The Effect of Prophecy on American Politics… The End of Time?

Jonathan K. Paulien January/February 2000
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The title antiChrist has been applied by some to various emperors and popes of the Middle Ages, Napoleon III of France, Hitler, Mussolini, Apollo astronauts, and even to former president Reagan. Armageddon has been associated with World Wars I and II as well as the long-feared World War III. The biblical concept of "Babylon the Great" has been variously applied to the European Union, the Roman Catholic Church, and Communism. The apocalyptic mark of the beast has even been identified with the new bar-coding system used in supermarkets and credit cards utilizing the number 666.

It might seem a wise course of action to ignore the Bible and its teachings about the end of the world. But to those interested in American politics, biblical ignorance is not bliss. The incident in Waco was just one in a long line of events in which the biblical teachings about the end of the world have had an impact on American policy. Biblical apocalyptic has had a greater effect on the course of American history and government than the media has generally acknowledged. Belief in the validity of biblical prophecy pervades all educational and income levels in North America.

A fascinating look at how prophecy belief has shaped America's self-understanding as well as its role in world affairs is found in When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992). Author Paul Boyer first develops a general history of belief in biblical prophecy and then zeroes in on the impact of that belief on American events up to World War II. The bulk of the book examines how the main tenets of dispensational prophecy belief have influenced American governmental behavior and policy since World War II.

The book is filled with marvelous anecdotes. Boyer notes, for example, that the very discovery of the Americas by Europeans took place because Christopher Columbus believed he was destined to fulfill a number of prophecies in preparation for the end of the world. As the territory of the future United States was settled, a similar sense of prophetic destiny continued to affect people's perception of events.

Cotton Mather, an influential Boston preacher (1663-1728), believed that all the prophecies leading up to the end had been fulfilled and that New England was destined shortly to become the New Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation. Many American colonists came to see the antiChrist as the French Catholic enemy, and eventually in their own King George III. Early on Yale scholar Timothy Dwight saw Old Testament Israel as a type of America; therefore, the collapse of Burgoyne's invasion from Canada in 1777 was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy of invaders from the north who would come to grief in "a land barren and desolate"!

Since most early American students of prophecy were postmillennialists (they believed that the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 would be a period of great progress just before the second coming of Christ), they found it easy to suspect that America was specially ordained by God to bring in that glorious millennium. Thus the American sense of "Manifest Destiny," echoed by President Reagan's "shining city on a hill" concept, owed a great deal to early American understandings of biblical prophecy.

The climax of America's sense of prophetic destiny may have occurred on February 22, 1857, when a Methodist minister named Fountain Pitts (this is no typo!) delivered a daylong sermon on the subject in the U.S. Capitol. Declaring that references to Israel in Bible prophecy really meant the United States, he went so far as to declare that the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, was specifically foretold by the time prophecies of the biblical book of Daniel.

In our day, dispensational premillennialism, associated in the popular mind with people such as Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Hal Lindsey, has offered some surprisingly influential opinions on the prophetic futures of Russia, various Asian nations, the Jews and the state of Israel, the United States, and such issues as nuclear war and the world economy.

According to Boyer, prophecy interpreters before 1945 generally envisioned the destructions of the end in naturalistic terms (earthquakes, comets, etc.) or in terms of direct divine intervention. But with the coming of the atomic bomb, many interpreters began to seek biblical allusions to atomic energy in portions of the biblical books Zechariah, Joel, 2 Peter, and Revelation. The King James Version of Zechariah 14:12 seemed particularly apropos (other translations of this text aren't nearly as impressive!): "And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth." Prophecy interpreters often utilized texts like this one to argue that nuclear war was an unavoidable part of our future.

What sort of impact did this kind of thinking have on American policy during the Reagan administration, for example! Not only President Reagan, but Defense Secretary Weinberger, Interior Secretary Watt, and Surgeon General Koop all expressed interest in the end-time scenarios of the Bible. It was widely assumed in the press, for example, that Watt's belief that the world would soon come to a violent end affected his environmental decisions. In the case of Reagan and Weinberger, the premillennial skepticism about efforts to limit the arms race or to reduce cold war tensions had definite policy implications.

Speaking of the cold war, dispensational prophecy interpreters tried to apply Old Testament texts about the king of the north (from Daniel 11) and Gog as a description of an end-time war in which Russia invades the Middle East and takes on all comers, including the United States. Boyer feels that seeing Russia, in supposed biblical terms, as an end-time enemy of God unquestionably shaped U.S. cold war attitudes, providing theological reinforcement for the kind of rigid hostility toward the Soviet Union that was characteristic of many American policy makers in the 1970s and 1980s. Even today dispensational Christians have been among the last sectors of American society to concede that the cold war is finally over.

Boyer further demonstrates that nineteenth-century prophecy believers on both sides of the Atlantic helped prepare the way for acceptance of the Zionist movement, leading to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

According to Boyer, dispensational interpretations have influenced American foreign policy in a number of ways. For one thing, they have formed a bulwark of American support for Israel's continued existence and even territorial expansion (pp. 193-196, 200). They have encouraged the anti-Arab biases and stereotypes that pervade popular culture in the United States. Acting on their prophetic beliefs, many American premillennialists have given moral and financial support to Israel's West Bank settlement program, and regularly cast doubt on the value of diplomatic efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East. So great is the influence of these ideas that the government of Israel has made major attempts to court American dispensationalists as a bloc of political support for Israel, even while ridiculing the religious ideas that lie behind that support.

Prophetic interpretation in the late twentieth century saw great changes in the way the United States is viewed. Instead of a nation of glorious destiny, leading the world into a shining millennium, America is generally viewed by dispensationalists as merely one nation among many. Like other nations, the United States is seen to be heading into an end-time of technological prowess combined with moral decline. Although Pat Robertson suggests that America could reverse the downward trend by electing virtuous leaders, most interpreters see only American decline into apostasy and wickedness as the end approaches.

Although conservative Christian religion has been marginalized in our secular culture, it continues to influence the shape of our society in surprising ways. How people understand and use the Bible has an enormous impact on the North American experience. This impact is not likely to decline in the immediate future.

A major factor that should continue to stimulate prophetic speculation is the mystical aspect of the year 2000. Though the number itself is an accident of history, it has come to take on apocalyptic significance in both popular and serious literature. It is, therefore, likely that new and bizarre interpretations of the book of Revelation and other biblical books will gain increasing credibilty during the year 2000 and even beyond. There will probably be many more people like the late David Koresh, who found himself mirrored in the Bible in much the same way that others have seen Russia, Reagan, Israel, and nuclear war there.

The Bible certainly has been and will probably continue to be misused and misunderstood. There will always be people like Koresh, who see a reflection of themselves or of their world in the Bible, but a correct understanding of the biblical teachings can help others avoid being sucked into the cultic web of misinterpretation. One thing is clear from a reading of Boyer's book: those who seek to be on the cutting edge of political issues, particularly as they affect religious liberty, cannot safely ignore the Bible and its impact on the world in which we live.

Jonathan K. Paulien is a professor of theology at Andrews Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and the author of The Millennium Bug, published in 1999.

Article Author: Jonathan K. Paulien