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Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Apocalypse—and Convinced It Will Happen in the Near Future?

Unfortunately, we are more predisposed to imagine the end of the world than the end of American war-making.

Photo Credit: (Creative Commons / Max Pixel)

The following is an excerpt from the new book The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness by Betsy Hartmann (Seven Stories Press, May 2017):

According to opinion polls, a staggering percentage of Americans accept that the world will end in a battle in Armageddon. In a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of respondents said they expected Jesus Christ to return to Earth by 2050. Two years later a Reuters poll found that over one-fifth of the American population believed the end of the world will happen in their lifetime, as compared to 6 percent in France, 7 percent in Belgium, and 8 percent in Great Britain. Another recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 49 percent of Americans think that natural disasters are a sign of “the end times.”

In the months before the purported December 21, 2012 Mayan apocalypse, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) received so many inquiries from children and adults terrified that a rogue planet might crash into the Earth or that the sun might explode that it set up a special webpage to allay their fears. The page received over four and a half million views. On December 22, NASA posted a video it had made in advance, “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday.”

Of all the intertwining reasons for our apocalyptic disposition, the one that stands out most starkly is our acceptance of the necessity and inevitability of war. In the same 2010 Pew survey, six out of ten Americans saw another world war as definite or probable by 2050. This expectation of war isn’t surprising, given that Americans’ apocalyptic images and beliefs are derived mainly from Christianity, especially the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament which, above all, is about the grotesque violence and crowning glories of war.

The Book of Revelation is “wartime literature.” Its author, John, is thought to have been deeply affected by the Roman army’s attacks on Judea and its siege and sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. John himself was banished to the Greek island of Patmos by Roman rulers around 95 AD. In John’s macabre vision of the end times, a fourth of the Earth is wiped out, a third of the trees, green grass, and sea creatures are extinguished, and a third of the world’s water is poisoned. There are terrible earthquakes, fires, and plagues. Four demons kill a third of all mankind. The Whore of Babylon, a symbol of evil and carnal lust, is assaulted by the seven-headed, ten-horned Beast which strips her naked, eats her flesh, and burns her with fire.

Toward the end of the Book of Revelation, the savior with eyes like a flame of fire, “Faithful and True,” rides out on a white horse to lead the armies of Heaven in battle. He is “clothed with a vesture dipped in blood,” and on him are written the words “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” He holds a sword in his mouth “to smite the nations” so he can preside over them with a rod of iron and the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. In the Final Judgment the dead are brought back to life, but those judged to be sinners by their deeds are thrown along with the devil and death itself into the Lake of Fire, burning with brim stone, where they meet the second death of eternal suffering.

Fortunate, then, are those who are judged worthy to live on in the New Jerusalem, a city with streets of gold, gates of pearls, and walls inlaid with gems. There is no need for the sun or moon, since God and the Lamb are the light, and from their throne flows “a pure river of Water of Life, clear as crystal” that nourishes the fruits on the Tree of Life.

This promise of a New Jerusalem for the elect, and the cataclysmic violence against people and nature necessary to achieve that goal, has made the Book of Revelation an ideological tool of conquest and empire from the Crusades onwards. You don’t have to be a Christian to be susceptible to John’s logic that the perfect end—the New Jerusalem—justifies the bloody means.

Despite the official separation of church and state, religious axioms thread through the fabric of American political culture. Historian Robert Bellah coined the term “civil religion” to describe the religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. That a Higher Authority guides human affairs, that American history follows a providential path, that Americans are special and exceptional, a chosen people obliged to carry out God’s will or else suffer dire consequences, are widely held to be self-evident truths. So, too, is the belief that war is divinely justified.

The Civil War marked a watershed in the evolution of our civil religion. As it metastasized into a total war that targeted civilian populations as well as soldiers—estimates of the number of war deaths have recently been revised upwards to three-quarters of a million people—leaders and clergy on both sides invoked divine authority to justify the slaughter. “Many saw in the unprecedented destruction of lives and property something mystical taking place,” writes historian Harry Stout, “what we today might call the birthing of a fully functioning, truly national, American civil religion.” Patriotism became a sacred duty, as important as adherence to a traditional faith, maybe more so. Civil War deaths created a “republic of suffering” in which “sacrifice and the state became inextricably intertwined.”

World War I brought about a major reaffirmation of this civil religion. The nation’s turn away from isolationism to global intervention was accompanied by hyperbole about its “starring role as world redeemer” in a continuing war between good and evil around the globe. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” That we are ordained by God or a Higher Authority to be the defender of freedom has been a rallying call in America’s cold and hot wars ever since. Our national mission is bound tightly to our military might.

