Left Behind: 2. Empire America: Left Behind in a Global Context

CTheory Books: Left Behind


Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

Empire America

Left Behind in a Global Context

The phrase “left behind” is particularly evocative of the schizoid or bi-polar character of American politics and culture in the early twenty-first century. Indeed, for vast sectors of the United States, fear of being left behind — in education, scientific and technological advancement, bodily health, and economic prosperity — oscillates with the fascinations of sitting (militarily) on top of the world. In terms of educational proficiency, U.S. children today rank significantly lower than the children of other industrialized countries — particularly in reading and mathematics. To remedy this situation, the Bush administration, in conjunction with the U.S. Congress, initiated a program of national standardized testing and named it “No Child Left Behind.” But regardless of what is gained by such testing, for the majority of the nation’s public school children, left behind by this initiative is the opportunity to learn about the world and themselves in a nuanced and critical fashion. The time needed to educate children in this way now takes a backseat to teaching geared toward passing the required tests.

The phrase “left behind” is also in the title of a recent report issued by the Urban Institute, and edited by Columbia University Professor Ronald D. Mincy — Black Males Left Behind. This report details the deepening plight of African American males, especially “in the country’s inner cities” where “finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined.”[1] In addition to U.S. school children and African American males, America as a whole appears also left behind when it comes to such crucial matters as combating global climate change, nuclear weapons reduction, affordable health care and housing, the availability of meaningful employment for livable wages, forms of criminal justice that include more than the death penalty and the mass incarceration of the poor, and compliance with international treaties pertaining to the lawful conduct of war and the humane treatment of prisoners.

In championing the so-called global “war on terror” the United States also seems bent on leaving behind a wide range of previously secure civil liberties, as well the right to safeguard one’s privacy from unwarranted governmental surveillance and intrusion. But in the Left Behind novels and the biblical worldview that fuels them, the phase “left behind” refers exclusively to the religious fate of individuals following the rapture of Christ’s true disciples into heaven. Why this preoccupation with apocalyptic religious imagery at this point in history? Over the course of this essay, I will examine historical antecedents to the widespread concern with “End Times” that is, at once, mined and promulgated by the Left Behind books. Indeed, the strand of fundamentalist Protestant theology articulated by the novels — dispensational premillenialism — has its roots in a period of enormous social change and uncertainty that bears more than a few uncanny resemblances to our own.

As an apocalyptic Christian imagination of End Times, dispensationalism originated in the United Kingdom during the heyday of the British Empire. Perhaps belief in apocalyptic prophecies foreshadows the end time of the empire as well. This will be discussed in greater depth later. At present, suffice it to note that, when most complicit with the wages of empire, alongside inner conversion and the anxious suppression of collective historical guilt, British “evangelicalism also emphasized outward conversion efforts by its adherents. As a result the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in foreign missionary activity, along with an upsurge of moral imperialism — belief in Britain’s duty to save the world — that abetted and reinforced the everyday patriotism of parades, naval reviews, music-hall songs, and saber-rattling literature. Initial enthusiasm for World War I … marched in part to the stirring cadences of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.'”[2] But less than a half-century later came the end time of empire, and the beginning of what is today known as the “postcolonial.” This is an end time attuned to both a tragic past and open-ended future. It is also an end time that must reckon with the haunting awareness that the triumphant sound of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” so close to the patriotic hearts of English evangelists, often resonated in entirely different ways with those colonized by the British Empire’s deadly amalgam of cross, sword, and crown. As Zine Magubane points out in discussing the responses of the indigenous peoples of South Africa’s to British evangelical missionaries, sometimes resistance “took the form of outright refusal to accept the gospel,” while at other times “refusal took more subtle forms, like avoidance, deferral, or laughter.”[3]

Historical connections between apocalyptic Christian imagery and the (sinful) wages of empire are important to remember a century later, when pondering the current revival of End Times imaginings by conservative U.S. evangelicals. It is also important to recognize the deep inroads right-wing evangelicals have made into key American social institutions, especially in the realms of popular culture, government, and the military. Yet, despite their manifest influence, conservative evangelicals still routinely lament being marginalized in the public realm by demonic legions of secular humanists, including those at the helm of the United Nations. In this, reality genuflects before prophecy believers’ fierce imagination of being suffering servants of a God-given future ready to burst the seams of history in the twinkling of an eye.

