The Godly Must Be Crazy
views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment
By Glenn Scherer
A kind of secular apocalyptic
sensibility pervades much contemporary writing about our current world. Many
books about environmental dangers, whether it be the ozone layer, or global
warming or pollution of the air or water, or population explosion, are cast
in an apocalyptic mold.
— Historian Paul Boyer
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place ...
— Revelation 6:12-14
Abortion. Same-sex marriage.
U.S. legislators backed by the Christian right vote against these issues with near-perfect consistency. That probably doesn't surprise you, but this might: Those same legislators are equally united and unswerving in their opposition to environmental protection.
Forty-five senators and 186 representatives in 2003 earned 80- to 100-percent approval ratings from the nation's three most influential Christian right advocacy groups -- the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Many of those same law makers also got flunking grades -- less than 10 percent, on average -- from the League of Conservation Voters last year.
These statistics are puzzling at first. Opposing abortion and stem-cell research is consistent with the religious right's belief that life begins at the moment of conception. Opposing gay marriage is consistent with its claim that homosexual activity is proscribed by the Bible. Both beliefs are a familiar staple of today's political discourse. But a scripture-based justification for anti-environmentalism -- when was the last time you heard a conservative politician talk about that?
Odds are it was in 1981, when President Reagan's first secretary of the interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. "God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back," Watt said in public testimony that helped get him fired.
Today's Christian fundamentalist politicians are more politically savvy than Reagan's interior secretary was; you're unlikely to catch them overtly attributing public-policy decisions to private religious views. But their words and actions suggest that many share Watt's beliefs. Like him, many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed -- even hastened -- as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.
We are not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. The 231 legislators (all but five of them Republicans) who received an average 80 percent approval rating or higher from the leading religious-right organizations make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. Congress. (The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian Coalition was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who earlier this year quoted from the Book of Amos on the Senate floor: "The days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread or of thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the Lord!") These politicians include some of the most powerful figures in the U.S. government, as well as key environmental decision makers: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Republican Conference Chair Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), Senate Republican Policy Chair Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and quite possibly President Bush. (Earlier this month, a cover story by Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine described how Bush's faith-based governance has led to, among other things, a disastrous "crusade" in the Middle East and has laid the groundwork for "a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.")
And those politicians are just the powerful tip of the iceberg. A 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the Book of Revelation are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks.
Like it or not, faith in the Apocalypse is a powerful driving force in modern American politics. In the 2000 election, the Christian right cast at least 15 million votes, or about 30 percent of those that propelled Bush into the presidency. And there's no doubt that arch-conservative Christians will be just as crucial in the coming election: GOP political strategist Karl Rove hopes to mobilize 20 million fundamentalist voters to help sweep Bush back into office on Nov. 2 and to maintain a Republican majority in Congress, says Joan Bokaer, director of Theocracy Watch, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University.
Because of its power as a voting bloc, the Christian right has the ear, if not the souls, of much of the nation's leadership. Some of those leaders are End-Time believers themselves. Others are not. Either way, their votes are heavily swayed by an electoral base that accepts the Bible as literal truth and eagerly awaits the looming Apocalypse. And that, in turn, is sobering news for those who hope for the protection of the earth, not its destruction.
Once Upon End Time
Ever since the dawn of Christianity, groups of believers have searched the scriptures for signs of the End Time and the Second Coming. Today, most of the roughly 50 million right-wing fundamentalist Christians in the United States believe in some form of End-Time theology.
Those 50 million believers make up only a subset of the estimated 100 million born-again evangelicals in the United States, who are by no means uniformly right-wing anti-environmentalists. In fact, the political stances of evangelicals on the environment and other issues range widely; the Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, has melded its biblical interpretation with good environmental science to justify and promote stewardship of the earth. But the political and cultural impact of the extreme Christian right is difficult to overestimate.
It is also difficult to understand without grasping the complex belief systems underlying and driving it. While there are many divergent End-Time theologies and sects, the most politically influential are the dispensationalists and reconstructionists.
