Since it debuted in the 1990s, the Left Behind series has sold almost 70 million books worldwide. The religious apocalypse that co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins describe is therefore far from small bore. Their take on the Bible’s more contentious passages is another matter. “Jerry and I have unashamedly taken the position that all prophecy should be interpreted literally whenever possible. We have been guided,” LaHaye continues, in a notably passive clause, “by the golden rule of interpretation: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”2
The problem of literalism, encapsulated here, surpasses the attraction of the series to its countless avid readers. There were worrying signs this summer that a similar brand of literalism could influence the U.S. general election. As Time reported in August, in a troubling article bearing the unbelievable title “An Antichrist Obama in McCain Ad?,” the Republican nominee appeared to draw explicitly on the series’ imagery and rhetoric to stoke fear among evangelicals.3
“It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed,” a July McCain ad warned portentously. “They will call him ‘The One.’ And the world will receive his blessings.” The ad encouraged viewers to scorn Barack Obama’s experience and popularity—normally seen as a plus—by transforming the latter into disturbing hints of messianism. Others, like David Gergen, perceived the ad as code that Obama was being “uppity.” If the McCain camp “wanted to be funny,” one Democratic consultant noted, “if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he’s the Second Coming, there [were] better ways to do it. Why use awkward lines like, ‘And the world will receive his blessings’?”4
Time wasn't alone in noting that the ad—especially its biblical language— openly invoked the Left Behind series.5 Certainly, that is when the innuendos—and threats of violence—kicked in. The books feature a charismatic young political leader, Nicolae Carpathia, who promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. As if life were imitating art, Carpathia is a junior senator beloved by millions and “fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature.” The series finally exposes him as the Antichrist, but not before he tries to end interfaith strife with the ominous, even heretical slogan “We Are God.”
Many religious traditions, some of them Christian, come close to voicing that sentiment. Among evangelicals, however, such ideas must seem as if they come from the devil himself. Hence the dangerous high-wire act that McCain’s ad performed—the reason we can’t dismiss it as innocent or tongue in cheek. When Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, followed up by calling media criticism of Sarah Palin “an attack on Christianity” itself, he revealed the campaign's reckless scorched-earth policy.6 The McCain camp was playing with fire, and clearly not only knew that but actively relished it.
If U.S. presidential campaigns—and the audience they address—had a history of embracing irony, none of this would matter too much. But literalism—evangelical and otherwise—played an outsized role in this campaign. And if future ones deem it acceptable to paint opponents as the Antichrist—just one of several appalling slanders hurled at Obama, including the now-infamous charge that he "palled around with terrorists"—politics and religion will become more tangled, embroiling the country in another round of faith and culture wars.
Months before the faux controversy over lipstick, pigs, and rotten fish that for two weeks obsessed the mainstream media, dramatic Internet activity hinted at widespread public unease. Soon after the candidate Obama began racking up a string of impressive victories in the Democratic primary last spring, Time noted that a Google search for Obama and “Antichrist” could generate more than 700,000 hits, “including at least one blog dedicated solely to the topic.” “A more obscure search for ‘Obama’ and ‘Nicolae Carpathia,’” the columnist continued, “yield[ed] a surprising 200,000 references.” With such numbers in play, any suggestion that evangelical anxiety is a fringe concern that can once more be ignored understates the scale of the problem and its amorphous power as fantasy and belief.
This was not the first occurrence of such thinking in presidential campaigns. When Reagan first ran for office, he generated similar anxiety among evangelicals because each of his three names—Ronald Walker Reagan—contained six letters, resulting in a well-known code for the devil (666).
That was nearly three decades ago. Throughout the 2008 campaign, the United States again succumbed to a similar war against moral and linguistic uncertainty. Its target: the haze of doubt and uncertainty still threatening to envelop us as we try to come to terms with the recent past and imagine a future that might redeem it. For much of the campaign, nuance was out, apparently a luxury for the elite, and literalism became the country’s Holy Grail. Words and symbols had to shore up faith in God and country or risk being denounced for failing to do so.
Although the campaign is now over, many evangelicals still harbor these hopes and expectations. But when the “plain sense” of Scripture meets the “common sense” of American fundamentalism, and LaHaye and Jenkins identify the single meaning for millions of readers, the results look closer to indoctrination than education.
