Far-right Christians think they’re living in a Bible story, and that you are as well

Literature professor Christopher Douglas discusses the modern-day rewriting of Biblical apocalyptic literature as a justification for political extremism
A photo of “One Nation Under God,” a painting by the Mormon artist John McNaughton which portrays Jesus Christ as the creator of the American Constitution. Photo: John McNaughton

Episode Summary

Most people aren’t preoccupied with Satan, demons, or the end of the world. But like it or not, many Americans are greatly concerned with these topics. A 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of white evangelical Christian adults surveyed believed that Jesus Christ would return to the earth within the next 40 years. That was significantly higher than any other religious group. Just 32 percent of Catholic respondents agreed, for instance.

Speculating about how the world ends is probably as old as humanity itself. It was pivotal to the early formation and growth of Christianity. And early leaders of the faith frequently suggested it was just around the corner in their own lifetimes. But over time as those hundreds of predictions fail to come true, End Times literature and that tradition faded away in Christianity.

But it came back with a vengeance in the mid 20th century after the development of nuclear weapons, especially when white evangelicals began to emerge as a political movement in the 1970s.

Talking about all of this with me in this episode is Christopher Douglas, a professor of English at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He is also the author of “If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right.”

A video of our conversation is below. A lightly edited version of the audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here with me today, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: So before we get into the details here, let’s discuss briefly the idea of apocalypse. What does apocalypse mean? People oftentimes associate it with the end of the world, but that’s not entirely true necessarily.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, that’s right. Apocalypse is actually a literary genre that develops in the third century BCE and has another sequence of developments in the second century BCE.

And really, what we’re talking about when we [00:02:00] talk about the genre of apocalypse is a kind of new vision of cosmology for how the world works, what God’s plan is, who God’s enemies are, and what’s going on behind the scenes as it were.

So one of the things apocalypse does in the past, in the third century BCE, some of the early apocalypses actually don’t appear in the Bible, they are called, for instance, the Book of the Watchers, and the Astronomical book. And they take up this very strange passage, you probably remember it in Genesis 6, there’s a very strange passage about how the “Sons of God” came down and basically mated with human women. And they birthed a race of giants that were prone to wickedness. The early apocalypses took up that theme and wondered about the cosmic sphere.

In this apocalypse, it was attributed to Enoch who was the in the seventh generation of humans. I think this is Genesis 4. It just says Enoch walked with God and then he was no more. And so he, in a sense, gets whisked up into heaven. That’s a proto-Rapture. So Enoch, these apocalypses are attributed to him and he has a heavenly guide there because he can’t interpret all the sort of fascinating things he sees in that cosmic sphere.

So the second stage of development in apocalypse was in the second century BCE. And there we get, for instance, the Book of Daniel, which is in the Bible, probably second half of the Book of Daniel probably written around 164 BCE, but there’s also other pair of Biblical apocalypses, like the Apocalypse of Weeks and the Animal Apocalypse as well.

And what this is occasioned by is the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was the Seleucid emperor in charge of what was basically ruling Judea and Jerusalem at the time. And Antiochus basically practiced like a state terror against the Judaeans. So he prohibited circumcision, seems to have placed a statue of Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem and massacred the inhabitants, sold some of them into slavery.

So the early development of apocalypse was basically a reaction to state terror by [00:04:00] empire, but being controlled by, by other people, by outsiders. And it’s characterized, and I think this is the important part for us now, it was characterized by an extreme moral dualism in which earth was basically a mirror of cosmic conflict.

And basically what that meant was that your domestic or your mundane political foes were actually the enemies of God. And that’s how Antiochus, for instance, was being imagined.

But there was going to be an imminent intervention. And then, a great battle between God and his cosmic archenemies, who were controlling or influencing the mundane rulers, like Antiochus.

And I think for the first time, you also get a kind of proliferation of divine beings and apocalypse. And I think that’s one of the things that also shows up in contemporary uses as well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we’ll get into that for sure. But it’s also the apocalyptic literature of that time period, it was a way of saying that: ‘Our religion teaches that God is all powerful and his will prevails all the time, so how come his people are being captive and desecrated and persecuted?’ It’s a way of saying that actually the good guys are going to win in the end. And there’s even a term for that in the literature, theodicy, right?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. So apocalypse, in a sense, is a kind of national theodicy because it’s trying to answer the question of, how could all these things be going wrong for God’s people, if they’re trying to do the right thing. Sometimes in the Hebrew Bible the answer to why are things going so wrong is because God’s punishing us because we’ve started worshiping foreign gods or something like that. But if you’re trying to do the right thing, if you’re trying to circumcise your children, your boys, but the worldly ruler is preventing you, that can’t be attributed to God’s discipline anymore.

So the problem that apocalypse tries to answer is if this isn’t God’s punishment, then why are things going so terribly wrong? So it’s in that sense that it’s a kind of a, it’s a theodicy of national suffering that now attributes the problems that the Judeans are facing not to God, but to God’s enemies, basically to God’s cosmic enemies and to their worldly rulers.

SHEFFIELD [00:06:00]: And that idea got transferred or accepted within Christianity when that came along later, and there are several books in that tradition, the apocalypse tradition, but of course the most famous one being the Apocalypse of John often called the Book of Revelation. And there’s a similar type of theme in that book as well, in these other Christian apocalypses.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. The way we can think about the early founders of Christianity, John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth, and then Saul who becomes Paul, these were all apocalyptic Jews, and they were immersed in an apocalyptic worldview in which, God is imminently going to come and overturn the sort of evil, worldly rule.

So Christianity, basically starts out as an apocalyptic theological tradition. So apocalypse is baked into Christianity, right from the start. And you’re right. Revelation is the most famous kind of Christian version of apocalypse. We again get a sort of vision of the divine realm by a human writer who can’t understand what he’s seeing. And therefore things have to be explained to him by a kind of angelic being, and especially for the symbolism.

Revelation is filled with all this strange and wonderful symbolism, there’s the beast and Babylon and all that stuff.

And Revelation is the best known version, a Christian version of apocalypse. It ends with this sense of, Jesus’s final words in the Book of Revelation are ‘I am coming.’ So it encapsulates that sense really that this is all going to happen. I think the early Jesus followers believed that they were years or decades away from seeing that return of Jesus in power to defeat his cosmic enemies, but also the Roman Empire, which was at that point, it seems from the Book of Revelation, basically persecuting Christians.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there are other Christian apocalyptic, early Christian apocalyptic texts. Some even within the gospels themselves, the Book of Matthew has several chapters about Jesus himself claiming that, the temple would be destroyed and that he would be returning.

