Monday, February 19, 2007

Millenarianism in US domestic politics

An apocalyptic view of history that has been gaining currency among fundamentalist US Christians since the 1970s is making itself felt in domestic and foreign US politics.

On 19 April 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a huge blast that killed 168 people and injured 850 more. The attack on the government building, planned by US neo-Nazi Timothy McVeigh and accomplices, shattered the widespread perception that “terrorism” was a foreign phenomenon. Investigators believe that the main targets were the regional offices of several law enforcement agencies - including the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) - since McVeigh was affiliated with the anti-government militia movement. The date of the bombing was also seen as highly significant by counter-terrorism experts, as 19 April was the second anniversary of the Waco standoff between the apocalyptic Branch Davidian sect led by David Koresh and ATF agents. Although some law enforcement officials had initially assumed that a foreign group had carried out the attack, it rapidly became clear that the Oklahoma City bombing had been perpetrated by members of a homegrown militia that regarded themselves as American patriots.

The political Apocalypse
In the run-up to the millennium of 2000 AD, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) commissioned a report into extremist activity by individuals and domestic groups that espoused apocalyptic views or might otherwise attach significance to the turn of the millennium. Especially among right-wing and racist groups, including militias and the Christian/White Identity movement, the vision of “a quick, fiery ending in an apocalyptic battle” was widespread, according to the FBI report entitled “Project Megiddo”. Among such right-wing groups, investigators found a widespread belief in conspiracy theories, especially the notion of a “New World Order” that would be imposed on the US by the UN. This extremist theory has more political than religious overtones, although its adherents share a number of common traits with apocalyptic fundamentalist Christians. Among these is the expectation of an imminent catastrophic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, as well as distrust of the government. For example, “The Turner Diaries”, a fictional account of a future “race war” by rightwing activist William Pierce, enjoys great popularity among radical groups. The novel has been described as the blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing. The Megiddo Report found that “[a]lmost uniformly, the belief among right-wing religious extremists is that the federal government is an arm of Satan”, and that for such groups, “the Book of Revelation’s message fits perfectly into their world view”. The symbolism of Revelations is applied to the current perceived struggle, e.g. “Babylon” signifies the US government, which must be overthrown. The report lists a number of groups that have been or are still active in the US, including the Posse Comitatus, the House of Yahweh, the Waco-based Branch Davidian, the Aryan Nations, the True Church of Israel, and a number of groups associated with the Christian Identity ideology.

Post-9/11 domestic extremism
While the threat of right-wing domestic extremism may have taken a backseat in the public consciousness since the 9/11 attacks, there is little reason to believe that it has diminished in quality, although there are indications that militia membership numbers have gone down since the attacks on New York and Washington. In January 2002, the UPS parcel service delivered a package to a wrong address in Staten Island, New York. When the recipient opened it, he found several sets of false identification documents for the Multinational Force and Observers mission (which monitors the Israeli-Egyptian frontier), Defense Intelligence Agency IDs, fake Social Security cards and birth certificates, and a forged federal permit to carry a concealed weapon. Also inside the parcel was a short message that read: “Hope this package gets to you OK. We would hate to have this fall into the wrong hands.” The material had been sent by one William Krar, a US citizen who was actively involved in the right-wing militia movement, and was intended for a fellow extremist in New Jersey. Over a year later, in April 2003, federal agents searched a storage container used by Krar in the small Texas town of Noonday. According to media reports, what investigators found there exceeded their worst fears by far: a functional chemical bomb composed of sodium cyanide and hydrochloric acid, as well as an arsenal of firearms; three machine guns; silencers; hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition; 60 pipe bombs; a remote-controlled briefcase bomb; grenades; a landmine; explosives, detonators and blasting caps; and, ominously, army-issue atropine syringes for auto-injection. Atropine is a common antidote to military nerve gases. One expert calculated that with the material available and under ideal conditions, Krar would have been able to kill over 6’000 people with hydrogen cyanide gas.

Other enemies in the ‘war on terror’
However, despite the 9/11 attacks only months earlier, the US Justice Department kept the Krar story under wraps, and did not even issue a press release to say that they had possibly thwarted a massive terrorist attack with chemical weapons. This discretion contrasted noticeably with the usual public-relations efforts of US Attorney-General John Ashcroft, for example in the case of the alleged “dirty bomber” José Padilla. Some observers wondered whether the low-profile treatment of the case might be due to preconceptions in law enforcement as to who the “enemy” in the “war on terror” really was. Or, as Michael Reynolds pointed out, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “Had a similar sodium cyanide device been found in a storage unit rented by someone named Khalid or Omar, there is little doubt […] that it would have been the story of the week.” Regardless, Krar’s case never made the national headlines and was soon forgotten. The intended recipient of the fateful parcel, Edward Feltus, offered a glimpse of the conspirators’ worldview when he said he had wanted the forged documents because he anticipated a “disaster“ or a “government crackdown”. The expectation of an imminent final conflict or apocalyptic conflagration is widespread among ultra-conservative groups in the US, and this notion frequently blurs with a general distrust of the federal government in Washington. While there are only few individuals or groups that are prepared to carry out violent acts, many Americans appear to subscribe to one or more aspects of this mindset, including the perception that the US is in a state of moral decay, and that the dualistic conflict between the forces of good and evil must inevitably be resolved through some ultimate conflict before the onset of a new and better age.

