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November 2, 2003 Mail

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.  
After a careful analysis of the implications of having a president who not only does not believe in evolution, but also believes he was chosen by God to bring about the apocalypse, friends in Atlanta, Boston and Hollywood discuss The Rapture.  Will we be left behind?  Probably.

The folks with whom I trade emails seem to have been set off by something we discussed on the net earlier this week - Joan Didion in the new issue of New York Review of Books reviews the eleventh in the best-selling series of "left behind" books, the books so central to current thought on the Christian conservative right.  Wal-Mart has bins of these books everywhere in the stores and sells tens of thousands of copies.  Americans have bought fifty-five million of these books.  A substantial number of Americans are waiting for "the rapture."  They know its coming.

Well, the Didion essay in long.  In a long first section she covers the plot details of the book(s) and the theology.  In the second section, and on, she discusses the political implications - as it seems Bush and his group really think this stuff is true, and welcome the apocalypse.  As Didion says, don't be surprised:

Discussion of "end times," like news of the Rapture, no longer surprises us, at least those of us even occasionally exposed to Christian radio or television or Web sites. We recognize that many people who play powerful roles in our government would now be reluctant to disagree for the record with the proposition that an absolutely literal interpretation of the Bible, most visible now in the attempt to include "creation science" in the curriculums of American public schools, offers a reasonable alternative belief system. We accept without comment the information that Bible reading is part of the President's daily schedule, along with study of Oswald Chambers's daily devotional My Utmost for His Highest, and that Bible study sessions take up a certain percentage of the White House week. We understand that when the President spoke in his 2003 State of the Union address about the "power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people," what he wanted to demonstrate, or his speechwriter Michael Gerson wanted to demonstrate, was a familiarity with the Baptist hymn "There Is Power in the Blood," in which the congregation hits it hard on the line about the power, power, wonder working power, in the blood, in the blood, in the precious blood of the Lamb.

Anyway, the source is this:

The New York Review of Books - Volume 50, Number 17 November 6, 2003  Mr. Bush & the Divine  by Joan Didion    URL: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16749

And Didion is reviewing this: Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages (Left Behind Series #11) by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tyndale House, 425 pages

Key items from Didion are these:


The "Left Behind" books, the first of which was published in 1995 and the most recent in 2003, are the collaborative product of the Reverend Tim LaHaye, who, as the founder of Tim LaHaye Ministries and cofounder of the Pre-Trib Research Center, is in charge of ensuring that the fictional action conforms to his interpretation of biblical prophecy, and Jerry B. Jenkins, who, as the ghost or as-told-to writer on books by a number of celebrity authors (Billy Graham, Hank Aaron, Orel Hershiser, Nolan Ryan), actually does the writing.

In the past eight years the eleven installments that so far make up the series (Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest, Apollyon, Assassins, The Indwelling, The Mark, Desecration, The Remnant, and Armageddon, which made its first appearance on the New York Times fiction best seller list last April as number one) have together sold some fifty-five million copies, a figure which includes hardcovers and trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks and compact discs and audiobooks and e-books and comic (or "graphic") books, but does not include either the study guides to the series ("using excerpts from the Left Behind novels and pointing readers to the prophetic passages of Scripture") or the "Left Behind" military thriller series ("story lines of its own, but parallels the Left Behind books").

Neither does the fifty-five million figure include the merchandising of calendars and devotional readings, or the companion series for children between ten and fourteen, "Left Behind: The Kids," thirty-some volumes in which "four teens are left behind after the Rapture and band together to fight Satan's forces."

The theology

Any fundamentalist Christian would recognize that what has happened here is the Rapture, the moment when, according to the fundamentalist reading of Thessalonians ("first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are still alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air"), true Christian believers will be taken up, or "raptured," into heaven.

We understand immediately: this will be an end-times scenario with a political point. These are not books that illuminate Christian theology.

Then Didion connects the dots.

The question of this administration's relationship to the Christian right has been frequently muddled, most deliberately, or opportunistically, by the administration itself. We have come to recognize the rhetorical signals the President sends to evangelicals, a constituency which, since its turn toward political action in the 1970s and with the encouragement of those Republicans who would use it, has itself become the party's plague of brimstone-breathing horses. By the 1994 congressional elections, Christian conservatives cast two of every five Republican votes. By the time of the 2000 Republican convention, Christian conservatives achieved a platform unswervingly tailored to their agenda, including the removal of language that could be interpreted as pro-choice, the removal of language that could suggest approval of civil rights for homosexuals, and the removal of language that could be seen to favor any form of sex education other than the teaching of abstinence. "It was a one hundred percent victory," Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum said of the completed platform.