So, too, are our economy and government. In 1961, in his farewell speech to the American people, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of the growth of the military-industrial complex. It’s worth recalling his exact words:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Since then, the power of the military-industrial complex has become so pervasive that we have entered an era of what many commentators call permanent or endless war, in which we are always preparing for wars, or fighting them, or both. War has become normal, peace the aberration. “Today as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power,” writes West Point graduate and military scholar Andrew Bacevich. “The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys—and is bent on perpetuating—has become central to our national identity.” The prospect of endless combat induces powerful longings for some kind of ending. Unfortunately, we are more predisposed to imagine the end of the world than the end of American war-making.

Forward March of the Crusades

It is tempting to believe that permanent war began with 9/11 and the George W. Bush administration’s launch of the “Global War on Terror.” Bush’s doctrine of preventive war, giving the US the right to take “anticipatory actions to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack,” did mark a shift in official defense policy. The administration also expanded the theater of war to include the entire world. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here’. In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.”

The Bush doctrine was less a turning point, however, than the culmination of trends that began decades before. It was Jimmy Carter who legitimized ongoing American intervention in the Middle East to protect strategic energy interests. In his 1980 State of the Union address, he announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Bush Sr.’s first Gulf War flowed seamlessly from this doctrine.

When Reagan came to power in the 1980s, seeking to overcome the supposed defeatism that had set in after the disastrous war in Vietnam, his intention was “not only to rearm the Cold War militarily but to reload it ideologically.” His New Right coalition brought together neoconservative policy wonks and hardline career militarists like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld with the emerging political power bloc of the Christian Right.

It was an odd but effective foreign policy coalition, with Christian Right evangelicals adding an apocalyptic twist. “Their sense of themselves as a persecuted people engaged in a life and death end-time struggle between the forces of good and evil mapped easily onto the millennialism of anti-Communist militarists, particularly those involved in Central America,” writes historian Greg Grandin. Central America emerged as a laboratory for testing the coalition’s methods of intervention abroad. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the Reagan administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations against progressive leaders and social movements in the name of protecting freedom and spreading democracy.

Today Americans often think of the Christian Right in terms of the “culture wars” it waged, and is still waging, against abortion, sex education, gay rights, the teaching of evolution, and lack of religious training in public schools. Its role in the resurgence of militarism in the post-Vietnam period gets shorter shrift, but may turn out to be their most enduring legacy. Prior to the 1970s, Christian evangelicals hadn’t played a major role in American party politics. The hugely popular evangelical preacher Billy Graham was nonpartisan, serving as a spiritual advisor to Republican and Democratic presidents alike. But by the 1980s, Graham’s approach was superseded by “a movement built around partisan politics and apocalyptic rhetoric.” That movement was led by people like Reverend Jerry Falwell, who drew disaffected conservative white Christians to “I love America” rallies. In 1979 he launched his political organization, the Moral Majority, with the help of Tim LaHaye, a right-wing evangelical who went on to co-author the best-selling (80 million copies) Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels.

The Republican Party, already pursuing a strategy of wooing Southern whites, saw in the Moral Majority a route to electoral success. Ronald Reagan became the go-to man. One of the Christian Right’s main strongholds was Orange County, California, Reagan’s own power base, where it attracted into its fold many evangelical engineers and technicians employed by the defense industries located there.

In the early 1970s, as governor of California, Reagan had already started mining the evangelical vote. For many Christian fundamentalists, the Cold War battle with the Soviets literally signified the coming of the Biblical apocalypse. The Soviet Union was portrayed as the evil Gog, whose invasion of Israel was prophesized to hasten the end times. Reagan declared at a 1971 dinner with lawmakers that Russia “fits the description of Gog perfectly... For the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.”

This view of Israel’s centrality persists in apocalyptic narratives, though the enemy is now the evil Arabs rather than the evil Communists. The Christian Right provides key political support to hardline Israeli hawks, interpreting the return of the Jews to the region as a sign of the Second Coming. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told a reporter in 2007 that he lived for the Rapture, “and obviously we have to be connected to Israel... to enjoy the Second Coming of Christ.”

During his two terms in office, Reagan’s hardline foreign policy crusade played well to the Christian Right. He beefed up the military-industrial complex, massively increasing defense expenditures on systems like the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, which, despite its name, was meant to enhance America’s offensive power. The military underwent significant changes, including the final demise of the citizen-soldier in favor of a professional army and the ascendency of new hightech strategies of warfare.