And those kind of were expanded upon in the Apocalypse of John, but there were some other ones as well. And as you said, that tradition really, it [00:08:00] was baked in. And it was highly influential. A lot of early Christians decided to just withdraw from society and go and live in their own communes basically, which eventually turned into monasteries.

And some of these groups were actually practicing celibacy because they thought there was no point to having children because they’re just going to die. They may die in the apocalypse. And that it’s a sin to have sex. And so we’re going to remain pure for Jesus.

And certainly you can see that within some of the Pauline letters where he says it’s better to not be married and to save yourself for God.

DOUGLAS: Unless you’re going to burn with passion or desire.

SHEFFIELD: That’s right. And so that tradition really, it continued for a number of years and gradually faded, as I said in the introduction, after Jesus didn’t come back. The world didn’t end. But in the Americas later, you began to see the emergence of some Protestant faiths that were apocalyptic.

So like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, which calls itself the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meaning they see themselves as the being near the end of the world. And so, there was a renewed interest in speculations at that time in the 19th century. And one of the other sort of interesting developments that took place around this time, and maybe somewhat earlier, was the sort of the re-emergence of Satan as a spiritual foe, much more prominent than he was in the early Christianity. And certainly within Judaism.

In the book of Daniel, Satan’s not even there as a character, right?

DOUGLAS: That’s right.

SHEFFIELD: And to this day, a lot of Jews do not believe in Satan as this sort of, almost, divine opponent of God. So Satan, isn’t really a figure in a lot of Judaism, but at the same time, there was an idea of a satan. Let’s maybe talk about that a little bit.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Sure. Yeah, no, you’re right. Satan would end up being in the Christian tradition. He would end up being the boss, the archenemy of God, and basically the boss of all the other evil cosmic agents that are out [00:10:00] there. But when we look at the Hebrew Bible, there basically isn’t a Satan in it. Not as Christianity would later construe it.

We have the word satan, but it means different things in different passages. And I think one of the best known moments is in the Book of Job where Job goes through all these terrible things. So we’re again interested in this problem of suffering and theodicy, but when the word satan is used in the prologue to the Book of Job, it’s actually ha-satan, that is “the adversary,” or “the satan.” And he’s a member of basically the divine court, the bene-elohim.

The Sons of God are gathering around, as it seems like they usually do, to chat and check up on each other, God asks them questions and the adversary is there. The satan is there in the divine court.

So it’s not a proper name at that point. And there are other moments when the word satan is used in the Hebrew Bible where it comes to mean something like an obstacle or some form of adversity. But that’s often being used in the employment of God.

So for instance, the satan in the Book of Job, he interacts with God, but he’s a member of the divine court. He’s not an opponent of God. And he ultimately only does what God asks him to do, or permits him to do. Another example is in the Book of Numbers chapter 23, God sends the prophet Balaam to prophesy to another kingdom. It’s a kind of strange story. And then he wants to prevent Balaam from doing this.

And then an angel invisibly appears that only Balaam’s donkey can see. And Balaam tries to get the donkey to go forward, and it doesn’t. And then finally the angel appears, and in the story it’s called a satan. In other words, an obstacle, an angel sent by God is referred to as a satan, an obstacle to Balaam at this point. It’s only in apocalypse, this kind of later tradition, this later theological emergence of these ideas, that God has a sort of cosmic opponent that these earlier uses in the Hebrew Bible will congeal or come together and become transformed into this new idea. That is that God has some sort of cosmic opponent, and he [00:12:00] has different names in different apocalypses.

Some places he goes by Mastema, and there’s other examples, but the point is that this is still a matter of theodicy, of thinking about how, when bad things happen to me or our people, this can’t be from God himself. It has to be, because we are God’s chosen people, it has to be from a kind of enemy of God.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And one thing that I think a lot of people are not aware of about the Jewish religion as a tradition is that it is descended from a polytheistic regional faith. And so for instance, God as construed in the Bible, actually has two different names. So God is referred to in some of the Bible books as El or Elohim. And then on other books, God is referred to as Yahweh/Jehovah. And these actually were originally from what biblical literary scholars have been able to piece together, these actually were separate beings and regional beings. And one of the other interesting things about it is that the Philistines, who were a neighboring people to the Hebrews at the time, they worshiped a God who is named in the Bible as Ba’al, but the spelling of it and the pronunciation of it should be Ba-El, meaning Lord.

So it was actually the same God, it was just a different name for him. And then also, there were other members of that pantheon, the wife of El was Asherah and she’s in the Bible as well.

And there was this pervasive attempt among Kings and prophets to extinguish the worship of Asherah but you can still see the vestiges of that tradition through names and also worship practices.

So in some ways, the figure of Satan kind of fits into that pantheon as sort of a rival.

And in the book of Daniel, while Satan explicitly is not mentioned, there are some other figures who are mentioned. Can you talk about those a little bit? And those become important later in the 20th century fundamentalist Christian tradition we’re going to be talking about.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. And actually some of them show up as characters. So for instance, in the way I’ve heard it pronounced is “ball,” but Ba’al, the ancient storm warrior god from Canaan, actually shows up in Frank Peretti’s [00:14:00] “This Present Darkness.” And one of the old explanations for ‘where did all the other gods go in this older polytheism?’ is that they were actually demons pretending to be gods and luring people into worship.

That’s the answer that John Milton’s Paradise Lost gives us, in the early 17th century. But you’re right, ancient Israel emerged alongside other societies and civilizations in the ancient Near East who were all polytheistic. And so Bible scholars today believe that the ancient Israelites also had a pantheon of gods and at the head of that was a figure called El.

And his consort, Asherah, the mother of the gods. Ba’al was a local storm warrior. Anat was an adolescent warrior goddess who was very fierce and eventually kills death himself. And into this pantheon, probably from somewhere in the south, maybe Edom, came Yahweh. And he seems to have absorbed certain storm warrior characteristics from Ba’al, especially if you look at Psalm 29, there’s a kind of a sense of that storm warrior characteristics being passed from Ba’al to Yahweh. I’ve seen scholars suggest that God may, in some sense, be a kind of amalgamation of these five deities.