Shortly after its beginnings in imperial Britain, dispensational theology established deep roots in Protestant America. This was an America plagued with cultural anxieties and spiritual uncertainties, stemming from rapid increases in urbanization, mass immigration, and the rise of consumer culture. Beneath the surface, white American religious practices were also dogged by disavowed complicity with the genocidal wars waged against the indigenous peoples of North America and the far-reaching shadows of slavery. With urbanization and the immigration into the U.S. of large numbers of non-Protestants — particularly Catholics and Jews — the Protestant majority felt threatened by “the decline of traditional life and a loss of cultural security and control… Simultaneously, the rise of consumer culture destabilized traditional life as well. Mass manufacturing and mass marketing worked to transform and train desires for goods, for pleasure, and for gratification. Protestantism, which Max Weber argues helped to form the capitalist economy, now found itself at war with what it itself had created. With the expansion of visual and material culture, religion became a ‘marketplace’ where faith was a matter of advertisement and promotion as well as belief.”[4] During this time period, many taken-for-granted realities were undermined, particularly for small town, rural, and southern Protestants.

As Karen Armstrong remarks, “nothing was as it seemed. The American economy suffered wild fluctuations … which were bewildering to people used to the routines of agrarian life. Booms were followed by depressions, which consumed huge fortunes overnight; society seemed controlled by mysterious, unseen ‘market forces.’ Sociologists also argued that human life was controlled by an economic dynamic that could not be discerned by the unskilled observer. Darwinists told people that existence was dominated by a biological struggle, unseen by the naked eye. Psychologists talked about the power of the hidden, unconscious mind. The High Critics insisted that even the Bible itself was not all that it claimed to be, and that the apparently simple text was actually composed of a bewildering number of different sources and written by authors of whom nobody had ever heard. Many Protestants, who expected their faith to bring them security, felt mental vertigo by this complicated world. They wanted a plain-speaking faith that everybody could understand.”[5] The uncertainties depicted by Armstrong resulted in widespread social anxiety and the “lust for certainty” that drove hardcore fundamentalist thought.[6]

The anxieties, uncertainties and lust for certainty experienced by earlier generations of Protestants ensnarled in social change and the spiritual exigencies of empire, pale before the global scope and magnitude of changes taking place today. Today, urbanization fast-forwards into the pulsating electronic glow of information-based global cities, while immigration takes place on a planetary scale. Consumer culture is also ratcheted to extremes, intensified by the atmospherics of mass marketing, the digital simulation of everything imaginable, and seductive technologies of sensory captivation, capable of making a profit off even the innermost reaches of our bodies and minds.

The same is true of fundamentalism’s lust for certainty. This too today is also ratcheted to extremes. Several other developments also energize fundamentalism’s fearful — if fascinating — oscillation between being spiritually propelled toward End Times by the speed and global scope of unprecedented social change and the virulence of its history-stopping desire for absolute truth. Also pressing against the skein of the fundamentalist imagination are genetic technologies capable of desubstantializing human biology, replacing the finiteness of the flesh with infinitely interchangeable communicative codes; high-speed matrices of global transport and communications, capable of putting everybody in ethereal contact with everybody else all of the time; the computerization of more and more aspects of everyday life; and the return to center stage of the world history of peoples, cultures, and religious sensibilities long suppressed by the violence of colonial rule. The politically charged evangelical vision of the world articulated and consumed in the Left Behind books is symptomatic of an anxious lust for absolute certainty that is part and parcel of the present moment in history.