Tune in to any of America’s 2,000 Christian radio stations or 250 Christian TV stations and you’re likely to get a heady dose of dispensationalism, an End-Time doctrine invented in the 19th century by the Irish-Anglo theologian John Nelson Darby. Dispensationalists espouse a “literal” interpretation of the Bible that offers a detailed chronology of the impending end of the world. (Many mainstream theologians dispute that literality, arguing that Darby misinterprets and distorts biblical passages.) Believers link that chronology to current events—four hurricanes hitting Florida, gay marriages in San Francisco, the 9/11 attacks—as proof that the world is spinning out of control and that we are what dispensationalist writer Hal Lindsey calls “the terminal generation.” The social and environmental crises of our times, dispensationalists say, are portents of the Rapture, when born-again Christians, living and dead, will be taken up into heaven.
“All over the earth, graves will explode as the occupants soar into the heavens,” preaches dispensationalist pastor John Hagee, of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. On the heels of that Rapture, nonbelievers left behind on earth will endure seven years of unspeakable suffering called the Great Tribulation, which will culminate in the rise of the Antichrist and the final battle of Armageddon between God and Satan. Upon winning that battle, Christ will send all unbelievers into the pits of hellfire, re-green the planet, and reign on earth in peace with His followers for a millennium.
Dispensationalists haven’t cornered the market on End-Time interpretation. The reconstructionists (also known as dominionists), a smaller but politically influential sect, put the onus for the Lord’s return not in the hands of biblical prophesy but in political activism. They believe that Christ will only make his Second Coming when the world has prepared a place for Him, and that the first step in readying His arrival is to Christianize America.
“Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land—of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ,” writes reconstructionist George Grant. Christian dominion will be achieved by ending the separation of church and state, replacing U.S. democracy with a theocracy ruled by Old Testament law, and cutting all government social programs, instead turning that work over to Christian churches. Reconstructionists also would abolish government regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. EPA, because they are a distraction from their goal of Christianizing America, and subsequently, the rest of the world. “World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish,” says Grant. “We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less.” Only when that conquest is complete can the Lord return.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
People under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the Apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a Word?
Many End-Timers believe that until Jesus’ return, the Lord will provide. In America’s Providential History, a popular reconstructionist high-school history textbook, authors Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell tell us that: “The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie ... that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.” However, “the Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s Earth. The resources are waiting to be tapped.” In another passage, the writers explain: “While many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.”
Natural-resource depletion and overpopulation, then, are not concerns for End-Timers—and nor are other ecological catastrophes, which are viewed by dispensationalists as presaging the Great Tribulation. Support for this view comes from an 11-word passage in Matthew 24:7: “[T]here shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.” Other End-Timers see suggestions of ecological meltdown in Revelation’s four horsemen of the Apocalypse—War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death—and they cite a verse mentioning costly wheat, barley, and oil as foretelling food and fossil-fuel shortages. During the End Time, the four horsemen shall be “given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” Some End-Timers note that Revelation 8:8-11 predicts a fiery mountain falling into the sea and causing great destruction, followed by a blazing star plummeting from the sky. This star is called “Wormwood,” which dispensationalists say translates loosely in Ukrainian as “Chernobyl.”
A plethora of End-Time preachers, tracts, films, and websites hawk environmental cataclysm as Good News—a harbinger of the imminent Second Coming. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 End-Time “non-fiction” work, The Late Great Planet Earth, is the classic of the genre; the movie version pummels viewers with stock footage of nuclear blasts, polluting smokestacks, raging floods, and killer bees. Likewise, dispensationalist author Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels—at one point selling 1.5 million copies per month—weave ecological disaster into an action-adventure account of prophesy.
At RaptureReady.com, the “Rapture Index” tracks all the latest news in relation to biblical prophecy. Among its leading environmental indicators of Apocalypse are oil supply and price, famine, drought, plagues, wild weather, floods, and climate. RaptureReady webmaster Todd Strandberg writes to explain why climate change made the list: “I used to think there was no real need for Christians to monitor the changes related to greenhouse gases. If it was going to take a couple hundred years for things to get serious, I assumed the nearness of the End Times would overshadow this problem. With the speed of climate change now seen as moving much faster, global warming could very well be a major factor in the plagues of the tribulation.”
