The folly of mixing religious and political vision

A recent political meeting in Washington, D.C., and its implications

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty for the North American Division, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The Washington power elite were there. George Bush, Sr., had sent an effusive video message. The personal aide of President Bush was at hand to express the president's regrets for not being there, called away by another matter of importance. We tried to laugh as Dr. Laura Schlesinger attempted to adapt conservative jargon to the event at hand, and bowed our heads as retired member of Congress and pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Dr. Walter E. Fauntroy, blessed the event with benisons of inclusion and effusion. This was an "event" May 21, 2002, to celebrate the coming of age of the Washington Times. Missiles might still be descending in far-off Afghanistan, but this was a moment to be savored.

I look at the printed text of the key speech by Dr. "Reverend" Moon, and see its subtitle, "God's Warning to the Present Age, the Period of the Last Days." It was designed to resonate with the politics and patriotism of a nominal ly Christian audience.

Moving and gesturing like a prize-fighter, Mr. Moon outlined America's successful battle against godless communism. Then he declared that it is now America's role, as "the second Israel," to lead out in building "the kingdom of Heaven on Earth and in Heaven." While that might sound a little like orthodox Christianity to some, the speaker went further and declared that "for the sake of America ...the four founders ['of the world's four great religions'] centering on Jesus have each chosen 120 of their historically famous disciples in order to establish a unified front." And he announced "their return to earth" to make it all happen. In case we missed what he meant by this, all attendees were given a bound transcript of what purported to be "The report on the seminar in the spirit world," which supposedly took place that same month. It contained much that was curious, but nothing more so than the program participant list: the Master of Ceremonies was Muhammad and the Representative Prayer was offered by Jesus!

Clearly, for all the talk of Christ and Christianity, for all the borrowed figures of speech attaching to national religious identity, this was indeed a communication from the spirit world spiritism to most Bible-believing people. I cannot help but be reminded of words contained in "The Impending Conflict" chapter of The Great Controversy: "As spiritualism more closely imitates the nominal Christianity of the day, it has greater power to deceive and ensnare. Satan himself ... will appear as an angel of light... . And as the spirits will profess faith in the Bible, and manifest respect for the institutions of the church, their work will be accepted as a manifestation of divine power."*

A national apocalyptic

Twenty years ago there was much public ridicule at the establishment of The Washington Times. I heard no one laughing last year. What has changed? I think it has something to do with how the message that night was linked to the long-standing but now resurgent sense of national apocalyptic.

In his lecture series on "Prophecy and the Modern World," Arthur Williamson, professor of history at California State University, remarks on how "America became peculiarly the redeemer nation," as the "nation of election fused with apocalyptic expectations." His conclusion, in concert with many observers of history, is that "nowhere else in the world is the notion of the historical redemption of mankind more clearly, more closely, more emphatically, more irretrievably associated with the political community than in the United States."

The persistence of that vision shows up in the stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic,"which wonderfully conflates the political struggle to maintain the Union with the national destiny of establishing God's kingdom. It energized westward expansion under the apocalyptic rhetoric of "manifest destiny." It gave Ronald Reagan's condemnation of "the evil empire" a resonance it could have in no other country. It gives a heady fundamentalist edge to post 9/11 "axis of evil" statements. And it is subtext to the rallying cry of Christian conservatives as they struggle to battle secular human ism and redefine the nation.

The lure of dispensationalism

To be sure, the lure of dispensationalism has proven effective in the late twentieth century, and is now dominant in the new millennium. John Darby's once marginal view that the living faithful will be "raptured" away to be with the Lord before the tribulation while the rest of humanity remains behind for a second chance millennium before the literal return of Christ has become main stream to the American apocalyptic. Hal Lindsay's 1970s The Late Great Planet Earth helped catapult the view to prominence. The "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which has sold around 60 million copies so far, confirms its following.

Dispensationalists identify with the nation of Israel. They see Old Testament prophecy literally fulfilled in that modern, secular state. And while the sense of national election for America remains central, it actually gains momentum as the Christian nation designed to protect God's ancient people. In a curious way it satisfies a longstanding yearning by many Christians to legitimize themselves by finding a lineage to Israel. In England it emerged in the form of the British Israelites, who attempted to trace themselves to the lost tribes (William Blake's poem Jerusalem speaks to that assumption); in nineteenth century America the Mormonism of Joseph Smith gained its sense of legitimacy by tracing Israel to the new world and establishing a spiritual continuum.

At last year's Christian Coalition "Road to Victory" conference, Israel was top of the agenda, with generous support for its political security. With the ongoing Palestinian Intifada a bloody backdrop to the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, it becomes difficult to separate U.S. religious apocalyptic from secular world events.

Increasingly at home a culture war is revealing itself as a struggle on all fronts for the national religious identity. Politically active Christian groups have gone beyond the shared Christian revulsion at declining morality. As Francis A. Schaeffer recommended in his seminal 1981 work "A Christian Manifesto," many have resorted to civil disobedience to reclaim America for Christianity. This involves not just the widely condemned abortion clinic bombings but the continuing efforts to cross accepted constitutional lines and to reimpose "religion" in the schools, public places, and in the judiciary.

No recent issue has so aroused public religious outrage as a decision issued barely a week before July 4 last year. The Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in California ruled that recitation of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools constitutes an unacceptable state endorsement of religion. The sense of national election was cut to the quick and president, senate, and Christian patriots howled objection. Most cared little that the words "under God" were a 1954 addition urged by some religious leaders to define us against a cold war godless communism. And, more important, it revealed on the largest stage of public discussion that a somewhat self-serving revision of U.S. history has taken root and revitalized the national apocalyptic.

"We do not believe in the separation of church and state," sneered the woman I met at a Senate CARE Act rally last year. She was one of hundreds representing various Christian social-aid groups there to urge pas sage of this element of the Faith- Based Initiative. And that in a nut shell is where Christian mainstream political thinking is right now.

It is a view that dismisses the intent of the First Amendment: what Constitutional framer Thomas Jefferson called "the wall of separation" between church and state. Like Chief Justice Rehnquist, they are quick to see it as "an outmoded metaphor." They have conjured up from history a nation established consciously and structurally to advance and protect the Christian faith. But it is a misleading history, made dangerous by its broad appeal. The situation today should alarm all those who value religious liberty. We hear calls for formal designation as a Christian nation; we see open intentions to move over the constitutional wall; real liberties and rights are rapidly disappearing before an emergency that has a distinctly religious cast; there is suspicion of nonmainstream activist religion as a danger to the public good, and alarms and calamities are threatening on every hand.

As with our world today, I think it self-evident that Israel, even in apostasy, was very religious. After all, there were several hundred priests on Mount Carmel when Elijah raised up truth. And like other times of spiritual confusion, the people had so blended true and false religion that they could not tell the difference. It is obvious from the record in 2 Kings 18 that they still regarded themselves as connected to God. But left to them selves they could have called down only "strange fire" in the manner of Revelation 13. It remained for Elijah to clear their heads by a clarion call to choose between God or Baal ("How long will you go limping between two opinions?" verse 21).

A "Reverend" Moon might merely bemuse most of us by appropriating the terminology of American Christian apocalyptic. We might flatter ourselves we are not vulnerable to the very lying spirits Revelation predicts will aid in the final deception. But we will have to be very diligent to God's Word indeed to remain immune to the taunts of fellow Christians caught up in the fires of national fulfillment.

* Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 588.

 

 


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Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty for the North American Division, Silver Spring, Maryland.

April 2003

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