To light our darkest hour

Doomsday Christianity in America (Part 2)

View part 1: Infographics of doom

In Charlotte, North Carolina in 1934, a fateful meeting between a travelling evangelist from Mordecai Ham revival ministry and teenage farm-hand called Billy Graham, would lead to a global reboot of fundamentalist Christianity. Inspired by this meeting and the passage Mark 16:15 “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”, Graham attended the Religious University of Bob Jones and decided to dedicate his life to spreading the gospel.

Characteristic of the age, Mordecai Ham himself was an outspoken anti-semite and the University of Bob Jones actively discouraged interracial dating. Thankfully for us all this climate of racism did not rub off on Billy Graham, who would become one of the most powerful orators of the 2oth century. By the time he retired he would have personally evangelised to more than 210 million people in 185 countries.

Billy Graham

In 1949 he held the first of his famous mass rallies, stadium sized events known as the “Crusades”, which were so successful that the showings were extended by eight weeks and extra tents had to be erected to cope with the excess capacity. They were the prototypes of todays mega-churches.

An early Billy Graham Crusade (I attended one myself in the early 1990s with a Baptist friend)

While his “Crusades” were impressive in themselves, Graham was also the first preacher to take advantage of modern communications technology. His films alone have been translated into 40 languages and viewed by more than 250 million across the world. Evangelising well into his 80s, he later dabbled in webcasts on the early Internet.

There is little doubt about Graham’s dedication to his faith, as evidenced by the extreme measures he took to avoid Sin, such as not allowing himself to be alone in a room with a woman. He was also known to grip his fists praying “Lord, help me right now” whenever he felt the inkling of temptation.

Graham has never been officially part of the Dispensational movement, but nevertheless his beliefs shared a similar eschatology. Comparing the state of the world with the final brutal hours of Jesus, his message was that redemption of the world would come only in our darkest hour, after which Christ would return to establish a worldwide theocracy that would solve all our problems.

This short compilation of Graham’s end-times beliefs demonstrate his command of oratory and his ability to stir evocative visions of the coming Kingdom.

“The Bible plainly forecasts the coming of yet another great war. It will be a war to eclipse anything the world has ever seen. It will embrace most of the nations of the world; and its focal point will be in the Middle East, where the armies of the world will some day deploy themselves, centring at Mount Megiddo. In the midst of this terrifying war that could destroy civilisation the Lord Jesus Christ will return to this earth in glory and power to judge the nations of the world and set up His own glorious kingdom.”

The backdrop for this resurgence was both the long awaited rebirth of Israel in 1948, and the stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union following the epic conflict of the Second World War. Although Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito had been defeated, the Western World was still anxious at the intentions of the villainous Stalin, whose enigmatic atheist Empire stood poised to overwhelm the exhausted forces of Europe.

Christian elements of American society felt threatened by the “godless” empire of the USSR and actively supported the McCarthy witch hunts and persecution of unions. Dehumanised to almost demonic levels, they Soviets were ideal scapegoats for threats to Christian values in their very own society such as pornography, secularism and “moral decline”.

As Cold War momentum built and proxy conflicts flared across the globe, the two superpowers looked to be heading inevitably towards total war. In 1961 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Six years later, the armies of Israel marched into Egypt conquered the Sinai Peninsula and seized the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The Six Day War and Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem seemed to confirm Dispensational prophecy.

The continued military successes of Israel viewed through the lens of Scofield and Darby’s prophesies provided Christians with powerful ammunition to argue their beliefs. Billy Graham toured the globe preaching that the capture of Jerusalem was the latest in 27 separate signs that the end of existence was imminent. To a generation already living in the shadow of the bomb, the idea of Judgement day now seemed a frightening reality.

Their message found unlikely reception in elements of the flower power movement of the 1960s. A youth who had opened themselves up to the spiritual possibilities of the East now turned their minds to the mythology of radical Christianity, and many begged forgiveness from earlier excesses of free love and narcotics.

Barry McGuire later became a born-again Christian

On the same year Israel made its historic conquests in Egypt and Palestine, Oxford Press published a revised version of the Scofield Bible, minus some of his more extravagant claims but with embellished content relating to Israel. For some dispensationalists the construction of the fabled Third Temple now seemed a matter of divine will.

Muslims have not forgotten the fire at the Al-Asqa Mosque

The Third Temple

Then, in 1969, Dennis Michael Rohan of the Dispensationalist Worldwide Church of God, began hearing voices from heaven telling him to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem. Doing a Christian’s duty he bought a ticket to Israel, and on August 23rd walked into the al-Asqa mosque on the Temple Mount and set it ablaze. The flames ripped through the ancient shrine, totally destroying an antique pulpit donated by the legendary Kurdish ruler Saladin to celebrate his victory over the Crusaders. As sixteen fire trucks fought the blaze Israeli police held back mobs of angry Muslims, many of whom believed they were spraying petrol on the inferno.

