How loopy American born-agains are reacting to -- and in some cases inspiring -- Islamic fundamentalism
It is a sunny day somewhere in the American heartland and the dead are rising from their graves. Strips of lawns in Peaceful View cemetery have been peeled back, as if by an invisible tin-opener, allowing shrouded figures to float serenely upwards. Meanwhile, terrible things are happening all around. On the freeway, a car spins across the reservation, smashing head-on into a lorry - but its driver is unharmed, since he, too, is sailing into the sky. Others are not so lucky. The road into the city is black with the twisted wrecks of vehicles. The chaos is so devastating that at first the eye misses a crucial detail: an airliner exploding in the distance as it hits a skyscraper.
Millions of Americans are familiar with the painting that depicts this scene. Marketed by the Bible Believers' Evangelistic Association of Sherman, Texas, it is entitled 'The Rapture' - the moment when, according to a fundamentalist reading of Scripture, Jesus will gather up all true Christians, living and dead, leaving unbelievers to the seven-year tyranny of the Antichrist. Only when this Tribulation is over will Jesus return to vanquish the Satanic army at Armageddon.
The plane in the painting is not being flown by a suicide bomber, of course. In fact, it is not being flown by anyone at all, since its Christian pilot has just been raptured. Hence the crash. So, strictly speaking, the analogy with the attack on the World Trade Center doesn't work. In purely visual terms, however, it offers a far closer match to the events of 11 September than any Hollywood blockbuster. The first thought that went through the heads of many born-again Christians that morning was that the Rapture had begun. Admittedly, they quickly changed their minds, but what remains is a sense of apocalyptic anticipation, of the impending fulfilment of Bible prophecy, that is likely to grow over the next few weeks.
At least ten million Americans are fundamentalist Christians who believe that they are living in the 'End Times'; perhaps five times that number toy intermittently with images of apocalypse that have been part of American popular culture since the Pilgrim Fathers. The millennial wave crashes against the national shore every few decades: it happened during the War of Independence, in the Millerite ferment of the 1840s, and, most recently, during the nuclear anxiety of the 1970s and the Gulf War.
Interestingly, despite all the talk of Pre-Millennial Tension, the last wave broke well short of the year 2000. One reason for this was that the late 1990s failed to produce the sensation, crucial to apocalyptic belief, of a world enveloped in evil. That has now changed. 'Prophecy experts' were quick off the mark on 11 September. Hal Lindsey, whose 1970 bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth described an atomic Armageddon in the Middle East, reminded his audience triumphantly: 'I warned that America will be destroyed as a world power and that terrorism was one way this could happen. This scenario seems to have begun.'
This sort of opportunism repels mainstream Christians, for whom Lindsey and friends are the theological equivalent of ambulance chasers. But it also points to one of the most useful features of apocalypticism - its ability to make sense of sudden terror. The first extant millenarian document, the Book of Daniel, was a response to the Seleucid invasion of Jerusalem; since then, every threat to the West from an alien culture has produced 'prophecies' of destruction that have been invented or retrospectively tinkered with. In the 12th century it was a document called the Toledo Letter that circulated around Europe, changing its details to accommodate the latest Saracen atrocity. In the past fortnight a distorted version of a Nostradamus quatrain identifying Osama bin Laden as the 'King of Terror' has become the most popular Internet search request, even after it was exposed by the media as bogus.
Will an upsurge in prophetic activity have any important consequences for the West? For the most part, probably not. There will be endless (and, we can safely predict, successful) attempts to extract the numbers 666 from the name of a certain Saudi-born terrorist, but the rest of us will be far too distracted to pay any attention.
It might be an idea, however, for the FBI to keep an eye on the borderland of End Times belief and right-wing conspiracy. Although they are sensibly keeping this view to themselves right now, many people on the apocalyptic fringe regard New York City as the nerve centre of the Jewish-capitalist new world order, which is why they were so excited by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: one website speculated about what would have happened if one of the towers had collapsed. Some Christian conspiracy theorists have been predicting for years that an attack on Manhattan will form the centrepiece of the Tribulation, thus fulfilling the prophecy in the Book of Revelation of the fall of Babylon; one can only imagine their grim satisfaction at this new crisis.
It might also be worth looking at the way in which strands of Christian eschatology are beginning to find their way into the Islamic world. Arab fundamentalists long ago woke up to the potential of European anti-Semitic literature such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, in a truly bizarre piece of cultural miscegenation, they are turning to the Bible belt for inspiration. Supporters of Osama bin Laden have taken to putting quotes on their websites from Safar al-Hawali, a 47-year-old sheikh who has become Saudi Arabia's answer to Hal Lindsey. His book Day of Wrath seizes on exactly the same verses in the Books of Daniel and Revelation as The Late Great Planet Earth does; but, instead of prophesying the victory of Christ, it describes the annihilation of Israel and America by Islam. (Incidentally, the date set for the extermination of the last Zionist is 2012, which, coincidentally, is the year of doomsday in the Mayan calendar. At least, one hopes that it's a coincidence.)
On the other hand, it would be wrong to conclude that the world is endangered by America's historical fascination with The End. Strangely enough, the opposite may be the case. A lot of nonsense was talked during the 1980s about Ronald Reagan's interest in the End Times. According to Gore Vidal, the 'old actor' was ready to sacrifice us all in his primitive yearning for Armageddon. But the truth is that it was precisely because Reagan was an actor that he was able to slip harmlessly into prophecy-speak when schmoozing his fundamentalist supporters. There is no evidence that the fine print of Revelation had the slightest influence on his foreign policy. What Reagan was able to do, however, was boil down the apocalyptic teachings of his childhood to their useful essence: an understanding of the almost limitless malevolence of the enemy, tempered by confidence in ultimate victory. In that respect, his achievement reflects that of America as a whole, a nation which was born with a sense of eschatological destiny and which, as we speak, is once again deriving strength from it.