And we still see the traces in the Bible. So for instance, in Deuteronomy 32, this figure called Elyon distributes the nations to the bene-elohim, the Sons of God, and Yahweh is one of the gods who seems to get Israel. There’s also that kind of imagery that’s retained in Psalm 82.

So it’s based on these biblical traces, but it’s also based on archeological records. For instance, we found, I think at one point, a ninth-or eighth-century BCE in an Israelite fort, there’s a famous inscription on a clay pot that says “Yahweh and his Asherah.” So at some point, Yahweh and El get merged. Yahweh has absorbed Ba’al’s characteristics. He then becomes the high god of the pantheon, he inherits Asherah.

And that’s one reason that the scholars think that in many of the books of the Hebrew Bible, there is a prohibition against using the asherim next to the altar. And this might’ve been a way of kind of memorializing the wife of God.

We [00:16:00] don’t really know what the asherim was. It seems to have been some kind of sacred pole, so it could have been like a little tree or some sort of wooden pole that basically was a kind of cultural memory in the form of cultural amnesia that sort of, and it’s as the name suggests, it’s still bore this kind of trace of who had been a goddess in the region in a previous time. We’re always hearing in the Deuteronomistic history and the Pentateuch especially a prohibition against following the foreign gods. So the idea is that at one point, the writers of the Hebrew Bible were part of a Yahweh alone movement that had condensed the pantheon into a single god.

And now they were proscribing what had been prior worship of indigenous gods. They were now reimagining as foreign gods that often came into Israelite households because of the inter-marriage between Israelite men and foreign women. So that’s.

SHEFFIELD: Specifically though, in the Book of Daniel, there are some vestiges of that tradition of Yahweh as part of a sort of national or international network of gods—

DOUGLAS: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Or divine beings. And there’s an angel in Daniel Chapter 10, who comes and appears to Daniel during one of his visions toward the end of the book. And he says to him, I was going to come and talk to you, but the prince of Persia delayed me. And it was — and of course, for those who are into video games, Prince of Persia is a video game from the 1990s as well, so that’s a fun little Easter Egg. I wonder if the people created that knew about that.

But irrespective of that, though, there was this idea, so the prince of Persia as some sort of divine being said to be affiliated with Persia was said, and depending on the translation, sometimes the angel’s either with him or either struggling against him, the text can be a little unclear. But then also, there’s another divine being who is also [00:18:00] said to be the prince of Greece. And so who, what’s the context of those verses? And they become much more important in this tradition we’re going to talk about.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. So the idea is that with the development of apocalypse, apocalypses actually reaches back to some of the vocations and agents of this ancient history of Israelite polytheism. So in some sense, I think that apocalypse, as it proliferates these cosmic beings, some of whom are enemies of God, some of whom — Gabriel and Michael — are actually the agents of God as well.

It’s reaching back to this sort of polytheism to repopulate the cosmos. Gabriel, the angel, tries to come to Daniel to explain the vision that he’s had. He’s prevented for 21 days by the prince of Persia until Michael comes along. And Michael is referred to as the champion of your people.

So he’s almost imagined as a kind of patron angel. In older times, in older centuries, he would have been the patron god of Israel. In a sense, he almost inhabits the niche or the role that Yahweh used to play as the national God of Israel now played by Michael.

And we get, later on in Daniel, that vision. Daniel sees a throne room in which there’s a throne on which there’s an Ancient of Days. And another being, a one like a son of man rise on the clouds and all power and authority is given over to this son of man. And of course, that would be the phrase that gospel writers would attribute to Jesus, as this sort of second power in heaven.

When we see the son of man arriving in Daniel on the clouds, as someone is imagined to be a sort of warrior a cosmic warrior, in a sense, this is the old Ba’al imagery that Yahweh had inherited. So that relationship between El and Yahweh has, in a sense, been transmuted onto the Ancient of Days and the son of man.

And in the Christian tradition, this would end up being the first two people in the Christian Trinity God the Father and God the Son. Jesus having power over the waters. He walks on water and he’s able to calm the storm. He’s also unmatched in revelation and as the warrior who comes at the end to destroy his opposition.

So there’s a definite set of [00:20:00] echoes between that and ancient Israelite polytheism, and then the way in which apocalypse redeploys that and renames some of the agents to imagine a world in which God seems to be more distantly controlling.

Gabriel, when he comes, it takes Gabriel 21 days to come to Daniel. Presumably, God could intervene at any moment and beat up the prince of Persia and let Gabriel come to Daniel, but he doesn’t.

SHEFFIELD: But who was the prince of Persia though, in the tradition?

DOUGLAS: Well, this prince of Persia would have been not a mortal, but a sort of divine being in charge of the geography of the Persian empire, for instance. The same with the prince of Greece.

So what’s happening at this point is the cosmic beings who are opponents of God are imagined to have specific geographical territories as well. And so this is one of the first times that that occurs in the Hebrew Bible as well. And in a sense, it’s modeled on the older idea in the ancient near east of different nations, having different national gods. So beings control certain territories within a larger pantheon.

SHEFFIELD: Or are allied with specific people.

DOUGLAS: They sponsored them as patrons, right? So that Ba’al is — we found these marvelous clay tablets from 3,500 years ago in the ancient city of Ugarit, it gives us this poetry about the Canaanite pantheon of gods, in which there was Ba’al, and Asherah, and El, and Anat, as well as some others. And Ba’al was the patron of of the city of Ugarit, just as later on, in a sense, Yahweh would be the patron god of the Israelites. And then eventually the only god during that development of monotheism.

But when we get to the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece in the book of Daniel, it’s almost as though we’re returning to an older model of deities who are especially connected to certain nations and have a sort of geographical sphere of influence.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so the tradition that having this sort of spiritual, unseen warfare, it percolates as a thread within the tapestry of [00:22:00] Christianity and Judaism for a long time.

And then over time, in the 19th century, there’s a return to this idea of the world’s going to end. And we’re going to be there for it, and we’re going to be God’s chosen ones. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses have this thing where they take from the Book of Revelation where there’s said to be, people who were predestined to be saved by God. And of course their religion is the one that is. And so there’s this proliferation of books in 19th century United States of people saying that ‘I had a revelation, and this is how the world’s going to end, et cetera, et cetera.’

