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McCain’s Ministers of Doom

John McCain had better get someone on his staff who understands American religion, and fast. In his efforts to court the Religious Right, he has taken the worst approach possible. Rather than build bridges to the new generation of evangelical power players such as Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Joel Osteen, each of whom tries to put the emphasis on the compassion in “compassionate conservative,” he has instead been wooing tongues-speaking, fire-breathing, ministers of doom.

On Thursday McCain denounced John Hagee and rejected his endorsement. Shortly thereafter, he distanced himself from evangelist Rod Parsley, whose endorsement he had also sought and accepted.

McCain apparently did not understand that both Hagee and Parsley represent a core group of evangelicals who are obsessed with the Apocalypse. They believe that hidden deep within some of the most obscure passages of the Bible are secret messages that predict the rapture of all true Christians, the rise of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and the Second Coming of Christ. Each has built multi-million dollar ministries decoding these messages for countless Americans.

That McCain’s allies are obsessed with the Antichrist is not enough by itself to embarrass the Republican. In fact, Ronald Reagan was an occasional student of biblical prophecy. The problem is that once a Christian accepts the premise that the rise of the Antichrist is imminent, he or she inevitably begins looking for evidence of his coming. After all, Jesus counseled his followers to be prepared.

This is where things get ugly. Over the last one-hundred years, such ministers of doom have identified Antichrist after Antichrist; and each time they have been wrong. Evangelicals have suspected Roman Catholics, Communists, secular humanists, and now—as Parsley has explicitly said—Muslims of partnering with the Antichrist to take over the world.

And this is not the candidate’s only problem with his new allies. In every evangelical apocalyptic scheme, Jews play a central role. In the 1890s, the first modern ministers of doom predicted that the return of Jews to Palestine would signal the commencement of what the Bible calls the “last days” of human existence as we know it. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, their excitement has exponentially increased, as evidenced by the runaway success of such apocalyptic bestsellers as Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth and the more recent success of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels.

On the one hand, evangelicals love the Jews, believing that they are God’s chosen people and they have an inalienable right to a major chunk of the Middle East. Ministers like Hagee are therefore the strongest supporters of Israel in the United States. On the other hand, ministers of doom often see Jews as little more than pawns in the grand, end-times scheme. At the root of their strident Zionism is the conviction that Jews will suffer horribly at the hands of the Antichrist, and will inadvertently provoke a world war culminating in the battle of Armageddon and the return of Jesus. For evangelicals, Zionism is a means to an end, one that results in a millennial paradise for evangelicals (and those Jews who convert to Christianity), and the fires of hell for Muslims and everyone else.

John Hagee’s and Rod Parsley’s views are not surprising to scholars of American evangelicalism. These men are part of a long apocalyptic tradition that runs from the late nineteenth century through Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell to the present, where it remains as vibrant as ever. The firestorm that the candidate’s embrace of Hagee and Parsley incited was inevitable. That McCain didn’t see it coming reveals what terrible advice he is getting and how truly out-of-touch he is with religious conservatives. In picking some of the most extreme agents of intolerance to buddy up to in an effort to mend fences with the Religious Right, and then having to publicly denounce them, McCain has done the unthinkable—he has simultaneously lost face with the moderates who liked his independent streak and the religious conservatives that he so badly needs. McCain may discover that his ministers of doom, in their efforts to thwart the Antichrist, have accidentally brought down a November apocalypse on him.