Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t possibly get any worse, up pops Pat Robertson on his daily TV show, The 700 Club, to tell us what God has exclusively revealed to him. Calmly and with great authority, like the prophet who has no doubt, he declares that Donald Trump will win the US presidential election, but that this ‘good’ news will be followed, in short order, by civil unrest, two attempts on Trump’s life, a calamitous war in the Middle East, a brief period of world peace, and finally, within just a few years, the obliteration of life on earth by a direct hit from an asteroid.
Even in a broadcasting career littered with outrageous and ridiculous prognostications, this ranks high on the list of Robertson’s absurdities. And yet in the maelstrom of extraordinary claims and conspiracy theories currently swirling around the American election, it sounds almost reasonable and restrained.
The daily audience for The 700 Club is around a million, a tiny fraction of the estimated 100 million evangelicals in the US, and Pat Robertson with his mad apocalypticism clearly does not speak for them all. But according to the Pew Research Center, 81 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election and their support for him appears to have remained strong over the last four years. To some degree, that support must extend to the numerous conspiracy theories that Trump himself has advanced and that are a central part of his message and appeal.
Leaving aside his apparent endorsement of the QAnon movement, with its crazed notions of a Democratic party in thrall to an international satanic network of paedophiles, Trump constantly claims that there are vast and sinister conspiracies at work to undermine his presidency and deceive the American public. Chief among them are ‘the fake news lamestream media’, ‘the deep state’, and ‘the Covid hoax’. His almost Manichean view, which divides the world neatly into good people and bad people, is communicated clearly and directly in political rallies, appearances on Fox News and his incessant barrage of tweets. It’s designed to fire up his base and inspire them to follow him in recapturing and rebuilding the true America.
Why have white evangelical Christians been so enamoured with Donald Trump? In many ways, their support for a Republican president is unremarkable, and they certainly didn’t need the added enticement of an evangelical running mate in Mike Pence to vote for Trump. As a group, they’ve voted solidly Republican since the time of Ronald Reagan, and that support has remained constant at around 70 per cent, even for losing candidates. There are obviously many complex reasons for this Republican tendency in evangelicalism that will keep political researchers busy for years to come. But with the election of President Trump in 2016, it appears to have intensified and moved up a gear.
Is it possible that Trump is so appealing to white evangelicals precisely because of his conspiracy theories? Could it be that part of the reason his personality and message resonate so deeply with them is that they are already primed to view the world through similarly conspiratorial lenses?
By virtue of their own particular history and traditions of biblical interpretation, a large number of American evangelicals are committed to two ideas that frame their understanding of history, and almost seem to demand they adopt a conspiratorial perspective. The first is connected with the beginning of all things, and fundamentally with their literal reading of the book of Genesis. The second relates to the end of the world and to the eschatological drama they believe is being played out in our times.
The culture wars, which the sociologist James Davison Hunter has defined as ‘the struggle to define America’, appear to have intensified and become even more insoluble in recent years. The country’s bitter political divisions encompass arguments over many issues, including race, education, art, sexuality, the environment, and the law. And there’s no question that somewhere in the mix, intertwined with almost all these other issues, are arguments about science.
For the millions of US evangelicals who have been raised in the fundamentalist tradition of biblical literalism – which ironically is itself a thoroughly modern development and departure from historic Christian approaches to Scripture – Genesis is their primary scientific textbook. Every scientific claim and discovery has to be lined up with its chronology and account of the ordering of creation, and they are very serious about it. There are all kinds of well-funded ministries and educational initiatives, such as the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park, both in Kentucky, and the Institute of Creation Research in Dallas, Texas, that exist solely to promote this ‘biblical’ approach and to combat the findings of mainstream science.
According to Ken Ham, the founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis, which owns and operates both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, modern science is essentially an atheistic enterprise with the godless theory of evolution at its heart. Very much in the context of the 2020 presidential election, he recently wrote that ‘America was founded with a predominantly Judeo-Christian ethic that came from the Bible… a more Christianized worldview permeated the culture. However, we now have generations who were brainwashed in the secular education systems with an evolutionary atheistic worldview. The spiritual war between the secularized worldview and the Christianized (more conservative) worldview is raging around us.’
