Peace-monger

Chuck Carlson and his disciples are taking it to the streets, demanding that pro-life churches practice what they preach and condemn war in Iraq

"We issue a challenge to the pastor and his congregation," Carlson says. "Most of them tell us they don't take a position. But taking no position is the same as supporting war." Carlson is especially critical of conservative congregations that purport to be anti-abortion but won't take a stand against the deaths that result from modern warfare. "We are truly a pro-life organization," Carlson insists.

Three days before Christmas, Carlson and Project Strait Gate descended upon All Saints' Episcopal Church on North Central Avenue, displaying signs with slogans like "Choose Life, Not War" and "Blessed Are the Peacemakers."

"They were very mannerly," says All Saints' Reverend Deane Lierle. "I explained to them that there would be 600 people at the church and as many as 600 positions on the war in Iraq."

Pastor Mark Martin
Pastor Mark Martin
Paul Hansen-Mitev is one of Carlson's first converts to the Project Strait Gate cause.
Paul Hansen-Mitev is one of Carlson's first converts to the Project Strait Gate cause.

Lierle says that the diversity of thought among his flock makes him believe it's inappropriate for the church to take an official stand. "We are not an anti-war church. . . . We have people on both sides of the issue," he says.

But for Carlson, such a response that a church can't make a public stand because its members have differences of opinion simply isn't good enough. Churches have an obligation to oppose war, he says, and if he had the time, he'd visit every church in Maricopa County and challenge their members with his biblical message that nowhere in the New Testament is there a justification for taking another's life, particularly on a mass scale.

But Carlson's reasons for picketing local churches go beyond a simple pacifist reading of scripture.

Mainly, he's convinced that America's thriving born-again evangelical movement which forms a significant part of the president's support is creating a generation of warmongers bent on the destruction of millions in the Middle East.

And he's not the only one.

Along with their penchant for asking perfect strangers if they've accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior, Arizona's conservative, born-again Christians, like the millions of their brethren around the country, share a healthy fascination for biblical prophecy about the end of the world.

Estimates of the numbers of such believers in the United States run remarkably high. A Gallup poll last year found that 46 percent of Americans or about 127 million people consider themselves "born again" or "evangelical" Christians. And a 1999 Newsweek poll found that 40 percent of Americans about 111 million believe that the world will end in an apocalyptic battle predicted in the Bible.

"Part of the support for a war on Iraq is coming from fundamentalist believers who see it as a step in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy," says Paul Boyer, a recently retired professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of the book When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Millions of Americans, Boyer says, believe that they are witnessing the world's final days, and search their newspapers every morning for fresh signs that biblical prophecies are coming true. Many people, for example, hold that the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel was a foretold, and necessary, precursor of Christ's return. Another omen religious Americans anticipate: the rise of an evil yet charismatic figure, an antichrist who will establish a one-world government in the ancient city of Babylon.

"The ruins of Babylon are about 50 miles from Baghdad. And one of Saddam Hussein's projects is to rebuild it to its former glory. Biblical-prophecy people read that and say, Aha!'" Boyer says. "It flows into a general sense that Saddam is the antichrist, and it's been a theme all through the 1990s: What is the prophetic meaning of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship?"

Chip Berlet, senior analyst for the nonprofit Political Research Associates and a board member of Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies, says equating Hussein with such biblical villains makes it easier to sell the idea that an attack makes sense. "I think there's an unfortunate application of apocalyptic prophecies that includes the application of war. It's a very dangerous phenomenon. Once you've demonized the other' and said that Iraq is the axis of evil,' what tactics couldn't you use?" he says.

That kind of thinking, both Boyer and Berlet contend, leads to a widely held belief that wars and other disasters are an inevitable consequence of scriptural truth. And with a born-again evangelical occupying the White House (Bush, a Methodist, had a "born-again" recommitment to Christianity in the mid-1980s), such beliefs may be having a profound effect on American foreign policy.

"I think it's a very significant influence. It helps create a climate of opinion that is inclined to go along with the destruction of Saddam Hussein in keeping with the plan for the end times," Boyer says.

Berlet points to several high-ranking GOP members who have espoused end-times beliefs, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, House majority leader Tom DeLay and his predecessor, Dick Armey. The president himself injects many of his statements with religious language, Boyer says.

"Bush comes out of a Texas evangelical, prophecy-believing religious background. He hasn't said that he's seen the destruction of Iraq as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but he has said things about matters being in the hands of someone more powerful than we are. Some might say he's saying these things merely to please conservative Christians who tend to vote for him. But I believe this goes very deep with Bush."

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