The Common Good
July-August 1995

Suspicions of Conspiracy

by Tom Sine | July-August 1995

How a spirit of fear can distort scripture and history.

No sooner had the last of the 168 bodies been removed from the horrendous bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City than America began celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The sharp contrast between the competing images could scarcely have been more glaring.

On the one hand, the jubilation at the war's end recalls an earlier period of remarkable national unity and optimism. On the other hand, the recent image of the worst terrorist bombing in our history betrays deep fissures in the American psyche and society. And this has provoked a period of national soul searching.

Michael Lind, senior editor of Harper's, stated in The Washington Post on April 30 that "the story of Oklahoma City and the militias should not make us forget that the main form of political terrorism in the United States is perpetuated by right-wing opponents of abortion."

Charles Colson was enraged by this article and responded in the May 9 Post:

So there it is: Conservative Christians are dangerous people with the blood of innocents on their hands. Nero himself could not have put it better.

Though I hate to play the role of temperance worker at the keg party, perhaps it is time for people who complain about a "climate of hate" to sober up and make a few distinctions. It is most egregious and irresponsible-indeed a fanatical stretch-to suggest that whoever committed the Oklahoma atrocity is somehow linked to religious conservatives.

Of course Colson is correct. In no way do religious conservatives share responsibility for the bombing in Oklahoma. Those on the Christian Right were as devastated as any other Americans by this heinous act.

Colson is also correct in pointing out that conservative Christians are found among those who "work in soup kitchens, adopt unwanted children, build homes for the homeless, fund hospitals, buy gifts for the children of prisoners and perform countless acts of mercy...."

However, the fact is that a number of those on the Christian Right hold apocalyptic conspiratorial worldviews that are disturbingly similar to those held by right-wing extremist groups. As a part of the body of Christ, we must find reconciling ways to hold one another accountable-challenging conspiratorial assumptions that not only contradict scripture but threaten our common future.

ONE SOURCE FOR the conspiratorial worldview of some fundamentalist Christians is the writings of John Nelson Darby-a British author writing early in the 19th century. Darby popularized a theological system called "premillennial dispensationalism."

This view attempted, among other things, to establish from the study of scripture how the world will end at the return of Christ. Darby argued out of a handful of verses in Daniel and Revelation that the planet is destined for a one-world Antichrist takeover at the consummation of history.

Essentially, John Nelson Darby and his followers believe human history is locked in an inevitable decline in which all aspects of human society are destined to get worse and worse. Before Christ's return, Darby predicted, a revived Roman Empire will appear in Europe from which the Antichrist will emerge.

Immediately before the Antichrist assumes his global authority, according to Darby, Jesus Christ will return and "rapture" all believers out of this world to be with God. Then the coronation of the Antichrist will take place and he will rule (a "one-world government" to some) for seven years. At the end of seven years, God will depose the Antichrist, judge all those who aligned themselves against God, and inaugurate the thousand-year reign of Christ. This particular end-times worldview has experienced enormous popularity not only among fundamentalist Protestants, but even apparently among some political conservatives who aren't particularly religious.

Many biblical scholars insist that the key passages used by dispensationalists don't describe a one-world government at the end of history. Rather, the authors of Daniel and Revelation were describing brutal totalitarian governments that were very much a part of the world in which they lived.

The problem is that few fundamentalist Protestants read biblical scholars that offer an alternative perspective. And books that popularize this end-times worldview are continuing to grow in popularity as we approach the third millennium. In fact, the best-selling book in America, after the Bible, is Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, which has reportedly sold more than 19 million copies. Historian Grant Wacker observes that "Darbyite premillennialism proves to be one of the most resilient and widely held belief systems that has ever gripped the American imagination."

WHILE CHRISTIANS of all traditions look forward to the return of Christ, they don't all link it to this terrifying scenario of the global reign of the Antichrist. But those who do, including some fundamentalists Christians and some on the extreme political Right, often then connect it to a global conspiratorial view of history to explain how the forces of the Antichrist will collectivize us and set up a "new world order."

For many years the Soviet Union was cast in the role of the agent who would subvert and collectivize us for the final takeover-the Evil Empire. However, with the unexpected end of the Cold War, those who believe this apocalyptic conspiracy theory lost their alleged global conspirators. In the scramble to identify the real global conspirators, there have been many nominees. Some white supremacists and those in the militia movement blame a Zionist elite.

