American Millennialists and the EU Satan
Issue #72, February 2005
Millennialism in the United States has a lengthy and disreputable history. It was one of the tools of oppressive religious rhetoric even before Jonathan Edwards, commonly identified as the major intellectual forebear of American evangelical millennialism, fashioned it into a white-heated instrument for salvation. Millennialism represents a mode of religious explanation and insight based on interpellation of contemporary signs and biblical texts. Events acquire meaningful importance insofar as they support righteous assertions about culture, the deterioration of public and Christian values, inadmissible separation of religious and public spheres, and the pervasive presence of evil forces that are the worldly manifestation of Satan. For millennialists, the world is a pit of moral corruption at the cusp of destruction. The only worthwhile political economy lies in the means of transit from damnation to salvation. It would be mistaken, however, to understand millennialism's repetitious prophecies and sociologies as global isolationism, for to millennialists the wider world is a necessary source of prophetic signs.
The Bush administration is not an overtly millennialist camp, whatever the critique of its invention of a criminal war in Iraq. There is no evidence to support allegations, common in some quarters, that Bush acted from a personal vision of an end-of-days scenario in deciding to invade Iraq. A predisposition to believe the worst of George W. Bush and his circle of advisors, even if understandable, can lead to inaccurate understandings of the influence of millennialism on his Middle East policy. This administration's militaristic policies emerge from a rationalist politics with an identifiable history lodged in such issues as oil economics, a tacit alliance with Gulf oil state elites, imperial power, and ultimately, an ideological equation of human freedom and free markets. End-of-days is old-style religion, from generations when Wall Street closed and the market closed. Under globalism the markets never close and there is no end-of-days. A perceived practicalism in defense of political principles and economic benefits, not religious hallucination, guides the Bush administration's foreign policy.
There is a more subtle and complex relationship with millennialism operating here, one that begins where millennialism exerts a public force that conditions US right-wing political decision-making through political action committees, fund-raising, and constituent write-in or call-in campaigns. The effects of evangelical Christian millennialism on the Bush administration's policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been discussed frequently. Crusading evangelical ministers like Mike Evans have made entire careers out of exploiting the conflict for religious purposes, lobbying in Christ's name for Israel, and identifying Palestinians with the minions of Beezelbub. But as frequently a focus as the Middle East has become for the identification of prophetic signs, the millennialist vision is much more expansive. The search for signs is global, just as the apocalypse will be global. Such interpretive religious visions become a rationalization for a search of signs and harbingers, with all contemporary world history – the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was immediately popular as an end-of-days warning – becoming grist for millennialist mills. To have a sign remains insufficient, however, for it is biblical contextualization and argumentation that gives a sign meaning.
The Bush administration's problematic relations with Europe have been accompanied by a re-interpretation of the European Union among the fundamentalist faithful in the United States. Among these millennialists, the EU is Rome re-born and one of the necessary conditions for the Advent of Christ. Most of these interpretations are based on readings of the Book of Daniel, particularly chapter 2 and the dream of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. According to this chapter, Daniel interpreted a statue of a man in Nebuchadnezzar's dream as representing five kingdoms. Some present-day prophesy-readers interpret the fourth kingdom as the 'northern kingdom' and the EU; others cite the fifth kingdom as "the final world kingdom."
The grandfather of this mode of prophetic interpretation was Herbert Armstrong, the Pasadena-based radio preacher and publisher of Plain Truth, who came to the fore in the 1930s and represented one offshoot of the nineteenth-century Millerite tradition that transformed itself into Seventh Day Adventism. Armstrong, a tireless publicist, incorrectly predicted that Nazi Germany would win World War II, but afterwards attempted to correct himself by prophesizing that a "flash-in-the-pan" United States of Europe led by Germany would enter and win an apocalyptic struggle with the US and the United Kingdom. Armstrong published these claims in 1956 in a tract entitled 1975 in Prophecy, based on his reading of Daniel 2 and 7. These same passages were employed endlessly by other Cold War prophets to prove that the former Soviet Union was the 'northern kingdom,' part of the interpretive squabbles, shifting sign identifications, and postponed advent dates at the heart of millennialist practice.
Terry James and Todd Strandberg argue for the fifth-kingdom reading. They hold that "the final world governmental system…is far along in the process of coming together today in the form of the European Union" and that the EU is an extension of the ancient Roman Empire. In the millennialist historiography of James and Strandberg, the stages of European unification, from the Coal and Steel Community to the Maastricht Treaty, are part of a eschatological progression. Theirs is only a slightly more sophisticated reading than many other millennialists, who might know Le Monde from the Golden Calf but would think ill of both for speaking French. James and Strandberg suggest that EU policies, especially their failure to support the invasion of Iraq (Tony Blair and the unlamented Jose Maria Aznar appear to have been momentarily excused from the EU on grounds of argumentative inconvenience), are characterized by an arrogance reminiscent of the Roman Caesars. This same European arrogance is a possible indicator of formation of "the beast-government of Daniel 7, Revelation 13, and Revelation 17-18", and it would be such a beast-government that would attempt via participation in a biblically-predicted Quartet to impose a Road Map to perdition in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The authors conclude that "Understanding that Europe has shed its former robes of Christianity to accept its prophesied economic and governmental role within the end-time is essential to understanding its beast nature." While this reading may have facetious possibilities in regards the origin of Berlusconi's dark side, it is the imagistic suggestion of The Beast that is important. Europe, viewed here as a passive-aggressive global antagonist rather than as a US ally, has been continentally de-Christianized and converted into an icon of Satanism.
Although its authors do not recognize it, their religious characterization of Europe as a once-but-no-more seat of truthful Christianity has its origins in seventeenth-century American Puritan rhetoric that scourged Europe for its religious and political failures. In their hostility towards EU policy that does not conform to the Bush administration's militarism, fundamentalists reach towards contemporary re-iterations of 'dark Europe' imagery that have long held currency in sectors of American religious culture that pursue prophetic interpretations of current events.
Jack Van Impe, one of the better-known US evangelical preachers, asserts based on Revelation 17:10 that there will exist seven empires before Christ returns. The first five were Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece; the sixth was Rome, and the seventh will be the EU as a revivified Rome. "The revived Roman Empire is presently assembling and organizing itself under the aegis of the European Union," Van Impe writes, "a federal Super-state that will form the basis for the last one-world government. This dictatorship under Anti-Christ rules with supernatural power, advanced twenty-first-century technological police-state know-how, and unthinkable terror." The evidences Van Impe employs to substantiate his prophetic assertion are the introduction of the euro; initial meetings to form the EU's predecessor in 1948 (Van Impe re-does history to favor an ahistorical chronology, since the Coal and Steel Community was established in 1951), which coincided with the prophesized re-establishment of Israel; and, again in 1948, the foundation of the World Council of Churches, "which would help lay the groundwork for the one-world religious system of the Antichrist described in Revelation 13:11 and 17:9."
This is a revealed eschatology where no incident lies outside the divine plan and the imminent approach of Rapture. As guides through these prophesized events, Van Impe and other millennialists function as integrative narrators whose work lies in exposing the plan with the Bible as continuously self-revealing blueprint. The establishment and successive developmental phases leading to the European Union do not manifest the creation of a European public sphere and legal system, but rather are the unfolding of a divine plan in which European citizens have no agency. Europeans who, in their growing godlessness, place secular faith in the EU and its institutions consequently are blind to this divine plan. While they may believe they are proceeding towards European integration, they are in fact headed towards hell.
The American school of millennialist interpretation of world events is a communal discussion, one that disputes, endorses, and borrows readings. Van Impe's above-quoted sentences concerning the EU, for example, have been copied over entirely or substantially paraphrased at the website of Pastor Dale Morgan and the Good News Ministry. Jennifer Rast at Contender Ministries, an advocate for a four-kingdom interpretation, provides a comprehensive review of the evidence that the EU is the New Roman Empire. Elements of this review frequently appear in the millennialist interpretations of the European Union that appear elsewhere on the Internet. Much of this 'EU exegesis' is subsumed into tedious verse-by-verse expositions of the books of Daniel and Revelation, such as Wayne Bedwell and his Arizona-based Church of God Most High provide at an End Time Prophecies website. Much more intriguingly, substantial amounts of discussion enter into such burning questions as whether Javier Solana is the Anti-Christ, or whether the European Union flag and its circle of golden stars is Catholic iconography that evidences the Pope's secret control of the EU.
Religious zealots in the US have no monopoly on this sort of speculation. The redoubtable Reverend Ian Paisley views the beatification and possible eventual sainthood of Robert Schuman, post-war French foreign minister and advocate of European unity, as a sign that Rome is not giving up after the Church "has been thwarted in proceeding to grasp control diplomatically of the machinery of public national preference in the governance of the European Union." And from Germany, the Reverend Paul Kieffer, a United Church of God pastor,reads the opening of EU accession meetings with Turkey as more evidence of the continued construction of a new Roman Empire. Referencing Daniel 2, Kieffer argues that "Bible prophecy suggests that [Turkish accession] could be the first step in changing radically Europe's present relationship with the rest of the world" and bring about fulfillment of apocalyptic promises. Just as American millennialists understand the European Union through the prism of their religious and cultural phobias, so too do Europeans – although in far more limited numbers – employ their own domestic and continental phobias to apply religious or biblical readings to EU expansion.
One of the constant points of contention within this international interpretive community is how to interpret Daniel 7:24 – "And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise; and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings." While the EU was originally constituted with ten member nations, it has now expanded to twenty-five countries, which results in interpretive controversy among millennialists. Entire numerological reading schemes have to be re-worked every time another country accedes to the European Union. For an up-to-date millennialist exegete such as Raster, who follows EU politics more intensely than nearly all Americans, most of whom have only foggy notions of the EU and its constitutional basics, the proposed creation of an EU presidency to replace the current rotating presidency is more grist for her biblical mill. Repeated descriptions of the ten-horned beast in the Book of Daniel mention a "small horn" that uproots other horns (Dan. 7:7-8), so this is clear prognostication of an empowered EU president.
Midnight Call Ministries, which draws on perverse citation of Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems theories that retain a weird appropriateness, questions whether an enlarged Europe is governable, whether "the new union of states could produce further fears, terrorization by mafia mobs and immeasurable corruption, and lead to chaos that would make Europe impossible to rule or keep under observation." Thus, the commentator adduces once again the rise of a strong European leader, an EU president who will bear the mark of the Beast. That the EU and its formation represent the voluntary accession of states based on a democratic process, one where states reserve national sovereignty, escapes millennialists more concerned with revealing apocalyptic visions than dry legal facts. J. Thomas LaCroix, a religious columnist, typifies this dismissal of European constitutionalism where he writes:
"The EU has quietly become a world power that will soon have control of almost the entire continent of Europe. The Roman Empire attempted to unite the peoples that it conquered. The EU is masquerading as a unifying government similar to the US."
For LaCroix, the EU seizes control and lacks governmental legitimacy; it invades the expanse of Europe and cannot establish an organic political unity.
It might be tempting to dismiss such fevered end-of-days exegeses as no more than the ravings of the same unstable sorts who believe UN troops are coming to kick down American doors and seize guns, or who send checks to Red Heifer breeding programs for the Third Temple. However, a discourse community contains a range of social personalities, some closer and some further from political power. The size of the Christian millennialist community – indicated, if nothing more, by the millions of copies of the Left Behind rapture novels co-written by Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and Jerry Jenkins – speaks to a faith group more than capable of exerting significant political power.
This is a community that, while it may disagree on the specifics of interpretation, remains in basic cultural and political agreement. For American millennialists, Europe is a cultural threat for reasons that include its more tolerant social climate, protection of gay rights, declining religiosity, socialism, Catholicism, and plain nativist distrust of Europeans. For millennialists besieged by the invasions of twenty-first-century modernism, Europe speaks to what the United States might become if, as they believe, its national moral decline continues. Gibbon's thesis of decadent Roman history represents for American millennialists the current state of Europe as a pit of immorality, one whose citizens stand at the edge of a 'precipice society' even as the EU expands, gains political strength, and provides increasing human rights protections. It is these human rights themselves – particularly for homosexuals – that are a frequent target of evangelical wrath in the United States. A millennialist faith in apocalypse and Rapture expresses a demand for religious purification of a sinful society, and EU's symbolic role as the pre-figuration of Rapture is a measure of the phobia Europe now inspires in much of US society.
The New Carthage: Sodomy and Socialism
Anti-Europeanism has been a means of constructing distinctive Euro-American identities in North America since at least the seventeenth century, when Puritan literature sought to distinguish its own salvationist theology through condemnation of European sinfulness. The presence of anti-European themes in Native American literature was opposition to invasion and conquest, as Europeans occupied native territories; in African American literature, this theme was racialized (e.g. David Walker's early nineteenth-century denunciations of evil whites) in consequence of the regime of race slavery that governed early American history. Among American millennialists, however, nearly all of whom are conservative whites, European-ness defines an origin that has been displaced and replaced. For this social group, antagonism towards Europe derives from greater depths than immediate disagreements over social policy. As with many phobias, ignorance combined with awareness of widespread rejection intensifies the phobic symptoms.
Much of the US population is aware of the disdain with which many Europeans regard the United States, its society, and domestic and foreign policies. The US is no longer the awe-inspiring country where the Cuban writer José Marti could arrive in 1883 to praise as the US as "an introducer of the products that, with the sacred salt and seasoning of liberty, have accelerated to a marvelous degree the maturity of English America." If Marti sought to promote a United States of South America in the late nineteenth century, in the early twenty-first century US values render the phrase 'United States of Europe' – once a common phrase among early European unification advocates – has become political nonsense to contemporary Euro-citizens. This was a phrase that once had currency as a description of a US-style federal Europe, one that Victor Hugo, Edouard Herriot, Winston Churchill, and Franz Josef Strauss all employed. Even as the United States remains a dominant economic, technological, and cultural influence in Europe, there is little interest in becoming a mirror-model of US society. At best, public discussion opens questions of how to replicate US techno-economic advantages while preserving European or national cultures.
The US reciprocates this European disdain throughout its political and social discourses. In March 2004, for instance, the US House Committee on the Judiciary held hearings before its Subcommittee on the Constitution concerning the appropriate role of foreign judgments in the interpretation of American law. In his statement, Representative Jim Ryun of Kansas objected to US Supreme Court decisions citing the European Court of Human Rights in support of striking down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, European and international legal decisions against executing the mentally retarded in Akin v. Virginia, and other uses of international law in regards execution and racial discrimination. Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of government at Cornell University, suggested to the subcommittee that "Europeans are more comfortable deferring to the guidance of elites" (as if the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 never happened) and that as a result European law was less democratic than US law. Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University's law school, also discussing Lawrence, advanced a speculative reason for such alleged European willingness to accept the "imposition of elite moral views." He asserted, using an argument recently advanced by scholar Jed Rubenfeld, that "the European notion of human rights in constitutionalism is fundamentally different from ours: human rights in Europe are the product of a search for eternal normative truths to be imposed against democracy," whereas the American legal method was to derive all human rights from democratic (i.e. legislative) process. Human rights gain recognition through a variety of social processes, not only legislative action, and democratic electoral processes have failed human rights in the United States frequently, the most obvious example being the end of slavery.
If the House subcommittee provided a forum for an anti-European festival, it is only one of many legal and social forums where similar expressions can be located. Since Justice Scalia's remark about "foreign fads and fashions" in his Lawrence dissent, US law reviews have been publishing what amounts to a legal culture war in pro, con, and 'maybe in the middle' articles concerning the legitimacy of using European opinions in US judicial opinions. As the Supreme Court amicus brief filed by Nobel Peace Prize laureates in the Nanon McKewn Williams v. State of Texas juvenile death penalty case points out, though, the United States has frequently asserted the universality of human rights while refusing to transnational standards of law (or specifically in this case, an accepted international ban on the death penalty for juveniles). Such assertions of US exceptionalism in constitutional law, as above, amplify the degree to which right-wing and conservative populists have advanced broad social claims that the United States is a moral and political exception that can distinguish itself from international society.
It is at this juncture that the real intellectual and political proximity of the George W. Bush administration to American millennialism can be identified. In the right-wing politics that have governed the United States for the last four years, and previously under presidents Bush and Reagan, vigorous argumentative assertions have been made that the United States provides paramount definitions of the international rule of law and just social order. These are the same definitions that serve to justify military aggression without justification under international law, or legal and economic regimes that function to protect multinational corporate property and profits while emiserating hundreds of millions through 'free market' capitalism. The current Bush administration operates as a moral elect, just as millennialism establishes itself within socio-religious concepts of the elect and their election. As a conversionary movement, millennialism seeks to create an exclusionary circle of the elect who can read and share the signs of imminent and immanent history. So too more secular right-wing ideologists have proposed vision after prophetic vision of the United States as a sole moral superpower that creates its own model of global salvation, offering succor to faithful allies and damnation to those who choose otherwise. And as with religious millennialists, for whom evidentiary disproof is where recalculation rather than wholesale disbelief begins, to disbelieve the patently failed evidences of the Bush administration is only to invoke the scorn of its faithful.
If the metaphor of a new Roman empire is workable, it would be the United States, and the EU would be its challenger-state, a new Carthage. American millennialism, in its constant search for the targets of divine wrath, has identified the European Union, refuge for sodomites and socialists, as a counter-power that will be rendered asunder as the fate of idol-worshippers.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.
This essay also appeared in May 2005 in Italian translation in the journal Come Don Chisciotte.