Thoughts on Mike Pompeo and Queen Esther

Here is Mike Pompeo talking with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN):

Sarah Pulliam Bailey gets us up to speed at The Washington Post.  Read here piece here.

Here are some really random thoughts about Pompeo’s remarks:

The fact that CBN asked Pompeo to compare Trump to Queen Esther in interesting in and of itself.  Let’s be clear:  Pompeo was responding to a question, not offering-up his religious views on Middle East foreign policy in an unsolicited fashion.

CBN has a long history of trying to connect biblical prophecy to developments in the Middle East.  The people at CBN believe, along with millions of other evangelicals, that God still has a special place in His plan for the nation of Israel.  The establishment of the state of Israel will be a sign that Jesus Christ’s return is coming.  This theology is often described as dispensationalism.  Those at CBN understand their mission in terms of 1 Chronicles 12:32.  In this Old Testament passage, David builds an army at Hebron to overthrow King Saul.  It says that “the men from Issachar” were men “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do….”  Today CBN wants to “understand the times” so that it can help evangelicals win the culture war and shape foreign policy.

Pompeo’s answer reveals that he also believes God still has a plan for Israel.  His answer makes it clear that he favors a pro-Israel foreign policy partially for dispensational or “end times” reasons.  It does not surprise me that he would see Iran as Haman and Esther as Trump.  What is most telling is that Pompeo is not running for office (like Trump) and thus does not have to appeal to evangelicals to shore-up an electoral base for 2020.   Unlike Trump, he seems to really believe this stuff.

One illustration of the evangelical love of Israel comes from Peter Lillback, the President of Westminster Theological Seminary, an evangelical Reformed seminary in the Philadelphia area. In 2011, Lillback wrote an entire book arguing that George Washington was a supporter of Israel.  Here is one of his arguments: “If there had been no George Washington, there would have been no American Independence.  If there had been no American Independence there would have been no United States.  If there had been no United States, there would have no super-power to support the existence of Israel.  If there has been no super-power to support Israel, there would be no Israel.”  He then concludes that George Washington was part of God’s plan for “the destiny of Israel.”

Trump has also been compared to King Cyrus. Some evangelicals make this comparison metaphorically—Trump is a pagan ruler who set the evangelical church free from the captivity of the Obama administration much in the same way that Cyrus, a pagan ruler, set the Israelites free from Babylonian bondage.  Others apply the Cyrus example to Israel.  Mike Evans, a Christian Zionist, has said that God used Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem much in the same way God used Cyrus to advance biblical prophecy as related to a future for Israel.  I wrote extensively about this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

It is worth noting that Harry Truman was also hailed as a King Cyrus after the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Back in 2012, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu gave Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther.  It was a clear message that Obama, according to Netanyahu, was NOT acting as an Esther in his support of Iran over Israel.

Many evangelicals compared Sarah Palin to Queen Esther when she was John McCain’s vice-presidential candidate in 2008.  (She would save Christian America from the threat of an Obama administration and secularism.

Abraham Lincoln was compared to Queen Esther for freeing the slaves.  (He was also compared to Moses).

And that brings my random thought to an end.  🙂

Should a Premillennial Dispensational View of the Bible Disqualify a Person from a Teaching Job at a University?

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Leo Ribuffo, RIP

I was sad to hear of the death of Leo Ribuffo.  In 1991 or 1992 I wrote him a letter to ask him he was taking graduate students at George Washington University.  He never wrote me back, but I was accepted to the Ph.D program at George Washington University and, if I remember correctly, Ribuffo was assigned as my adviser.  Unfortunately, the offer did not come with any funding.  I turned it down, accepted an offer with funding from SUNY-Stony Brook, and began my training as an early American historian.

I first learned about Ribuffo’s work when I was writing my M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism.  I devoured his Merle Curti Prize-winning book The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  I loved his  Journal of American History review essay “God and Contemporary Politics” and his 1994 American Historical Review piece “Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About it?”  Ribuffo seemed to understand things about the evangelical experience in recent America that other historians at that time did not.

Over at his Patheos blog, Darryl Hart writes:

I will miss, in particular, Leo’s uncanny ability to capture the oddity of aspects of American religion and politics that we generally take for granted. One example comes from a review he wrote of George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and the difficult questions that surround discerning secular prejudice against religion along with what counts as normal in secular scholarship:

Suppose that a candidate for a professorship in European diplomatic history volunteers that he is a “fairly traditional Protestant of the Reformed theological heritage,” as Marsden describes himself (p. 7). That phrase is sufficiently vague to cover not only Marsden, but also the Niebuhrian Baptist Jimmy Carter, the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, and the Pentecostal Pat Robertson. Could prospective employers probe further without violating federal law? If so, they might want to know whether “traditional Protestantism” in this instance includes the theory of premillennial dispensationalism, and specifically, whether the job applicant agrees with many other dispensationalists that the Common Market was predicted in the Bible and now signals the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Do affirmative answers automatically bar the candidate from further consideration?