Religious references in political rhetoric
One feature of US public debate that is often remarked on by foreign observers is the prevalence of religious references in political rhetoric, which many may find curious in a country where the separation of church and state has been upheld for more than two centuries. Both of the major political parties habitually tap into the undercurrent of religiously tinged vocabulary in public discourse, and are accustomed to casting policy issues in absolute terms of good and evil. In this national discourse, it is implied that the US has a special role in history and as an example to the rest of the world. However, over the past three decades, a particular brand of evangelical Christianity that in other countries might be considered a radical fringe phenomenon has entered into mainstream US culture, and its impact can be felt in many areas of domestic and foreign policy. It is characterized by apocalyptic teachings - a belief that the history of this planet is nearing its end - and a pessimistic world-view in which a final battle is expected to take place in the Middle East between good and evil before the onset of a 1’000-year kingdom of God. Some recurring rhetorical topics include the notion of the US as a “New Jerusalem”; a dualistic worldview in which the forces of good do battle against evil; the concept of a “nation under God” and distrust of international institutions that might serve as a secular “world government”; and the idea that the American nation, having offended God during the supposed “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s, must repent or face divine retribution. This frame of mind is also known as “millenarianism” or “chiliasm” (from the Greek word for “thousand”), referring to the belief in a 1’000-year period marking the rule of Christ on earth.

The end of the world as we know it
More generally, “millenarianism” is the belief that the world as we know it will come to a cataclysmic end, and will be replaced after a final struggle by a perfect order and eternal peace - a recurring notion in many religions and belief systems throughout history. Although not a modern phenomenon, millenarian thinking has regained currency worldwide in recent decades. It can be found with variations in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian denominations, as well as in independent cults and other religious groups. British historian Norman Cohn has argued that secular political movements that hold out promises of a radical overthrow of society, followed by a utopian “reign of peace”, should also be included among the millenarian groups. Among these, Cohn cites National Socialism (Nazism), which hoped to establish a “Thousand-Year Empire” under German dominion, and Communism. In the US, the apocalyptic frame of mind has influenced domestic politics in the US within the context of the perceived “culture war” between conservatives and liberals - at least since the election of Ronald Reagan as US president in 1980. A whole genre of “prophecy literature”, which interprets current world events in the light of the imminent apocalypse, has sprung up and enjoys great popularity among evangelicals in the US. Among the best-known writers is Hal Lindsey, whose bestselling book “The Late Great Planet Earth” predicted in 1971 that Armageddon, a final battle of good against evil, was at hand. More recently, the 12-part “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye has been a huge success in the US book market, selling over 40 million copies. The novels are a fictional account of the “Rapture”, when - according to Christian millenarian belief - all true believers will be lifted up into heaven, while the rest of humankind must endure a period of tribulation (featuring wars, plagues, earthquakes, etc.) under the rule of the Antichrist, who in LaHaye’s books takes the human form of the UN secretary-general. One reason why these ideas may be accepted so readily in the US, in particular, is because they can be easily reconciled with the religiously tinged rhetoric of the political mainstream. While adherence to millenarian thought does not necessarily imply violent action, a close study of extreme right-wing groups in the US shows that nearly all of them have incorporated certain aspects of the apocalyptic worldview.

The Pilgrim Fathers
The best-known millenarian group during the Middle Ages were the Anabaptists of Münster in Germany, who briefly established a revolutionary rule in their town, which they expected to be transformed into a “New Jerusalem” as described in the book of Revelations. Their traditions may have come to North America with the first Protestant settlers, for example the Mennonite Brethren, who espoused a brand of eschatological millenarianism derived from the German Anabaptists. President Reagan during his two terms in office frequently quoted a sermon by one of the Pilgrim Fathers, John Winthrop, who said the New England settlements would be “as a shining city upon a hill” and a model to all nations. This image with its connotations of a “New Jerusalem” eventually became part of the foundation myth of the US, but Winthrop’s vision also carried within it portents of doom and divine retribution if the “shining city” failed to match up to expectations: “The eyes of all people are upon us,” said Winthrop, “so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us… [w]e shall be consumed out of the good land wither we are agoing.” In Reagan’s rhetoric, the Cold War was more than an ideological confrontation between West and East, it was a spiritual struggle, and was accordingly cast in starkly dualistic terms of good and evil. Notably, Reagan caused a diplomatic uproar when he referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”.

The spiritual aspect of the social conflict
But the “Gipper’s” use of millenarian vocabulary was not restricted to characterizing the superpower rivalry for global dominance. The domestic conflict between liberals and conservatives was described in similar terms. At the time of Reagan’s election, Christian conservatives in the US were determined to roll back the perceived excesses of the licentious “flower power” era and its aftermath. This social conflict, too, was characterized as having a spiritual and even supernatural dimension. “America is in the midst of a spiritual awakening and a moral renewal,” Reagan told an audience of evangelicals in 1983. The president was in no doubt that his was a divine mission: “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal,” Reagan added, linking his foreign and domestic policies in a single ideological web that had strong religious overtones: “While America's military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith,” Reagan concluded, in a Cold War paraphrase of St Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, which speaks about the Christian’s “spiritual armor” (Eph. 6:11-17). The New Testament reference would not have been lost on Reagan’s listeners at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. The concept of a spiritual battle with evil is an inherent part of the millenarian world-view, and there is a long history of apocalyptic groups identifying their respective ideological opponents with the devil or the Antichrist.