And you have several religions that are built out of that. Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism. But over time though, the literature itself changes from being prophecies and revelations to being more about as a novel. And around that time, like for instance, we had the emergence the first modern Christian novel, “Ben-Hur.” That story, which came out in the 1890s, if I remember right. And Jesus was a character in the book. And that’s the first time, that we know of, that Jesus was a character in a novel. It was enormously successful and so the Christian literature began, to some degree, kind of gravitate in that direction somewhat.

And then we had other books that came out that featured more symbolic interpretations of the end of the world. So like “Lord of the Rings” or the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. But they were still metaphorical in that sense.

But they also were not intended to be didactic, of teaching specific theological viewpoints. And that’s something that’s interesting because when you look at “Ben-Hur,” for instance, it’s been made into five separate films, including the 1959 version with Charlton Heston. You had other Christian novels, like “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which was set in the Ozarks region in the United States, was turned into a film several times, including one by John Wayne.

And there was this reimagination of Christianity in a novelistic sense, rather than a revelation. But then, you have the emergence of the idea of global nuclear holocaust [00:24:00] after the bombings and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And things kind of reoriented a little bit after that.

The prospect of the world, of everyone dying in a nuclear holocaust, that was hugely important throughout the world. Every culture began grappling with that idea.

And that filtered into the Christian tradition, the Christian fundamentalist tradition that was emerging. And in that context, we had the emergence of the Jesus People movement, which was a sort of left wing Christian fundamentalism. And out of that, came a book called “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” Can you talk a little bit about what that book was, and who wrote it?

DOUGLAS: Sure. I think about apocalypse as a kind of phenomenology of disorder. It’s been baked into the Christian tradition from the beginnings, but I think there’s renewed attention to apocalypse in those moments where people feel that the world has become crazy and disordered, and they want to understand or see a vision of order within the chaos that they’re experiencing.

I’m interested in evangelical fiction and in particular, one important sort of milestone in terms of the work that I do is John Nelson Darby in the 1840s who, would re-imagine apocalypse for the modern period, for the contemporary period. And he’s the guy that sort of came up with this notion of pre-millennial dispensationalism—

SHEFFIELD: Which means?

DOUGLAS: Dispensation, meaning that the world history is divided into certain specific eras that are chapters organized by God. And pre-millennial means we are in the last chapter right before the thousand year reign of Christ that’s imagined in the Book of Revelation.

So in other words, our current period is right before the End Times. So that’s still very much within this sort of apocalyptic vision, but John Nelson Darby preached widely in the United States and his vision of pre-millennial dispensationalism, that we’re in the sort of End Times, and that one of the things you needed to do was look for the signs of the End Times, became popular in U.S. evangelicalism especially. And it made its way into, for instance, the Scofield Reference Bible, which I think sold something [00:26:00] like 50 million copies.

It was an annotated King James Version of the Bible, according to Darby’s pre-millennial dispensationalist theories. So this became incredibly influential in American evangelicalism. And it shows up, like you say, Matthew, in Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great Planet Earth.” It’s not a novel, it’s a almost a very kind of long essay in which Darby’s pre-millennial, dispensationalist thought is used as a kind of grid in which Lindsay mashes together the Book of Isaiah, and the Book of Ezekiel, and the Book of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation.

For Lindsay and other fundamentalist Christians who walked into this pre-millennial dispensationalist theology, all the Bible kind of becomes this decontextualized mash of quotations that they can then um—

SHEFFIELD: Decode.

DOUGLAS: They decode it. That’s right. That’s fair. That’s the right word for this. So that, for instance, when we read the Book of Daniel, it’s actually not what Daniel is talking about, the Seleucid Empire and Antiochus, and the state terror against the Judeans.

Revelation is no longer about the Roman Empire disguised through symbolism as Babylon. But rather everything becomes about the 20th century, or the early 21st century for folks who are still doing it. So all the books of the Bible in a sense become historically decontextualized.

And, of course, this is in opposition to what Bible scholars would do when they look at the sort of historical context for the writing of the Book of Daniel or the Book of revelation. For Lindsey and others, other interpreters, they’re all reading the signs and somehow, well through the will of God, books that were written 2,500 or 2,000 years ago, they were writing code about what would occur during the End Times, in the last decades of the 20th century or the first decades of the 21st century.

So ”The Late, Great Planet Earth,” it takes these mash of quotations and it looks at nuclear proliferation, yes. But also it’s especially worried about the Chinese. I think there’s, I was just sort of opening this up again yesterday. I [00:28:00] think there’s actually a chapter in ”The Late, Great Planet Earth” called the “Yellow Peril.” He’s reaching back to a bunch of old kind of racist tropes and re-imagining them for what things look like in 1970. All pointing toward the End Times, the events of Revelation, that the author of Revelation was imagining as going to happen within decades about the Roman Empire is now being redeployed by Lindsey to be about, how would the End Times occur after the state of Israel was formed in 1948?

What did this sort of sequence of dominoes that are going to lead to the coming of the Antichrist and the imposition of a one world religion? And then God’s final conflict in which Jesus emerges riding on his white horse.

SHEFFIELD: The book came out in 1970, and according to the New York Times, it was the number-one bestselling non-fiction book of the decade. So it was enormously influential, and so influential that it was actually later made into a film version. And it kind of shows that there was this interest in Hollywood of Christian literature. It was narrated by the famous actor, Orson Wells, who people know from the movie “Citizen Kane.”

They interviewed a number of different famous people in the film. So it was slightly different format, but it featured a lot of different interviews with famous people. So like they had Nobel Prize winners, they had a former general who was in there.

They had lots of different figures that were talking about challenges that the world would be facing in their viewpoint. And so it was just this phenomenon. But the interesting thing that was different about it though, was that America was not at the center of the book. Unlike how Christian fundamentalist apocalypticism later became. America doesn’t play a big role in the book.

DOUGLAS: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: And then after that, there was a film that came out, and that film was called “A Thief in the Night.” So actually I’m going to play the trailer of [00:30:00] that film here just to give a sense of what that looked like.

(Video clip begins)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Speculation is running high that some alien force from outside our system has declared war on our planet and there will be no place to hide.

(The word “hide” echoes)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: “A Thief in the Night.”