Now as then, evangelical Web sites provide primers on influencing legislators and maximizing the Christian vote, as well as call-to-action discussions of inflammatory issues, for example whether Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was right to defy a federal court order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building's rotunda. "Christian rights are being challenged," was the conclusion on the Ten Commandments question of a September edition of the LeftBehind.com Newsletter, which is e-mailed to followers of the series from leftbehind.com. To the same point, Focus on the Family's site offered a "Ten Commandments Action Center," where readers could "learn who to contact and what to say" in support of Judge Moore.

Donald Paul Hodel, who served first as secretary of energy and then as secretary of the interior during the Reagan administration, is now president of Focus on the Family, and in that capacity recently wrote to The Weekly Standard objecting to its favorable review of two books by the Protestant theologian D.G. Hart, who had suggested that the disinclination of American evangelicals to separate religious from public concerns was deleterious to both. "The fact is that without the hard work and votes of millions of Christians who have chosen not to be silent," Hodel warned, "there would be no Republican majority in both houses of the US Congress, no Bush presidencies, few Republican governors, and a small handful of statehouses in Republican hands."

We understand this. We recognize the political wisdom that in 1999 led George W. Bush to vet his candidacy by speaking at a private San Antonio meeting of the Council for National Policy, the Christian conservative "educational" organization created in 1981 by, among others (with the funding of Nelson Bunker Hunt, T. Cullen Davis, and William Cies), the Reverend Tim LaHaye, who had not yet gone on to launch the "Left Behind" books but was then an executive of the Moral Majority. We recognize the same wisdom in the decision of the White House in 2002 to send both White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison Timothy Goeglein to speak at another private meeting of the council (in fact all meetings of the council are private, although its membership roster has on occasion been obtained and posted on the Web), this one, which featured Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as a principal speaker, in Tyson's Corner, Virginia.

"We'll probably discuss some of the hot issues that are relevant today," Steve Baldwin, the council's executive director, told ABC News at the time of the Virginia meeting. "The Middle East... We'll have a number of speakers from different perspectives. We're not of all one like mind when it comes to what's going on there." The assurance here of "different perspectives" on the Middle East is in fact more delicate than it might seem, since in the mind of at least one member of the council, in fact one of its founders and its first president, Dr. LaHaye, "there are at least twenty reasons" to believe that this generation, after a sequence of events meant to take place in the Middle East and looking not entirely unlike the events now in play there, "will witness the end of history," or "the end times." Revelation 9, for example, tells us that "the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates...kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year" will be released to "kill a third of mankind." Revelation 16 suggests that the drying up of the Euphrates will clear the way for the armies of the Antichrist to reach Israel, Megiddo, Armageddon, and their final battle with Christall events covered in Dr. LaHaye's "Left Behind" books.

After an analysis of George Bush's conversion, his being "born again" and accepting this apocalyptic world view, Didion wraps up:

There are obvious problems, made manifest over the past two years, in letting this kind of personality loose on the fragile web of unseen alliances and unspoken enmities that constitutes any powerful nation's map of the world. The fundamentalist approach to information, whether that approach is innate or learned, does not encourage nuanced judgments. Bill Keller, in The New York Times Magazine, reminded us that "Bush bonded with Vladimir Putin over the Russian's story of a lost crucifix." ("I was able to get a sense of his soul," Bush himself said after his first ninety-minute meeting with Putin.) Nicholas Kristof reminded us in the Times that Bush has said he does not believe in evolution. "After all, religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism," Bush told George magazine on this point. In a July 2003 fund-raising letter sent out over the President's name, after the usual stealth promises to redirect government money to the private sector ("My goal is to build an ownership society where American families own their own homes, their own health coverage, their own retirement accounts and, if they want, their own businesses"), recipients could find this unsettling confidence: "One of the paintings I selected for the Oval Office portrays a man on horseback, leading a charge up a steep hill. His face is full of purpose and determination, and it is clear he expects to get the job done. The painting is called 'A Charge to Keep,' based on a Methodist hymn that's a favorite of mine, 'A Charge to Keep I Have.'"

One political danger in linking the legitimacy of a presidency to divine will, supposedly expressed at a single moment in historyin this case the "great opportunity," or "the moment history has given us to extend liberty to others around the world"is that the authorizing moment, however potent a place it occupies in the national imagination, eventually passes. That even the awesome clarity of September 11 should have become clouded was due principally to the administration's overuse of it.

The danger now is, according to Didion, is this.

...the President's preferred constituency, those who could feel secure about whatever destructive events played out in the Middle East because those events were foreordained, necessary to the completion of God's plan, laid out in prophecy, written in the books of Genesis and Jeremiah and Zechariah and Daniel and Ezekiel and Matthew and Revelation, dramatized in the fifty-five million copies of the "Left Behind" books, amplified in countless hours of programming on Christian radio and television, and would ultimately lead, after the dust settled, to the Glorious Appearing and Thousand-Year Reign of Jesus Christ.

