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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lahaye, Camping and the politics of Israel

I have been engaged in a discussion on facebook that I want to carry on to this blog. It is my position that while I take comfort in the fact that the vast majority of Christians in America, including the overwhelming majority of evangelicals, had absolutely no interest in or sympathy towards Harold Camping and his outlandish prediction that the world would end today, it is nonetheless a fact that the noxious fumes of end-times extremism continues to pollute evangelicalism and by extension American political discourse.

In support of my proposition I have already written two blogs: one outlining the growing alliance between John Hagee and Glenn Beck, and another laying out the extreme reaction to the president’s speech on the Middle East in the evangelical and conservative community. I would like now to turn your attention to Tim Lahaye, an evangelical end-times writer second to none, including the legendary Hal Lindsey. In both his fiction and non-fiction work, Lahaye has done more than anyone to rehabilitate end-times obsession in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entity who earlier “prophets” had assured with Camping-like certainty was the harbinger of “Tribulation and Rapture”.

One of the things that Harold Camping has managed to accomplish with his insanity is to make Lahaye come off as wise (rather like Glenn Beck opening for Rush Limbaugh). But in a lengthy interview with the Daily Beast, Lahyae’s reasonableness about the folly of predicting a day for the end times, gives way to the extremism at the root of his style of “biblical interpretation”.

Like any good interviewer, Marlow Stern weaves questions about the two major religious stories of the week: Camping’s prediction and Obama’s speech on the Middle East and Israel. On Camping, Lahaye seizes the opportunity to appear restrained and circumspect in his own view of the end times:

What do you think of Harold Camping’s claim that the Rapture will occur on May 21?
Well, coming from a two-time loser on date setting before, I’m not overly anxious. He’s an engineer, not a theologian. He’s got a very meticulous-type mind, and no one can tell him everything. He knows everything. He’s got his mindset that it’s going to be this way, but he’s just flat-out wrong. He violates a very, very important statement of Jesus in Matthew 24: “Surely I say to you this generation will by no means pass way until all these things be fulfilled… but that day and hour knows no one in the angels of Heaven, but my Father only.”
From their Lahaye, who has himself been reviled as a “false prophet”, grabs at the chance to turn the tables.

So he’s a false prophet?
Exactly right. And you know the Old Testament rules on false prophets [stoning]. But prophecy is my life. I think we can prove who Jesus was and how authoritative the Bible is by the accuracy of fulfilled prophecy in the past. [Camping] comes around and trivializes prophecy, and ignores the words of Jesus himself. That’s a disgrace.

But then comes the question that gets us to the nub of Lahaye’s own extraordinary claims:

You do believe, however, that the Rapture is near.
Yes, I do. But there are things fomenting geopolitically, like the Arab world and the rise of the radical Islamics within the Arab people that are a threat to the whole world. I was just reading today that they want to conquer the whole world! I think it’s a demonic religion, to be honest with you. Ezekiel 38 and 39 predicts that Russia and the Islamic world are going to get together, go down and drive the Jews into the sea and destroy Israel…[following a later question, he continues on this theme] One of the things that we don’t know is whether the Russian-Islamic invasion of Israel is going to take place, and God destroys them as a testimony to the world that he is the supernatural God. It’s going to be an overt action, witnessed on TV by those around the world so the whole world will know that there is a sovereign God who they’re responsible to one day. The problem with governments today is we have too many people in charge who live as if they’re never going to be accountable to God for what they do, and that’s not true. They will give an account to God.

At this point, it is worth a quick reminder of the scope of Lahaye’s popularity in the evangelical world. Although Lahaye first registered in the broader American culture in 1995 with the launch of the Left Behind Series (more on that later), he and his wife were by then already leading voices in the evangelical community and the Religious Right. He had already authored a number of popular books, including his highest selling book pre-Left behind, Spirit Controlled Temperament. He had, in 1979, helped found the tremendously influential creationist group the Institute for Creation Research. In terms of political activism, Lahaye was arguably the most influential person in the emergence of the Religious Right (RR). He was a formative presence in the development of the first major RR group, Christian Voice. This group was for years headquartered at the Heritage Foundation, now the leading conservative think tank. He then helped found the Council for National Policy in 1981. Although hardly known to the general public, it is hard to overstate the significance of this group. The New York Times has described it as a "little-known group of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” In the 1980s he helped found and served on the board of Falwell’s Moral Majority (which he served on the board of), the American Coalition for Traditional Values and the Coalition for Religious Freedom. Despite this impressive track record, Lahaye’s wife Beverly was arguably more important to the growth of the Religious Right in the 1980s. In 1979 she founded and served as president of Concerned Women for America, by some measures a more significant force than the Moral Majority ever was.

All of this to say, that by 1995 the Lahayes, and Tim in particular, were major players in the evangelical Christian community. With the Left Behind series they reached a whole other plane of popularity and influence. The sixteen books in the series have sold over 63 million copies, spawned a wildly successful children’s series, inspired two video games, and been turned into three different motion pictures. Time magazine was undoubtedly correct in naming Tim and Beverly to their list of the 25 most influential evangelicals.

It is therefore way more important that this man believes that “Ezekiel 38 and 39 predicts that Russia and the Islamic world are going to get together, go down and drive the Jews into the sea and destroy Israel” than it is that Harold Camping (again) predicted the end of the world. And it is important not merely culturally and religiously, but most certainly politically, that Lahaye goes on in the interview to say that President Obama is “a committed socialist. He was educated by a socialist, he thinks like a socialist, and he surrounds himself with socialist, ultra, ultra-liberal thinkers.” It is significant that he thinks Hillary Clinton is “a socialist. She is ultra, ultra liberal.” And it is important that he believes that “many communists or socialists…have been appointed as tsars in our country? There are 134 of them and they’ve been appointed…They’re unapproved. They’ve never been voted on and yet they’re the key people who run the government for the president.”

I am glad Harold Camping has been debunked. I appreciate Tim Lahaye helping people steer clear of Camping. I know that evangelicalism is not defined in its totality by Tim Lahaye. But I can not deny the continued influence of Tim Lahaye. I am distressed by what his “prophetic insights” on the state of Israel reveal about the ideological foundations of some of the evangelical criticisms of Obama’s speech. And I find his toxic conspiratorial view of President Obama ominous for the future of American politics. 

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