MUSICIANS (singing): I wish we’d all been ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now to the screen comes a powerful story of Bible prophecy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know what’s going on, it’s evil and I’m not going to join!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: “A Thief in the Night” is coming from Mark Four Pictures in color.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Please do not reveal the ending!

(Video clip ends)

SHEFFIELD: That’s “A Thief in the Night.” It was the first real popular discussion in the film version of the idea of the Rapture, which comes from Darby.

Can you talk a little bit about that film and what the overall plot of it was?

DOUGLAS: The premise is the Rapture, which is this doctrine that, just as the End of Times begin, Christians will be, real true Christians will be whisked away by God into the air.

I think this was Paul in Thessalonians. This is based on a quotation from Paul in Thessalonians, and there’ll be gone. And that will inaugurate, according to this pre-millennial dispensationalism, that will inaugurate kind of seven years of tribulation during which we see the rise of the Antichrist who establishes a sort of one world religion and one world government.

So what happens in “Thief in the Night” is this occurs and a young woman who thinks she’s a Christian, and sometimes she goes to church, but the point of the film would be to say that she doesn’t have a proper, “born again” relationship with Jesus. She hasn’t accepted his sacrifice and for her sins and accepted him into her heart.

The people who are left behind who may be more cultural Christians who thought they were okay. They have to accept the “mark of the beast” in order to go shopping or participate in society. And this one-world government is proclaimed in the shape of the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency or UNITE for short.

At that point, they go hunting — basically they’re hunting Christians, [00:32:00] they’re hunting people who didn’t get raptured, but nonetheless, wish now in retrospect that they had been raptured. And basically, it’s a hopeless situation. And the point of the film really is to scare people into committing their lives to God and to Jesus at this time.

I know, Matthew, you’ve interviewed some of the “exvangelical” folks. If you were growing up evangelical in the 1970s or 1980s, you might’ve seen this movie in a church basement, a lot of people recount a kind of terror, childhood terror they felt watching this film, because one of the things that sort of threatened was you’d come home, one day as a kid from school, and there’d be a pot, your mom had left a pot boiling on the stove, but your mom is nowhere to be found because she’s been raptured. And now you’ve been left behind to, to deal with the terrors that are to come. So as a kind of instantiation of the Darbyite pre-millennial dispensationalism in which the End Times are right around the corner.

And again, they’re using the sort of Hal Lindsey method of reading signs of the End Times and contemporary events. But the definite sensibility is that what the Book of Revelation foretold is about to commence any moment now. I think you read the percentage of white evangelicals who believe that the Rapture, the End Times are going to happen in their lifetime, it was like 58%.

So that’s the sensibility that “A Thief in the Night” is both responding to, but also encouraging, 50 years ago when it came out.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then I think the other sort of influential idea, different from the Hal Lindsey idea, is casting things perceived to be culturally liberal or theologically liberal as opposition. And the opposition also coming in the form of the United Nations.

And that came out of an earlier far-right opposition to the idea of the United Nations.

DOUGLAS: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: And it wasn’t really present in The “Late, Great Planet Earth,” but it becomes absorbed into this Christian literary far-right tradition. And the idea that New Age beliefs are evil and that they are [00:34:00] resurrected paganism becomes very integral.

And so after “A Thief in the Night” comes out in 1972, and just is this sensation in fundamentalist churches, a year later, while “Thief in the Night” is still being shown, you have the release of “The Exorcist,” which was a 1973 film. Most people have seen it, but for those who haven’t, it’s a telling of a girl who becomes possessed by a demon, two Catholic priests, tried to expel it.

And it was another just massive sensation.

DOUGLAS: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: So it came out in 1973, until 2017 with the rerelease of the movie “It,” “The Exorcist” is the number-one R-rated film in history.

And it really put Satan on the map in a sense. And people become a lot more concerned about it. They were trying to ban the film from being seen in different areas. And people were claiming all sorts of being effected by epileptic fits or things like that, or feeling demonic presences in the theater.

These are all things that people claim to have been experiencing in relation to The Exorcist. And that sort of began to filter into the more Protestant Christian fundamentalist media. And a novel that came out in the 1980s kind of incorporated some of these more Satanic aspects into the apocalyptic literature. And that book was called “This Present Darkness.”Cover design of This Present Darkness

I’m going to put the cover of that onscreen. And for those who are listening to this show, the cover is a picture of a small church at nighttime that is about to be gripped up by these shadowy claws that actually are reminiscent of the television series today, Stranger Things.

In a way you can argue that’s the sort of milieu that they’re going for. Tell us a little bit about “This Present Darkness.”

DOUGLAS: Sure. “This Present Darkness” is by Frank Peretti in 1986 and it kind of inaugurates, it’s a hugely important piece of fiction in the evangelical literary tradition that sort of inaugurates a change in how apocalypse and rapture is envisioned. And what happens now is that it [00:36:00] emphasizes the need for Christians to struggle against their demonic foes rather than just as in the “Thief in the Night.”

“Thief in the Night,” basically it’s all over once the Rapture happens.

“This Present Darkness” is not a Rapture novel, but it provides in a sense of kind of blueprint for Christian struggle against secularization which threatens to dominate one’s town or one’s enemies. I’m going to just share, real briefly, some visuals here. Does that look like it works? There we go.

What happens in “This Present Darkness” is there’s a small, all-American town of Ashton set somewhere, maybe in the Midwest. There’s a fundamentalist pastor Hank Busche, there on your left, who begins to sense that there’s something deeply wrong in a demonic way with the town. There’s Marshall Hogan who’s a journalist. A sort of Christian, but not really quite Christian, who also begins to uncover a conspiracy to buy up various local institutions in the town, culminating in the town’s college. The sort of bad guys in the novel are Oliver Young here, and he’s actually a Unitarian minister or United Church minister.

So he’s a kind of liberal Christian who believes in ecumenicalism, that we can all get along and all religious traditions have a kind of sense of truthfulness to them. Juleen Langstrat is a psychology professor at the local college. She’s in on the conspiracy to buy the town’s local college.

The conspiracy is being conducted abroad from powerful foreign shadowy forces, and Langstrat is interested in basically New Age ideas and she believes she’s in contact with the ancestral spirits and a divine being from long ago, from a past life or something like that. So these bad forces are understood to be basically non-fundamentalist Christian ideas and social forces, including especially New Age ideas.