"It seems as if he is on an agenda from God," one of the religious broadcasters who heard the President speak in Nashville in February had said to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. "The Scriptures say God is the one who appoints leaders. If he truly knows God, that would give him a special anointing." Another had agreed: "At certain times, at certain hours in our country, God has had a certain man to hear His testimony." President Bush, the Post article had concluded, drawing in elements of the familiar fundamentalist redemption story and melding them with the dreams of the administration's ideologues about remaking the entire Middle East, "admires leaders who have overcome adversity by finding their life's mission, much as he has gone from drinking too much to building a new world architecture." We have now reached a point when even the White House may be forced to sort out how a president who got elected to execute a straightforward business agenda managed to sandbag himself with the coinciding fantasies of the ideologues in the Christian fundamentalist ministries and those in his own administration.


Well, needless to say, my friends had a bit to say about this.

Phillip from Atlanta:

I would love it if     started disappearing as a result of the rapture or ascension, or for any reason whatsoever.  I would miss a few sweet old ladies - but not that much.  It is really alarming that a president who admits to not reading books or even reading the paper (his staff summarizes articles they have read) but he can read this kind of dumbed down fiction.


Zealots have always relied on the pie in the sky tactic to manipulate followers.  Jim Jones cool aid and that group with the nice running shoes who drank poison for the space ride.  Can you blame Ted Turner for calling it the religion for losers?  And now they're in power....

Rick Brown:

On reflection, it may not have been Ted Turner who famously said that.  I think you're thinking of another big guy who is also known for shooting-from-the-lip, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.


It was Ted.

"Christianity is a religion for losers."  -- Ted Turner, CNN Founder and President, to the Dallas Morning News, 1989.

See http://www.holysmoke.org/hs00/turner.htm

On Tuesday, August 29 , 2000 at the so-called United Nations Millennium Peace Summit , Ted Turner, the summit's honorary chairman, described Christianity as an "intolerant" religion, and advocated a New Age concept for a "global religion." read the story @ PRNewswire.   See also http://yourgoingtohell.com/hell/hellbound.html

Rick Brown:

Oops. I stand corrected. I do remember Ventura getting into trouble a year or so ago for saying religion (I don't think it was specifically Christianity) was for weaklings, or something to that effect. I had no idea these two geniuses were thinking in lockstep.


Phillip, you write: "Can you blame Ted Turner for calling it the religion for losers?  And now they're in power."  Read this below carefully.  You'll love the bit about the banners.  And the references to Waco and Halloween are not nice at all - Dana is being sly and nasty.

Bush Says Religion Mended His Ways - President Alludes To Past Drinking
Washington Post  Thursday, October 30, 2003; Page A04   URL:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A38007-2003Oct29?language=printer

President Bush, speaking Wednesday night at a Christian youth center in Dallas, gave an unusually candid assessment of religion's role in leading him from his wayward youth.

"You've got to understand that sometimes, and a lot of times, the best way to help the addict, a person who is stuck on drugs and alcohol, is to change their heart," Bush said to a cheering audience at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. "See, if you change their heart, then they change their behavior. I know."

Though Bush often speaks of the importance of religion in his life, aides said it was the first time he tied his discovery of God so directly to his recovery from the heavy drinking and rowdiness that characterized his young adulthood.

Bush received a boisterous and enthusiastic welcome from hundreds of students, most of whom were black. Introduced by his friend Tony Evans, the senior pastor, Bush spoke with banners of the cross over each shoulder, one saying "King of Kings" and the other "Lord of Lords."

Bush stopped at Oak Cliff to promote his "compassion agenda" on his way to his ranch outside Waco, Tex.

Bush will stay at the ranch through the Halloween weekend, with a day trip to Columbus, Ohio, scheduled for Thursday and campaigning in Kentucky and Mississippi on Saturday.

- Dana Milbank

From Bonnie in Boston:

First, a disclosure.  I've been going to St. Stephens Episcopal church in nearby Lynn, MA for the past 14 years and I like it.  I do a lot of translating, mentally, but the rituals, the language and the people continue to attract me.  Prayer is helpful.  Ethics are discussed.  We have parties.  My husband runs the food pantry.   People there mostly try to do their best.  It's a large urban parish, about half black, mostly of Anglo-Caribbean descent.  And I do believe in a god who never choose Bushie for any single thing.  In fact, s/he doesn't bother with choosing anyone for anything.  Too up close and personal for my metaphysics.  OK, Christianity is flawed, yes the Crusades, etc. However, the older I get the more I realize that no one factor is a determinant for any others.