The angel in the whirlwind
Since taking office in January 2001, US President George Bush has emulated Reagan’s ideological rhetoric, and has made greater efforts to appeal to fundamentalist voters than his father, former president George Bush Sr, or even Reagan himself did. Many secular Americans may have been puzzled by a cryptic passage in Bush’s first inaugural address, where - quoting from a letter by John Page to Thomas Jefferson - he said: “We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” On the surface, these biblical images (taken from Ecclesiastes, and the books of Nahum and Jeremiah, respectively) testify to the sense of historic opportunity, vision, and mission, but also the responsibility felt by the founding fathers of the US. The course of history is portrayed as a “race”, in which victory is by no means assured and divine assistance is required to direct the affairs of state. That Bush does not intend to fail this divine mission already became clear during his 2000 election campaign, when he declared that the US was “chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world”. He displayed the same view of divine intercession in statesmanship in 2002, when he addressed the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast: “Since America’s founding, prayer has reassured us that the hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation.” But the “angel in the whirlwind” also carries unsettling connotations of a day of vengeance and judgment, when divine retribution will be meted out in anger - a notion that is clearly derived from, and appeals to, the apocalyptic frame of mind. The dark undertone of doom is reminiscent of Winthrop’s “shining city on the hill” image, coupled with the fear of being expelled from this earthy paradise if the new society should fail to fulfill its role in the divine plan.

The theological framework
The worldview of millenarianism is teleological and assumes that history (or the current “age”) is moving purposefully in the direction of some inevitable conclusion. Adherents believe in divine intercession in the course of history, either directly or through human agents, and often see themselves as playing a key role in the universal scheme of things. Apocalyptic beliefs frequently occur together with the notion that society is corrupt and consigned to destruction, and while some believers are content to urge penitence and redemption, the more radical element may try to hasten the advent of the final days by violence. Another characteristic of Christian apocalyptic thought is the importance attached to contemporary events and their interpretation in the light of biblical prophecy, which is manifested in an obsession with signs and symbols that are interpreted in terms of their relevance for the imminent apocalypse. While eschatology, or the “study of the last things”, is part of the canon of orthodox theology, millenarian tendencies have traditionally been regarded with suspicion, and sometimes even as heretical by mainstream theologians. However, they have resurfaced periodically as part of popular devout movements throughout the history of Christianity. Apocalyptic tendencies among contemporary evangelical Christians are based on a selective reading of the Bible, especially the prophetic writings of the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelations that speak of a final battle between the forces of good and evil and the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth”.

A strong ruler vs. holy anarchy
As a socio-cultural phenomenon, belief in millenarian creeds can have a twofold effect on believers. According to Richard Landes, a professor of history at Boston University and an expert on millennial studies, millenarianism has a consoling and conservative function as long as the period of redemption is still seen as a distant event. This transcendent aspect is frequently found in African-American culture, where the millenarian imagery of exile and tribulation, exodus, and a return to the “promised land” resonate strongly. But apocalyptic beliefs can also translate into anarchy and revolutionary enthusiasm if the faithful perceive that the Day of Judgment is at hand. In the latter case, those who believe the world is about to end may be galvanized into radical fervor if they believe they can thus hasten the advent of the apocalypse. According to Landes, these two aspects of apocalyptic millenarianism are reflected in two different visions of society. The “imperial” or “hierarchical” vision foresees a strong but just ruler who will bring a reign of peace. The “demotic” vision is one of “holy anarchy” where the dominion of man over fellow man will cease forever. Interestingly, traces of both aspects can be found in domestic US politics as well as in the arena of international relations - increasingly so since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The instrumentalization of millenarian rhetoric for political purposes has proved to be a useful strategy in marketing Bush as an imperial commander leading his nation through the cataclysm of 9/11 and the cleansing fire of the “war on terror” to a new moral plane. It has been indispensable in enforcing - both domestically and at the level of international relations - the black-and-white worldview encapsulated in Bush’s famous dictum: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Paradoxically, this imperial narrative of a strong and just ruler can only be upheld by casting the “war on terror” as a war for democracy and equality, ultimately holding out the “demotic” and even anarchic version of a millenarian future. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, confronted with widespread pillage and looting throughout Iraq in the early days of the US occupation regime, remarked: “It’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.” This tacit acceptance of violence and lawlessness as the price of transformation is what makes millennial thinking tantamount to playing with fire.


Chris said...

You should credit the original author, Christopher Findlay, and the original website at

lesterness said...

You seem to be one of the few commentators to take US millenialism seriously. Most are secular and would as soon not think about religion as a real force in politics. Clearly it is, however, in the USA.