What the novel shows us is, and the reason I place it within the sort of apocalyptic tradition, is that it shows us that actually angels and demons are involved in this conflict over the fate of Ashton somewhere in the United States. And so it’s actually demons that are at work [00:38:00] behind the human actors in what’s going on in the novel.

So it’s actually demons who are involved in this plan, this kind of conspiracy to purchase the town’s local college. This can involve a sort of sacrifice of victims. And angels are there to combat the demons. And that’s going to mean the sort of spiritual warfare that happens in the background, but the angels can only work when the humans pray for them.

So it basically, again, had the structure of apocalypse and imagining that one’s political foes at home, that is in the small town, actually, were being demonically supported, unknowingly. So what happens with Juleen Langstrat and Oliver Young is that they don’t know demons are behind the conspiracy in which they are involved.

So there’s this larger cosmic, invisible struggle that’s going on behind the mundane fight for the town’s future that’s happening at that time period. In many ways, I think, the text is interesting in lots of different ways, but the fundamentalist pastor, one of the things he does, he wanders around the town, and he can sense the presence of demons and he prays against them.

And this is called spiritual warfare, and this novel had a large effect on the ideas about spiritual warfare that are current among many Pentecostals, charismatics, some evangelicals, the New Apostolic Reformation, and others. And I’m recalling, do you have the clip of Paula White?

This Paula White was president Trump’s spiritual advisor, and she recalls in one of her sermons, a kind of spiritual warfare that she was practicing against the demons who were opposed to president Trump. So like the main character in the novel, “This Present Darkness,” she’s actually striding a kind of specific territory, and prayerfully combating the demons who are there.

(Begin video clip)

PAULA WHITE: Hey-hey! Hey-hey! Hey-hey! We interrupt that which has been deployed to hurt the church in this season, that which has been deployed to hurt this nation in the name of Jesus! Forgive us (audience claps) for our sins. Come on, I need you guys to pray!

We cancel every surprise from the witchcraft in the marine kingdom, any hex, any [00:40:00] spell, any witchcraft, any spirit of control, any Jezebel. Anything that the enemy desires through, through spells, through witchcraft, through any way that is manipulation, demonic manipulation. We curse that! We break it according to the word of God in the name of Jesus!

We come against the marine kingdom. We come against the animal kingdom, and the woman that rides upon the waters! We break the power in the name of Jesus, and we declare that any strange winds, any strange winds that have been sent to hurt the church, sent against this nation, sent against our president, sent against myself, sent against others, we break it by the superior blood of Jesus right now in the name of Jesus!

We arrest every infirmity, affliction, fatigue, weariness, weakness, fear, sickness, any self-righteousness, any self-serving action, God. Let pride fall! Let pride fall. Let pride fall! In the name of Jesus! We command all satan — satanic pregnancies to miscarry, right now. We declare that anything that’s been conceived in satanic wombs, that it’ll miscarry. It will not be able to carry forth any plan of destruction, any plan of harm.

(End video clip)

SHEFFIELD: There’s a lot going on there.

DOUGLAS: I think one of the things we could just emphasize is this is in the apocalyptic tradition and that the world is full of cosmic and — they’re invisible, and they need to be opposed by God’s servants on earth, who in the sort of supersessionist Christian view, are Christians, white Christians, white American Christians. God’s chosen people are being opposed by not just their mundane political foes, but other invisible, cosmic, spiritual beings who are actually the enemies of God.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d read Frank Peretti. According to one ethnographer, Frank Peretti is being used almost as a sort of training manual for how to do spiritual warfare, but clearly the division there of extreme moral dualism in which, when president Trump got impeached twice said, we’re praying for our president, and [00:42:00] against the demonic networks that have led to his impeachment.

So domestic political foes are re-imagined as having a demonic sponsorship in this apocalyptic worldview that I think, in a sense, characterizes the Christian Right today.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And this sort of integration with fiction and scripture and contemporary politics. I’m just going to read a review from somebody who posts of “This Present Darkness” on Amazon.

And here’s what she says:

“Sure, it’s fiction. But man, this particular fiction has become my fact by deliberate choice. Because for me, there is no downside in doing so. This book is a sparkler. I passed it on to my husband who couldn’t put it down. Then my son who also loved it. And finally I convinced my non-reader daughter to buckle down and read it.”

A lot of Christians are not familiar or part of this tradition. There has been this whole emergence of kind of this almost animistic, pagan, Protestantism and it’s really developed, and this is believed by millions of people. And it’s pretty disturbing, if I may say.

I guess one of the other aspects of the novel though, as I understand it, is that the demons who are at work in this small little town are trying to create a New Age cult that they can then use to begin performing human sacrifices and gain more power. It’s unclear fully what they want to do, but they’re seeing this town as the power base to bring out their own vision for taking over the world. Is that right?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. They’re going to establish a one world religion. And so the idea here is that any sign of secularism or religious pluralism in the United States, including the presence of strange New Age ideas, are things that are deployed against Christianity.

And so, the New Age ideas become a threat to Christianity. And it’s a way of imagining that religious pluralism is actually a form of oppression or persecution of fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. today. And that’s, I think, really the [00:44:00] sort of strain that goes throughout the literature. And we could look ahead toward the Left Behind series carries that kind of idea forward especially.

But I think in lots of Christian Right politics today is the idea to be compelled to share power culturally and politically has been experienced as a form of persecution that brings these supersessionist Christians back to the sort of original context of apocalypse, which was persecution under empire by foreign powers.

SHEFFIELD: Let’s maybe move on to the Left Behind series. So Left Behind, it was a co-authored book. It was the guy who actually is more famous as the author of it, so his name was Tim LaHaye and just to put it in the context, so Tim LaHaye was a Christian fundamentalist minister, but also he was a political activist. And one of the things that he did in his life, he was one of the co-founders of the Council for National Policy, which is this Christian supremacist group that is very secretive and operates in the United States. They don’t post who their members are. Their meetings are closed to the public. They don’t broadcast them or anything like that, but basically they work to try to impose their specific Christian supremacist worldview on the United States.

So he was one of the founders of that. And then also his wife, who is still living, Tim LaHaye died in 2016, but his wife Beverly LaHaye, she also was involved in this right-wing political evangelical movement. She created this group called Concerned Women for America, which was designed to be a right-wing Christian alternative to the National Organization for Women.

