoppage time.

So I think some of the white evangelical celebration following Trump’s Jerusalem is a sense of relief and of renewed hope that Rapture Christianity might stage a comeback. Rapture Christians have now been given a pretext for resetting the clock and restarting their perpetual countdown. Never mind 1948. The clock starts now — with God’s chosen people (America) officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump just gave them a fresh set of downs — another 40 years in which to revive their message of an urgently imminent Rapture.

Of course, most Rapture preachers don’t have another 40 years. John Hagee is 77. Hal Lindsey is 88. Billy Graham is 99. To continue for another generation, Rapture Christianity will need a new generation of leaders — of “Bible prophecy scholars” and “Bible prophecy” preachers, authors, peddlers, marketers, hucksters, hustlers and barkers. And at this point I can’t see where that new generation is going to come from.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This white evangelical imperative of “support for Israel” is based on God’s promise to Abram in the book of Genesis: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” For American evangelicals, oddly, this hasn’t prompted any ideas of “support for” or solidarity with all Jewish people as the children of Abraham, but only “support for Israel” meaning political support for the political entity of the modern nation-state called “Israel.”

In practice, it means seeking God’s blessing by ensuring that the United States “blesses” the nation of Israel with military aid and weapons systems, and with the use of America’s veto power on the UN Security Council. But this “blessing” does not prevent these same Israel-supporting American evangelicals from, for example, snarling a hostile “Merry Christmas” at their Jewish neighbors here in America as an annual reminder that they mustn’t challenge Christian hegemony in this Christian nation.

** Then again, Winona Ryder is the star of a hit TV show, The New York Times is credulously promoting bogus conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, and Dave Grohl brought the house down this weekend on Saturday Night Live. Bust out the flannels — the ’90s are back, baby.

August 7, 2017

Bob Smietana* interviews scholars Brad Christerson and Richard Flory to provide an insightful and disturbing introduction to the next generation of Strang-ian hustlers reshaping charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity here in America: “The ‘Prophets’ and ‘Apostles’ Leading the Quiet Revolution in American Religion.”

Here’s Smietana’s introduction:

Largely behind the scenes, a group of mostly self-proclaimed “apostles,” leading ministries from North Carolina to Southern California, has attracted millions of followers with promises of direct access to God through signs and wonders.

Their movement, which Christerson and Flory called “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” Christianity, has become one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the United States. Apostles like Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, and Ché Ahn claim millions of followers. They’re also aided by an army of fellow ministers who fall under their “spiritual covering.”

Many of these apostles run megachurches, including Bethel Church in Redding California, HRock Church in Pasadena, and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. But their real power lies in their innovative approach to selling faith. They’ve combined multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism to connect directly with millions of spiritual customers. That allows them to reap millions in donations, conference fees, and book and DVD sales. And because these INC apostles claim to get direction straight from God, they operate with almost no oversight.

I added the links for some of the names above so you can click over to the archives of Right Wing Watch and read for yourself some of what these folks have been preaching over the years. It’s an ugly stew of Christian nationalism, dominionism, vicious anti-gay hysteria, and — in recent years — paeans to the spiritual deliverance promised by a pussy-grabbing pathological liar.

Christerson & Flory have done their homework, particularly on the financial model that sets these new “apostles” apart from the earlier generation of Benny Hinns and Jim Bakkers and all the other TV and radio preachers who used to dominate the pages of INC Christianity is a money-making machine.

Flory: These apostles are able to access a lot more money, because they are operating with a pay-for-service model, rather than relying on people’s donations and their goodwill. Congregations bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep the butts in the seats; people don’t have to pay unless they feel like it. But this is a completely different financial model, and it tends to generate much more money.

The archaic term for this “pay-for-service” model is Simony. That name comes from Simon the sorceror, a Samaritan convert in the book of Acts.

That’s a Philip story. Philip is my favorite character in Acts — the first of the early Christians to really understand what Pentecost meant. While the other disciples were still squabbling in Jerusalem about the necessity of circumcision and the theoretical possibility of welcoming unclean Gentiles, Philip was hotfooting it to Samaria and baptizing sorcerors. The apostles heard about that and sent Peter and John to regain some control over Philip’s wanton evangelism. When Simon saw Peter and John laying hands on the new believers so that they could “receive the Holy Spirit,” he tried to pay Peter to teach him to do the same. Peter sternly rebuked Simon for thinking he “could obtain God’s gift with money.”**

Technically, then, I suppose what the INC apostles are doing isn’t exactly what Simon did. They’re not trying to obtain the Holy Spirit with money, but are offering to provide it to others for a price. But the same basic idea is at work — the buying and selling of spiritual gifts in exchange for money — and that still seems to fall under the category of Simony. It’s the same sin whether you’re buying or selling.