The main efforts of the Institute of Creation Research appear to be aimed at proving the Genesis creation chronology and undermining the credibility of evolutionary science by, for example, questioning the reliability of carbon dating techniques.
Whether or not the claims of these creationists are scientifically sound and well-grounded – and I happen to think they certainly are not – this is a mindset that requires its adherents to believe that almost all other investigators and researchers in the field are operating in wilful ignorance or bad faith. A host of chemists, physicists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists and anthropologists the world over are wrongly reading the evidence before their eyes and conspiring together to mislead the public. On this view, and beginning with the theory of evolution, modern science is essentially an anti-God conspiracy. Fake news, in their view, begins right here.
Is it any wonder that people who have been schooled in this massive conspiracy theory should be drawn to a president who seems to share their scepticism and mistrust of the scientific establishment, and who contemptuously dismisses the advice of experts on a whole range of issues, from the global pandemic to the realities of climate change?
Evolution as the beginning of fake news… where will it all end? Well, many American evangelicals have a big idea about that, too, a notion concerning the final events of history that puts all other conspiracy theories in the shade.
One of the most influential schools of thought in North American evangelicalism is what’s known as dispensationalism. According to this way of reading the Bible, history is now in the sixth of seven ages, or dispensations, and is on the very cusp of the seventh, the millennial reign of Christ. Dispensationalists are premillennial in their view of the end times; they believe that before Christ returns the world will go through a terrible period called the Great Tribulation, when a figure called the Antichrist will emerge and violence and carnage on an unimaginable scale will be enacted. Popularised by the massively successful Left Behind series of novels and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, there are many different variations on this end times scenario.
In fact, ever since dispensationalism emerged in the 19th century, preachers and writers such as Jack Van Impe, Hal Lindsey, John Walvoord, Pat Robertson, and many others, have been declaring that specific events in the daily news cycle are actually the fulfilment of some obscure text or other, and clear signs of the imminent onset of the Great Tribulation; and they’ve been vying with each other to identify the Antichrist who is soon to be revealed to the whole world. Is it Hitler? No, it’s Stalin! It’s got to be Pope Paul VI! But what about Henry Kissinger? Wrong – it’s Gorbachev! Might be Tony Blair. But keep an eye on Recep Erdoğan…
When Pat Robertson made his pronouncement about Trump’s win and that asteroid strike, he claimed to be basing what he said on a passage from the prophecy of Ezekiel. It’s doubtful if anyone watching The 700 Club without prior knowledge of Ezekiel and his particular approach to the Bible would have a clue as to what Robertson was on about. But for those audience members in the know, who understand the code and the means of prophetic interpretation, it’s all crystal clear and significant – even perhaps electrifying! For they have in their hands the Scriptures, the Word of God, and they, unlike others, are able to handle it rightly, even down to using it to interpret the latest political developments and the stories making the day’s news.
Conspiracy theorists are people who think that, against all the widely accepted narratives and theories, against all the conventional wisdom that most suckers believe, they have discovered the key to what’s really going on. They can see through the official story, the cover-up, and have found a way to discern who the real heroes and villains are. They have cracked the secret code to unlock the hidden meaning of events. In the hands of Pat Robertson and his ilk, premillennial theology appears to be the grand-daddy of all conspiracy theories, the one that lays claim to detailed knowledge of the future itself.
Many American evangelicals, perhaps the majority, would hate to be lumped in with fundamentalists and premillennialists and be seen collectively as a bunch of conspiracy theorists. And they have a point. Evangelicalism is a huge and diverse movement with many admirable elements that stand in stark contrast to the crassness of fundamentalism. But there must be some major factors at work among this white evangelical constituency that helps explain the huge appeal Donald Trump has for them. It looks like their enthusiasm for his conspiratorial view of the world is an important part of it.
Iwan Russell-Jones is a Welsh writer and film maker who has taught at theological colleges in Canada and the USA
Image: White House