Last updated on January 19, 2021 3:15 pm
How fundamentalist Christians who believe in the apocalyptic myth of “the rapture” could be shaping Trump’s agenda — and American life
Last month, as infernos raged across the West Coast and President Trump countered scientific consensus on climate change, saying, “I don’t think science knows, actually,” Americans of various persuasions got a glimpse of the apocalypse. For many on the left, the fires presented Armageddon in microcosm, proof of the destructive, ongoing processes that imperil humans and the planet alike. For many on the right, however, the fires were a different sort of sign, and Trump’s comment was a dog whistle reassuring those in the know that science would be allowed to imperil neither God-given profits nor God’s plan for his own creation and how it might come to an end. Not with Trump in charge, anyway.
It would be hard to decisively connect the dots here if you weren’t raised, as I was, to believe in a very specific idea of Armageddon. Well before I learned the history of all of America’s actual wars, my conservative Presbyterian church taught me about the battle that would bring about the end times. I was taught that the 38th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel prophesized that one day — any day now, really — a “place in the far north” (interpreted, naturally, to be Russia) would team up with “many nations” (certainly including Iraq and Iran) to attack a “peaceful and unsuspecting” Israel. This would lead to a cosmic battle in which God would come to Israel’s defense, true Christians would be “raptured,” or spirited away to heaven, and the wicked of the Earth would be left to suffer the trials and tribulations of God’s wrath during a horrific seven-year period when the Antichrist would reign supreme and a totalitarian world government called the New World Order would be established. Finally, Jesus and his raptured church would return, vanquishing the Antichrist and ushering in a thousand-year golden age, at the end of which Satan would be permanently defeated and all Christians would live in glory in a newly created heaven and Earth. “The generation that saw Israel become a state will witness Jesus’ return,” I was repeatedly told by those who saw, in the tea leaves of recent history, the end times drawing near. Sometimes, if my house was especially quiet, I’d momentarily panic that everyone had been raptured up without me.
These ideas have been called heretical by Catholics and mainline Protestants (of which, it should be said, I am now one). But to the roughly 80 million evangelicals in the U.S., they have become a dominant — one might even say the dominant — strain of the faith. According to the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Americans think that Jesus will definitely (23 percent) or probably (18 percent) return to Earth by the year 2050. A full 58 percent of white evangelicals hold this view. The Left Behind series, a collection of novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and the late fundamentalist minister Tim LaHaye that dramatizes this theology, has sold more than 80 million copies (as of 2016) and has been made into multiple feature-length films. “When I first started researching, I had this idea that I would be studying a subculture,” says Amy Frykholm, senior editor at The Christian Century and author of Rapture Culture. “And then Left Behind happened, and I was like, ‘I don’t think this is a subculture. This may be the dominant American culture, and the rest of us are subcultures.’ I mean, this is mainstream.”
And never has it been more mainstream in American politics than under the Trump administration. Unlike Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, Trump does not appear to believe in end-times theology or even in Christianity in general, but his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance. It’s therefore unsurprising that he has filled his administration with fundamentalists, whose devotion to his presidency may be based on a conviction that they’re playing for the highest of possible stakes — that their actions on the political stage could play a role in bringing about the Second Coming and that their fight for Christian values affects how God will judge them when that day comes.
Until Trump took office, Ralph Drollinger’s Capitol Ministries, which organizes bible studies for political leaders (and, according to the organization’s Statement of Faith, teaches rapture theology), held group meetings in the Senate and House, but not the executive branch. With Trump in office, Drollinger saw an opening, starting a bible study for White House staff in March 2017 that a number of Trump’s Cabinet members have attended, including former Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and former EPA head Scott Pruitt. The organization’s public list of sponsors includes Vice President Mike Pence (who has described himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic”), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. David Jeremiah, the protégé of Tim LaHaye whose own series of nonfiction tomes attempt to present rapture theology in a more academic format, serves on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board (LaHaye himself served as the spiritual adviser to former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, but did not make it into the White House’s inner sanctum).
“Never have evangelicals had the access to the president that they have under President Trump,” Robert Jeffress, a prominent rapture theology pastor, told me in 2019. “He has made a unique effort to not just win their votes in 2016 but also to listen to them afterwards. If anything, [access] has increased. He has certainly made good on his promise to have an open-door policy.”
In lending such unprecedented credence to a fundamentalist strain of evangelicalism, Trump has not just sanctioned its worldview in the halls of government, but he’s allowed it to become further politicized. “George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, was a minister’s [son], but he didn’t overtly bring that to bear on how he doled out justice,” says John Fea, a scholar of Christian nationalism and author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Indeed, Ashcroft maintained that “it is against my religion to impose my religion” on people. One does not get the same separation-of-church-and-state vibe from Trump’s end-times acolytes. “Here, we have Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence literally making appearances in front of the home crowd, on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Salem radio shows, Liberty University,” says Fea. “It’s not even a wink, wink. It’s an overt appeal to this kind of evangelicalism.”