So what exactly are they selling? Flory describes it as “a more experiential, embodied way of understanding religion,” which makes it sound like they’re doing Yoga or something. But that’s not it. What they’re offering, instead, is the promise of a first-hand experience of the power of God: signs and wonders and miraculous healing.

Christerson: The traditional megachurch uses music and exciting preaching from great communicators. But we found that wasn’t the case with these INC-lings. They are actually not very exciting preachers. That really surprised us. For them, it’s all about encountering these supernatural manifestations. That’s the exciting experience.

It’s very spontaneous. We went to a conference where a number of apostles were speaking and Bill Johnson was doing a Bible teaching. He had probably talked 20 or 30 minutes, and you could feel the restlessness in the room. He said, “I know you are just waiting for me to stop preaching because you want the power. But just hang with me here.” People weren’t there to listen to him. What they wanted was for him to lay hands on them.

After he finished, people came up to the stage, and they were being slain in the spirit. People were falling down and getting healed. That’s what they are there for.

Christerson is trying to be generous there, describing this experience in terms that participants themselves might use. But he slips into a more skeptical, more accurate description when he says “People were falling down.” Those “slain in the Spirit” wouldn’t say they fell on their own, but that they were knocked over by the spirit-filled power of the apostle’s touch.

I’ve been to services where this happened and I didn’t see anyone convincingly “slain” by the laying on of hands. I saw people falling down — flopping like basketball or soccer players trying to trick the ref into calling a foul. But, of course, there was no referee on hand — so this unconvincing performance wasn’t trying to draw a whistle. It seemed to me, rather, that the people falling down were doing so to convince each other and to convince themselves.

If that sounds cynical, I’m afraid I’m even more cynical about the other aspect of this experiential experience — the claim that “People were … getting healed.” In response to Smietana’s question about this movement “staying out of the spotlight” of the broader culture, Christerson describes a huge INC event in Los Angeles:

They have their own networks for disseminating information and getting attention. They are not sending our press releases. For example, they had this Asuza Now conference at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and it drew 50,000 people on a rainy day — if not for the bad weather, the crowd probably would have been even bigger. And it didn’t even make the Los Angeles Times. Fifty thousand people show up for an apostle’s conference at the LA Coliseum, and nobody covered it. That was mind-boggling to me.

So, OK, 50,000 people at a service offering miraculous healing. Let’s say that only 1 percent of that crowd actually sought such healing from an actual, physical ailment. That’s 500 people. And let’s continue with that conservative estimate and say that only 1 percent of those who sought such healing claims to have received it. That might seem like an unimpressive success rate, but it would still be five people — five ironclad case studies for doctors and journalists and skeptics to be confronted with. Five people with names and diagnoses that had been suddenly and otherwise inexplicably reversed.

Give me those names and get them to sign HIPAA waivers and I’ll believe that “healing” is taking place at these INC events. Otherwise, I’m forced to view this “healing” as not just a hoax, but a particularly cruel and predatory one.

In other words, this isn’t just Simony, but a Simony scam. They’re not just trying to exchange God’s gifts for money, but collecting money for a counterfeit forgery of those spiritual gifts.

May their silver perish with them.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This piece appears in Christianity Today, which usually invokes the disclaimer of CT’s self-own about being a publication that believes gay and lesbian couples are “destructive to society.” But since snatching up former Gannett reporter Smietana was such a smart move, and since I personally admire anyone who hires the good people cast aside by that incompetently run newspaper chain, I’ll give them a pass this time.

** Acts 8:14-24

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”

Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

When this story is invoked to denounce the sin of Simony, people often leave out that last bit, from verse 24, in which poor Simon repents just as Peter said he should. We don’t hear any more of what happened to him, but the text doesn’t suggest that he remained trapped in “the chains of wickedness.”

Simon the sorceror repented and received forgiveness and liberation from the sin that now bears his name. I like to think that same kind of happy ending is available for those Simonious believers now supporting the bogus Trumpian Gospel of the sham-apostles of INC.

February 11, 2016

Here’s a little video from the Church of Christ (Not That One) recently highlighted by Christian Nightmares and many others:

This achieves that rare feat of being simultaneously charming and creepy as hell. The kids are adorable, gamely attempting to lip-synch along to the ghastly lyrics, which aren’t really in kid-friendly language and thus, one hopes, strike those poor kids as incomprehensible strings of syllables.

Some thoughts:

1. The first thing I thought of watching that video was this:


2. The “Church of Christ” here is not the same as the Churches of Christ — the “restorationist” Protestant denomination known for its a capella singing and for Richard Beck. And it’s not the same as the International Church of Christ, known for its “flirt to convert” outreach efforts and for its insistence that it is not a cult, not at all, definitely not that.