This is not a rhetorical question. The premillennialist job seeker might also be the foremost expert on the economics of the Common Market and a great teacher willing to entertain secular perspectives in the classroom. My own view is that a dispensationalist reading of the Bible, which resembles deconstructionist literary criticism rather than private revelation, should not automatically disqualify a job candidate. After all, I coexist in the academy with men and women whose methodological premises I dispute, including economists who reduce human motives to rational expectations, political scientists who formulate grand theories of the presidency without examining the private papers of any president, and cultural critics who think Jean Baudrillard understands the United States better than C. Wright Mills. And recent American intellectual life would have been poorer without the Hegelian social critic Herbert Marcuse and the Freudian metahistorian Norman 0. Brown, both of whom teetered on the verge of supernaturalism.Nonetheless, a dispensationalist diplomatic historian would be a tough sell in most history departments. Indeed, Marsden probably would be more wary of our hypothetical job seeker than I am. An evangelical Protestant himself, he has a vested interest in the right kind of theological conservative, and he clearly regards populist fundamentalists who indulge in Bible prophecy as the wrong kind. Whatever the outcome, the resulting department meeting would illustrate some of the prosaic, nonintellectual reasons why the acad- emy came to exclude normative religious teachings.

That is vintage Ribuffo — a lapsed Roman Catholic in background and a political liberal who knows more Protestant theology that many evangelicals and also understands that the theories that animate contemporary politics and scholarship are no less arcane (and contested) than the teachings found in the Scofield Reference Bible.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, we have done two Darryl Hart posts in one day!  🙂

The Author’s Corner with Donald Akenson

51i8JUNVXDL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Donald Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University. This interview is based on his new book Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Exporting the Rapture?

DA: This is the second volume in my three-volume set on where and how radical apocalyptic millennialism was built into its central position in American conservative evangelicalism. The first volume, Discovering the End of Time was published in 2016 by McGill-Queens University Press.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Exporting the Rapture?

DA: The big argument is that the ideological core of American evangelicalism was formed overseas and in the period 1860ff began to be energetically imported into North America. Surprisingly, the germinal ground was southern Ireland in the 1820s and thereafter. The entry point was the Great Lakes Basin and the subsequent process was equally a matter of Canadian and US assimilation of imported concepts. That is simple to state, but the process was anything but linear.

JF: Why do we need to read Exporting the Rapture?

DA: Mostly to help us escape the mortmain of American Exceptionalism, which, despite the heroic efforts of some fine historians, too frequently comes forth as American Parochialism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DA: I am an historian of Ireland, and of the Second British Empire and of the diasporas that had their origin in the British Isles. For a long time now, I have been arguing that in diaspora studies religion not only counts, it counts a great deal—despite its being marginalized by most historians of physical migration and by their counterparts in the field of cultural studies.

JF: What is your next project?

DA: To complete the third volume of the study and to bring the story up to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the new apocalyptic evangelicalism won.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

Is Robert Jeffress a “Bigot” for Claiming that Jesus is the Only Way to Heaven?

 

I wrote this early last week and never got the chance to place it somewhere.  Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize it as a compilation of a couple of blog posts I wrote in the wake of the dedication of the new Jerusalem embassy.  –JF

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 seems like bigotry.

Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, learned this hard way.  When Jeffress’s critics learned that he would be praying at last week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, they recalled some of the Southern Baptist’s previous remarks about the exclusive claims of Christianity.

Mitt Romney led the charge.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for saying that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s moral baggage.

On the evening of the embassy dedication, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry. While he did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.

The belief that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, Jeffress proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

He is correct.

And Noah Feldman, law professor and public intellectual at Harvard, agrees.  In a recent column at Bloomsburg News, Feldman argued,

“All Jeffress is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t…Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.”

Why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.

Let’s face it, evangelical Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822: “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy, and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.  Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine. He seems oblivious to the very real possibility that Donald Trump is playing him and his fellow court evangelicals, the born-again Christians who frequent the Oval Office and flatter the president much in the same way that the King’s courtiers did in the Renaissance-era.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation lies only in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture-warrior spirit that reflects a dark and angry brand of conservative evangelicalism that has little to do with the Prince of Peace.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to ask about the “hope that lies within.”