Consider one example: the period of “tribulation” that Jesus is said to undergo in one of the gospels. LaHaye and Jenkins turn that into a 490-year interval (seventy sets of seven-year periods). With an incredible fantasy of accuracy, they even proclaim that a “divine prophetic clock” began ticking on March 5, 444 B.C., “when the Persian king Artaxerxes issue[d] a decree allowing the Jews to return under Nehemiah’s leadership to rebuild the city of Jerusalem.”
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and especially the Book of Revelation repeatedly mention the ancient city of Babylon. For LaHaye, Jenkins—and presumably for many of their readers—that means but one thing: “The city of New Babylon [Baghdad] will be rebuilt in Iraq in the last days as a great world political and economic center for the Antichrist’s empire.” Reflexive irony is missing here. The empire in question—to justify the costly, protracted, and illegal occupation of that land—apparently did not fabricate evidence that it might soon be attacked. If there is cause for marvel, it is surely how quickly the catastrophes of American foreign policy can still be turned into opportunities for religious prophecy.
The extreme literalism of the Left Behind series may seem like a recent invention. In fact, the phenomenon has a surprisingly long and varied history. The word literalism first appeared soon after the outbreak of England’s 1640 civil war, when Milton warned against the literalist who tried to view concupiscence—lust for another—as grounds for divorce.7 Given the authoritarianism of the Stuarts, the risks of undermining the sanctity of marriage were considerable; the word disappeared from view for the next two hundred years.
It made a strong comeback in the second half of the nineteenth century. With the rise of free thought and evolutionary theory, scholars and members of England’s established church found it increasingly necessary to advance metaphorical interpretations of Scripture. The public, the church’s congregations very much included, wanted religion and science reconciled, not perpetually at war.
Roman Catholicism ended up accepting evolutionary theory without much controversy. But not all of Christianity’s disparate factions were as sanguine about doing so. With its fierce commitment to creationism, American fundamentalism emerged in stark reaction to these nondoctrinal interpretations. Denying their credibility, it denounced them as heresy and superimposed on Scripture a pristine start for Adam and Eve when extant versions of Genesis gave the couple a less auspicious beginning.
For Victorians in the 1860s, the devastating consequences of breaking with literalist biblical exegesis are not, then, as remote as we might imagine. An astonishing number of Americans today believe the earth was created six thousand years ago, that humanity sprang from one couple, and that the book of Genesis can trump what science repeatedly tells us, no matter how persuasively. We are, in 2008, still fighting the 1925 Scopes trial, for we can’t yet agree where science and religion belong.
The 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species through Natural Selection was another “earthshaking” moment when science clashed dramatically with religion. Darwin’s treatise sold its initial print-run of 1,250 copies the first day and whisked through several more printings. But the 1860-61 publication of an obscure English journal, Essays and Reviews, actually sparked a much-bigger crisis. It did so simply by describing historical approaches to the Bible—work that had been thriving in Germany for more than three decades.
The crisis that stemmed from this one special issue was remarkable, sending many believers reeling in shock. The suggestion that some aspects of the Bible might best be interpreted historically, even metaphorically, was devastating for congregations brought up to believe that the Bible is the Word. Even so, the scholarship was compelling, readable, and rigorous. Flying rapidly through nine editions in its first year, Essays and Reviews sold almost 17,000 copies. It soon became known for melting what one contributor called the “unmeaning frostwork of dogma.”8
The best lines were left to Benjamin Jowett, one of England’s leading classicists, who wrote unsparingly: “The unchangeable word of God, in the name of which we repose, is changed by each age and each generation in accordance with its passing fancy.” Further, he continued, “The book in which we believe all religious truth to be contained is the most uncertain of all books,” because it is inconsistent and “interpreted by arbitrary and uncertain methods.”
Those who deny such variability, Jowett cautioned, and prefer a “minute and rigid enforcement of the words of Scripture,” put expectations on the Bible that it cannot hope to satisfy. It is not the Word, he implies, if by Word we mean something so absolute and unchanging, it lacks historical inflection. Insisting otherwise would only have unforeseen effects: “Doubt comes in at the window, when Inquiry is denied at the door.”9
Essays and Reviews wanted to replace rote learning with interest in the Bible’s historical variability, and rigid literalism with shades of metaphor. As the scholar Jude Nixon notes in excellent appraisal, its authors wanted to “make the Scripture speak again, to make the rocks cry out” and present “the archive . . . not as an ‘closed, plethoric totality of a meaning,’ but as an “incomplete, fragmented figure.”10
Only by taking such an open approach to the Gospels and Old Testament could the scholar Baron von Bunsen “naturalize the great deluge, read . . . Genesis as an incomplete history of origins, find . . . the biblical chronology unreliable, and interpret . . . the narrative of the Red Sea crossing” as “the latitude of poetry.”11
More than a century-and-a-half later, the idea that we could read the Bible with such “latitude” seems almost scandalous in some quarters. In the U.S. today, the “unmeaning frostwork of dogma” has returned as a virtue and high-stakes political venture. This poses serious problems for a country expecting those seeking highest office to present their faith credibly before they pledge to uphold the separation of church and state. Literalism—ground zero in the latest round of faith and culture wars—only makes that challenge starker and more difficult to attain. By presenting the world and our history in black and white, it turns faith into an all-or-nothing affair. We’re left no room for uncertainty, let alone doubt. Even so, doubt remains a kind of oxygen to faith; it keeps returning as a theme in the Bible, whether as the miracle of Jonah’s surviving inside a whale or, much later, with Peter’s repeated testing of Jesus.
