Trump has Changed the Way Evangelical Christians Think about the ApocalypseRoundup
tags: Christianity, evangelicals, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, COVID-19
Thomas Lecaque is an assistant professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Follow
In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Station Eleven,” survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic do their best to rebuild their lives in northern Michigan. Some of them build an apocalyptic cult premised on the idea that the epidemic was a judgment from God that spared those who were worthy. One of the characters, Tyler Leander, takes the title of “prophet” and builds a militant, Christian-infused apocalyptic movement — a movement that in the book, of course, fails.
A similar strand of “prophetic” Christianity is alive and well in America, and we, too, are in the midst of a pandemic that with an ever-increasing death toll could easily be described in apocalyptic terms. Further, as I have written before, Trump certainly seems like he is the apocalyptic figure that evangelicals are looking for, and his personal failings fit into a preexisting Christian apocalyptic framework. But as I look around, waiting to see our own Leander emerge from the ranks of Trump’s evangelical supporters, it’s apparent that none of them are showing up. It’s not like apocalyptic preachers don’t have plenty of apocalyptic events to choose from this year if the coronavirus isn’t sufficient: murder hornets in the Pacific Northwest; a derecho of unimaginable strength in Iowa; wildfires raging across the western half of the country, a strain of avian flu — separate from the coronavirus — found in a turkey farm in South Carolina, hastily suppressed. If none of these portends the apocalypse for today’s evangelicals, it isn’t the events themselves or the eschatological theology that’s stopping them from taking them that way — it’s what interpreting them in such terms would mean. Simply put, the pandemic is not the apocalypse they are looking for.
The Trump administration has left its apocalyptically inclined evangelical allies in an eschatological bind: They have an apocalyptic leader and an apocalyptic scenario, but they themselves are fully in power … or at least they have been. According to evangelical teaching, the apocalypse traditionally begins with a time of persecution of the true church — at which point, the Four Horsemen, of whom one may be Pestilence, emerge. If the pandemic is apocalyptic, in evangelical thought, it is part of the “Great Tribulation.” But for that to come about, an ungodly ruler must be in power, which means if the moment we’re living through is the “Great Tribulation,” Trump is not the apocalyptic hero but one of the villains — and they are following the wrong leader. That could, of course, all change once Biden’s victory is finally and irrevocably clear. But for the time being, these assumptions speak to the relative absence of apocalyptic alarm among evangelicals — and, perhaps, help explain their reluctance to take the pandemic seriously.
The last great disease outbreak that became presidential news before 2020 was the horrific Ebola outbreak in 2014, where Trump accused the president of being a “psycho” for not stopping flights, and Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s most ardent evangelical defenders, wrote a book claiming that ISIS and Ebola were the countdown to the apocalypse. He wasn’t the only one who linked Ebola and apocalypse together: Franklin Graham, another Trump supporter, wrote that the Ebola outbreak was a sign of the end times; the writer Sharon K. Gilbert, who appears to be supportive of Trump, wrote the nonfiction “Ebola and the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse,” linking it to Revelation 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: And his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Even more directly, James Hagee, another Trump supporter, said that Ebola was God’s punishment for Obama’s “dividing Jerusalem.”
If a horrific — but limited — outbreak in Africa in 2014 under President Barack Obama, the first Black president of this country, was an apocalyptic event, certainly a global pandemic whose global death toll now numbers well over a million should qualify as well. But the idea of Christian apocalypse relies on a narrative of degeneracy. The world is so bad that it can only be redeemed by a millennial transformation through, say, cataclysmic warfare, or a society-ending pandemic, or whatever other apocalyptic event strikes the imminent eschatological fancy — something many modern evangelicals continue to focus on. Ebola certainly seemed to fit the bill. Covid-19 of course fits it even better. But Trump’s evangelical allies have subjugated theology to partisanship.
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