Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Apocalypse—and Convinced It Will Happen in the Near Future?

Unfortunately, we are more predisposed to imagine the end of the world than the end of American war-making.

The following is an excerpt from the new book The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness by Betsy Hartmann (Seven Stories Press, May 2017):According to opinion polls, a staggering percentage of Americans accept that the world will end in a battle in Armageddon. In a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of respondents said they expected Jesus Christ to return to Earth by 2050. Two years later a Reuters poll found that over one-fifth of the American population believed the end of the world will happen in their lifetime, as compared to 6 percent in France, 7 percent in Belgium, and 8 percent in Great Britain. Another recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 49 percent of Americans think that natural disasters are a sign of “the end times.”In the months before the purported December 21, 2012 Mayan apocalypse, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) received so many inquiries from children and adults terrified that a rogue planet might crash into the Earth or that the sun might explode that it set up a special webpage to allay their fears. The page received over four and a half million views. On December 22, NASA posted a video it had made in advance, “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday.”Of all the intertwining reasons for our apocalyptic disposition, the one that stands out most starkly is our acceptance of the necessity and inevitability of war. In the same 2010 Pew survey, six out of ten Americans saw another world war as definite or probable by 2050. This expectation of war isn’t surprising, given that Americans’ apocalyptic images and beliefs are derived mainly from Christianity, especially the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament which, above all, is about the grotesque violence and crowning glories of war.The Book of Revelation is “wartime literature.” Its author, John, is thought to have been deeply affected by the Roman army’s attacks on Judea and its siege and sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. John himself was banished to the Greek island of Patmos by Roman rulers around 95 AD. In John’s macabre vision of the end times, a fourth of the Earth is wiped out, a third of the trees, green grass, and sea creatures are extinguished, and a third of the world’s water is poisoned. There are terrible earthquakes, fires, and plagues. Four demons kill a third of all mankind. The Whore of Babylon, a symbol of evil and carnal lust, is assaulted by the seven-headed, ten-horned Beast which strips her naked, eats her flesh, and burns her with fire.Toward the end of the Book of Revelation, the savior with eyes like a flame of fire, “Faithful and True,” rides out on a white horse to lead the armies of Heaven in battle. He is “clothed with a vesture dipped in blood,” and on him are written the words “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” He holds a sword in his mouth “to smite the nations” so he can preside over them with a rod of iron and the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. In the Final Judgment the dead are brought back to life, but those judged to be sinners by their deeds are thrown along with the devil and death itself into the Lake of Fire, burning with brim stone, where they meet the second death of eternal suffering.Fortunate, then, are those who are judged worthy to live on in the New Jerusalem, a city with streets of gold, gates of pearls, and walls inlaid with gems. There is no need for the sun or moon, since God and the Lamb are the light, and from their throne flows “a pure river of Water of Life, clear as crystal” that nourishes the fruits on the Tree of Life.This promise of a New Jerusalem for the elect, and the cataclysmic violence against people and nature necessary to achieve that goal, has made the Book of Revelation an ideological tool of conquest and empire from the Crusades onwards. You don’t have to be a Christian to be susceptible to John’s logic that the perfect end—the New Jerusalem—justifies the bloody means.Despite the official separation of church and state, religious axioms thread through the fabric of American political culture. Historian Robert Bellah coined the term “civil religion” to describe the religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. That a Higher Authority guides human affairs, that American history follows a providential path, that Americans are special and exceptional, a chosen people obliged to carry out God’s will or else suffer dire consequences, are widely held to be self-evident truths. So, too, is the belief that war is divinely justified.The Civil War marked a watershed in the evolution of our civil religion. As it metastasized into a total war that targeted civilian populations as well as soldiers—estimates of the number of war deaths have recently been revised upwards to three-quarters of a million people—leaders and clergy on both sides invoked divine authority to justify the slaughter. “Many saw in the unprecedented destruction of lives and property something mystical taking place,” writes historian Harry Stout, “what we today might call the birthing of a fully functioning, truly national, American civil religion.” Patriotism became a sacred duty, as important ...
4 Published By - AlterNet.org - 2017.06.19. 17:36
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