Do the GOP Candidates Believe in the Apocalypse?

Last month, Sharyl Attkisson asked the former Republican frontrunner Ben Carson whether the “end of days” is approaching. Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist who believes the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Biblical Joseph to store grain, responded that “You could guess that we are getting closer to that.” He added, “You do have people who have a belief system that sees this apocalyptic phenomena [sic] occurring and that they are a part of it, who would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if they gained possession of them.”

It’s not entirely clear who he’s referring to in the second part of his statement. I suspect he was gesturing at the Islamic State, and perhaps Iran, which the Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu recently described as “a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs.” (Note that Iran does not currently possess nuclear weapons, although Israel does.) If this is what Carson was referring to, then he’s exactly right, for a change. Iran is a majority Shi’ite country, and apocalypticism is the heart and soul of Shia Islam. The Iranian republic has also had ties with apocalyptic militias in Iraq, such as the Mahdi Army, named after Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure, and the Promised Day Brigade. Furthermore, the Islamic State’s literature is full of references to apocalyptic events, such as the battle of Armageddon in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq and the return of Jesus over the white minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

While the apocalyptic beliefs held by radical Muslims in the Middle East may strike the progressive reader as absurd, it’s important to remind ourselves that eschatological enthusiasm is abundant right here at home. According to a 2010 Pew poll, 41% of Americans (not merely Christians, but Americans) believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return by 2050. Another study found that, as of 2013, 13% of the voting public thought that Barack Obama is the Antichrist.

But it’s not just average American church-goers who anticipate an imminent end to this weary world full of sin and suffering. Interviews like the one mentioned above, with Ben Carson, indicate that many of our top political leaders — virtually all on the political right — are also under the spell of end-times thinking. For example, just a few weeks ago, the former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann enthusiastically declared in a radio interview with the Family Research Council that the end is nigh. As she put it, “We recognize the shortness of the hour, and that’s why we as a remnant want to be faithful in these days and do what it is that the Holy Spirit is speaking to each one of us, to be faithful in the Kingdom and to help bring in as many as we can — even among the Jews — share Jesus Christ with everyone that we possibly can because, again, He’s coming soon.” This is not the first time that Bachmann has made an apocalyptic pronouncement in public. Earlier this year, she told radio host Jan Markell that “Jesus Christ’s return is imminent,” and that “these are not fearful times, these are the most exciting days in history.”

Republican leaders are rarely this explicit about their end-times views, and for good reason: while it fires up a minority — albeit a powerful minority — of fundamentalist evangelicals, the obvious nuttiness of believing the world will soon undergo a supernatural transformation would alienate the slightly more sane majority. Nonetheless, sometimes a politician doesn’t need to be explicit to reveal his or her theological inclinations. Consider the fact that multiple Republicans hoping to become the next POTUS have allied themselves with an organization called Christians United for Israel (CUFI). This is one of the most powerful religious lobbies in the US, and it’s run by an eschatological activist, Pastor John Hagee, who literally believes that the US and Israel must join forces — now! — to preemptively strike Iran with nuclear missiles. As Hagee put it in his popular 2013 book, Jerusalem Countdown, “We are standing on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. We are on a countdown to crisis. The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty, [and it could even occur] before this book gets published.”

During the “Presidential Forum” of CUFI’s 10th Annual Washington Summit last July, POTUS hopefuls including Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Jeb Bush all made an appearance. The focus of the event was the importance of protecting Israel from the existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran, which has repeatedly wished for the annihilation of the “Zionist regime.”

But things are not quite as they seem. Want me to let you in on a little secret? CUFI isn’t really interested in Israel because it cares about the Jewish people. Nope. It's interested in Israel for theological — and more specifically eschatological — reasons. For example, Genesis 12:3 states that those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed. On the apocalyptic side, the particular brand of Christianity espoused by CUFI maintains that eternal peace cannot be achieved until a series of catastrophic events occurs, and this series of catastrophic events cannot occur unless there exists a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, everything about the end-times narrative accepted by Pastor John Hagee and his flock of fundamentalist followers depends on the continued existence of Israel. What’s perhaps most disturbing is that the ultimate fate of the Jewish people, according to Hagee’s beliefs, could hardly be more insidiously, even genocidally, anti-semitic: in the end, every last Jew will either convert to Christianity or be cast into the unquenchable fires of hell for eternity. Despite its rhetoric of unity and support, CUFI doesn’t really give a sh*t about the Jewish people.

I suspect that some of the Republicans listed above really believe in this narrative, such as Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Lindsey Graham. The others may simply be pandering to a demographic that they feel must be won over to get the Republican nomination. Either way, the reality is that we have several Republicans hoping to become the next Leader of the Free World commingling with religious fanatics who take their apocalyptic convictions quite seriously. Indeed, for organizations like CUFI, the end-times story of prophetic scripture isn’t something merely to sit back and watch occur. Eschatology isn’t a spectator sport, so to speak. Rather, the timing of future apocalyptic events can be altered by human actions in the present. The exact same activist stance can be found within the Islamic State, which sees itself as an active participant in an end-times narrative that’s unfolding in realtime. And the renown Islamic scholar David Cook notes that the Mahdi Army likely believed that their mission was to protect the messianic figure of the Mahdi from the US-led forces determined to kill him.

What’s genuinely frightening about this “clash of eschatologies” is that since the Atomic Age began in 1945, humans have been building increasingly powerful technologies that literally could bring about the apocalypse. Today, the prophet’s hackneyed claim that “The end is near!” could actually come to pass. But if an apocalyptic event were to occur, it wouldn’t happen the way Christians or Islamic extremists think it would. The great irony is that belief in the end of the world could make our extinction more probable.

For more, visit the X-Risks Institute (for the Study of Extremism), or purchase my forthcoming book titled The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse (Pitchstone Publishing).