“The Strategic Implications of American Millennialism”

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After reading this post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a friend sent me Major Brian L. Stuckert‘s 2008 study of the impact of dispensationalism on American foreign policy.  The paper was written as part of Stuckert’s education at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The paper is over seventy pages long and does a nice job of explaining dispensationalism to a military audience.  Stuckert’s “conclusions and recommendations” for the U.S. Army are worth considering:

“The enemy is a spiritual enemy. It’s called the principality of darkness. We, ladies and gentlemen, are in a spiritual battle, not a physical battle. Oh, we’ve got soldiers fighting on the battlefields, we’ve got sailors, marines, airmen, coast guardsmen out there fighting against a physical enemy. But the battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan – Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.” – U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lieutenant General Boykin, 2003

A 2003 survey found that more than two-thirds of evangelical leaders view Islam as a religion of violence bent on world domination.181 Following the events of September 11, 2001, many Christian opinion leaders began to speak of President Bush’s election and policies as “divinely inspired.” This attitude can present challenges to rational decision making processes. While some political commentators have theorized that the administration’s unwillingness to admit errors is the result of arrogance or political calculation, it is more likely that the administration believes they are doing the will of God and will be vindicated in the end. In other words, intelligence or analysis that seems to support invasions or other administration policies are interpreted as an affirmation of God’s will, while information is to the contrary is viewed with suspicion – perhaps an effort by Satan to deceive or mislead.

As President Carter explained to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what people believe as a matter of religion, they will do as a matter of public policy.185 There is a tendency on the part of Americans to view foreign policy and international affairs as a “clash of moral opposites.” This tendency may make it difficult for U.S. policy makers and strategists to perceive and act upon subtleties that may lie outside our conceptions of moral absolutes. Military leaders have the difficult task translating this religiously tinged policy into successful strategy and operations. War is primarily about politics. While geography and technology play a role, in order to be successful military leaders must be able to see the political goals as clearly as possible. Because of the influence of pre-millennialism, it can be difficult for military leaders to see themselves and their government accurately and state policy goals objectively.

Because religion in America directly impacts policy, military leaders and planners must learn to recognize the tenets and implications of American millennial thought. Millennialism has always been a feature of the American culture and has shaped not only the objectives of U.S. government policy, but also the way in which we interpret the words and actions of other actors on the international stage. Millennial ideas contribute to a common American understanding of international relations that guide our thinking regardless of individual religious or political affiliation. Millennialism has great explanatory value, significant policy implications, and creates potential vulnerabilities that adversaries may exploit. By gaining insight into and embracing intellectual honesty where our own prejudices and proclivities are concerned, we can greatly improve the quality and clarity of our decision-making.

Pessimism and paranoia are two possible results of pre-millennial influence. In the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, the Joint Staff describes the near-term future as one characterized by “a pervasive sense of global insecurity.”188 There are actually many reasons to trend toward optimism. The U.S. military has no rival and our power is truly global in nature. U.S. military spending always exceeds that of the next several major nations combined. The U.S. military regularly enjoys a position of leadership on the international stage and effectively uses military power to intervene in the affairs of other states. Decision makers should guard against unwarranted pessimism. We should consider whether a contemplated decision or policy is either overly optimistic or pessimistic. Dispensational pre-millennialism typically causes a predisposition toward pessimism in world affairs and a general worsening of international relations. A pre millennial reading of Bible prophecy paints a dismal picture of a world disintegrating toward a cataclysmic end where we are forced to confront the wrath and judgment of God. Assumptions and plans based on this worldview will be less than ideal. 

In the same manner that we so assiduously study the culture and thinking of others,
potential adversaries may study us, to include the ramifications of millennial thought, and gain significant advantages. Millennial thought and its policy implications may create strategic transparency that affords adversaries an advantage in decision-making. In other words, by studying the tenets and predictions of dispensational pre millennialism, one could, to some extent, predict U.S. government actions and reactions. This would certainly prove more useful in areas that figure prominently in dispensational pre-millennialist eschatology, such as Israel. An extension of this strategic transparency might include an ability to provoke or manipulate American policy and subsequent action. With or without the efforts of adversaries, American millennialism may increase the fragility of or even disrupt coalitions. Finally, adversaries could easily transform an understanding American pre-millennialism into a highly effective set of information operations themes and messages or psychological operations efforts to achieve a variety of results with American leadership or the population at large. By recognizing these potential vulnerabilities, American strategists can take action now to mitigate the effects.

