Thomas Lecaque | Published in Greenwich Time
In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Station Eleven,” survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic do their best to rebuild their lives in northern Michigan. Some of them build an apocalyptic cult premised on the idea that the epidemic was a judgment from God that spared those who were worthy. One of the characters, Tyler Leander, takes the title of “prophet” and builds a militant, Christian-infused apocalyptic movement – a movement that in the book, of course, fails.
A similar strand of “prophetic” Christianity is alive and well in America, and we, too, are in the midst of a pandemic that with an ever-increasing death toll could easily be described in apocalyptic terms. Further, as I have written before, President Donald Trump certainly seems like he is the apocalyptic figure that evangelicals are looking for, and his personal failings fit into a preexisting Christian apocalyptic framework. But as I look around, waiting to see our own Leander emerge from the ranks of Trump’s evangelical supporters, it’s apparent that none of them are showing up. It’s not like apocalyptic preachers don’t have plenty of apocalyptic events to choose from this year if the coronavirus isn’t sufficient: murder hornets in the Pacific Northwest; a derecho of unimaginable strength in Iowa; wildfires raging across the western half of the country, a strain of avian flu – separate from the coronavirus – found in a turkey farm in South Carolina, hastily suppressed. If none of these portends the apocalypse for today’s evangelicals, it isn’t the events themselves or the eschatological theology that’s stopping them from taking them that way – it’s what interpreting them in such terms would mean. Simply put, the pandemic is not the apocalypse they are looking for.
The Trump administration has left its apocalyptically inclined evangelical allies in an eschatological bind: They have an apocalyptic leader and an apocalyptic scenario, but they themselves are fully in power . . . or at least they have been. According to evangelical teaching, the apocalypse traditionally begins with a time of persecution of the true church – at which point, the Four Horsemen, of whom one may be Pestilence, emerge. If the pandemic is apocalyptic, in evangelical thought, it is part of the “Great Tribulation.” But for that to come about, an ungodly ruler must be in power, which means if the moment we’re living through is the “Great Tribulation,” Trump is not the apocalyptic hero but one of the villains – and they are following the wrong leader. That could, of course, all change once Biden’s victory is finally and irrevocably clear. But for the time being, these assumptions speak to the relative absence of apocalyptic alarm among evangelicals – and, perhaps, help explain their reluctance to take the pandemic seriously.
The last great disease outbreak that became presidential news before 2020 was the horrific Ebola outbreak in 2014, where Trump accused the president of being a “psycho” for not stopping flights, and Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s most ardent evangelical defenders, wrote a book claiming that ISIS and Ebola were the countdown to the apocalypse. He wasn’t the only one who linked Ebola and apocalypse together: Franklin Graham, another Trump supporter, wrote that the Ebola outbreak was a sign of the end times; the writer Sharon K. Gilbert, who appears to be supportive of Trump, wrote the nonfiction “Ebola and the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse,” linking it to Revelation 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: And his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Even more directly, James Hagee, another Trump supporter, said that Ebola was God’s punishment for Obama’s “dividing Jerusalem.”
If a horrific – but limited – outbreak in Africa in 2014 under President Barack Obama, the first Black president of this country, was an apocalyptic event, certainly a global pandemic whose global death toll now numbers well over a million should qualify as well. But the idea of Christian apocalypse relies on a narrative of degeneracy. The world is so bad that it can only be redeemed by a millennial transformation through, say, cataclysmic warfare, or a society-ending pandemic, or whatever other apocalyptic event strikes the imminent eschatological fancy – something many modern evangelicals continue to focus on. Ebola certainly seemed to fit the bill. Covid-19 of course fits it even better. But Trump’s evangelical allies have subjugated theology to partisanship.
What apocalypticism we did get in the lead-up to the election was muted, at best. Pat Robertson claimed Trump would be reelected, and this would lead to war and the End Times, with no mention of covid-19. John Hagee claimed the coronavirus was a deliberate plot, with China, the media and liberal politicians supposedly conspiring to make it an issue to hurt Trump in November. We got the bizarre, incorrect predictions of QAnon and their never-coming “Storm” – and now Q has effectively accepted Trump’s loss, seeming to suggest it, too, is part of the “plan.” And we got a new wave of “Patriot Churches,” embracing the notion of Christian Nationalism and connecting it explicitly to Trump. We did not get a widespread narrative of the pandemic as the apocalypse.
Donald Trump pulled 75 percent to 80 percent of evangelical voters in 2020, according to early AP analysis. The rhetoric of spiritual warfare, of holy war, of sacral violence, is mostly being channeled into the false claim that Trump won the election – but in service of specifically Trumpian talking points, with Christian rhetoric being guided by partisan ideology rather than theological aims. Terri Pearsons, for example, called on God to cause Democratic legislators to switch parties to give the GOP control and hand the election to Trump, saying, “And I’m asking you to strip Nancy Pelosi of her position there and reduce that majority to a minority, in the name of Jesus. We ask you, and we agree together and declare that the House becomes a majority of righteous representation.” Trump’s Pentecostal allies weighed in, with Stephen Strang discussing “the massive voter fraud that seems to have taken place” and a “great war in the Spirit” to come and Paula White engaging in “spiritual warfare” to win the election on Nov. 4 then in a second service on Nov. 5 claiming the agendas against Trump’s reelection are of the Antichrist, against God’s “chosen king.” There are myriad other examples – George Pearsons talking about God intervening on Trump’s behalf, Eric Metaxas tweeting about divine retribution on “those who cheated,” Pastor Greg Locke tweeting about “evil elitists steal[ing] our election,” Kenneth Copeland leading a service laughing at length at the concept of Biden being president, and Michele Bachmann praying “Smash the delusion, Father, of Joe Biden as our president – he is not.”
It is only now that the results are clear – if still rhetorically contested – that the language of Trump’s allies can return to the eschatological. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, responded to an interviewed asking him why God would allow Trump to lose by saying, “it could be that Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris are a judgment of God on the United States.” Robert Jeffress, Trump’s stalwart ally, finally published an opinion piece entitled “Biden is president-elect – how should Christians respond?” In it, he writes, “Now, it’s always easier to submit and to pray for someone when he was our preferred candidate. But the rubber really meets the road when the person who takes office is not the one we supported. Paul didn’t give us any wiggle room – his command applies all the same, whether the emperor was the faith-friendly Constantine or the evil emperor Nero.” With that last note, linking Joe Biden to Nero, Jeffress pivots back to apocalypticism. Nero is seen as the first persecutor of Christianity, and in Late Antiquity had already been given an apocalyptic image of Antichrist. This remains a contemporary evangelical idea, of Nero as an Antichrist, with more to come. Now that Trump has lost, let the apocalypse recommence.
Ultimately, though, it remains the case that evangelical preachers have primarily been deploying the language of partisan rhetoric in the guise of Christianity, tempering and transforming their most ardent beliefs in the process. Why was the coronavirus not the apocalypse Ebola was? Because Trump said over and over again that it was not a crisis. If it was, they would have to take it seriously, split with Trump, and close their churches – which they will not do. The coronavirus is not the crisis they are waiting for – the crisis is what happens when the politician to whom you’ve harnessed your theology to loses. Just as Trump refuses to acknowledge his electoral defeat, that’s not something his evangelical allies are ready to deal with yet.
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Thomas Lecaque is an assistant professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.