Although Israel’s capture of Jerusalem was a major catalyst for the fundamentalist revival, a number of other issues also roused Dispensationalists into action. These included the Supreme Court’s decision to ban prayers in state run schools, and their 1973 judgment to outlaw state legal restrictions for abortion on demand. These issues would divide america for the next 40 years.

Obsession with such issues were behind the Christian right’s turning on the Jimmy Carter, who although a Christian, refused to overturn the Supreme Courts ruling, thus forever making himself — and the Democrats — enemies of “Christian values”, a trend that continues to this day. Fundamentalist slants of Christian morals were also threatened by the increase in promiscuity due to the pill, and the feminist and gay right movements, all of which raised predictable parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Hal Lindsay

It was in this atmosphere that Dispensationalist preacher Hal Lindsey published a compilation of his end of-world essays under the title “The Late Great Planet Earth”, an accessible update of the Darby/Scofield prophesies. In his book recent world events were contextualised into the worldview of radical Christianity. The godless Soviets he believed would soon launch a blitzkrieg style attack on the Middle East, seizing US oil supplies and — significantly — occupying the Promised Land. This conflict, he argued, would bring about Armageddon in around the year 1988.

“Russia occupies a place, and a very momentous place, in the prophetic word has been admitted by almost all expositors… Obstacle or no obstacle, it is certain that the Temple will be rebuilt. Prophecy demands it.”

His book has now sold more than 34 million copies has been published in 54 languages. There was even a film, narrated by Orson Welles.

Above: In this clip from The Late Great Planet Earth, a hapless prophet is chased up a rock suspiciously like the one Captain Kirk was pursued up by the Gorn.

In 1972 he released the follow up “Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth”, a compendium of conspiracy theories placing Beelzebub behind virtually every perceived threat to Christianity including spiritualism, astrology, humanism, new age movements, communists, liberals and the left in general. Such observations were supposedly the logical consequences of the literal interpretation of the scriptures, “allegorical interpretation” was an anathema, Lindsey notes;

“If you take the Bible literally, then you come up with the premillennial point of view… I hate those who read their ideas into the scripture by using allegory”

In 1981 he published “The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon” with a yet more paranoid thesis identifying International bankers, the Trilateral Commission and the EU as manifestations of a satanic “New World Order” (More on this later).

In the early 80s the Cold War build-up was reaching truly apocalyptic proportions, on July 25th 1980 Jimmy Carter signed Presidential Directive 59, ordering sustained retaliation against Soviet targets in the event of “prolonged” nuclear conflict. In his farewell address he said that “in an all-out nuclear war, more destructive power than in all of World War II would be unleashed every second during the long afternoon it would take for all of the missiles and bombs to fall.”

Globally the were an estimated 30,000 nuclear weapons poised for attack, the largest of which were the Soviet’s Tsar Bombas (“King of Bombs”), hundred megaton devices each with a destructive yield six and a half thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Throughout the public mind chilling concepts such as “overkill” and “nuclear winter” transformed the potential conflict into something of an almost incomprehensible scale.

Reagan’s foreign policy was influenced by dispensational thinking.

Finally abandoning support for Democratic candidates, the Christian Right voted in Dispensational Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who was inaugurated on January 20th 1981. James Mills, a former Californian official who worked with Reagan says his policy decisions were based on his “literal interpretation of Biblical prophesies” and because “Christ was at the door” he neglected domestic policy and issues like national debt because Armageddon was obviously inevitable.

Certainly Reagan is quoted on numerous occasions expressing his fundamentalist beliefs; in 1980 he mentioned to Evangelist Jim Bakker that “We may be the generation that sees Armageddon”. In 1983 in a conversation with Tom Dine of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee Reagan was recorded as saying;

“You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about…. Believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through”.

Prominent radical Terry Risenhoover claims he was frequently invited to White House meetings of Dispensationalists during the Reagan era. Risenhoover also served as chairman of the board of the Jerusalem Temple Foundation, a body dedicated to the destruction of the Muslim shrines and their replacement with the Third Temple.

Terry chose as the Foundation’s international secretary Stanley Goldfoot, a South African veteran of the ‘Stern Gang’, Jewish extremists who massacred Arabs in the 1930s and 40s and — unbelievably — attempted to side the with the Nazis during WW2. Risenhoover claimed that Goldfoot was responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David hotel in Israel and therefore “has the qualifications for clearing a site for the Temple”.

Goldfoot’s 1969 “Open letter to the world”

But despite the massive success of Graham, Lindsay and others, the revival of Apocalyptic Christianity was still getting started. The 80s saw a massive upsurge in the popularity of Cable TV and Video Cassettes, and riding on the back of this success were a new breed of preacher ready to exploit the fear. The Televangelists.