While there is no longer certainty as to who the global conspirators are, there is little doubt as to who the American conspirators are...feminists, environmentalists, and liberals, and leading this conspiratorial elite are Bill and Hillary Clinton. To right-wing extremists, this conspiratorial elite and the federal government are working together to disarm Americans and take away our freedom.

As the Cold War came to a welcome conclusion, President George Bush coined a new phrase. When Bush, an Episcopalian layperson, called for a "new world order" he apparently had no idea the hot buttons it would push for some on the Religious Right and right-wing extremists. It is the phrase that Far Right extremists seem to use most often to describe their fears of sinister forces seeking to disarm them and collectivize America.

In his 1991 book, The New World Order, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, immediately appropriated Bush's phrase and continued his quest from his earlier books to identify the real global conspirators who want to destroy our way of life. In the process he directly linked Republican President George Bush with this Antichrist conspiracy.

In 1992 the European community will emerge as the possible forerunner of the United States of Europe. And just eight years from the first publication of this book, the world will conclude the second millennium of its existence since the birth of Jesus Christ, and will begin the third millennium, A.D.

Against this backdrop of history, from the podium of the legislative chamber of the United States House of Representatives, the elected president of the United States of America has announced the beginning of a New World Order.

Robertson goes on to ask, "What kind of world will this New World Order bring us?" He answers his own question by recalling one of the lines to John Lennon's song "Imagine." Robertson writes, "Lennon asked those listening to his song to imagine a time when there were 'no countries,' 'no religion,' 'no heaven,' 'no hell,' 'no possessions,' everyone 'living for today,' and the world 'as one.'"

The former Beatle's dream world would be a world of hedonism-without religious faith, without national pride or sovereignty, without "anything to fight for," without any private property-but with a one-world government and communal property. Of course, if a one-world government had taken away all our property, our values, our faith, and our freedom, there indeed would be nothing left worth fighting for-unless we decided, like the people under the slavery of communism, that our precious freedom was worth fighting and dying to get back.

Robertson adds, "George Bush and John Lennon are not alone in championing a new world order." He goes on to list others, including Adolf Hitler, Jimmy Carter, the Illuminati, the Humanist Manifesto, and the writings of New Age leader Benjamin Creme.

Robertson makes abundantly clear who he believes is behind this one-world conspiracy:

A single thread runs from the White House to the State Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to the Trilateral Commission to secret societies to extreme New Agers. There must be a new world order. It must eliminate national sovereignty. There must be world government, a world police force, world courts, world banking and currency, and a world elite in charge of it all. To some there must be a complete redistribution of wealth; to others there must be an elimination of Christianity; to some extreme New Agers there must be the deaths of two or three billion people in the Third World by the end of this decade.

While Robertson decried the violence of Oklahoma City, his book certainly reflects the same suspicions as those held by right-wing extremists-that our own government is complicit in trying to collectivize America and take away all our freedoms. In my research I found a number of right-wing Christians who either subscribe to Robertson's apocalyptic conspiracy theories or some that are very similar. It is important to emphasize that many who hold this worldview attempt to force fit all current political issues through this grid as well.

Bernard McGinn, theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has stated that this kind of apocalyptic worldview "has no room for moral ambiguity, for shades of gray." By viewing foes as the adherents to absolute evil, apocalypticism provides a rationale for "total opposition and dire vengeance on the wicked."

ON APRIL 21, Timothy J. McVeigh, a 27-year-old Gulf war veteran, was the prime suspect arrested in the Oklahoma City bombing. In the government affadavit charging McVeigh with "maliciously damaging federal property," a co-worker was quoted as saying McVeigh was "known to hold extreme right-wing views" and had been "particularly agitated" about the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Those on the extreme Right like McVeigh do not see these as isolated events but rather view them as a part of a larger global conspiracy. Of course, history is replete with examples of where federal agents have abused their power. History books reveal that the FBI misused its power in the 1960s to subvert the civil rights movement. And agents frequently exceeded their authority in bringing pressure on the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees in the '80s. It's clear that ATF and FBI agents exceeded their authority in the siege of the Branch Davidians. However, these instances of the abuse of federal power, abhorent though they are, don't a global conspiracy make.

This global conspiracy theory really has its origins in other sources. Its adherents genuinely seem to believe that those evil forces include our federal government, which is somehow in league with the United Nations to use Soviet weapons and troops to take away our liberties.