Another prophecy index points to acts of nature (drought in Ethiopia, famine in South Africa, floods in Russia, fires in Arizona, heat waves in India, and the breakup of the Antarctic ice shelf) as proof of the approaching doomsday, noting that “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).
According to a chart on the End-Time website ApocalypseSoon.org, we are at “the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:3-8) marking the Great Tribulation. The site links to a BBC News article on infectious diseases and a chronicle of extreme weather events on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan’s climate-change website as evidence of those unfolding sorrows. However, it adds a stern disclaimer regarding these external links: “We do not, by any means, approve or recommend some of the sites that this page links to. They were chosen simply because they document literally what the Word of God prophesies for the End Days.”
If I Had a Hammer
To understand how the Christian right worldview is shaping and even fueling congressional anti-environmentalism, consider two influential born-again lawmakers: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
DeLay, who has considerable control over the agenda in the House, has called for “march[ing] forward with a Biblical worldview” in U.S. politics, reports Peter Perl in The Washington Post Magazine. DeLay wants to convert America into a “God centered” nation whose government promotes prayer, worship, and the teaching of Christian values.
Inhofe, the Senate’s most outspoken environmental critic, is also unwavering in his wish to remake America as a Christian state. Speaking at the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory rally just before the GOP sweep of the 2002 midterm elections, he promised the faithful, “When we win this revolution in November, you’ll be doing the Lord’s work, and He will richly bless you for it!”
Neither DeLay nor Inhofe include environmental protection in “the Lord’s work.” Both have ranted against the EPA, calling it “the Gestapo.” DeLay has fought to gut the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts. Last year, Inhofe invited a stacked-deck of fossil fuel-funded climate-change skeptics to testify at a Senate hearing that climaxed with him calling global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
DeLay has said bluntly that he intends to smite the “socialist” worldview of “secular humanists,” whom, he argues, control the U.S. political system, media, public schools, and universities. He called the 2000 presidential election an apocalyptic “battle for souls,” a fight to the death against the forces of liberalism, feminism, and environmentalism that are corrupting America. The utopian dreams of such movements are doomed, argues the majority leader, because they do not stem from God.
“DeLay is motivated more than anything by power,” says Jan Reid, coauthor with Lou Dubose of The Hammer, a just-published biography of DeLay. “But he also believes in the power of the coming Millennium [of Jesus Christ], and it helps shape his vision on government and the world.” This may explain why DeLay’s Capitol office furnishings include a marble replica of the Ten Commandments and a wall poster that reads: “This Could Be The Day”—meaning Judgment Day.
DeLay is also a self-declared member of the Christian Zionists, an End-Time faction numbering 20 million Americans. Christian Zionists believe that the 1948 creation of the state of Israel marked the first event in what author Hal Lindsey calls the “countdown to Armageddon” and they are committed to making that doomsday clock tick faster, speeding Christ’s return.
In 2002, DeLay visited pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. Hagee preached a fiery message as simple as it was horrifying: “The war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse!” he said, urging his followers to support the war, perhaps in order to bring about the Second Coming. After Hagee finished, DeLay rose to second the motion. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “what has been spoken here tonight is the truth from God.”
With those words—broadcast to 225 Christian TV and radio stations—DeLay placed himself squarely inside the End-Time camp, a faction willing to force the Apocalypse upon the rest of the world. In part, DeLay may embrace Hagee and others like him in a calculated attempt to win fundamentalist votes—but he was also raised a Southern Baptist, steeped in a literal interpretation of the Bible and End-Time dogma. Biographer Dubose says that the majority leader probably doesn’t grasp the complexities of dispensationalist and reconstructionist theology, but “I am convinced that he believes [in] it.” For DeLay, Dubose told me, “If John Hagee says it, then it is true.”
