One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress.
For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.
One-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup Poll is accurate, believes the Bible is literally true. This past November, several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in what is known as the “rapture index.”
These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans. Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre: Once Israel has occupied the rest of its “bibli-cal lands,” legions of the Antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.
I’ve reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That is why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. That is why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelations, where four angels “which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.” For them a war with Islam in the Middle East is something to be welcomed — an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The rapture index — “the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity” — now stands at 153 (www.raptureready.com/rap2.html).
So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? As Glenn Scherer reports in the online environmental journal Grist, millions of Christian fundamentalists believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but hastened as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
We’re not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half of the members of Congress are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian-right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian Coalition was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who before his recent retirement quoted from the biblical Book of Amos on the Senate floor: “The days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land.” He seemed to relish the thought.
Onward Christian soldiers
And why not? There’s a constituency for it. A 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the Book of Revelations are going to come true. Tune in to any of the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations or flip on one of the 250 Christian TV stations across the country and you can hear some of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist puts it, “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?”
These people believe that until Christ does return, the Lord will provide. One of their texts is a high school history book, America’s Providential History, which contains the following: “The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie … that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.” However, “[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s earth … while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.” No wonder Karl Rove goes around the White House whistling that militant hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He turned out millions of the foot soldiers in this past election, including many who have made the apocalypse a powerful driving force in modern American politics.
Once upon a time I thought that people would protect the natural environment when they realized its importance to their health and to the health and lives of their children. Now I am not so sure. It’s not that I don’t want to believe that — it’s just that I read the news and connect the dots.
Mike Leavitt, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, declared the election a mandate for President Bush on the environment — a mandate for an administration that wants to rewrite the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to judge beforehand if actions might damage natural resources.
The Environmental Protection Agency had even planned to spend $9 million — $2 million of it from the administration’s friends at the American Chemistry Council — to pay poor families to continue to use pesticides in their homes. These pesticides have been linked to neurological damage in children, but instead of ordering an end to their use, the government and the industry were going to offer the families $970 each, as well as a camcorder and children’s clothing, to serve as guinea pigs for the study.
I read all this and then look at the pictures on my desk, next to the computer — pictures of my grandchildren: Henry, age 12; Thomas, age 10; Nancy, 7; Jassie, 3; Sara Jane, nine months. I see the future looking back at me from those photographs and I say, “Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.” And then I am stopped short by the thought: “That’s not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.”
And I ask myself: “Why? Is it because we don’t care? Because we are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice?”
What has happened to our moral imagination?
The news is not good these days. I can tell you that as a journalist I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free — free to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk.
What we need is what the ancient Israelites called “hocma” — the science of the heart, the capacity to see, to feel and then to act as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does.
Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. But when donations slow down, it puts our future reporting at risk. To get back on track, we're aiming to add 400 contributions from readers by midnight on Thursday.
It only takes a minute to donate. Will you chip in before the deadline?