Preachers of doom

Evangelicals who proclaim the coming apocalypse have failed to mobilise ordinary Americans but their

Have a Nice Doomsday

Nicholas Guyatt Ebury Press, 320pp, £10.99

ISBN 0061152242

Why are we so obsessed with the apocalypse? By "we", I don't mean those of us who actually believe in the imminent end of the world, as foretold by a literalist reading of the Bible (presumably a small share of this magazine's readers), but those of us who find apocalyptic believers - especially American apocalyptic believers - to be a source of sufficient anxiety that publishers churn out explanatory volumes such as Nicholas Guyatt's Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World. Does the liberal-minded audience that Guyatt has in mind for what he refers to as his "unnerving" tour of the American apocalypse industry really believe the end is nigh?

Evidently they do. Guyatt's breezy investigation is only the latest response to the success of books that skip the "why" and go directly to The End, most famously the fundamentalist Left Behind novels that have sold more than 60 million copies around the world. The secular apocalypse business isn't as lucrative, but bestsellers such as Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy and Chris Hedges's American Fascists, and a spate of lesser accounts of apocalypse-minded Christians, have found a sizeable niche for themselves as well. These range from the deliberately comical - Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America - to the densely theoretical - Catherine Keller's Apocalypse Now and Then: a Feminist Guide to the End of the World, a genuine tussle with the questions concerning apocalypse believers that rivals the original Revelation in its feverish imagination.

Such books are designed to frighten or to reassure, either to warn secular types of the potential for a political apocalypse created by those who believe in a spiritual one, or to persuade them that apocalyptic faith is akin to Elvis worship and flying saucer mania, the kind of lovable eccentricity that prospers in the US. American Theocracy presents a vision of malevolent power driven by biblical delusion; Apocalypse Pretty Soon offers a story of biblical delusion as a powerless end in itself, the mostly harmless meaning-making of the fringe.

Guyatt, an Englishman who went to Princeton University to write a dissertation on "manifest destiny" - the old American belief that God and the universe desired westward expansion, followed by US leadership of the world - ought to be well equipped to explore the unstable ground between such perspectives. It's an important project - as Guyatt points out, around 50 million US citizens believe Jesus will return with fireworks during their lifetime, and some of these believers are influential, such as the preacher John Hagee, the head of Christians United for Israel, and Joel Rosenberg, a former aide to Benjamin Netanyahu who converted from Judaism to evangelicalism, and whose apocalypse novels are so prescient - his novel The Last Jihad, written in 2000, essentially foretold 9/11 - that his work has been studied in the White House.

At the same time, apocalypse preachers tend to undermine any attempt to see them as prophets, sage or sinister. What are we to make, for example, of Tim LaHaye, who, at the age of 80, wears his hair as dark and shiny as shoe polish and who boasts to Guyatt about the golfing amenities of the fabulous Palm Springs home that his Left Behind books bought? Even LaHaye's bigotries are laughable - Guyatt spends several pages discussing another LaHaye book, The Unhappy Gays. This is only tangentially related to the apocalypse - LaHaye, like many fundamentalists, sees gay pride parades as harbingers of the end - but Guyatt knows that the image of LaHaye "undercover" in a "loud, brown, floral shirt and what appears to be a white PVC safari jacket, complete with silver pocket clasps and enormous triangular collars . . . cruising the haunts of San Diego's gay community" is the kind of comic material that requires no justification.

But LaHaye's biggest sellers, the Left Behind novels he co-authored with Jerry Jenkins, aren't so amusing. The first book begins with the Rapture, when, according to a strained reading of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, those who are saved will pop out of their clothes and ascend to heaven. All those who failed to accept Jesus as LaHaye understands him are "left behind" to the rule of the Antichrist, a smooth-talking Romanian who manages to instal himself as the head of the United Nations, which is an institution of enormous power in LaHaye's imagination. So far, so wacky; but the series reaches an awful climax in its 12th instalment, when Jesus returns and the tongues of those Jews who've not yet praised his name explode in their mouths. That, apparently, is the kind of tough love LaHaye means when he speaks of his great affection for Israel.