Based on what we know about the effect millennialism has on our thinking, we may incorporate additional considerations into policy formulation and evaluation to assist ourselves in the identification of defects, diminished objectivity or unwarranted biases. As a result of millenarian influences on our culture, most Americans think as absolutists. A proclivity for clear differentiations between good, evil, right, and wrong do not always serve us well in foreign relations or security policy. Policy makers must strive to honestly confront their own cognitive filters and the prejudices associated with various international organizations and actors vis-à-vis pre-millennialism. We must come to more fully understand the background of our thinking about the U.N., the E.U., the World Trade Organization, Russia, China and Israel. We must ask similar questions about natural events such as earthquakes or disease. An ability to consider these potential influences upon our thinking may greatly enhance objectivity.

The inevitability of millennial peace through redemptive violence and an exceptional role for America have been and continue to be powerful themes running throughout the security and foreign policies of the U.S.191 Official U.S. government policy expresses these themes in a number of ways from the National seal that reads Novus Ordo Seclorum – the New Order for the Ages – or the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Peacekeeper. Whether Americans seek to subdue the continent to realize their Manifest Destiny, conquer the Soviet Evil Empire or rid the world of Saddam Hussein, millennialism imparts an unusual degree of certainty and fortitude in the face of difficult situations. Judis points out that, for the same reasons, millennialism is usually “at odds with the empirical method that goes into appraising reality, based on a determination of means and ends.”192 As demonstrated by American history, millennialism has predisposed us toward stark absolutes, overly simplified dichotomies and a preference for revolutionary or cataclysmic change as opposed to gradual processes. In other words, American strategists tend to rely too much on broad generalizations, often incorrectly cast in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and seek the fastest resolution to any conflict rather than the most thoughtful or patient one.

Read Stuckert’s entire monograph here.

Why Some Evangelicals Love Israel

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I turned my weekend tweetstorm into a piece for Religion News Service.

Here is a taste:

Because of Trump’s actions, dispensationalists believe the blessing of God will come upon America. The Jerusalem decision reinforces the idea that America is a Christian nation. This decision makes America great in the eyes of God. It also makes Trump great in the eyes of those American evangelicals who visit the White House regularly to consult with the president, the flatterers and sycophants whom I have called the “court evangelicals.”

Jeffress, Evans and other court evangelicals claim that they were influential in Trump’s decision to move the Israel embassy. If this is true, we can say with certainty that United States policy in the Middle East is now heavily influenced by dispensational theology.

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Jeffress, Dispensationalism, and the American Embassy in Jerusalem

This morning court evangelical Robert Jeffress appeared on Fox and Friends to talk about Monday’s opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.  Jeffress will say a public prayer at the event.

I watched Jeffress’s appearance on Fox and Friends and it led me to embark on a small Twitter rant.  Here it is:

I touch on some of this stuff in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Don’t forget to pre-order at your favorite bookstore.  The book releases on June 28.

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The “Rapture Bet”

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Check out Fred Clark’s piece titled “A death bet is morally repugnant.  So is a ‘Rapture’ bet.”

A taste:

Donald Trump is making a death bet on climate change. The president is 70 years old and he just doesn’t care about what the world will be like three decades from now. By 2050 he, personally, will be gone, so why should he care about anyone or anything in a future that he will not, personally, live to see?

The idea of a death bet is as vile as it is simple. Live large and indulge yourself, free of all responsibility, paying for it all with debt that won’t come due until after you, personally, are dead. This screws over your heirs, and your creditors, and everyone else who is not you. But, hey, what do you care? You’ll be dead…

But it’s not just Donald Trump making the death bet of climate-change denial. He has the support on this of millions of white evangelical Christians. They don’t care about climate change because they believe the world is about to end anyway. They’re not making a death bet so much as, in their minds, a “Rapture” bet: Can you imagine, Rayford? Jesus coming back to get us before we die!

This isn’t quite as brazenly immoral and selfish as Trump’s death bet. He doesn’t care about what the world will be like in 50 years because he doesn’t care about anything he does not personally experience. These Rapture-Christians don’t care about what the world will be like in 50 years because they don’t believe the world will still be here then. They’re sure it won’t. They’re sure the Rapture is imminent — that it will occur any day, any moment, maybe even before you finish reading this…

Ask them about climate change and they’ll assure you there’s no need to worry about famine and flood in 2050, because they’re “certain” that Jesus is coming back before then. Ask them about their teenage child’s plans to major in art history or theater arts and they’ll give you a very different outlook.

Or just consider the way, say, Rapture-preacher John Hagee is grooming his son to take over his family ministry to ensure that it continues for another generation. Or, more cynically, look at the way these Rapture-preachers and Rapture-believers invest for their own retirements. They’re hedging their Rapture bet when it comes to their own future, but not when it comes to a future they imagine will only affect the lives of other people they don’t personally know.

