Bush's pre-millennial tensions

An Angel Directs the Storm
May 13, 2005

This manifesto for "left-wing Christians against Bush" is a fascinating combination of genres. There is political science in its description of the influence of Christian apocalyptic thought on George Bush and his neoconservative advisers. There is religious history in its account and explanation of changes in American Christian thinking. There is partisan politics in its powerful denunciation of US imperialism. And finally there is theology: Michael Northcott believes that Bush's fundamentalist friends misunderstand Christ's wishes and attempts to persuade us that the real Christian message is one of peace and goodwill to all people on Earth.

The religious history is done well. Northcott ably explains the crucial shift in Christian thinking about Christ's return, the apocalypse, and a possible 1,000 years of righteous rule on Earth (the millennium).

There are three possible positions. Many Christians (Martin Luther, for example) find the relevant biblical references so obscure that they disregard the subject. Post-millennialists think the cataclysmic Day of Judgement will come after the millennium (which can be encouraged by progressive social legislation and good works). Pre-millennialists reverse the sequence: bad things first, then good things for those who are saved.

As Northcott shows, the growth of fundamentalism relative to the rest of US Protestantism has seen the post-millennialist position - which is conventionally associated with progressive politics - displaced by the apocalyptic visions of pre-millennialism, which encourages a pessimistic view of the improvability of humanity and an expectation of the imminent end of the world.

This shift in Christian thinking matters, Northcott believes, because pre-millennialism encourages the most unpleasant and dangerous aspects of neocon politics: sod-the-poor individualism in domestic affairs and sod-the-foreigners militaristic imperialism in international affairs. And because pre-millennialists take the return of the Jews to Palestine to be a vital component in the end-times scenario, their influence adds to the weight of the US Zionist lobby to produce a dangerously unbalanced Middle East policy. Add to that the perceived threat from Islamic fundamentalism and you have the disaster of Iraq and the impending threat to Iran.

Northcott's political science is less convincing than his church history.

He effectively shows that Bush and his close supporters use the language of Protestant fundamentalism, but he does not provide sufficient evidence to refute the possibility that this is just rhetoric. That Bush's speech writers use the same phrases as televangelists is not enough. US politicians of every ideological stripe have used biblical language because it is inspirational and adds gravitas. The same rhetoric was used by Ronald Reagan, who was as influenced by his wife's hairdresser's astrological speculations as by the beliefs of the apocalyptic evangelists he was happy to court.

Serious analysis of contemporary US political thought requires serious examination of public opinion, detailed attention to the full range of Bush Administration appointments (rather than just a selection of those who best fit the bill), and a deeper appreciation of the machinations of politics.

Ironically, while Northcott sees himself as exposing a hidden truth about US neocons, he is naive in failing to appreciate how easily politicians trim for electoral advantage. His application of cynicism is too one-sided.

He correctly points out that the US has aided Islamic fundamentalists when it suited and almost joins the conspiracy pointy-heads when he says: "The coincidence between the events of September 11 and the need for a major security crisis to enable the Bush Administration to achieve its geopolitical intent adds urgency to the question of just how much the Bush Administration knew about the possibility of attacks... before they actually took place." But he does not follow through to the possibility that neocons might readily retrench to isolationism if the war in Iraq proves as unpopular as the Vietnam intervention.

The theology is well written and passionately argued. Northcott believes that the true Christian ethos is pacifist and left-wing and offers ample support from the Bible for his position. Although liberal Christians will find comfort in its articulate defence of a vision radically at odds with that of US fundamentalism, non-Christians will have two related reservations. First, Northcott's defence of "real" Christianity offers no good explanation of why the putative religion of peace and brotherly love so often gets co-opted by powers and principalities. And in the absence of such an explanation, outsiders are more likely to interpret the influence of apocalyptic religion on US neocons as just further proof that all religion taken seriously is a danger.

Steve Bruce is head of the School of Social Science, Aberdeen University.

An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire

Author - Michael Northcott
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 200
Price - £19.50
ISBN - 1 85043 478 6

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