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The Rapture aside, America's evangelical Christians deserve a little respect

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Last week I went to a small evangelical church in West Los Angeles to test the mood pre-Rapture. This particular congregation did not buy the prediction by Christian broadcaster Harold Camping that the End was now, but they shared his feeling that it must be soon. A lady sang an oddly upbeat song about “The Dark Times Due” and the preacher affirmed that God is on his way. “We must live our lives like every day might be our last,” he said. “We must be prepared to be judged, be prepared to give good account of ourselves.” Then he asked each and every one of us if we were ready to meet our maker. Many nodded and shouted yes. Some, like me, looked shamefully at their knees. “The only good thing you can say about Hell,” said the preacher, “is that at least you won’t want for company.”

The Rapture that never was has been treated by many secularists and liberals as a prime piece of proof that American evangelicals are nuts. To be sure, most commentators have stressed that dating the Armageddon is germane to only a handful of churches. But the entire evangelical movement is damned by association with Camping, for they share his faith that the world is on the path to destruction. Stephen Fry called them “imbeciles”. Others have said the same in a more roundabout way. Paul Brandeis on Huffington Post wrote, “people who put their trust in these movements have a sense of powerlessness, and they need to believe in a radical solution to their current situation … The followers of Camping and the May 21 movement are largely working-class people who feel that they have less and less of a voice or place in this world. Like buying a lottery ticket, they are placing bets on a instant transformation of their personal situation where the last will become first, and the rich will be sent away empty.” That’s a classic modernist formulation: that fundamentalist belief is an idiot’s way of understanding and expressing economic pain.

The Camping misfire, like the Westboro Baptist Church’s nonsense, distracts from the innumerable benefits that evangelical culture has brought to American life. America was forged by millenarianism. The Puritans were hardcore Calvinists who shaped American attitudes towards religious tolerance but who also believed that you could tell whether or not someone was going to Hell by the way they dressed. American attitudes towards social egality were likewise shaped by the 18th century’s Great Awakening, with its emphasis upon the potential for individual redemption and personal revelation. The eruption of End of the Worldism in the early 1800s provided much of the impetus for social reform and the anti-slavery movement.

It is true that some evangelical theologians focus upon the Armageddon to the neglect of immediate, material problems. But many more have preached that Jesus would prefer to return to a world that deserved him. America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1753), kept notes on events that suggested the apocalypse was near – an earthquake, a fire, even the French introducing a new toll. It wasn’t an idle distraction from the practicalities of being a Christian, with its essential commandment to love others actively, but a way of reading signposts to a new order founded on that very principle. The threat of Armageddon is not, as the Guardian suggests, “the fundamentalist Christian equivalent of the last helicopter out of Saigon”. Rather it is a spur to action: a reminder that God is watching what you are doing and that He expects results.

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