Sunday, May 08, 2005

Do they even know what they believe?
At the core of the religious right, movement Christianity lies a great theological contradiction. For the rank and file, this is no doubt a case honest confusion, but for the leaders, who I credit with a certain degree of theological sophistication, I can only suspect that this is a case of open dishonesty and crass opportunism.

Conservative and fundamentalist Christianity in the United States comes in a variety of theological flavors, some of which directly contradict each other. There's nothing wrong with a little theological variety except that the religious right-movement Christians-try to advocate all positions at once. The greatest contradiction is between the pre- and post-millennial dispensationalists.

Pre-millennial dispensationalism is the familiar apocalyptic narrative of the rapture, the rien of the Antichrist, the tribulation, Amageddon, and the Second Coming made popular by Hal Lindsay's Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LeHaye's Left Behind series. This story and all of its details have become quite familiar to the American general public. Most of them would be surprised to discover that the full narrative appears nowhere in the Bible, that is a modern invention less than two hundred years old, and that their church probably opposes it.

The rapture and tribulation story first appeared in the dreams of a teenage girl in Glasgow, Scotland in 1830. A preacher named John Darby adopted her story and fleshed it out with prophetic references and an intellectual-sounding vocabulary. Darby made a number of successful lecture tours of the United States between 1859 and 1877. Darby's version of the story, with its detailed seven-year timeline was included in the Scofield Reference Bible, one of the core works of the emerging fundamentalist movement at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Most mainstream churches do not accept Darby's theology.

Darby's dispensationalism (his word) was based on an idea that history followed a very structured divine plan. History consisted of a divine week of seven thousand-year-long "days." Each of these he termed a dispensation that ended with a dramatic religious milestone (Noah, Moses, Jesus). The final day will be the millennium. Since, according to Bishop Ussher, the world was almost six-thousand years old, the last dispensation is nearing its end and the millennium is at hand. Dispensationalism is explicitly creationist and anti-modern (a subject that I'll go into in a later post).

So far, except for the detailed narrative and scientific-sounding jargon, Darby's dispensationalism is not that new. What makes it new is the very thing that gives it its name and is so familiar today, the rapture and tribulation story. The addition of the adjective "pre-millennial" to dispensationalism indicates that the Second Coming will happen at the beginning of the millennium. Mankind will fail to save itself and will face a certain doom of its own making. At that point, Jesus will arrive to save the deserving few, condemn the rest, and initiate the millennium.

It is an especially pessimistic, violent, and vindictive theology. What's more, because of the detailed and unalterable nature of God's timeline the only reasonable strategy is to try to save yourself and a small number of loved ones, that is to place yourself among the minority deserving of redemption. Since it is already written that the majority will enthusiastically support the Antichrist and be condemned, it actually goes against the will of God to try to make things better for the majority of mankind.

According to Darby's terminology, the previous version of the last days was post-millennial dispensationalism. According to this idea, mankind had to first create the kingdom of Heaven on Earth as a suitable realm for Jesus rule over. Only then would he return. The most obvious way of doing this would be to convert everyone on the planet to the correct form of Christianity. This idea is almost identical to the Muslim idea of the goal of history. Paradise will exist when we are all part of a single community among whom no discord exists. In other words, there can be no paradise as long as Ann Coulter is here to get on our nerves.

Among the contemporary American religious right, the most radical exemplars of post-millennial dispensationalism are the Dominionist and Reconstructionist movements. According to their philosophy, it is not enough to merely evangelize and gain converts to the true faith. They have a responsibility to rule over the Earth and all its peoples and enforce a strict Christian theocracy of their interpretation. Until everyone is converted to the true sect, only the right-believers are suited to rule. They have a religious duty to rule. The rest of us are to be tolerated only when we behave, and just barely then. Democracy, free speech, privacy, and protection of minority views have no place in their paradise.

Here then is the core contradiction of the religious right. The majority who are pre-millennial fundamentalists follow a theology that says things must get worse before they can get better. Evil-the Antichrist-must reign supreme in all spheres of life before the Messiah will come and bail us out. The minority doesn't believe in the Antichrist as a single being. They believe that they must reign supreme in all spheres of life before the Messiah will come. Seeking political power is directly opposed to believing in the Rapture and immanent end times.

Why do their leaders allow this confusion to exist? Are they also confused? I've asked this before. Do they lack confidence in their own theology and prefer to cover all the bases? Are they cynical bastards who will say anything to excite their followers? Forget I said that. Men of God (and an occasional suspect woman) would never do that.

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