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

American obsession with apocalyptic end-time visions is usually traced to an Anglican cleric named John Nelson Darby, who made several trips to the United States from Britain beginning in 1859 and codified a belief system known as premillennial dispensationalism. Darby's ideas, in turn, were championed by a reformed felon named Cyrus I. Scofield, who in 1909 produced a hugely influential reference edition of the Bible containing extensive footnotes promoting Darby's dispensationalist interpretations. The Scofield Bible, revised several times and still available today, was particularly popular in important American seminaries, which helped spread apocalyptic readings of the scriptures.

"Marshaling a small army of biblical proof texts from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation and elsewhere," Boyer writes, "premillennialists teach that wickedness will increase as the end approaches, culminating in the Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of cataclysmic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of righteousness."

After those seven years of unprecedented war and destruction, Christ will supposedly return to Earth to establish a thousand-year reign of peace, the "millennium." Before the seven-year period of tribulation begins, however, many believers expect that millions of true Christians will suddenly be called to heaven in a disappearing act they refer to as the "Rapture." (Hence, they call themselves "pre-Trib" millennialists, to differentiate from "post-Trib" millennialists who believe that even devout Christians won't be spared the rough years.)

Calvary Community Church assistant pastor Dan Holgate
(right) makes sure Carlson gets a friendly reception.
Calvary Community Church assistant pastor Dan Holgate (right) makes sure Carlson gets a friendly reception.
The Left Behind series may be laughably unreal, but it is amazingly compelling to millions of Americans.
The Left Behind series may be laughably unreal, but it is amazingly compelling to millions of Americans.

But none of this can take place, Scofield and his religious heirs believe, unless the Jews are in possession of all their ancestral territory in the Holy Land. Christ's return will also supposedly require that the Jewish Temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem on land, known as Temple Mount, that is currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the Islamic religion.

Evangelicals who buy such theories, Boyer says, not only advocate expanding the Jewish state beyond its present borders, but also look forward to a climactic battle over Temple Mount. "[They're waiting for] the destruction of the Moslem shrine there, which would result in unbelievable violence," he says.

This biblical interpretation has led to an odd alliance since the evangelical Bush became president: Israel, which had traditionally found its strongest source of American support in the Democratic party, increasingly can count on political back-up from America's religious right.

"Suddenly many of the very same figures who not long ago called publicly and nationally for efforts to convert American Jews to Christianity now stand with Israel against PLO terror," the National Jewish Post & Opinion noted recently.

That support is highly cynical. Apocalyptic evangelists advocate armed support for a Jewish Israel, but they also believe just as passionately that before Christ's return, many of those Jews will convert to Christianity and the rest will be killed. But Israel, particularly Ariel Sharon, has welcomed it.

Others are more suspicious. "They don't love the real Jewish people," Gershom Gorenberg, the Israeli author of End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, told 60 Minutes. "[Evangelicals] love us as characters in their story, in their play, and that's not who we are. If you listen to the drama that they are describing, essentially it's a five-act play in which the Jews disappear in the fourth act."

For Chuck Carlson, all of this means that many American Christians, who he says should be influenced by Jesus' teachings of peace and forgiveness, instead salivate over the prospect of wholesale destruction at the hands of American troops. "It's turned them into warmongers," he says. "They've forgotten all about the beatitudes, such as blessed are the poor in spirit' . . . and blessed are the peacemakers.' Evangelical Christians are a powerful voting bloc. They are the glue that holds Bush's war program together."

Boyer and Berlet both note that a small number of evangelicals have always rejected dispensationalism and denied that current events are signs that the end times are near. (Most of the world's Christians, meanwhile, including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and many mainstream Protestant denominations, such as Episcopalians, also hold this view. Says All Saints' Reverend Lierle: "We're much more concerned with the Christian life in the now and not spending much time worrying about the end times.") But each of the millennial experts said they had never heard of evangelicals such as Chuck Carlson going so far as to hold demonstrations against apocalyptic churches. "It is unusual," Berlet says, "to see people doing outreach to people and churches to challenge them on this issue."

Yet that's exactly what motivates Carlson on Sunday mornings, when he stands outside born-again congregations such as Calvary Community Church and holds up signs proclaiming peace, hoping to convince pro-life Christians that the teachings of their evangelical pastors have led them astray.

Mark Martin hardly seems like a warmonger. Calvary Community Church's lead pastor is a charismatic and youngish 44-year-old who stands with an assistant pastor, a church deacon and several ushers as he greets the members of his flock entering the sanctuary. He will minister to about 1,200 people in what will be one of three services on this Sunday morning. His flock is so huge, about 300 people during each service must watch his sermon on TV monitors in an overflow room. The church complex also includes a restaurant, bookstore and other outbuildings.

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