Another of Reagan’s legacies was the manipulation of public opinion, not only as the so-called “Great Communicator” but also as Commander-in-Chief. In 1983 he set up an Office of Public Diplomacy that brought together experts from PR firms and military psychological operations—“psyops”—to sell the administration’s covert wars in Central and Latin America. In an Orwellian twist, the democratically-elected Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was portrayed as “terrorists” and the right-wing Contras as “freedom fighters” who embodied nothing less that the spirit of the American Revolution. The Office even coordinated a national campaign of religious sermons extolling the Contras.

The most pernicious effect of this campaign was the erosion of press freedom. The Office of Public Diplomacy fed the media so many falsehoods about Central America that journalists were forced to spend most of their time fact-checking, rather than pursuing their own independent lines of inquiry about US intervention in the region. Journalists who didn’t toe the Reagan line were targeted. “It was on the front lines of the Central American conflicts that the Pentagon learned how to finesse the news at home by controlling reporters at the source,” writes Greg Grandin. The brave war reporting of the Vietnam War era was over. We live with the consequences.

The “war on drugs” also played a starring role in the militarization of the homeland. Reagan officially launched it in 1982, though Nixon had already set the ball rolling during his administration. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor of Watergate fame, later made this remarkable admission:

You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Reagan turned Nixon’s covert campaign into an all-out crusade. It didn’t matter that drug crime rates were declining. Reagan’s drug war, like Nixon’s, was less about drugs than about other strategic goals. In targeting small-time dealers and users, mainly black, in inner cities, it hid the fact that one of the main conduits for cocaine and other illegal drugs to enter the country was through smuggling operations run by the Contras and other “freedom fighters.” Reagan launched a media campaign to foment racial panic about the dangers of crack cocaine. “Almost overnight,” writes legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “the media was saturated with images of black ‘crack whores,’ ‘crack dealers,’ and ‘crack babies’—images that seemed to confirm the worst negative racial stereotypes about inner-city residents. The media bonanza surrounding ‘the new demon drug’ helped to catapult the War on Drugs from an ambitious federal policy to an actual war.”

The drug war began the full-scale militarization of domestic law enforcement. In 1981 Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act to facilitate the use of military equipment, bases, and intelligence by local, state, and federal police forces for anti-drug activities. The act eroded a long legal tradition, beginning with the post-Reconstruction-era Posse Comitatus Act, which proscribed the deployment of the military for civilian policing. By declaring drugs a national security threat, Reagan furthered the process of erasing that all-important boundary. To be sure, many police forces were still more interested in solving serious crimes than pursuing minor drug offenses, but Reagan sweetened the deal with large infusions of government cash. Another financial incentive was added in 1984 when local police agencies were given the opportunity to profit from property seized from suspected drug dealers and users. In 1986, with the passage of legislation mandating long minimum prison sentences for low-level drug dealing and crack cocaine possession, the cornerstones of the prison-military-industrial complex were set firmly in place.

From then on, the construction process was fast and ugly. In cities across the country, para-military SWAT teams were deployed to serve drug warrants, breaking unannounced into people’s homes, brandishing automatic weapons. Annual SWAT deployments grew from 3000 in the early 1980s to 40,000 by 2001. Community policing was out, military policing was in. The prison industry boomed. President Bill Clinton became Incarcerator-in-Chief, ratcheting up the “wars” on crime, drugs, and undocumented immigrants. His get-tough policies, including federal “three strikes and you’re out” legislation that mandated life sentences for minor crimes, swelled the ranks of the nation’s prisons. Under Clinton, more people were locked into federal and state prisons than under any president in American history.

Today, the US has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. More than two million people are imprisoned, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years. The increase is due to changes in sentencing policy, not changes in crime rates, which remain relatively low. More than 60 percent of prisoners are people of color, creating what Michelle Alexander calls “a new racial caste system,” as disenfranchisement and stigmatization persist even after release.

Reagan’s foreign policy crusade, the militarization of domestic law enforcement, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration prepped the body politic for the homeland security operations launched under George W. Bush. His War on Terror was less a rupture in business as usual than another step, albeit a big one, in organizing the country for permanent war at home and abroad. But there was an important difference between Reagan’s crusade and Bush’s sequel. Under Reagan the apocalyptic storylines woven into his bellicose foreign policy were largely scripted by the Christian Right. After the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, the apocalyptic nightmares that disturbed the sleep of the anesthetized body politic were diffused more widely. We have yet to wake up from them.

Excerpted from The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness by Betsy Hartmann (Seven Stories Press, May 2017).

 

Betsy Hartmann is professor of Development Studies and senior policy analyst with the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. She is currently working on a book, Apocalypse Forever: Nature, Empire and the American Dream, to be published by Seven Stories Press. 

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