Onward Christian Senators
James Inhofe might be an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. The Oklahoma senator makes major policy decisions based on heavy corporate and theological influences, flawed science, and probably an apocalyptic worldview—and he chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
That committee’s links to corporate funders are both easier to trace and more infamous than its ties to religious fundamentalism, and it’s true that the influence of money can scarcely be overstated. From 1999 to 2004, Inhofe received more than $588,000 from the fossil-fuel industry, electric utilities, mining, and other natural-resource interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Eight of the nine other Republican members of Inhofe’s committee received an average of $408,000 per senator from the energy and natural resource sector over the same period. By contrast, the eight committee Democrats and one Independent came away with an average of just $132,000 per senator from that same sector since 1999.
But the influence of theology, although less discussed, is no less significant. Inhofe, like DeLay, is a Christian Zionist. While the senator has not overtly expressed his religious views in his environmental committee, he has when speaking on other issues. In a Senate foreign-policy speech, Inhofe argued that the U.S. should ally itself unconditionally with Israel “because God said so.” Quoting the Bible as the divine Word of God, Inhofe cited Genesis 13:14-17—”for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever”—as justification for permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and for escalating aggression against the Palestinians.
Inhofe also openly supports dispensationalist Pat Robertson, who touts every tornado, hurricane, plague, and suicide bombing as a sure sign of God’s return; who accused both Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. of being followers of Lucifer; and who makes no secret of the efforts of his Christian Coalition to control the Republican Party, according to Theocracy Watch.
A good fundamentalist, Inhofe scored a perfect 100 percent rating in 2003 from all three major Christian-right advocacy groups, while earning a 5 percent from the League of Conservation Voters (and a string of zeroes from 1997 to 2002). Likewise, eight of the nine other Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee earned an average 94 percent approval rating in 2003 from the Christian right, while scoring a dismal 4 percent average environmental approval rating. The one exception proves the rule: Moderate Lincoln Chafee (R.-R.I.) last year earned a 79 percent LCV rating and just 41 percent from the religious right.
As committee chair, Inhofe has subtly chosen scripture over science. The origins of his 2003 Senate speech attacking the science behind global climate change, for example, reveal his two masters: the speech is traceable to fossil fuel industry think tanks and petrochemical dollars—but also to the pseudo-science of Christian right websites. In that two-hour diatribe, Inhofe dismissed global warming by comparing it to a 1970s scientific scare that suggested the planet was cooling—a hypothesis, he fails to note, held by only a minority of climatologists at the time. Inhofe’s apparent source on global cooling was the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Christian-right and free-market economics think tank. In an editorial on that site called “Global Warming or Globaloney? The Forgotten Case for Global Cooling,” we hear echoes of Inhofe’s position. The article calls climate change “a shrewdly planned campaign to inflict a lot of socialistic restriction on our cherished freedoms. Environmentalism, in short, is the last refuge of socialism.” Inhofe’s views can be heard in the words of dispensationalist Jerry Falwell as well, who said on CNN, “It was global cooling 30 years ago ... and it’s global warming now. ... The fact is there is no global warming.”
Inhofe’s views are also closely tied to the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, a radical-right Christian organization founded by radio evangelist James Dobson, dispensationalist Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, Jerry Falwell, and Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who has been editing Vatican texts to align the Catholic Church’s historical teachings with his free-market philosophy, according to E Magazine.
The ICES environmental view is shaped by the Book of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the seas, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on this earth.” The group says this passage proves that “man” is superior to nature and gives the go-ahead to unchecked population growth and unrestrained resource use. Such beliefs fly in the face of ecology, which shows humankind to be an equal and interdependent participant in the natural web.
Inhofe’s staff defends his backward scientific positions, no matter how at odds they are with mainstream scientists. “How do you define ‘mainstream’?” asked a miffed staffer. “Scientists who accept the so-called consensus about global warming? Galileo was not mainstream.” But Inhofe is no Galileo. In fact, his use of lawsuits to try to suppress the peer-reviewed science of the National Assessment on Climate Change—which predicts major extinctions and threats to coastal regions—arguably puts him on the side of Galileo’s oppressors, the perpetrators of the Christian Inquisition, writes Chris Mooney in The American Prospect.
