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Armageddon in Suburbia

Question: What do evangelical Christians and credit-default swaps have in common?

Answer: They both wrecked the country, but few understand exactly how they did it.

All right, that’s an exaggeration. America will survive the current recession. And despite the influence of evangelicals, we do not live in One Nation Under Jesus. Of course, evangelical Christians have influenced America — that much is obvious. But the extent of their influence has not yet been satisfactorily explained to me. I am not an apologist for evangelicals; I find their ideas repugnant. I’m just not ready to assume that they’re all monsters, or the only retrograde force in American politics. So I don’t agree with many liberals, who seem to believe that without evangelicals, America would forever be a land of excellent health care, with uncontested gay marriage and wealth distributed freely.

This is why I am only guardedly positive about “Waiting for Armageddon,” a new documentary arguing that evangelicals have a pernicious effect on American foreign policy. The film’s political points are not convincing; however, in terms of explaining the religious tenets of evangelical Christianity and the obsessions of its “mainstream” adherents, “Waiting for Armageddon” resoundingly succeeds. In particular, this absorbing film elucidates evangelical Christians’ morbid fascination with apocalyptic violence as opposed to, say, meekness or turning other cheeks.

There is no narration or audible interviewer in “Waiting for Armageddon.” Instead, evangelicals effect their own petard-hoisting. In a somewhat successful attempt to avoid stereotyping, the directors present believers of varying backgrounds, such as a bland professional couple from Connecticut and a likable family of Oklahomans. And of course there are pastors, like the outspoken Robert L. Dean, who is shown touring Israel with his Texan flock, and one Thomas Ice, Ph.D. (We’re not told what his doctorate is in, but you can bet it wasn’t women’s studies or stem-cell research.)

The film is loosely structured around the events of the End Times, which Christians believe will culminate in the second coming of Jesus. The film’s subjects explain what the Bible supposedly predicts. And these prophecies are, to put it mildly, interesting. Apparently, the End Times will begin when the true believers are “raptured,” or “caught up… to meet the Lord in the air.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17.) In other words, someday soon, all evangelicals will simultaneously disappear. (For reasons that the film doesn’t explain, and that are too lengthy to get into here, the Rapture excludes every other kind of Christian.) The rest of us will be left to suffer a series of horrible “tribulations” — the usual smorgasbord of disasters and diseases — and then fight the final battle between good and evil. In this case, the “good” are those who come to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Everybody else dies and goes to hell — just not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps because I’ve written about this stuff before, I find this scenario more silly than chilling. I see it as a blatant outgrowth of self-serving impulses: Like many other religious groups, evangelicals want to be special, God’s elected. There’s also the almost pathetic desire of people leading more or less dull, more or less comfortable lives to be involved in some jejune conflation of salvation and geopolitics.

But other aspects of “Waiting for Armageddon” are sufficiently disturbing. Perhaps because evangelicals get a bye from Armageddon, they seem uniformly smug about the suffering of other people, if not actively anticipating it. Just before being re-baptized in the River Jordan, a Texan declares, “There is an ultimate final battle that I think will be fun to watch.”

And then there’s that “support” for Israel. In “Waiting for Armageddon,” we see John Hagee speechifying about “Islamofashee-ism,” but this is merely political window dressing. The fact is (at least as the film depicts it), the evangelical attitude toward Jews, Israeli or otherwise, is morally indefensible. They see the Jewish state as nothing more than the staging ground for the apocalypse, Jewish people either as damned or as potential Christians. There is little indication that Jews might have lives and concerns of their own — to the point where one biblical “scholar” explains the Holocaust as “a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.” Some even want to co-opt antisemitism: Scott Nelson, a pastor, believes that a supposed “multiculturalist” regime is “denigrating the white European male,” just as the Nazis denigrated the Jews.

For these reasons, “Waiting for Armageddon” is fascinating and appropriately unnerving. And yet again, I must point out the disappointing lack of analysis. The appearances of estimable Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg are too brief, as are those of Barbara Rossing, a nonevangelical pastor with a more palatable interpretation of the New Testament. And it’s difficult to understand why Felix Rogin of the Temple Mount Center was included, considering that his own group’s views on Islam are the opposite of accommodating.

The filmmakers wish to prove that evangelical Americans are driving us toward the apocalypse, but “Waiting for Armageddon” proves only that they long for it. When it comes to policy, I prefer specificity to innuendo: How, exactly, have they promoted unrest or militarism? Are there clear lines of political influence, like we see with neoconservatism? Instead of directly addressing these questions, the film tells us that “American evangelicals donate over $75 million a year to support Israel.” So what? The American government sends billions of dollars in aid, and it’s not like Israel always does our bidding.

Conservatives love to accuse liberals of elitism, and there’s more than a whiff of it in this film. Admittedly, much of evangelical culture is derived from kitsch and cliché. The evangelicals’ politics are simplistic, and their ideas about Jews (and Muslims, and Catholics) are offensive. But there is no law against bad taste, no law against stupidity. Whether we like it or not, they have the right to spend their money as they wish, and to vote and worship as they see fit. Guess what? So do we.

Gordon Haber is at work on a novel about the Jewish messiah.

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