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Paul Stoller

Paul Stoller

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Enraptured Politics

Posted: 05/26/11 04:51 PM ET

Like many people in America, I attended a get-together on Judgment Day, Saturday, May 21. According to the biblical calculations of Family Radio's Harold Camping, Judgment Day would bring earthquakes and storms, which would mark the beginning of the Rapture, a process through which true believers are saved from the apocalypse and returned to a better world. Camping also predicted that God would destroy the world on October 21, 2011. What was one to do? Many people chose to confront these predictions with celebration. After my host gave me a bottle of UFO beer, we all toasted Judgment Day with much mirth and merriment -- a wonderful evening!!

When I returned home that evening, I logged on to The Huffington Post to follow a live Judgment Day blog that was being published in the Comedy Section -- more jokes and merriment. Although End Times narratives are frequently the butt of much appreciated jokes, they do merit our serious attention. Indeed, end of the world scenarios have a long and widespread history and have been the subject of anthropological study. Although they have been articulated in many parts of the world including New Guinea, North and Central America, the structure of end of the world narratives is fairly standard. There is a political, economic, or spiritual crisis. The ancestors -- or a god -- pick a prophet and tell him or her that the end of the world is coming. The ancestors -- or a god -- then command the prophet to preach about the end of the world. They order the prophet to tell those who will listen what they have to do -- throw away their goods, or profess their newfound faith and join a community of like-minded believers -- to make the world good again. The prophet then announces that when the apocalypse comes, non-believers will perish, but believers will be spared and eventually returned to a restored earth in which the political, economic or moral crisis has disappeared. These are the narratives of what anthropologists call millenarian movements -- cargo cults in Melanesia, or the American Indian Ghost Dances of the 19th century.

If you think that these kinds of apocalyptic beliefs are "primitive" or "far-fetched," think again. As the hoopla about Judgment Day, 2011 suggests, there are millions of people in America who believe in the End Times Rapture. The number of End Times churches is ever-growing. What's more, Americans seem to have a deep hunger for reading material about the End Times Rapture. Consider Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series of books. According to its official website, the Left Behind series of books, all of which discuss biblical prophecies about the End Times, have sold more than 63 million copies. In Left Behind, the first book published in the series, a small group of passengers on a Boeing 747 bound for London mysteriously disappears from their seats. They have been saved. Those "left behind" now must confront the spread of chaos and fear on the plane and in the world. Their previous non-belief means that they will experience the full force of the apocalypse.

Although the narrative in Left Behind has an ingenious contemporary twist, which ensures its broad appeal, it shares all the major characteristic of apocalyptic stories you find in non-western, non-Christian worlds. What is of more profound interest, though, is that End Times narratives and beliefs highlight the alarming growth of apocalyptic thinking. If you believe that the End Times are near and that you have to get ready for the apocalypse, a reasoned scientific argument to the contrary will have little, if any, impact. Harold Camping's failed Rapture prediction in 1994 did not result in the erosion of his following. In the wake of his latest miscalculation, many of his followers will continue to make donations to Family Radio as they prepare anew for the End Times. If you prepare yourself, you won't be left behind -- a powerfully convincing pattern of "blind faith" thinking.

If you ponder this pattern, it becomes clear that "blind faith" thinking has entered the world of our politics. Many of our political leaders have "blind faith" in their beliefs -- ideas that don't seem to hold up to even superficial scrutiny. Millions of people believed -- and perhaps still do -- that President Obama -- all facts to the contrary -- was born overseas and is a Muslim. Many of the leading figures in the Republican Party have "blind faith" in the market. They believe that taxes, even for the wealthiest Americans, will ruin the economy, or that it's okay for the United States to default on its debt, or that transforming Medicare into a voucher system will preserve future health care for our senior citizens. Don't worry, they say, the forces of the market will solve all of our considerable social, economic and moral problems.

I'm not so sure. Having lived in several African nations, I have witnessed first hand how "blind faith" thinking can lead to widespread oppression. If you spoke out against the party line, you could be arrested, beaten, tortured and/or thrown into jail. "Blind faith" thinking may a good thing for spreading the word about the End Times, but it is anathema to a productive democracy that relies upon the critical exchange of ideas and the art of compromise. If reasoned discourse is no longer welcomed in a "blind faith" political system, then perhaps we are facing the End Times of our democratic political system.

But all this talk about End Times doesn't have to be completely depressing. While we wait for reason to make a come back, perhaps as soon as 2012, I'll opt for more mirth, merriment and another UFO beer.

 

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