And so, they are political activists, and they have specific ideas about theology. So Tim LaHaye wrote a whole book talking about how people who were gay or lesbian were overwhelmed by Satan, that they could repent of their homosexuality and things like that. And, but in addition to doing all of that, though, he also then decided to channel some of his ideas into a literary form, and that’s where the Left Behind series came from.

It [00:46:00] is obviously a cultural phenomenon and existed for a number of years. They’ve had movies made out of it. But he also put his politics in there. Not only are the progressive Christians or secular people the dupes of Satan, but in his book, they are, some of them, are the actual servants of Satan. And that’s the case with several of the characters. If you can just give a little summary of that series

Left Behind coverDOUGLAS: Yeah. So Left Behind series is a best-selling, 80 million copies have been sold. There’s a 12 novel sequence later, there would be three prequels and one sequel. And then a 40 volume adolescent Left Behind series for kids. There have been movie spinoffs, video games.

And basically, unlike “This Present Darkness,” what actually happens in the Left Behind series is the exact End Time start to occur as envisioned by this pre-millennial dispensationalist scheme. So the the series opens with the Rapture, the true Christians disappear, and leaves everyone else behind, including cultural Christians who thought maybe they were churchgoers, but didn’t have that personal prayer for what relationship with Jesus.

The Antichrist arises as the head of the United Nations, and tries to establish a one world government, a one world religion, and a one world currency. So it’s modeled on Revelation, but yet the Hal Lindsey and the sort of fundamentalist decontextualization that happens when they interpreted the Bible.

All kinds of different passages from different sections of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are mashed together to produce this interpretation of the sign of God’s emergent plan in the End Times. And I think, I guess the one thing I’d want to stress for Left Behind is the folks that are left behind, unlike the “Thief in the Night,” they learn what has occurred and they learn to properly read scripture and understand that the Antichrist is coming and that they’re living in the end days, the Tribulation has started. And they become Christians, proper Christians, and then they now are going to struggle against the Antichrist. So the really important turn here that it has with Peretti is the activation of [00:48:00] Christians in a sense politically to oppose the domestic goings-on, the sort of mundane politics that are now understood to be demonic or satanic, as with the Antichrist’s policies at the United Nations.

So the Christians form what they call the Tribulation Force and they actually oppose the Antichrist’s advances and his policies. And eventually one of them is actually going to assassinate the Antichrist. Of course, he comes back animated by Satan. But there is this sense of basically political engagement is the thing.

So in other words, Christian Right fiction during the 1980s and the 1990s is changing alongside the emergence of the Christian Right, in the form of, for instance, the Moral Majority, which Tim LaHaye also had a hand in forming with Jerry Falwell. These texts are infused with this sort of apocalypticism in which one’s political foes are God’s enemies.

They’re sponsored by demons or Satan, whether they know it or not. And so the Christian Right, in a sense, what happens in these novels is they’re almost anticipating the way that they’re going to be persecuted and oppressed. And in that sense, I think they train some readers to interpret their current experience of being compelled to share cultural and political power actually as a form of persecution.

So the fact that they have to bake cakes for gay husbands, for example, in the present is in some sense, anticipatory of the way Antichrist is going to try to overrule Christianity and establish this one world religion in the future. So the sense of imminence, the sense of combat, an existential tragedy, the sort of imminent defeat that’s happening, this extreme moral dualism, but also this expectation that they’re going to be saved. Like the the poll numbers you gave us right at the beginning, we’re in the End Times.

And what’s interesting to me about this sort of the return of apocalypse in contemporary Christian right fiction is it kind of mirrors a minority tradition within para-biblical apocalypses from 2200 years ago such as what scholars call the Animal Apocalypse and Jubilees, that imagines some active military [00:50:00] resistance to empire. So there’s a moment in other words, in which apocalypse can tip over from passive waiting, which we find in Daniel and Revelation, into a kind of more active resistance that can include violence. And that’s what we’re seeing in “This Present Darkness” and Left Behind. And I think that’s something that characterizes the kind of worldview and structure of feeling of many Christian right members and politicians today.

SHEFFIELD: This is a different version of Christianity. In the early days of Christianity, and for a long time, the end of the world, it was something that was God’s doing. God was going to do this. And you didn’t know when it was going to happen.

DOUGLAS: You didn’t participate in it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, this was something that was, this was entirely God’s thing. But then there was this re-imagining of it that Jesus could not return to Earth until his people had taken dominion. And so we’ve seen a corollary of this idea, literally often called by a scholars, Dominion Theology.

Even the Rapture itself is not a traditional Christian doctrine. There was the idea that the true believers, the righteous, would be transported up magically to join Jesus when he came back, that was the original idea and—

DOUGLAS: Right.

SHEFFIELD: —how, Catholicism and most Protestantism other than this 20th century American Protestantism.

But then also going back to the idea of nuclear holocaust, you had sent me something about Jerry Falwell Senior and nuclear weapons. Can we talk about that a little bit?

DOUGLAS: Sure. A lot of post-apocalyptic literature comes after a threat of nuclear annihilation for the first time after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it looks like humans could succeed in basically wiping out life on the earth. So there’s a huge emergence of post-apocalyptic fiction that’s not necessarily Christian, that’s usually not Christian. But oftentimes the way fundamentalists interpreted that was that the emergence of nuclear weapons could be part of the plan of Armageddon. So what you’re finding in Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great [00:52:00] Planet Earth, is a musing on this question about whether there might be — whether nuclear weapons might have a role in the End Times, in this End Times conflict that’s occurring.

And certainly, we know that Jerry Falwell, for instance, was opposed to Reagan’s disarmament plans, the START treaties and so forth. Partly because he viewed, I think, with Reagan the Soviet union as an evil empire.

So he, he might’ve been one of the antagonists of God’s chosen nation at the end of the days. But also perhaps, I think for some Christians that sense that the nuclear Armageddon might be one of the ways that the End Times were conducted.

And just as the founding of Israel was seen as an important milestone for some End Times folks, some readers of the Rapture and pre-millennial, dispensationalism like Falwell (and probably LaHaye as well), but certainly Hal Lindsey, were thinking about the role that nuclear weapons might play in that kind of the battles that are described in the Book of Revelation.

