Wednesday, May 29, 2024

"she, like so many Americans before her, could imagine no greater spiritual fulfillment for herself or the nation than an extinction event."

I grew up in the Bible Belt and was still living there in the late 90s when things started to change. We were never evangelical, instead opting for the Fred Rogers wing of the Presbyterian Church (and even by those very lax standards, I still soon qualifed as lapsed). Arguing with evangelicals was something I had done my entire life, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes with more of an edge. Nonetheless, there was generally at least some level of respect.

Things are  different today. It is a very different movement. Less spiritual. More political. Less interested in theological questions. For what still claims to be a fundamentalist religion, woefully ignorant of scripture (though I personally don't believe in divinely inspired texts, I can still appreciate scholarship and a sincere desire to live up to what you see as holy words). Ironically, the one change which is often held up as a positive sign strikes me as decidedly mixed. Evangelical acceptance of Catholics and Mormons is far greater than what I saw growing up. If this represented a general move toward tolerance, that would be a wonderful thing, but I am mostly convinced that it is the product of expediency and growing disinterest in the religious part of the religion, becoming what I have called previously secular evangelicalism, a movement based more on culture and political beliefs than on faith and spirituality.

I strongly suspect that one of the overlooked causes of the shift was Y2K mania. The denominations' deeply ingrained tendency toward millennialism lined up too perfectly with the popular fascination and anxiety over a possible mass failure of computers and automated systems, something that even mainstream media often described in apocalyptic terms. For those inclined to believe, it very much felt like the nightly news and the cover of Time magazine were laying the groundwork for the Book of Revelations. The overlap between Southern Baptists and preppers grew quite noticeable. I remember seeing a sign in a Bible store window advertising water purification tablets.

With the notable exception of a very good front page story in the Wall Street Journal, all of this passed unnoticed by the national press, but having arguably the country's most influential religious group go through an actual when prophecy fails experience is probably something we should pay more attention to. The non-apocalypse described in this account by Emily Harnett preceded the Y2K bug by a decade, but it's still instructive as well as being a fascinating read.

In 2021, General Michael Flynn, the Christian nationalist and former national security adviser to Donald Trump, gave an address at a nondenominational church in Nebraska that internet sleuths suspected had been plagiarized from one of Elizabeth’s “dictations,” as her dispatches from the Masters were known. One helpful YouTuber spliced together footage of the two for comparison. Both propose a religious call to arms and entreat the “freeborn” to resist becoming “enslaved by any foe,” while making confusing allusions to “sevenfold rays” and “legions.” But Flynn recited this prophetic word salad with the delivery of one’s least-favorite uncle plodding through an ill-prepared wedding toast. Elizabeth—with her precise elocution, her terrifying and obvious sincerity—sounded like a woman on the brink of a great cosmic battle.

QAnon conspiracy theorists, who quickly noted that some of Flynn’s language wasn’t exactly biblical in origin, believed the “occult prayer” exposed Flynn as a satanist. But if the incident reveals anything besides the mutinous humor of Flynn’s ghostwriter, it’s the degree to which millenarian rhetoric has saturated American public life. In 1960, the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted “an end to chiliastic hopes, to millenarianism, to apocalyptic thinking—and to ideology.” But as the historian Paul Boyer has noted, after the great revolutionary movements of the Sixties waned in America, much the opposite came to pass. Prophetic belief—whose adherents, in Boyer’s description, “take very seriously the Bible’s apocalyptic sections and derive from them a detailed agenda of coming events”—exploded in popularity during the Seventies and Eighties. Such beliefs have shaped not only American religiosity but our understanding of the human psyche itself.

In the Fifties, the psychologist Leon Festinger coined the Psych 101 term cognitive dissonance, based in part on research he’d done for the book When Prophecy Fails, which described the mental state of a Fifties UFO cult after its leader’s apocalyptic predictions went unrealized. There have been so many of these groups, flourishing and flaming out in endless cycles, trading places in a Beckettian limbo wherein divine reckoning approaches but never arrives. They have furnished streaming services with an endless supply of podcasts and documentaries rehearsing the history of America’s ill-fated apocalyptic sects and outsider religions. But whenever I try to place Elizabeth in this tradition, I come up short. She would be easier to categorize had she been more like Jim Jones, to whom she was often compared, or Charles Manson, whose Family had allegedly sent her death threats. But while her church was armed to the hilt, they never killed anyone; although Elizabeth could be mercurial and vindictive, she was a beloved mother of five. Were it not for her prophecies of nuclear Armageddon, it’s possible that the church would have remained one of the many fledgling religions eking out its existence far from the center of American life. Perhaps the one thing Elizabeth had in common with the believers of those other faiths was that she, like so many Americans before her, could imagine no greater spiritual fulfillment for herself or the nation than an extinction event.


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