Read the entire post at Clark’s blog Slacktivist.

Historically, things are a bit complicated.  Of course there is a longstanding history of rapture thinking in modern American evangelicalism.  This is part of the reason why some early 20th-century fundamentalists did not like the Social Gospel.  Why work for social reform when Jesus would be coming back soon? But to be fair to the historical record, many fundamentalists also combined rapture-longing with social action.

A belief in the end times was also the reason why some premillennialists did not initially support U.S. involvement in World War I.  Why fight a war to “make the world safe for democracy” when Jesus would be coming back soon?

And we could go on.  Not all rapture Christians broke with the social demands of Christian faith that their 19th-century Second Great Awakening ancestors championed, but some did.

There is also some question about whether the general failure of evangelicals to support environmental causes today is directly related to their views of the “end times.”  In 2012, political scientists David Barker and David Bearce argued in an article titled “End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change” that “believers in Christian end-times theology are less likely to support policies designed to curb global warming than are other Americans.”  Religion scholar Robin Globus Veldman challenged their findings in a piece at Religion Dispatches.

This all reminds me of when PBS host Bill Moyers accused James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior in the early years of the Reagan administration, of arguing that there was no need for Congress to pass legislation protecting the environment because Jesus Christ would soon be returning. Moyer quoted Watt as saying “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” In 2005, Watt wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post claiming that he never said these things.  He wrote: “I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error.” Moyer apologized, but Watt wanted to make sure, over twenty years after he left office, that Americans understood that evangelical belief was not incompatible with environmental reform.

Today, in a piece on this issue by Washington Postreligion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey, does not mention the “rapture” argument.

In the end, I am sure there are evangelicals out there who believe that the environment is unimportant because the rapture is coming soon.  Clark is right when he says that these rapture Christians are inconsistent. They plan for the future when it comes to their own retirements and inheritances, but they do not plan for the future when it comes to the fate of the planet.

I will end with a tweet from conservative pundit Erick Erickson.  Not sure if it fits into the “rapture Christian” category, but it is certainly revealing.

Dispensationalists Forced to Adjust Their End-Times Charts

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When I heard about Great Britain leaving the European Union I could not help but think about the years I spent as part of the dispensationalist wing of American evangelicalism.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with this wing of evangelicalism.  What is dispensationalism? Think Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels or Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.  Dispensationalists take the prophetic passages of the Old Testament and New Testament and interpret them using charts and timelines in order to predict the exact order of end-of-the-world events.

For those with a deeper knowledge of 20th-century evangelical history, think C.I. Scofield, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, John Hagee, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Moody Bible Institute.

Want to learn more? Check out historian Brenden Pietsch’s book Dispensational Modernism.  (And while you’re at it check out his acknowledgments section.  Trust me, it’s good).

Most dispensationalists believe that the so-called “Antichrist” will lead a one-world government that he will use to persecute those Christians who have not already left the earth via the “rapture.” After seven years of the Antichrist’s reign, Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem, gather all believers together, and engage the Antichrist in the so-called “Battle of Armageddon.”  The believers, of course, will win this battle and then Jesus will establish a 1000-year reign on the earth know as the millennium.

Dispensationalists thus love to monitor current events looking for prophetic signs.  In the last twenty or thirty years many of them have pointed to the European Union as the possible seed of the one-world government.  Now, with Great Britain out, the European Union is in jeopardy.  It may be time for dispensationalists to revise to the charts.

With all this mind, I got a kick out of the recent post at The Babylon Bee, the satiric evangelical website modeled after The Onion.  Here is a taste of the Bee’s post: “Dispensationalists Frantically End-Times Charts to Include Brexit Vote.”

“We’re thinking of calling this one ‘The Brexit Dispensation,’” Tim LaHaye told reporters as he hastily altered his precise wall charts to account for the new information. “We had previously thought that Saddam Hussein would be the one to usher in the one-world government, but that’s looking less likely now, so we’re going to make some official adjustments.” LaHaye added that the European Union might not be ushering in an age of one-world government after all, unfortunately.

Meanwhile in California, prophecy expert Dr. David Jeremiah of Shadow Mountain Community Church reportedly made an emergency early-morning phone call to Texas pastor John Hagee. “John, have you seen the news? This isn’t in any of the tables!” he is said to have screamed into the phone. After calming Jeremiah down, Hagee reportedly consulted a series of lunar charts taped across his bedroom walls and surmised that the Brexit decision had actually been accurately predicted by Halley’s Comet in 1986, before proceeding to scribble some corrections on his favorite eschatological timeline in red marker.