The evangelical vision of Left Behind stirs dreams of a God-ordained empire — a good empire of “liberty” and “freedom,” an empire rooted in the righteousness of “Old Testament moralities of tribal purity and sacred territoriality.”[7] Since the nation’s inception, influential strains of U.S. evangelical culture have viewed America as a people “chosen” by God, a people blessed by a covenant with God. Yet, unlike other recent God-ordained “covenant cultures” — such as that which once cruelly guided Afrikaner-ruled South Africa — in the United States, a vision of our nation as “God’s New Israel” has been kept in check by countervailing commitments to democracy and separation of church and state. That is, until recently. That this may be changing is one of the reasons I have written this essay.[8] Near the end of the final volume of Left Behind, after gazing out upon a massive river of blood set in motion by the righteousness of God’s Word, Rayford Steele “wonders, isn’t this the perfect opportunity to start rebuilding the country as, finally for real, a Christian nation.”[9]

This, of course, is fiction. More factual are the evangelical convictions of President George W. Bush. Although the White House refuses to answer questions as to whether or not President Bush has read Left Behind, in this essay I draw attention to important political and religious connections between President Bush and evangelical author Tim LaHaye. Bush routinely peppers his public pronouncements with religious imagery, often “double coding” his phrasings in ways that “signal” to attentive Bible readers that he shares “their private scriptural invocations.”[10] In accepting the 2004 nomination of the Republic Party, Bush used provocative religious language in declaring, “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century.” Then, as if to dispel any doubts about whom it is who is calling America to lead this cause, the President stated, “I believe freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman.”[11] Bush is hardly alone among American politicians seeking to align public policy with the Word of God. As former Republic House majority leader Tom Delay once declared, “God is using me all the time, everywhere, to stand up for a biblical world view in everything I do and everywhere I am. He is training me.”[12]

The blurring of religion and politics in the rhetoric of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other U.S. political leaders is no secret. Neither is knowledge about the effects of righteous religious rhetoric when translated into public policy — whether in guiding U.S. military action in the Middle East, downplaying the dangers of global warming, or promoting “creationism” and “intelligent design” as alternatives to accepted scientific understandings of evolution. The political vision of End Times believers also plays a key role in efforts to establish heterosexual “covenant marriage,” to block gay and lesbian marriage, and in federally mandated “abstinence only” approaches to sex education and the prevention of AIDS, not to mention efforts aimed at re-criminalizing abortion, restricting stem cell research, and limiting access to birth control.

Far less known — at least to critical scholars — are the connections between faith-based Christian political crusades and a thriving American popular culture and publishing industry guided by the fascinations and fears of apocalyptic End Times. At the core of this popular culture and its industrial affiliates lay the Left Behind books. By directing a critical eye to the Left Behind series and, in particular to the ways the books imagine technology, I hope to shed light on this important, if shadowy, aspect of contemporary American power.

The remainder of the essay is organized in the following fashion. Section three provides an overview of the basic story told by the Left Behind novels and introduces the series’ most important characters. Section four considers the theology that animates the books. The fifth section overviews the social biographies and religious politics of the authors of Left Behind. Section six discusses what is known about how readers make meaning of the books. Section seven explores the gendering of key themes and characters in the novels. Section eight returns to the intersection of religion and technology. It examines what the Left Behind books suggest about social phantasms guiding distinctively American technologies of power. The essay concludes with a discussion of “power-reflexive” approaches to technology that counter the demonic force of contemporary techno-power, while refusing fundamentalist Christianity’s fateful flight from the flesh.


[1] Erik Eckhom, “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn,” The New York Times, March 20, 2006. p. 1.

[2] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 225.

[3] Zine Magubane, Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. p. 131.

[4] Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture, p. 19.

[5] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, p. 141.

[6] Ibid. p. 141.

[7] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 128.

[8] While this essay addresses the ascendant power and influence of conservative American evangelicals, it should be remembered that a great many Protestants, particularly those who belong to admittedly shrinking mainstream denominations, remain politically progressive. Later in the essay I will discuss criticisms of the Left Behind books by progressive theologians and churches. In addition, and in part as a reaction to the disproportionate influence of the Christian Right, over the last few years progressive religious leaders have made repeated calls for a more justice-oriented convergence between religious and political voices. See, for instance, Harvey Cox, “Old-time Religion,” Boston Sunday Globe, July 9, 2006, p. E 1-2.

[9] Cited in Craig Unger, “American Rapture,” Vanity Fair, December 2005. p. 222.

[10] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, 206. See also, Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors University of Chicago Press, 2002. pp. 30-31.

[11] George W. Bush, cited in Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 206.

[12] Tom Delay, cited in Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 216.

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