Do you believe the Rapture is at hand? That any day now born again Christians will be lifted bodily up to heaven—disappearing from cars, homes, schools or jobs--while the rest of humanity is left to grapple with the end times?
Lots of people in East Tennessee—including me, when younger—have heard such prophecy from the pulpit. If you don't believe it, ask a dozen of your neighbors. To gauge the currency of such beliefs nationwide, consider more than 50 million copies of the “Left Behind” books in circulation. Or consult polls, which show that nearly half of all Americans believe the End Times are near and that many believe the anti-Christ has already been born. Now, while you ponder my first question, I'll ask a couple more:
Do you believe--as the Apostle Paul apparently did in his day--that Jesus is coming again within your own lifetime to judge the living and the dead?
Do you take it as an article of faith that an apocalyptic battle is raging in the Middle East even now for the heart and the soul of the world, and that the immortal soul of every human being hangs in the balance? Do you believe that once Biblical prophecy is fulfilled--by the Jews regaining all of the Holy Land and rebuilding Solomon's temple, among other predictions--that Jesus will then return and many millions if not billions of sinners—including Palestinians, fellow Americans and some of the Jewish folks who helped fulfill the scriptures—will be cast into a lake of eternal fire and damnation for rejecting Christ? Do you believe the war in Iraq is the beginning of the ultimate conflagration?
Earlier this week our president was asked just such a question. It might be the most intelligent question I've ever heard posed to this or any other president, and it wasn't asked—surprise--by any reporter. Rather it came from a lady in Cleveland, Ohio who seized her moment in the spotlight at a town hall meeting on Monday to hurl a thunderbolt. It's a question any number of reporters and debate moderators should've directed the president's way years ago.
In case you missed it, she asked: “Do you believe this--that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of Apocalypse?”
First the president laughed, but it was not a belly laugh. It was a stall-for-time laugh. In the befuddled expression that covered his face next you could see the mental gears grinding. He didn't want to appear irrational, yet he didn't want to alienate his religious base. Maybe he honestly didn't want to offend God.
Finally he addressed the question with a non-answer. "I haven't really thought of it that way,” he said, as the goofy grin faded. Was he fibbing? Why, yes, I believe he was. According to a May 18, 2004 article in The Village Voice, top White House officials have met regularly to update apocalyptic Christians about our Middle East policy. Surely Bush pays attention to what key allies like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say about the End Times. Still, “I guess I'm more of a practical fellow,” Bush told the lady in Ohio. Was that code for, “I don't really believe in the end times?” Or something else?
The president owes us a straight answer. After all, he's worked hard to turn the religious right into a mighty political force, going back to his father's first successful run at the presidency. And he once named Jesus as his favorite philosopher, something he and I share in common. Bush has benefited more than most from turning deeply held Christian values into votes. Furthermore, he's been quoted as saying he receives direct counsel from God, and esteemed reporters have suggested he believes God told him to invade Iraq.
So, the Ohio lady's query is more than fair. It's profound, incisive and freighted with consequence. I say that because, if the president's policy toward, say, the environment, turns out to be driven by his own religious dogma or that of his religious base—which he owes big time—that could explain a lot. His destructive policies and appointments regarding nuclear weapons, Iraq, international treaties, separation of church and state, energy policy, the environment and more would begin to seem, well, practical, given such beliefs. And that's a problem for those in the reality-based community.
Our Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan was James Watt. He couldn't be bothered about the fate of vast wilderness lands entrusted to him. See, Watt was a practical fellow. He also believed Jesus was coming just any day. Environmentalists widely regard Watt as the worst Secretary of the Interior ever.
People like Watt worry those of us who don't believe end-time dogma in a literal sense. We believe those who do should show humility and err on the side of caution, realizing they could be as mistaken about God's schedule as the Apostle Paul, who proselytized with one eye on the sky, so to speak, nearly 2000 years ago. A lot of damage may be done in 2000 years--or in three--by one who truly believes the end is near—or by one who's sold his political soul to those who do.