“I trust God with my legislative goals and the issues that are important to my constituents,” Inhofe has told Pentecostal Evangel magazine. “I don’t believe there is a single issue we deal with in government that hasn’t been dealt with in the Scriptures.” But Inhofe stayed silent in that interview as to which passages he applies to the environment, and he remained so when I asked him if End-Time beliefs influence his leadership of the most powerful environmental committee in the country.
And the Cow Jumped Over the Moon
So weird have the attempts to hasten the End Time become that a group of ultra-Christian Texas ranchers recently helped fundamentalist Israeli Jews breed a pure red heifer, a genetically rare beast that must be sacrificed to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy found in the biblical Book of Numbers. (The beast will be ready for sacrifice by 2005, according to The National Review.)
It can be difficult for environmentalists, many of whom cut their teeth on peer-reviewed science, to fathom how anyone could believe that a rust-colored calf could bring about the end of the world, or how anyone could make a coherent End-Time story (let alone national policy) out of the poetic symbolism of the Book of Revelation. But there are millions of such people in America today—including 231 U.S. legislators who either believe dispensationalist or reconstructionist doctrine or, for political expediency, are happy to align themselves with those who do.
That’s troubling, because the beliefs in question are antithetical to environmentalism. For starters, any environmental science that contradicts the End-Timer’s interpretation of Holy Writ is automatically suspect. This explains the disregard for environmental science so prevalent among Christian fundamentalist lawmakers: the denial of global warming, of the damaged ozone layer, and of the poisoning caused by industrial arsenic and mercury.
More important, End-Time beliefs make such problems inconsequential. Faith in Christ’s impending return causes End-Timers to be interested only in short-term political-theological outcomes, not long-term solutions. Unfortunately, nearly every environmental issue, from the conservation of endangered species to the curbing of climate change, requires belief in and commitment to an enduring earth. And yet, no amount of scientific evidence will likely shake fundamentalists of their End-Time faith or bring them over to the cause of saving the environment.
“It’s like half this country wants to guide our ship of state by compass—a compass, something that works by science and rationality, and empirical wisdom,” quipped comedian Bill Maher on Larry King Live. “And half this country wants to kill a chicken and read the entrails like they used to do in the old Roman Empire.”
Those who doubt the dangers of such faith-based guidance need only recall the 9/11 hijackers, who devoutly believed that 72 black-eyed virgins awaited them as their reward in paradise.
In the past, it was not deemed politically correct to ask probing questions about a lawmaker’s intimate religious beliefs. But when those beliefs play a crucial role in shaping public policy, it becomes necessary for the people to know and understand them. It sounds startling, but the great unasked questions that need to be posed to the 231 U.S. legislators backed by the Christian right, and to President Bush himself, are not the kind of softballs about faith lobbed at the candidates during the recent presidential debates. They are, instead, tough, specific inquiries about the details of that faith: Do you believe we are in the End Time? Are the governmental policies you support based on your faith in the imminent Second Coming of Christ? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of our planet depends on our asking these questions, and on our ability to reshape environmental strategy in light of the answers.
Many years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to his “religious grandparents,” who, whenever they were asked about the future, proclaimed, “Armageddon’s comin’!” And they believed it. Christ was due back any day, so they never bothered to paint or shingle their house. What was the point? Over the years, I drove by their place and watched the protective layers of paint peel, the bare clapboards weather, the sills and roof rot. Eventually, the house fell into ruin and had to be torn down, leaving my friend’s grandparents destitute.
In a way, their prediction had proven right. But this humble apocalypse, a house divided against itself, was no work of God, but of man. This is a parable for the 231 Christian right-backed legislators of the 108th Congress. Their constituency’s cherished beliefs may lead to the most dangerous and destructive self-fulfilling prophecy of all time.
[Glenn Scherer is an author and freelance journalist whose stories have recently appeared in Salon.com, TomPaine.com, and other publications. He is former editor of Blue Ridge Press, a syndicated environmental commentary service in the Southeast.]