“We totally missed it!” Hagee told reporters as he explained his new chart at a Friday afternoon press conference. “It just goes to show when you’re not extremely careful about building your theology around current events and astrological signs, even the experts can make a mistake.”

Read the entire post here.

Who Was Charles Ryrie and Why Does He Matter?

RyrieCharles Ryrie died today.

I am guessing that many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home have never heard of Charles Ryrie.  But any student of 20th-century evangelicalism needs to reckon with him and his legacy.

Ryrie was one of the twentieth century’s foremost defenders of  dispensationalism.  Along with C.I. Scofield, Clarence Larkin, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and John Walvoord, Ryrie helped to craft the theological system behind popular books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels.

But Ryrie also popularized dispensationalism through the publication of his wildly successful Ryrie Study Bible.  This Bible, which included thousands of study notes written by Ryrie, sold over 2 million copies since it was published in 1978.

When I started attending an evangelical congregation in the early 1980s it seemed like everyone had a copy of the Bible with the brown cover and gold lettering.  I eventually bought a Ryrie Study Bible too.  (Or perhaps my parents bought if for me, I can’t remember).  It was the New American Standard hardback edition.  I still have it.

I think it is fair to say that Ryrie’s Bible replaced the Scofield Reference Bible among a new generation of dispensationalists.

Charles Ryrie is an important figure in the history of conservative evangelicalism in the United States.  Someone should do a study of his life and thought.

ADDENDUM:  Here is the Christianity Today obit.

 

Who is Larry Huch and What Does He Have to Do With Ted Cruz?

HuchOne of the things that I did not mention in my Religion News Service piece on Ted Cruz was his support for the nation of Israel.  In addition to his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, defend religious liberty, destroy Obamacare, defend the Constitution, etc., he also says that he will move the American embassy to Jersualem, “the once and eternal capital of Israel.” Cruz is the Senate’s strongest supporter of Israel and seems to be the only one of the GOP candidates talking about this.

In my Religion News Service piece I mentioned Larry Huch, the co-pastor (with his wife Tiz) of New Beginnings Church in Irvine, Texas.  I spent some time reading about Huch today.  His theology is very interesting and unique in evangelical circles.

At first I thought that he was the kind of Messianic Jew that I used to run into a lot as a young evangelical.  Messianic Jews are Christians who believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They usually embrace an end-times theology known as dispensationalism.  I do not have time to go into all the theological details of dispensationalism here (check out Brendan Pietsch book Dispensational Modernism), but one of its central tenets is that God has separate plans for the nation of Israel and the Christian church established on the day of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2.  In other words, God has not abandoned Israel and thus not all of the Old Testament promises in the Bible apply to the post-Pentecost church age.  God will restore the Old Testament nation of Israel one day and Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem as the promised Messiah and usher in a literal 1000 year reign on earth.  (Think Hal Lindsey Late Great Planet Earth or Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series).

It seems as if Larry Huch has been influenced by dispensationalism, but his approach is also different.  He is not a Messianic Jew because he is not Jewish.  According to this video, he believes Jesus will rapture all Christians and take them to Jerusalem one day. But he also wants to unite Christianity and Judaism.  Unlike dispensationalism, he does not see a distinction between God’s work with Jews and God’s work with Christians.  He blames the early Church for “turning our eyes from Jerusalem” and the Old Testament. He believes that Christians need to follow Old Testament laws, including laws about diet and cleanliness.

In another sermon Huch says that Christians should write Deuteronomy 6 on the doorposts of their houses.  He seems to want to restore the Church in the book of Acts before the Apostle Paul brought the gospel to gentiles.  In other places, Huch and his wife Tiz talk about “building bridges” between Christianity and Judaism as a means of reviving Judeo-Christian culture in the United States.

Huch is a very entertaining preacher.  His church is ethnically and racially diverse and he condemns racial discrimination.  He urges his congregation to remember that a blonde-haired and blue eyed Jesus is the product of a European-influenced Christianity that has taught Christians over the years to reject their Jewish religious heritage.  If Jesus was an observant Jew who followed the teachings of the Torah, then his followers today should do the same.

In this video and this video Huch talks about the “end time transfer of wealth” that he and Rafael Cruz believe  Ted Cruz will have a role in bringing about.

Here is Huch talking about Jerusalem in Jerusalem:

And now here is Ted Cruz’s message to Larry and Tiz Huch thanking them for their support of Israel:

I think we may have just uncovered the source of an important part of Ted Cruz’s stump speech.

