I’m not a fundie watchdog. So when I hear Fundamentalists say something weird it always comes to through leftwing or liberal media. And, yes, today was when I heard about Jim Bakker making the fantastic claim that those who mock Trump bring the apocalypse closer. Wait, what? Yes, that’s right. Most of us know Trump as the man whose behavior and speech inspire comparisons with the situation in Germany before World War II. And people who resist him are now ushering in Armageddon? Apparently!
Recently, I’ve started to read up on the background of my own Evangelical/Fundamentalist upbringing. For years, I wouldn’t touch it. I was done with it and sought to overcome errors in my Evangelical theology by constructing new theologies on the basis of Luther’s theology of the cross (see my upcoming publication with Mohr Siebeck). This way I avoided having to look back. Though I’m aware well acquainted with the Evangelical movement, I was in for a number of surprises, though, when I started reading “American Apocalypse” by Matthew A. Sutton.
Reading that book, I realize that Jim Bakker’s erratic pronouncement is not so strange or novel after all. Did you know that in the 1930s Fundamentalists were the staunchest opponents of Roosevelt and his New Deal? That’s right! They thought that Roosevelt’s program with its increased government control and social programs was to bring about a totalitarian state that would eventually succumb to a communist-like state in which the Antichrist would eventually gain total control, thus surrendering the USA in Satan’s claws. The Lord was returning soon. But first, something else had to happen. According to prophetic timetables read into the current political situation, the Antichrist would head up a ten-state alliance before revealing himself as Satan’s representative.
Since they felt called to influence the precise outcome of the prophecies of doom, Fundamentalists threw themselves into the battle against Satan with all they got by evangelizing the lost, analyzing prophecy, and influencing education, culture, and politics. Though this engagement of culture took different forms, Fundamentalists typically argued for small government so that America might be spared the rod of God’s coming conflagration. This position was no less influenced by the fact that Fundamentalists were largely funded by big business. And so, they loathed Roosevelt.
Sutton’s book has opened my eyes for a few other things as well. He argues for instance that there is no real difference between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Now that’s a biggie that many Evangelicals today won’t buy. According to Sutton, the name-change from Fundie to Evangie occurred sometime after WWII merely for the purpose of shaking off the negative image that the word fundamentalist had cast on the movement (ironically precisely by the way Fundamentalists engaged culture). Evangelicals probably resent the idea that they are the heirs of the early 20th-century Fundamentalist movement. However, one has only to look at the fact that Evangelicals adhere to exactly the same tenets of faith as the Fundamentalists of 70-80 years ago and realize that today’s top Evangelical institutions are the same that carried the Fundamentalist message in the 1920s and 1930s to see that there is no real difference.
Evangelicalism today is characterized by many of the same things that marked Fundamentalism: advocacy for small government, a pro-big business attitude (many mega-churches today are religious corporations), a disgust for socialism and even more so communism, and blindness to its own white privilege (if not blatant racism). Like the Fundamentalists of a previous era, Evangelical theology fails to structurally integrate social justice into the core of its theological program. After all, Jesus is returning soon and being saved from hell is more important than having to eat.
Sutton points out something else. He asserts that what drives Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, making both terms merely pointers for different periods in the same movement, is the belief that Jesus is returning soon. Right from just before the turn of the 20th century to today, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals predict the imminent return of Jesus prior to a millennium of peace but not before a period of unprecedented tribulation for humanity. Sutton says that this apocalyptic outlook is what really unifies the movement over time.
This linear, fixed, and predestined unfolding of future history according to a divine plan, determines these believer’s orientation in life and their action in the world. Though early premillennialists like Darby thought it was best to retreat from the world and its evil affairs in quiet expectancy of the Lord’s return, most American Fundamentalists and Evangelicals were actively engaged in politics, culture, and education, interpreting everything through the lens of the coming apocalypse. Since the world is about to end, what is the point of a gradual improvement of the world by engaging in programs to end poverty and achieve social justice and equality? All you need to do is preach the gospel and warn for the impending end.
Fundamentalists paradoxically turned out to be both radically countercultural and conformist. They were the former in that they resisted the process of secularization and integration of the advances of science in education (think evolution). They were the latter in that they were completely racially segregated, deeply racist, in favor of small government, against unions, while maintaining strong ties with big business.
This weird mix of otherworldly orientation and political action resulted in strong support for the idea of American exceptionalism. America was God’s chosen nation through which he would intervene in the world. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Movement founded in 1979 represents not a novelty but rather a culmination of a process in which to be Christian meant to be deeply committed to the principles of the GOP. Jim Bakker, too, is nothing new. Not only because he’s old now, but because he is but a lesser light of a movement that has influenced American politics from a particular premillennialist interpretation and actualization of the Biblical text that sets the political situation of today in a stark apocalyptic light. That such interpretation has been wrong for a full 100% of the time—because, er, where is Jesus and where is the Antichrist?—does not deter these prophets of doom one bit.
Instead of addressing their own white privilege, racism, and complicity in economic exploitation of the disadvantaged of the earth, some of these Evangelicals have the guts to assert that to mock Trump is to speak in the Spirit of the Antichrist while other Evangelicals, more aware of the moral bankruptcy of such thinking, prefer to remain silent in order to not offend their constituencies. But what about Trump himself? What about his authoritarian speech, his mockery of the disabled and undocumented immigrant, his adherence to the “Father of Lies,” so to speak? You got nothing to say about that, Jim?
No, Jim doesn’t. And that’s why I refer to this kind of Christianity with “Pwayse Tyeesis.” The adherents of this form of Christianity say “Praise Jesus” a lot and have outbursts of “Hallelujahs” for the glorious name of the Lord as they march forward for the sake of the Kingdom and its glorious coming. But their “Praise Jesus” is a mere vocalization of a meaningless conglomerate of vowels and consonants through the use of facial and labial muscles. It has little to do with paying actual homage to the person of Jesus, even when there is a wide spectrum of interpretations as to what is honoring to Jesus, let alone as to who Jesus is. “Pwayse Tyeesis” is a speech-act intended to disseminate a distorted view of the world with the aim of influencing and dominating the political stage in America.
Pwayse Tyeesis says Jim Bakker (actually, he used to say “PTL!” a lot) and all the evangelical leaders who exult in Trump’s coming to power. Pwayse Tyeesis, because the time is nigh. Pwayse Tyeesis, because SCOTUS is now the Lord’s. Pwayse Tyeesis, in spite of pussy grabbing misogyny, in spite of undocumented parents losing their children for good, in spite of the degradation of the highest office, in spite of racist slurs. Racist slurs, who cares about them; we used them yesteryear? Pwayse Tyeesis, because we can finally enforce our morals on the entire population of our country by means of the most immoral president we’ve ever had.
The weird thing is that all this idiotic truth-twisting with which Evangelical leaders justify their hypocritical theology and impressively match the deceitfulness of their favorite president actually threatens to beget the fulfillment of the prophecies they both warn about and exult in. We don’t know if Jesus is coming soon, but there are a few things we actually do know. If the president of the USA is able to continue down this perilous path, the man we are not supposed to mock is sure to bring doom and destruction on us all, citizens of “a planet called earth.” And thus the Fundamentalist would yet reach its apotheosis, but probably not in the way intended.
I can say it too. It’s where I come from.