In the context of such questioning, Obama’s well-informed response to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is notable. Dobson, you may recall, criticized Obama for distorting the Bible and adopting a “fruitcake interpretation” of the U.S. Constitution. His comment stemmed from Obama’s earlier insistence that it would be “impractical” to govern solely from the word of the Bible. Unlawful, too, given our Constitution.12
Since Obama would not back down over this fight, he may unwittingly have fueled resentment among influential evangelicals. “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?,” he asked appropriately. “Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith, or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount?”
Dobson, backed into a corner, replied that Obama “should not be referencing antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer relevant.” Yet moving the debate to questions of relevance—as Essays and Reviews did—and hinting at his own selective application of biblical verses was Dobson’s immediate undoing. Leviticus is an old stand-by, not least because it contains a broad range of injunctions. Dobson apparently can pick and choose his favorites, even as he condemns others for doing so. But Obama cautioned, “Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bible”—as worshippers and readers, that is, who recognize, but don’t sanction, the ancient allusions to slavery and the stoning of unruly children and adulterous women.
Those tempted to dismiss such controversies as a sideshow before the country resumes its separation of church and state ignore literalism’s attraction to millions—a size and ardor that rule out quick dismissal. A powerful force in American culture, literalism increasingly motivates and inspires voters wanting particular kinds of accountability in schools, in public health policy (including faith and abstinence programs), and among politicians. That accountability differs radically from what secularists want; powerful, devout representatives nonetheless continue to demand it.
There is no easy solution to the crises these passions and controversies generate, not least because so many of our elected officials are doing all they can to stoke and exploit them. We need more common ground and shared goals, yet our polarized communities make them increasingly difficult to find. Still, for those of us who distrust absolutes and find gray areas more appealing than troublesome, it seems necessary to state, quite clearly, that our opponents do not have demonic powers or come to us beamed down from Venus or Mars. We may not agree with our opponents, but like us they are human, from Earth. To pretend otherwise is a dangerous contrivance.
. Tim LaHaye, “Introduction” Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice, The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times
(Sisters, Ore: Multnomah, 2004), 6; italics in original.
3. Amy Sullivan, “An Antichrist Obama in McCain Ad?” Time (August 8, 2008).
4. An unnamed Democratic consultant, quoted in ibid.
5. See also Nicholas D. Kristof, "The Push to 'Otherize' Obama," New York Times (September 20, 2008) and Lauren Sandler, "In the Last Days of the Election: Apocalypse Now, Palin?," Huffington Post (October 25, 2008).
6. Rick Davis, appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s Radio Program (September 10, 2008).
7. John Milton, The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce: Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes, from the Bondage of Canon Law, and Other Mistakes, to the True Meaning of Scripture in the Law and Gospel Compar’d (London, 1645), 67 (II, xvii).
8. George Moberly, Sermons on the Beatitude, 3rd ed. (Oxford: James Parker, 1870), xxii, xxv; Rowland Williams, “Bunsen’s Biblical Researches,” Essays and Reviews, ed. Rev. Frederic H. Hedge (1860-61; Boston: Walker, Wise, 1861), 68; Mark Pattison, “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688-1750,” Essays and Reviews, 327.
9. Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” Essays and Reviews, 409-10, 397, 411.
10. Jude V. Nixon, “‘Kill[ing] Our Souls with Literalism’: Reading Essays and Reviews,” Religion and the Arts 5.1-2 (2001), 38.
11. Ibid., 40-41; Williams, “Bunsen’s Biblical Researches,” 67.
12. “Dobson Accuses Obama of ‘Distorting’ Bible,” CNN Political Tracker (June 24, 2008).