CTheory Books: Left Behind
One Nation Under God
The United States of America is history’s first formally secular republic. The U.S. constitution guarantees legal separation between church and state. This is one reason why America has long been viewed as a beacon of modern enlightenment, democratic governance, and scientific rationality. This is the sober and pragmatic America envisioned by the nation’s “founding fathers,” most of whom were deists. This is an America governed by “self-evident” rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is also the America of “the Protestant ethic” described by Max Weber, an America that believed that “the rational and utilitarian uses of wealth … were willed by God for the needs of the individual and the community.” In this America, enlightenment and religion stroll as cordial companions, each complementing the existence of the other. But this is only one side of a decidedly Janus-faced America. Since its inception, another powerful — and far less rational — religious spirit has split the nation’s attention, bifurcating America’s vision of itself and its place in world history.
The second American religious spirit is the intense, emotionally charged, and judgmental Christian spirit of a nation believing itself to be the divinely ordained agent of God’s kingdom on earth. This is an apocalyptic religious spirit, a harbinger of God’s imminent intervention into the course of human history. From the time of the American Revolution to the present, when political leaders invoke this second spirit to praise the virtues of freedom and liberty, the terms they use are “saturated with religious meaning.” This is to speak of freedom in ways that transcend the human rights and democratic principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Here, freedom is drenched in biblical connotations and blood, an offspring of grace and the unerring authority of the Gospel. This suggests a special kind of freedom — not simply freedom from tyrannical rule and unjust authority, but freedom found in “the joy of conversion, and a liberation from the pain and sorrow of normal life.”
Early in American history, this explicitly religious imagination of freedom became coupled with a righteous “theology of hatred.” This theology marched hand-in-hand with a ritual demonizing of the country’s enemies. Indeed, from King George to Saddam Hussein, one American enemy after another has been portrayed as being in league with the devil, or bearing the “mark of the beast,” a prophetic sign of the dreaded Antichrist depicted in the Book of Revelation. Pitted against these satanic adversaries, the second side of the American religious spirit conjures up an image of the United States as a nation chosen by God to champion the cause of the good in a cosmic eschatological battle with the forces of evil. Ebbing and flowing as a force in history, the passionate second side of the American religious imagination exerted greatest influence in U.S. politics during the mid-nineteenth century and again in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In the early twenty-first century, the righteous Christian warrior ethos associated with this second American spirit is again ascendant in the “born again” political rhetoric of U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush’s many thinly-veiled references to God’s divine mission for America — in spreading freedom across the globe and fighting evil at home and abroad — have stirred millions of people to view his presidency in starkly religious terms. This is evident in the testimony of Hardy Billington of Poplar Bluff, Missouri. With his friend, the fundamentalist preacher David Hahn, Billington circulated a petition that collected 10,000 signatures inviting President Bush to make a 2004 campaign stop in their town. When word reached the White House about the petition, plans were made for Bush to travel to Poplar Bluff. Following the president’s speech to a crowd of 20,000, Billington declared, “To me, I just believe God controls everything, and God uses the president to keep evil down, to see darkness and protect this nation… Other people will not protect us. God gives people choices to make. God gave us this president to be the man to protect the nation at this time.”
The religious aura surrounding President Bush and the righteous anger of his supporters surprised many of Bush’s political opponents following the 2004 U.S. elections. Out of touch with the fateful second spirit of American religious culture — at least consciously — and viewing politics in more rational and “reality-based” terms, many otherwise thoughtful critics found themselves hard pressed to explain Bush’s populist appeal. This is not entirely surprising. For the most part, the social biographies and religious trajectories of those who most oppose Bush set them apart from the everyday worlds of conservative white evangelicals. In addition, when Protestant, Bush’s critics are far more likely to belong to shrinking mainstream white (Protestant) denominations or to African American or African diasporic churches, than be members of fundamentalist evangelical church-communities. Isolated on the supposedly more rational side of America’s religious-social divide, many liberal or left-leaning critics are either unfamiliar with, or relatively inattentive to, a great deal of what has been going on among fervent members of the Christian right.
One thing that has been going on in conservative evangelical culture is the so-called Left Behind phenomenon — the publication and mass consumption of the best-selling Left Behind novels, authored by writers and political activists Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Although marketed beneath the radar of most secular readers, the Left Behind series has already sold in the vicinity of an astounding 63 million copies. This represents an unprecedented and an enormously influential conservative Christian intervention into contemporary American (popular) culture. This essay explores the social genesis and impact of the Left Behind books, the social technologies they deploy, and their accompanying media offshoots. In so doing, I hope to shed modest light on key elements of the religious imagination mobilized for political purposes by supporters of George W. Bush and Republican Party organizers.
The Left Behind books appear at a fateful moment in history, a time in which the future of humankind is marked, not only by the promises and anxieties of far-reaching global social and technological changes, but also widespread personal and spiritual insecurities, stemming from vast global economic restructuring and amplified social inequality. The soul-shattering anxieties of this age are for many people magnified by unprecedented waves of global migration, the omnipresent threat of brutal terrorism and preemptive warfare, a rapid-fire breakdown in traditional forms of family life and gender roles, and the penetration of the market into even the innermost sanctums of everyday life. Within, or against, or perhaps simply to make mythic meaning of this troubled historical landscape, the Left Behind novels have captivated millions upon millions of readers with a prophetic apocalyptic tale of biblical End Times and the vengeful second coming of Jesus Christ.
Like a heat-seeking rocket targeting the vicissitudes of the flesh, the Left Behind phenomenon is a vibrant talisman of a worldview channeling important aspects of America’s dominant religious imagination of itself. Signs depicting the fears and fascinations of a bold New World Order of ultramodern culture and power are on display everywhere in the Left Behind books — from terror and war in the Middle East, to paranoiac imaginings of mass death, total governmental control, and omnipresent technological surveillance. Stories of mesmeric manipulation by the electronic media, One-World corporate economic domination, reconfigurations of gender and sexuality, and struggles to save one’s mortal soul are also woven into the novels that compose the twelve-volume Left Behind series.
To enter the world of Left Behind is to move perilously within the enchanted psycho-geography of America’s dark and irrational religious second side. To read Left Behind is also to risk coming face-to-face with the violence of America’s homegrown version of anti-modern extremism. Confronting the dangerous shadow side of American religious experience and practice is neither pleasant nor easy. It is, nevertheless, important that critical scholars undertake this challenge, if only to help put the brakes on a wide range of religiously-fueled technologies of exploitative empire-building — new global technologies of power that march zealously under the banner of “God Bless America.” In engaging with this essay, I invite you to join me in this task.
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958. p. 171.
 Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Random House, 2000. pp. 83, 80.
 Ibid. pp. 84-85.
 Quoted in Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 16, 2004. p. 64.
 Stephen Pfohl, “New Global Technologies of Power: Cybernetic Capitalism and Social Inequality,” in Mary Romero and Eric Margolis, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 456-592.