SHEFFIELD: You could basically argue that the Christian Right has transitioned from the traditional interpretation of ‘Save me from this cruel world, Jesus’ over to ‘I want to burn the sinners for you Jesus.’

And that Christian militarism was certainly visible on January 6th where you had many, many protestors there who had the signs proclaiming their devotion to Jesus. They had flags for Jesus, Christian flags, Jesus flags, Jesus Trump flags, and they were there to overthrow this government that had been imposed upon them by the servants of Satan.

DOUGLAS: I think your implication of Dominionism is exactly correct. This form of apocalypticism is seeing your political foes as the enemies of God, are sponsored by the enemies of God can tip over into, or be aligned with this notion that we need to retake the nation almost as a sort of precursor for for the End Times to occur for the return of Jesus and in the hastening of God’s kingdom.

So I [00:54:00] think there can be that kind of effect of alliance between a politics of trying to retake the nation and establish proper rules according to God as you understand them. And the notion that thereby you might be hastening the coming rule of the kingdom of God.

SHEFFIELD: Where do you see all this heading?

DOUGLAS: I’m super pessimistic for your country, actually. I think that the sort of Christianized Republican Party has become extremist, I think partly in part, because of this apocalyptic theology.

And the current move in state legislatures across the country to weaken the electoral machinery and to put into place possibilities for state legislatures, or governors, or state election officials to overturn election results that show that Democrats are running ahead. And then to somehow toss that to either a Republican governor, to send a new slate of electors to the Electoral College, or to create a kind of instability or uncertainty within the Electoral College itself whereupon, based on these arcane rules that has to be done sent to the House for a new vote.

I think one of the things apocalypse does is it means that your democratically elected opponents are not legitimate. And when we see that actually in the Left Behind series, the Antichrist comes to power at the UN partly through democratic votes, but the authors and readers understand that is not a legitimate victory because there’s actually satanic demonic events happening behind that.

I don’t know the extent to which many members of the Christian Right believe in active, demonic participation in the democratic. But I think there is a kind of sense that Democratic voters and Democratic politicians are not legitimate. They do not hold legitimate authority, even when elected legitimately, what we would think of as legitimately.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

DOUGLAS: So I think that’s the explanation for a lot of the sort of anti-democratic legislation that’s currently being put in place to challenge the 2022 elections and the 2024 elections. And so I’m not optimistic about how that’s going to [00:56:00] turn out for you guys.

SHEFFIELD: One thing I would say though for people who are listening or watching who are in contact with Americans, I’ve found that people who haven’t been steeped in this tradition themselves, it’s hard for them to believe that it’s real. That there are tens of millions of people out there who literally think that they are living in a Bible story.

Far-right activists pray over boxesAnd when you think that you are God’s personal servant, everything is permissible. And so it’s important for people who are aware that this tradition exists to educate others who are not aware of it. Because if you don’t do that, then people don’t know what they’re fully up against, then they can’t really oppose it effectively.

And I’m just going to put up on the screen here a picture. So this was a rally that was after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. So there were Christian Right activists who were coming into different states trying to overthrow the results there. And in this picture here, we have some activists that were in Michigan and they have these boxes of things that they claim are affidavits, proving that there was Democratic cheating in the election.

And you’ve got this whole group of people that are praying over the boxes and proclaiming God’s authority, that the supposed affidavits will be persuasive to judges. In the background, there are these praise worshipers, some of them are blowing on these ancient Israeli horns called shofars. They really do see themselves as God’s prophetic servants.

And so it’s really important that people who are watching or listening today, that you tell people about what’s going on here. Because the mainstream media doesn’t understand these stories.

And actually, maybe we can maybe wrap up with that, why do you think that there is such little mainstream media interest in trying to understand this tradition, this delusion?

DOUGLAS: I think both in journalism, and at certain moments in academia, there was a widespread expectation of secularization, that is that religion was [00:58:00] disappearing. And so we don’t need to pay as much attention to religion as we used to need to. That’s one of the things that happens to modern countries in modern times is that religion disappears.

That’s happened in some countries, to some degree, like Canada and elsewhere in Europe. But in the United States, it hasn’t really happened.

In fact, we’ve seen the reverse, we’ve seen the re-invigoration or the re-empowerment of, especially of Christianity, since the 1970s and 1980s became increasingly politicized.

So we’ve actually seen the re-invigoration of a kind of conservative white Christian religious energy that I think is intent on recapturing its symbolic, cultural, and political power.

And much of it does not regard its political opponents as legitimate actors, even when democratically elected. So I think once you’ve re-imagined in those supersessionist terms that you are God’s chosen people, in God’s chosen country, it makes compromise particularly impossible.

Because your opponents are the opponents of God. You don’t compromise with the opponents of God.

SHEFFIELD: And I think also that you could say that many moderate or liberal Christians, they’re not aware that this alternative tradition has developed, and really grown as big as it is. And they’re also not aware that that tradition is coming for them. And that it has a power that is very compelling to a lot of people because it’s totalizing.

It’s a worldview that encompasses politics, that encompasses religion, that encompasses schooling, that encompasses family. It literally can run your life for you. It can make the decisions. It can make your identity. You can finally be a part of something bigger than yourself.

DOUGLAS: They may also lack understanding about what this is because a lot of it is as a kind of craziness that’s outside of their specific church or cultural traditions, but some of it is shame.

I think for lots of progressive and thoughtful and intellectual [01:00:00] Christians, to engage with fundamentalist theology and politics is to experience shame. Because it’s not like yours. It’s simplistic and binary and into this sort of Manichean binary of good and evil.

It’s not as sophisticated as your own religious tradition. So I think that can oftentimes mean for the moderates and liberal/progressive Christians, there’s an experience of shame. And an attempt to, I think sometimes on the other hand argue that they’re not really Christian at all. Those people are not really Christian, they’re Christian nationalists, who aren’t really in the proper Christian tradition, like we’re practicing it. But that’s a different conversation.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. This has been a great one that we’ve had today and I appreciate you being here today, Chris. So I’m just putting up on the screen for people who want to continue to follow your work. You are @crddouglas on Twitter. And then also you have a book out, which I mentioned at the beginning, but I’ll plug it again for you, it is called “If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right.”

So thank you for being here, Chris.

DOUGLAS: Thanks for having me on your show, Matthew.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.