If there is one person who represents the perspective of American right-wing religious thinking, we need look no further than Tim LaHaye. This prolific author and religious teacher died recently after a stroke. The Times newspaper awarded him the dignity of a substantial obituary even though the anonymous writer who reflected on his life did not hesitate to use words like ‘bigotry’ and ‘crank’.
In reflecting on the life of Lahaye, we are shown how the written and spoken ideas of this one man resonated with and reflected much current American conservative religious opinion. It would be comforting to conclude that extreme ideas, such as those peddled by Lahaye, were examples of a harmless eccentricity. But Lahaye’s influence in fact became dangerous in the way it penetrated the corridors of US political power during the time of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and later. As recently as 2003 Lahaye was described as the most influential active Christian leader in the US. His path to fame was made possible through the writing of a series of 16 best-selling books. These described in fictional form the events surrounding the so-called ‘Rapture’. The books sold in millions and earned LaHaye £11 million per year in royalties. What made the books sell so well was the way that they fed the American public’s fascination for end-time events as described in the book of Revelation. I cannot claim to have read any of this series but I believe they are full of descriptions of the disasters and catastrophes that will come at the end of the world, prior to the second coming of Christ. The ideas of the Rapture, the snatching up of millions of faithful Christians to heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity to suffer plagues and other disasters, provides the material for these novels. The 16 novels are known as the Left Behind books. Fiction or not, they have powerfully fed into the religious psyche of millions of conservative Americans.
The most terrifying piece of information given by the Times obituary is the fact that 25% of Americans believe that these Left Behind novels are an accurate prediction of the future. 62% believe that the second coming of Christ is imminent. LaHaye himself acknowledged that the books were fictional, but he claimed that they sold so well because ‘the Bible gives us the best possible plan for the future’. It goes without saying that a population that fixated on future disasters and destruction is unlikely to have much time for thinking about wider political issues like climate change and solving the world’s political and social problems.
Tim LaHaye has always worked with other religious leaders on the extreme right, including the disgraced tele-evangelist Jim Bakker. A group of these leaders were invited to a White House breakfast when Jimmy Carter was president. With the other leaders present Lahaye decided that Carter was not to be trusted in furthering the ultra-right/Christian agenda. There was an impromptu prayer gathering immediately after they left the building. LaHaye was heard to pray in these words: ‘God we have got to get this man out of the White House. We need to get someone in here who will be aggressive about bringing back traditional moral values’. Ronald Reagan became president a few months later.
LaHaye was also responsible for organising 100,000 ministers who went on to found the American Coalition for Traditional Values. This lobby group had tremendous power in the corridors of government in and was able to manipulate George W Bush into giving the impression that the book of Revelation was part of his bedtime reading. This influence of far right Christian opinion remains an issue for American politics to this day. It is hard for us to imagine, here in the UK, the enormous control held by conservative churches over public statements made by politicians. We must hope that UK politicians never become beholden to fanatical religious leaders. There is an eerie parallel between what goes on in the States and the theocratic regimes of the Middle East. Whatever else we claim for the Christian faith, we should never expect the Bible to be the only source of wisdom and guidance for the difficult and challenging task of government.
The death of Tim LaHaye will provide a moment of reflection for all who long to see rational and common sense ideas reign in the realm of both religion and politics. To use the book of Revelation as a guide to political decision-making (or any kind of thinking) is a frankly bizarre action. Few commentaries suggest that we read the violent sections in Revelation as indicative of actual events, past or future. To do so requires us to think in a very strange way. As I have said on this blog before, it is hardly a healthy form of faith to believe that a God of love is literally prepared to destroy in a moment a third of humanity, as we see in chapter 8. For a Christian ever to make this particular book of the Bible into a guide as to the nature of God involves us in a kind of thinking that may well take us to edge of craziness. LaHaye thus represents a manifestation of Christianity which for many of us verges on the unhinged. It would be easy for us to dismiss all such fringe thinking within Christianity as unimportant, except for the fact that it has taken root in the most powerful nation on this earth. The ludicrous is thus transformed into something quite dangerous. The UK and the rest of Europe are for the most part still so far outside the orbit of this kind of extreme right wing opinion that we see flourishing in the States. But religious/political ideas have an uncomfortable habit of leaping across the Atlantic Ocean. Those of us who find the ultra-right in religion and politics utterly repugnant must continue to be on our guard. Both the Christian church and the political life of the Free World deserve much better than to be taken over by the thinking of the paranoid Right as exemplified by the late Tim LaHaye.