At a 2015 “God and Country Rally” in Wichita, Kansas, Pompeo endorsed a prayer that had condemned multiculturalism and homosexuality, telling those assembled, “We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture.” In a 2019 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, when asked whether he believed that God might have put Trump in office to save the Jews from Iran, Pompeo replied, “I am certain that the Lord is at work here.”
In numerous speeches, Pence has likewise catered to the rapture theology idea that America’s fate is tied up with that of Israel. “We stand with Israel because we cherish that ancient promise that Americans have always cherished throughout our history: that those who bless her will be blessed,” he told Christians United for Israel, a conservative Christian organization led by the televangelist John Hagee. For his own part, Hagee’s website has this to say about the end times: “Gravestones will be toppled over. Funeral homes from every region will report that those who were dead have resurrected and suddenly disappeared. Cars will be parked beside freeways, their engines left running, their passengers mysteriously missing. Airplanes will fall from the sky as pilots who are Believers are called home. The news centers report that churches around the world are flooded with people who are sobbing uncontrollably. They know. They have missed the rapture.” Not coincidentally, Hagee has been calling for the U.S. to enter a war with Iran for at least the past 15 years.
Ron Przysucha/United States State Department*
Certainly, the most overt proof that these beliefs are influencing policy can be seen in the administration’s actions in the Middle East. For those not steeped in rapture theology, the decisions to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, and assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen Qasem Soleimani may have seemed risky at best, nihilistic at worst — potentially destabilizing acts with little geopolitical upside. Yet many fundamentalist evangelicals rejoiced, presumably seeing in these actions proof that Trump is on their side even if he isn’t in their pews. Lest any of these believers missed the point, Jeffress gave the opening prayer at the dedication ceremony for the new Jerusalem embassy; Hagee was chosen to give the closing benediction.
End-times theology’s influence doesn’t end there, however. As with any worldview, it is comprehensive, creating its own internal logic and compelling its followers to adhere to it. To limit its scope to Israeli relations and to equate it with a collection of pulpy novels is to fail to see rapture theology’s true pervasiveness and the growing role it is playing in American domestic politics and the fabric of American life. It’s to fail to see its awesome power in the here and now.
The concept of a second coming of Jesus has been central to Christianity since the earliest days of the church. But the idea of the rapture — that Christians will magically be spared the trials and tribulations preceding the Second Coming — didn’t exist until the late 19th century, when a British preacher named John Darby reportedly borrowed it from the visions of a teenage girl he knew. During Darby’s five trips to America between 1862 and 1877, the country was in the throes of, or still recovering from, the Civil War, and the escapism of the rapture appealed to white Southern Christians who were only too pleased to learn that “‘Oh, we’re going to be taken back to the glory land where we have our plantations in heaven,’” says Zack Hunt, a former minister and author of Unraptured: How End Times Theology Gets It Wrong. “That’s where you begin to see the ball rolling with a lot of this end-times theology. Before that, it doesn’t exist in the church.”
For much of the next century, then, rapture theology was about escapism — creating a subculture with its own schools and rules and focus on personal salvation — and was concentrated in the South within fundamentalist communities, finding a home among those who rejected evolution and women’s lib and adhered to a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago that the ideas started to take on an unhealthy political bent. The 1948 creation of the state of Israel meant that the end-times clock was ticking, and the founding of NATO and the U.N. foreshadowed the emergence of a New World Order run by liberal elites in cahoots with the Antichrist, who might be anyone from Gorbachev to Obama. The end-times Christian’s main calling had once been to save as many souls as possible before the rapture occurred, but after the advent of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority — a political crusade initiated by anger at the government for its attempts to desegregate private Christian schools — the mission became more overtly political and wrapped up in the idea that God would judge not just individuals, but also nations. As the world sunk further into depravity, a Christian’s charge was to push back against that depravity, to fight evil at every turn, and at every level of government.
“Instead of wanting to escape, they get this need for control,” says Diana Butler Bass, a religious historian who specializes in American fundamentalism and grew up in the evangelical church. “There’s this idea that safety isn’t possible unless they have some ability to shape policy.” Godliness would not be achieved through fights for equality or social-justice reform, as some 19th century Christian social movements had attempted, including abolitionism. Rather, America would be saved by adhering to a sort of biblical legalism, an interpretation of “holiness” that attempts to force the values of the group (God, family, and country, in that order) on those who don’t share those values, or don’t share them in the same way. “It’s this slow putting into place policies of order,” says Bass, “policies of control, policies of authority, policies of hierarchy as a way of containing chaos, trying to create a biblical world in order that we can move into whatever that next phase will be, when Christ will return.”
Adherents of rapture theology view almost every issue through that lens. “It pervades people’s thinking,” says Larycia Hawkins, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who formerly taught at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. And this is true not only when it comes to politicized issues, but also when it comes to simple interactions, daily duties, how one perceives current events. Rapture Christians look to the world for signs of what God is doing and what God is telling them to do, and in looking for signs, they inevitably find them. “The wars, the rumors of wars, the fires, the floods, the hurricanes, the earthquakes in places that have never had earthquakes,” Hawkins says, “these are signs of the Earth groaning to be restored — not because the Earth is broken, but because people are broken, and it takes Jesus to come back and redeem the soul.”