There are asshole Christians who conduct neocolonial wars and liberation Christians conduct wars of liberation, and the quiet, activist Christians who staff the hospitals and schools and refugee camps after both kinds of war.  Same for Muslims, Jews, agnostics and atheists, I dare say.

... And another thing I wanted to say, especially to Phillip, and this is so Boston, I know, but theres a big billboard at a major intersection near the Science Museum that reads "Legalize and Tax Marijuana: Fund Social Services" and has pictures of a teacher, fireman and someone else and a dollar amount I forget.  Something like $138 million.  My stepdaughter is off to Amsterdam where it is legal.  No Puritan heritage there, I guess.  As for us, maybe not in our lifetime, but keep hope alive.


Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon speak, quite eloquently, I think, about how it's the fundamentalists of all religions we must beware of, those who are so utterly convinced that their god is THE god.  They're the losers, except these days, when they seem to be winning, goddammit.

Philip replies to Bonnie:

Aw, gee, Im not as much of a Maoist as my previous post seems and I don't think religion is an oxycotin of the masses.  Religion is best when it makes you think, and talking about it with other people of similar perspective provides a certain comfort, better than other topics which are more earthly bound.  A higher consciousness track that lifts philosophy into considering the metaphysical and what you can do tha's not all that selfish.  I'm sure we can all agree the kind of Christians that would be Taliban on the other side of earth are the ones that are so exasperating.

The guy who owns the swimming pool up the street where I swim laps is a Southern Baptist, highway engineer and is easily triggered into outrage about all the fetuses that the godless left that want to kill.  He tries to drag me into arguments about such incendiary topics and waxes on about how a Billy Graham show made him the good guy he is today and is so bewildered why I can't just see it his way.  The lines of logic are easy to unravel in that way that philosophy is reduced to a type of algebra, but these things are rife with belief and passion instead of calm knowledge.  Episcopalians (or whiskey-palians as we call them in the south) don't really bother me at all.  I'm all for some one spending their time trying to do some good, and the church provides the organization for that.  I'm really only joking when I say that I wish that rapture would take Christians away.  I wish something would take zealots out of my life, but they add color like Hare Krishnas playing finger cymbals in the park.  I would prefer crackhead panhandlers ascend away more than the Episcopalian PTA president.  And prayer?  Like humming while you work it has its soothing place, though I tried it when I was daytrading and it didn't do much good.  So Bonnie, no offense intended.  I won't come burn your church or try to turn it into a Blues Bar.  Live and let live.  Freedom of the press, freedom of religion, keep government secular, don't take the satirists seriously.  Amen.

A billboard that says legalize pot and tax it?  Remarkable!  A fireman who needs the money so he can get gear to save more lives?  You go, Boston.  Please tell me a graffiti quote balloon appears next to him that says something to the effect of "I'd love to take a pull on my day off except for that pesky piss test."  I would guess that the billboard was paid for with an offshore account to make it harder for the goons to crack down on the ones who paid for it.  It's so dangerous to take a stand.

My thirteen year old skateboarding son sat through an anti drug assembly yesterday.  My child raising philosophy on pot and kids is explicit.  Put it off, turn it down.  Let your brain finish forming without the layer of confusion and lack of concentration getting high definitely causes.  You get in too much trouble if you get caught and it will make your grades sink and takes away your perfectly good and coordinated edge.  That said he still disobeyed me when I told him to lay low and spoke up during the question and answer section reacting to the speakers blatant propaganda - "If you smoke pot and then drive youll have a wreck and kill someone."   My son said, "What if you smoke pot when youre sitting in your living room?"

'Great," I said,  "Now they probably got your name and took your picture and you're in some sort of file for dissidents - I told you to lay low!"  My wife didn't like my reaction and then I got reprimanded.  It doesn't pay to be outspoken, and I'm a bad example. ...

Rick Brown:

Bonnie, your write "My stepdaughter is off to Amsterdam where it is legal.  No Puritan heritage there, I guess."

Ironically, didnt the famous Puritan gang, when they first left England, head for Amsterdam, but still feeling pushed around even there (religion-wise), then rent the Mayflower to schlep them on to Massachusetts?  What goes around, comes around, I say! The God of history certainly do have a sense of humor!

Bonnie in Boston to Phillip and all...

Swimming laps in the Baptist's pool has a certain sacramental splash to it, I must say.  The child rearing approach seems just right to me.  Some years ago I read a study on Hawaiian kids who were smoking the wowie from puberty forward and who seemed to get developmentally stuck.  No conflict, no resolution, no growth.  The billboard posts www.changetheclimate.com for further info.  And no offense was taken.


And I expect this dialog will continue.