 

This May Be the Best “Acknowledgments” Section of All Time

This morning I finally made it to the book exhibit at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  (More on that in a later post). While browsing at the Oxford University Press booth I came across Brendan Pietsch‘s Dispensational Modernism.   

I met the author of this new intellectual history of American Protestant fundamentalism a few years ago at an event sponsored by the Louisville Institute.  At the time I think he was still working on his dissertation at Duke University.

When I picked up his book and turned to the Acknowledgments this is what I found:

Pietsch

Premillennialism as a Serious 20th-Century Option For Thinking About the Direction of Human History

SuttonOver at Syndicate, a theology website that has been churning out some very interesting commentary and conversation on new books, a symposium is underway exploring Matthew Sutton’s American  Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins, a doctoral student in intellectual history at Columbia University, edits the symposium that includes Fred Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Schneider, and Joe Creech.

Here is a taste of Jenkins’s introduction to the symposium:

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Fred Sanders’s opening review praises American Apocalypse, but he thinks that Sutton has missed an opportunity to explain “what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.”  He adds, “we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire characters to think this way.” Sanders, I might add, teaches at Biola University, a school that has deep roots in the premillennialist tradition that provides the subject of Sutton’s book.

Sanders chides Suttton for not taking seriously the various eschatological formulations that rivaled premillennialism in 20th century America.  He asks Sutton why he did not situate the history of American premillennialism in the context of these competing views about the direction of human history.  Sanders is not talking here about post-millennialism and amillennialism, the kind of stuff seminary students study in their eschatology courses.  No, Sanders suggests that communism, environmentalism, patriotism, and progressivism all offer their own eschatological vision.  Fundamentalist eschatology offered men and woman an alternative to these “isms.”  It is a fascinating critique.

Sutton seems to dismiss this argument without really addressing it.  (He titled his response “Those Wacky Premillenialists.” Since he identifies Biola as a premillennialist school, and Sanders teaches at Biola, it is hard not to read this as disparaging).  He writes: “But mine is a not a book about competing eschatologies.  It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology.”  Fair enough. But Sanders seems to rightly suggest that premillennialism and fundamentalism did not exist in a vacuum.  Those who upheld these views of the end of the world seemed to define their view of human history over and against other visions of human history.  From a historical perspective, premillennialism was a serious option for thinking about these things–one of many options available to those in the West.  Communism and Progressivism were just as “wacky” to fundamentalists and evangelicalism.

Great symposium.  I look forward to reading the other responses.

 

 

I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of George Mason University writes about showing the 1972 evangelical apocalyptic classic “A Thief in the Night” to his class on religion and film.  

Watch the entire movie below.  If you don’t have time, the first five minutes should give you a sense of what it is all about:



I have seen “A Thief in the Night” and its sequels several times over the years.  As a young evangelical these movies scared me to death.  The guy with the lamb chops who is secretly working UNITE is frightening.  

As a divinity school student, I organized a “Thief in the Night” marathon in which we watched all three movies in the series.  This viewing party could best be characterized as a mix of entertainment and theological reflection, but we also made fun of the 1970s evangelical subculture. 

We have mentioned this film several times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You can find those posts here and here and here.

And here is a taste of Turner’s post:

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

And let’s not forget the movie score, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” written and performed by Christian rock legend Larry Norman:


Slacktivist on Why Rapture Prophets Can’t Celebrate 50th Anniversaries

What happens if you preside over a ministry devoted to the idea that the so-called “rapture” of the Christian church will occur at any moment, but your ministry is fifty years old or older?  Wouldn’t it be a bad public relations move to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of such a ministry?  Fred Clark explores this idea in light of the fiftieth anniversary of an organization called The King is Coming Ministries founded by a preacher named Howard Estep.  Here is a taste of his post at Slacktivist:

The King Is Coming” ministries carries on Estep’s work, preaching that the Rapture is imminent and could occur at any moment, if not sooner. It’s now run by Ed Hindson, dean of the “Institute of Biblical Studies” at Liberty University. Hindson took over for Estep because, as the Gospel of Matthew says, “Two men will be grinding out a prophecy newsletter together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
The King Is Coming has a long, storied history as an organization. But celebrating that history is a bit awkward, given the content of the group’s message. They can’t do something like, for example, World Vision’s proud account of its 60+ years of work, with a timeline charting the growth and accomplishments of the organization throughout its long history.
What would such a timeline look like for a Rapture-prophecy “ministry” like TKIC?
1963: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1964: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1965: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1966: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1967: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1968: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1969: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1970: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1971: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1972: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong. …
1973: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong.
1974: Predicted the Rapture would happen very soon. We were wrong. …
That’s probably not a winning fund-raising strategy. It’s probably wiser just to fudge the group’s long history of premature extrapolation and to do their best to appear as though they haven’t been at this for as many decades as they have….
Clark also mentions the evangelical eschatological thriller A Thief in the Night and the very popular tract 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.