The spirit of the books might be best summed up by the new Left Behind video game that Guyatt test-drives. Players roam New York City converting passers-by - or massacring infidels. Guyatt gives over many pages of his book to the ramblings of apocalypse preachers, but their message is simple: convert or die. The good news, according to the Left Behind video game, is that if you accept the fundamentalist Christ, you get a new outfit: "When you convert men, they transform into identical preppy kids wearing V-necks. Women suddenly sport an orange jumper, like Velma from Scooby-Doo."

As the title indicates, Guyatt means his book to be funny, but he picks his targets wisely. Left Behind is vile, which makes for laughs. Mel Odom, who was hired by LaHaye's publisher to write a Left Behind military thriller spin-off series, tells Guyatt that his bestselling Apocalypse Dawn is "Tom Clancy with prayer" - but as ridiculous as that sounds, Guyatt is sympathetic to Odom. A single father of four, Odom writes to feed his kids. He's also written novelisations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, television shows that are hardly loved by his fundamentalist audience. What excites him about both Buffy and the apocalypse is the simple story of good versus evil; Buffy's demons or LaHaye's Antichrist make it all the more exciting. Beyond that, he's not much interested in the particulars of who gets raptured and why. "The Christian ideology," he says to Guyatt, "of exclusionary stuff - no, man. It's bring people close to the fire, warm them, feed them and give them a safe place to sleep."

This sensible theology, introduced late in Have a Nice Doomsday, prompts Guyatt to speculate that "it's possible that some of the 60 million Left Behind readers might have ideas about faith and the world beyond America that depart from the apocalyptic perspective". Possible? It's guaranteed. The great weakness of Have a Nice Doomsday, and of the secular fascination with apocalypse believers in general, is that both tend to mistake official doctrine for belief, as if readers are slaves to the texts. The Left Behind books are popular at my local library with immigrants, who like them not for their theology, but for their clichéd plots and simple prose - they are good tools for learning English. In five years of travels in fundamentalist America, I've met hundreds of Christian conservative Left Behind fans. Almost all drew careful distinctions between the mysteries of scripture and the black and whites of LaHaye's imagination. No more than a handful took his books literally and even fewer took any steps to adjust for the coming rapture.

Unfortunately, that handful includes some of the most powerful fundamentalists in the US. Guyatt's strongest chapters deal with Hagee, who "looks like a tubby Donald Rumsfeld" and "sounds a lot like a macaw". That's funny, but Hagee isn't: US politicians court his approval and the huge amounts of money that his Christians United for Israel can channel their way. In return, they parrot his prophecies, cleansed of the references that would reveal them as such - Hagee's conviction that the US may have to attack Iran as part of a scheme foretold in the Book of Ezekiel is sanitised as ostensibly sober-minded policy advice based on the needs of the nation rather than the scripture. Hagee, in turn, is invited on to CNN and Fox as a "Middle East expert" to advocate that very policy. Which is all the more disturbing when one considers that apocalypse preachers such as Hagee have a rather ambivalent relationship to America's welfare. For their predictions to be proven correct, the US will have to suffer a great deal more - a prospect they relish.

This fact leads to the most valuable insight of Have a Nice Doomsday, one that lifts it above the alarmism of American Theocracy and the bemusement of Apocalypse Pretty Soon: apocalyptic theology, Guyatt argues, is at odds with the American belief in manifest destiny. In the minds of men such as Hagee, both beliefs are narcissistic and often hateful, but they spring from different sources (an irrational pessimism versus an irrational optimism) and they lead to different ends. One with a big bang and a capital E, and one that's no more or less apocalyptic than the age-old project of empire. Which is what inspired the Book of Revelation in the first place - its author, John the Revelator, was thinking about Rome, rather than the US. The apocalypse has always been now.

Jeff Sharlet is the author of "In the Shadow of the Cross: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of America's Civil Religion", forthcoming from HarperCollins

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet