As the United States officially moved its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday, clashes in Gaza cast a dark pall over the ceremonies, which featured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, videotaped remarks from President Donald Trump and a speech by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The violence – which resulted from Israeli forces firing on protesters and has so far cost more than 50 lives and more than 2,700 injuries – was a stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance celebrating what some have called a bold move by President Trump. Others, of course, have criticized it as a needless provocation.
Critics of the decision worry it will effectively derail efforts to broker a peace between Israelis and Palestinians, in order to please wealthy Republican donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who was said to have met personally with the president to convince him to relocate the embassy. Considering Adelson’s influence, it’s unsurprising he was in attendance Monday afternoon, but one voting bloc celebrating this event might be more surprising: evangelical Christians.
While video streamed on television of protesters bleeding and dying on the ground, I noticed very quickly a stark contrast on my social media feeds, where relatives and friends back home seemed to rejoice in the chaos. The turmoil in Gaza, according to them, represented a full vindication of the decision and further proof that something otherworldly was taking place in Israel.
I remember hearing something about this in Sunday school, somebody posted alongside pictures of death and destruction.
Growing up in rural Indiana, I was raised on a steady diet of conspiracy theories and apocalyptic dogma. Objects as innocuous as the clouds in the sky or tasks as commonplace as boiling water were imbued with spiritual import. According to my family, Satan was as ever-present as the hum of the refrigerator, and every new day meant another opportunity to resist and battle him with the word of God. Going astray, or simply entertaining an impure thought, was tantamount to being damned to a pit of fire for eternity.
Every Sunday we were reminded of just how dire the battle was. Our preacher walked himself into a drenching sweat as he paced our church’s stage, his dog-eared Bible in hand, his gaze turned toward the ceiling as he pleaded with the almighty father to forgive his doomed flock. There was no gray area when it came to salvation. You were either among the chosen or destined to suffer, and our fate hinged on our every decision.
The moment of our judgment, we were reminded, could come at any moment. Death was always just one breath away. But, if somehow we managed to live long enough, we might very well be spectators to the End of the World. In this story, there were two armies, one containing the multitude of the holy and the other a rambling throng of sinners lead by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Antichrist himself, each on a collision course that would cross paths any day.
“For you know quite well,” our pastor was fond of quoting, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
My people didn’t treat this sermon like a metaphor or allegory. This was a foretold event that would come to pass at a time of our Lord’s choosing. When we played in the yard and took up sticks, we were swinging the sword of God and attacking barbarous hordes. While we watched the evening news and its litany of tragedies and disasters, Grandma would shake her head and mumble to herself: “Nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”
Every development, every new policy, every war and every epidemic was seen as further proof of approaching Armageddon. My grandma, and other members of my family who trafficked in conspiracy theories, read books and tabloids in search of further "end times" gospel. The specifics were always a little unclear and scattered. One week we were knee-deep in the time of Tribulation, a period of suffering that only Christ could deliver us from, and then we’d be inching up on the Rapture. Public figures were always rumored to be part of Satan’s conspiracy, wars cast as the final showdown between good and evil. But the constant story involved the nation of Israel and its eventual showdown with the Antichrist.
The engine for the Antichrist’s reign, Grandma told us, would be the New World Order, or a conglomeration of nations that would bind together, exorcise God and enslave the holy people. Proof included treaties, any operation undertaken by the United Nations, developments in technology and communications.
Even more frightening, Grandma maintained, was a politician who could unite the country and the world by using his charismatic gifts.
“Beware false prophets,” she told me, alluding to the prophecy that the Antichrist would be accompanied by an evil but personable mystic. “If there’s anything you do, beware false prophets.”
Nearly 20 years would pass before I’d hear the End Times rhetoric again. My people began to worry more over secular problems like the decline of manufacturing, the closing of their factories, how their paychecks either vanished or else covered less and less of their bills. But in 2008, with Barack Obama’s rise from first-term senator to president of the United States of America, their eyes returned to Apocalypse.
According to a forward a relative printed off back then, the similarities between Obama and the Antichrist were undeniable.
According to THE BIBLE, it read, the anti-christ is a Muslim man in his 40s who will a. have THE GIFT OF SPEECH, b. PROMISE THE WORLD PEACE, c. offer HOPE and CHANGE, d. get into a position of power and then RUIN EVERYTHING while BRAGGING ABOUT HIS GREAT WORKS. Sound like anybody you know???
Like so many forwards, this one was inaccurate. Those attributes weren’t anywhere to be found in the gospel. (For one thing, the Prophet Muhammad was not born until late in the 6th century A.D., so Islam is never mentioned in the Bible.) But the people around me were convinced. When they criticized the Affordable Care Act, they likened it to the abominable Mark of the Beast, saying the requirement to buy health insurance amounted to having the numbers 666 burned into your flesh. Obama’s soaring oration was regarded as a malevolent magic, his ability to inspire proof of his wicked powers.
So when Donald Trump challenged President Obama’s citizenship, many of my people read between the lines of the allegations. They doubted that Obama was American too, but they took the charges a step further. If he had been born in Kenya, and if that fact had been covered up by nefarious forces, just who was responsible?
They’d spent their lives being warned of the New World Order, and now, here was proof of a larger, global conspiracy. To make matters worse, the confusion and anger surrounding the attacks of September 11 left little doubt which side of the biblical equation Muslims were on, and many suspected Obama of secretly adhering to their faith. For a backdrop to this intrigue, the economy was in free fall and seemed destined to end in depression. They’d been taught to look for signs of impending doom in tragedies, in major changes, in times of uncertainty. They’d been taught to see everything with eyes trained for the end of the world.
It didn’t help that their fears were being stoked by media selling panic. On Fox News, they were prodded by Glenn Beck to buy gold coins they could use when society was ruined. Alex Jones hawked bunker rations and water purifiers between segments on New World Order conspiracies helmed by demonic pedophiles intent on killing or enslaving their families.
They bought guns by the armful.
They spent their paychecks on dried food that could survive nuclear wars.
They prepared "bug out" bags for their escape to their bug out location.
They watched round-the-clock news coverage that painted the world as a dangerous place in the midst of dangerous upheaval. Their Christian values were being challenged by the day. Their way of life trampled on just as their preachers and grandparents had warned them. They were ready for the end of all things. They were ready for a savior to appear and lead them into battle.
Last summer I was traveling the country and speaking to people who had lost touch with friends and family members over political disagreements stemming from the 2016 election. What I found, to a person, was a collection of people still coming to terms with the fact that those closest to them had changed in ways they’d never expected.
One interview was with a woman in Pittsburgh whose relationship with her father had been strained when he shared racist posts and memes on his Facebook wall. When I asked her for an example, she produced her phone, scrolled through her photo album and said, “This isn’t what I was talking about, but get a look at this.”
The picture she showed me was a meme that I hadn’t yet come across. In it, Donald Trump is signing a bill at his desk in the Oval Office. Behind him looms a ghostly Jesus Christ who guides his hand.
It reminded me of a night in October of 2016 when I’d been reporting from a Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, a week after the "Access Hollywood" tape had been released and several women had stepped up to accuse the Republican nominee of sexual assault. There was mounting pressure on Trump to withdraw, but the crowd wouldn’t hear it. They blamed the women, claiming they were either lying or uptight, and they blamed the media for promoting the story. Later, during Trump’s speech, he was recounting how he’d come across famed basketball coach Bobby Knight’s number on his desk and said, “It was like a miracle from God. Right? It was from God.” As the crowd roared, he noticed a sign upfront. He pointed and said, “That says ‘Jesus for Trump.’ You’re right.”
Surely the billionaire mogul makes a strange savior, what with his multiple divorces, alleged liaisons with porn stars, and chronic lust for wealth and material things, but it’s important to remember the evangelical crowd grew up with Jimmy Swaggart’s tearful admission that he had sinned with a prostitute and is inundated with gospels that extol the virtues of prosperity. Google “Trump” and “Christ” and see how the two have already been merged in the minds of many supporters.
He might be an imperfect messiah, but the evangelicals are convinced he is one of their own, a fact to which many evangelical leaders vocally bear witness, despite his failings. It doesn’t hurt, after all, that he bested Hillary Clinton, a woman Alex Jones described as “possessed” and as smelling like sulfur, which Christians recognize immediately as the telltale odor of the devil. In his opposition to Barack Obama’s legacy, they see Trump as a champion undoing “anti-American” acts by a secret Muslim tyrant who meant to brand them with Satan’s number and herd them into secret FEMA camps. When the Republican Party labels opponents as “globalists,” evangelicals hear echoes of the despotic New World Order.
Trump’s erratic style is more than welcome. While most Americans worried that Trump might provoke North Korea into a nuclear exchange, some evangelicals waited with bated breath for an event that would ultimately send them to heaven. Trump’s violation of the Iran nuclear deal makes some nervous that gasoline is being thrown on an already volatile situation, but to evangelicals who have been waiting since 9/11 for a showdown between Christianity and Islam, it’s just another potential catalyst to paradise.
As websites and tracts focused on End Times scripture tell their readers, uprising and strife are nothing to fear. They are signs that God is keeping his promise of Revelation. The final entry of the Bible, which remains one of the most popular and oft-discussed books in the tome, assures readers the world is heading for a disastrous struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, a struggle in which Israel has been prophesied to play an integral role.
Blood and tumult in the Middle East are reasons to rejoice.
They don’t see chaos as the smoke unfurls in the afternoon sky.
They see glory.