What Happens When the World DOESN’T End on May 21, 2011?

Tom Bartlett, writing at “Religion Dispatches,” tells the story of people who believed that the world was going to end on May 21, 2011. What are they doing now?  What happens when prophecy fails?  Can we learn anything from the Millerites?

Bartlett writes:

But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?

As Bartlett informs us, even engineers working for Fortune 500 companies believed the predictions about the end of the world made by Christian radio host Harold Camping were accurate.

May 21 believers couldn’t afford to doubt either. Whenever I met one, I would ask: Is there any chance you might be wrong? Could someone have miscalculated, misunderstood a verse, botched a symbol? Just maybe?

I asked this question of a believer in his mid-twenties. He started listening to Harold Camping’s radio show in college and immediately went out, bought a Bible, and immersed himself in it. 

After graduation, he took a job as an engineer at a Fortune 500 company, a job he loved and a job he quit because he thought the world was ending. He wrote the following in his resignation letter: “With less than three months to the day of Christ’s return, I desire to spend more time studying the Bible and sounding the trumpet warning of this imminent judgment.”

He would not entertain the possibility, even hypothetically, that the date could be off. “This isn’t a prediction because a prediction has a potential for failure,” he told me.

“Even if it’s 99.9 percent, that extra .1 percent makes it not certain. It’s like the weather. If it’s 60 percent, it may or may not rain. But in this case we’re saying 100 percent it will come. God with a consuming fire is coming to bring judgment and destroy the world.”

In the end, Bartlett found that few of Camping’s followers abandoned their Christian faith.  Many were embarrassed. Others conveniently “edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken.”  Most of them just returned to their normal lives.

Read the entire article here.

Some Great New Work in American Religious History

One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed about the Winter meeting of the Louisville Institute was the opportunity I had to meet younger scholars who are doing some amazing work in American religious history. There are some great new projects out there which, if all goes well (and I have no reason to believe it will not) should be showing up in monographs somewhere in the next five to ten years. Here are three of the projects that I had the privilege of engaging over the course of the last day or two:

Alison Greene, Yale University: “‘No Depression in Heaven: Religion in Memphis and the Delta, 1929-1941.”

Alison described the Great Depression as a “watershed moment in American religious history.” She focuses on the black and white residents of Memphis and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta “tracing the Depression-era theological reorientation among laypeople and clergy, the corresponding changes in the relationship between belief and social action, and the shifts in power among American religious bodies.” Religious leaders in the Delta responded to the economic crisis in several ways. Some stressed evangelism. Others “blended evangelism with social services.” And a small group, driven by the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, critiqued capitalism and its “particular abuses in the South.” In my opinion, the genius behind Alison’s work is the way it is situated and grounded in a particular place–the Mississippi Delta. She has visited over twenty archives in her research and thus probably knows more about the twentieth-century religious history of this region than anyone else alive. Her finished work is going to make a major contribution to American religious history and southern history.

In honor of Alison’s work, here is the Carter family:

Christopher Cantwell, Cornell University: “The Adult Bible Class Movement and the Transformation of Evangelical America.”
Chris studies American evangelicalism and fundamentalism at the turn of the 20th century through the work of an organization known as the Adult Bible Class Movement.” It should be stated up front that this is NOT an institutional history. The Adult Bible Class Movement, led by a charismatic leader named Frank Wood, claimed over five million members in the 1920s. Chris has found a wonderful window into evangelicalism and fundamentalism during this period. Not only does the Adult Bible Class Movement allow us to see fundamentalism from the perspective of the laity (men and women), but it provides much insight into the way fundamentalists organized for labor reform, prohibition, and other progressive causes. Chris’s project has the potential to challenge a dominant narrative of American fundamentalism that is mostly concerned with clergy and ideas.

Brendan Pietsch, Duke University: “Dispensational Modernism.”
Pietsch’s work connects the dispensational movement within American fundamentalism (C.I. Scofield plays a prominent role in the dissertation) to what he calls “popular beliefs about the power of quantification, classification, and scientific analysis.” He connects all those great dispensationalist charts dealing with the “end times” to what he calls “classificatory desire” in popular culture. He is not as much concerned with the minutiae of dispensational theology as he is the way in which new styles of organization and management and architectural drawing may have influenced the movement. As he puts it: “dispensationalists labored to chart anew the spiritual world through own scientific methods.”

I look forward to reading these books down the road.