This Church of Christ is the Iglesia ni Cristo — a charismatic denomination that began in the American colony of the Philippines in the early 20th century. Its doctrinal language and statements about the authority of the Bible read much like that of any other white evangelical/fundamentalist group on the charismatic/Pentecostal side of the family. But, as the lyrics of that song reveal, scratch a little deeper and you’ll find some far-out, freaky stuff that it’s hard to refer to as anything other than heresy:

Always submit to the church administration
For they were placed by Lord God to lead his nation
If we obey then we will receive salvation
Sing along with me

So, then, a big scoop of dominionism paired with the belief that salvation depends on unquestioning obedience to authoritarian church administrators, rather than on Jesus Christ. Phew.

3. Of course, the bonkers authoritarian cult stuff and the tomorrow-belongs-to-me dominionism really don’t distinguish this group from many other charismatic/Pentecostal evangelical groups here in the U.S. Just go have a look-see at and you’ll find endless variations of this same stuff all over their site. List a bunch of statements from the ICC along with a bunch of statements from, say, the International House of Prayer and you’d have a hard time telling them apart. Heck, people from ICC and IHOP would have a hard time telling them apart.

This theology may be wacky, incoherent, anti-biblical, and heretical, but hey — it won in Iowa and came in second in New Hampshire.

4. Given the authoritarian streak in the ICC, would anyone want to bet against the likelihood that some sort of hideous, horrifying sex-abuse scandal is eventually going to blow up in this outfit?

5. The ICC is another example of why the conservative/liberal framework distorts more than it clarifies when we talk about religion and theology. Groups like this get placed on the “conservative” end of that theological spectrum — somewhere out near Bob Jones and Al Mohler and Ken Ham and Michele Bachmann. You’ll find a lot of ideas out there, but you’d have a hard time explaining why any of them should be regarded as theologically conservative.

6. The Iglesia ni Cristo is an example of the kind of two-thirds world Christianity that is often cited as evidence that evangelicalism is a global phenomenon rather than a peculiarly white American invention. That misrepresents what we see in churches like this one. What we see here is simply colonial white evangelical theology reflected back from the colonized.

7. I would very much like to hear a hard-core punk version of this song. And also maybe a K-Pop rendition. Or maybe just Regina Spektor transposing it into a minor key.

September 3, 2015

Jon Corvino, “It’s time to remove Kentucky clerk Kim Davis”

Unlike the conscientious objector, Davis is not being drafted into service against her will. She has chosen a job that requires her to grant licenses in accordance with civil law. She is no longer willing to do that. She should not expect to keep her job, any more than a military commander would keep his job if he became a pacifist, or a surgeon would keep her job if she became a Christian Scientist and refused to perform surgery. Religious liberty does not entitle the bearer to line-item vetoes for essential job functions.

… Private citizens are free to express their religious views about homosexuality — however hypocritically and inconsistently — and to practice their faith as they see fit. But religious liberty is not a “get out of your job free” card.

Julie Ingersoll, “Meet the Tea Party’s evangelical quack”

Because he says very little about contemporary Democrats, it’s clear that [David] Barton’s purpose is to connect them with racist Southern Democrats, while completely ignoring the relationship of modern-day Republicans with racism. Most glaringly, the Republican “Southern strategy” is entirely missing from Barton’s account of the parties’ political strategies with regard to race. From the Johnson administration through the Nixon and Reagan campaigns, Republican strategists effectively used race as a “wedge issue.” Southern Democrats would not support efforts by the national party to secure civil rights for African Americans. By focusing on specific racial issues (like segregation), Republicans split off voters who had traditionally voted for Democrats. The contemporary “states’ rights” battle cry at the core of the conservative movement and Tea Party rhetoric is rooted in this very tactic. Barton and Beck want to rewrite American history on race and slavery in order to cleanse the founding fathers of responsibility for slavery and, more importantly, blame it and subsequent racism on Democrats.

Elias Isquith, “Donald Trump & white America’s anxiety: The political throes of a forgotten country”

While I cannot relate to the substance of these people’s grievances, I can imagine that experiencing the transition from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama is profoundly disorienting. I also can imagine that the mix of loss and fear that seizes them is a pain not easily forgotten. If I were in similar circumstances, I might decide to go down swinging, too. I might be drawn to the candidate who says we’re halfway across the point of no return already. I might not want to go gently into that good night.

Derek Penwell, “9 Arguments From the Bible Fundamentalists Should Have to Make”

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably exhausted is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the Bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

T. Christian Miller, “The FBI Built a Database That Can Catch Serial Rapists—and Almost Nobody Uses It”

That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the United States, out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than one percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.


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