Understanding this unlocks an understanding of much of the Trump administration’s agenda, which seems tailor-made to appeal to this theological mindset. Inside this worldview, environmentalism is a lack of faith in God’s power over his own creation, so gutting the EPA, pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and scoffing at climate science makes perfect sense. Conservative judges aren’t just saving the unborn, they’re also bulwarks against all manner of Satan-sanctioned liberalism, protecting the faithful from persecution and reversing LGBTQ protections. Socialism is a plan to subvert God’s dispensation of riches, so it’s not wrong to kick more than a half-million people off of food stamps amid a pandemic. Women’s rights seek to subvert the hierarchy God created for the home, while immigration leads to pluralism, a watering down of America’s Christian essence. The coronavirus is a punishment that entered America through its most liberal cities, and a proactive response to the virus is an overreach of a government that would emasculate men by usurping their God-given autonomy over the safety of the family. Inequality is proof of mankind’s brokenness, which only Jesus can heal. “Whether or not you believe in the rapture or tribulation or any of this stuff, the reality is it affects all of our lives in very tangible ways,” says Hunt.
The Trump administration’s pursuit of this agenda has been so thorough that the president has become emblematic of this belief system to many who adhere to it. The rise of “Patriot churches” and televangelist Pat Robertson’s recent assertion that “Trump is going to win the election … and the fulfillment will take place of Ezekiel 38’s prophesy” are not about simply bringing Christian principles to bear on governance, as politicians have certainly done throughout America’s history; they are inserting Trump into the narratives of Christian nationalism and Christian Zionism (the belief that restoring the Holy Land to the Jews is a prerequisite to the Second Coming), respectively. And Trump’s appeal to both of these ideologies, despite their unpopularity with a majority of voters, shows the extent of his compact with his evangelical base.
In fact, the very unpopularity of much of what Trump has accomplished is part of the point, allowing fundamentalists to find political success and primacy while still casting themselves as persecuted and oppressed. Under the guise of a crusade for “religious freedom,” they have indeed found a perfect companion in Trump, whose popularity thrives on the politics of grievance, and who has inherited (and squandered) a fortune and yet still manages to see himself as a put-upon man of the people. “Part of Trump’s appeal to this demographic is his embrace of vengeance toward his enemies. That’s a huge component of end-times theology,” says Hunt. “The idea is that the church or the faithful is going to be raptured up into heaven, and then there will be this seven-year period of tribulation where all these terrible plagues and bowls of wrath are going to be poured out on Earth? Well, what’s really happening is all of the faithful are sitting there watching their enemies get their comeuppance. They’re finally seeing all the people who made fun of them for going to church or ridiculed them for being pro-life or told them they were wrong for opposing gay marriage are now getting their just due. So there’s this carnal appeal to end-times theology. And you see Donald Trump kind of prefigure that in a really perverse way.”
And he’s only too happy to do so. Trump understands the inherent power of a worldview that delineates a stark line between good and evil, that preaches of persecution at the hands of imagined foes, be it the mainstream media or the liberals making up the fictitious international ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles central to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Put another way, he understands the allure — and utility — of framing everything as an epic fight.
Such a framing not only distorts truth and objectivity, but “it also tells the person who holds the truth that their truth is more important than other people’s truth. And it frames it as benevolence,” says political analyst Jared Yates Sexton, author of American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People. End-times Christians are often what Hunt calls “otherwise good people,” those trustworthy souls who stock their church’s food pantries and leave a note on your windshield if they accidentally ding your car. Their political aims may seem impossibly selfish and short-sighted from the outside, but they wholeheartedly believe that they are fighting on the side of angels. “One of the problems of this mindset is that it creates an alternate reality — and also a permanent state of artificial austerity to fund schools and infrastructure and health care and have better lives, because we’re being treated like we’re in the middle of a world war that doesn’t actually exist,” says Sexton. In other words, policy decisions that would improve people’s earthly lives pale in comparison to those that continue the fight for American holiness. “We’ve been looking for apocalyptic battles because we believe ourselves to be the champion of God in the universe,” Sexton continues. “We’ve been fighting phantoms.”
And Trump, more than any previous president, has been egging evangelicals on in that fight, whipping up a fervor that will not go away no matter what happens in November. Whether Trump gets another term or not, America can expect the myth of the rapture to continue to influence U.S policy through his court appointments. We can expect a re-litigation of concepts that were settled long ago, from Roe v. Wade to prayer in schools. We can expect other conservative candidates to continue to overtly cater to this group, but possibly with a political competence even more effective at achieving the ends the rapturous believe are necessary to American salvation. We can expect political losses, no matter how significant, to be challenged, because democracy is not as important as the supposed will of God.
More than anything, we can expect that rapture theology will not go away, will not cede the privileged position Trump has granted it. And from that privileged position, we can expect that it will continue to tear Americans apart. “I mean, you have one group of folks who are trying to expand health care coverage and another who are fighting a cosmic battle between good and evil. What conversation can be had?” Hunt sighs. “There’s not one.