For example, Timothy McVeigh, before his arrest, handed out brochures at a gun show that warned of a coming of "the new world order" and connected the siege in Waco to this threatened global takeover. He also linked them directly to alleged Zionist influences in the U.S. government.

Among those who hold these views, there isn't unanimous consensus about who is behind this global conspiracy, but there seems to be widespread belief among many different right-wing extremists that the federal government is fully complicit in it. Therefore, when a farmer in Michigan has his farm repossessed by the government for failure to repay federally insured loans, this conspiracy theory helps explain his plight and identifies who is trying to destroy his life. And passage of the Brady Bill, instituting a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of hand guns, was seen as Clinton's liberal initiative to begin the preparatory work for the takeover.

A growing number of Americans are trying to understand where this conspiratorial fear comes from and what implications it might have for our common future. In his classic book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter contends that the "heated exaggeration, suspicion and conspiratorial fantasy" are endemic to American culture.

In the '60s, left-wing extremists pointed to abuses of federal power as proof that there was a government-related conspiracy afoot. Today, some gay activists maintain that AIDS is really a part of a heterosexual conspiracy to wipe them out, and some black separatists are convinced there is a Zionist-led conspiracy to oppress African Americans. It is not just those on the Right who are preoccupied with conspiratorial fictions. Conspiracy theories are, regrettably, as American as apple pie.

THE CONCERN I'm raising here is that there's a disturbing similarity between the apocalyptic conspiratorial world-views of some on the extreme political Right with some on the Religious Right. They also seem to share an extremely polarized view of the world and their foes that goes with it. While most on the Christian Right and a number in the militia movement don't advocate violence, many adopt such an adversarial political stance that it is virtually impossible for them to have a rational discussion with those with whom they disagree...particularly if they suspect they are somehow a part of the conspiracy.

In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer insightfully points out that "mass movements can rise and spread without belief in God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil."

There are abundant examples on the Christian Right and right-wing extremist groups making the devils very vivid and tangible. The infamous videotape charging President Clinton with everything from multiple murders to drug running-and which Jerry Falwell is promoting-is an example of this vicious approach to the demonizing of foes (see "Civility in Conflict," by Tony Campolo, May-June 1995). And former President George Bush recently announced his resignation from the National Rifle Association because in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing the NRA refused to repudiate its characterization of federal agents as "jack-booted government thugs."

An article in Newsweek pointed out that the apocalyptic, conspiratorial views of the patriot-militia movement lead them to identify the federal government as "the enemy." "To some true believers, Washington is simply 'the beast,' while others, influenced by the anti-Semitic strain in supremacist literature, call it ZOG for 'Zionist Occupation Government.'"

Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, and liberal Democrats are seen by right-wing extremists to be in league to undermine traditional American values and prepare America for a "gradual surrender to a 'New World Order,'" said Newsweek. And too often talk radio inflames these pathological fears, hysterical rage, and venomous attacks on their political foes. This kind of adversarial rhetoric-whether from the Right or the Left-threatens informed discussion and the democracy we all hold dear.

Again, I want to emphasize that the Christian Right had no responsibility for the horrible bombing in Oklahoma City. Those on the Christian Right were as appalled as other Americans by this murderous act. On his daily CBN broadcast, Pat Robertson urged Americans to work and pray to reduce the level of violence in our society. And those in the Christian Right are in the forefront of those calling for strong anti-terrorist legislation. But I'm very concerned that outrageous assumptions too often lead to outrageous actions.

Therefore, Christians from all traditions must unite together in urging those on the extreme political and religious Right and Left to repudiate paranoid conspiracy theories, pathological fearmongering, and the demonizing of those with whom we disagree. The Bible was never intended to be used to establish a timeline for the end of history or to lend support to conspiracy theories that stimulate fear and animosity in church and society. Rather, we are called to read scripture to understand what God's purposes are in history, to promote righteousness, justice, and peace on the earth (see Isaiah 2:1-4, 25:6-9, 35:1-7, 58:5-7).

As we stand at the threshold of the third millennium, let us invite all Christians to find again in scripture the vision that calls us to reconciliation, compassion, and hope. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).

TOM SINE is the author, most recently, of Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars (Eerdmans, July 1995), from which this article is drawn.

 

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