As if the message weren’t scary enough, the dozen or so occupants of the RVs — vanguard of a national campaign funded by a fundamentalist Christian radio network and fueled by bus ads and Internet buzz — wore highlighter-bright yellow shirts that said “Earthquake So Mighty, So Great.” They offered pedestrians handouts saying there was “ marvelous proof” that “Holy God will bring judgment day on May 21, 2011.”
The Rapture, they warned, is upon us.
A woman waved off the pamphlet: “Already have one.” A jogger ran right past. “No thanks,” said another. A tourist simply said, “No.” Many people said exactly nothing.
Although the District is apparently a tough audience for doomsday forecasts — despite the power here to make something like it happen — many Americans have been captivatedby the idea of the end of time since the country’s beginning. Some have even been so bold as to pick a date. William Miller, who spawned a 19th-century religious movement that remains visible today, is the most classic example: He created a nationwide stir when he predicted that Jesus would return and the world would end before March 21, 1844. (He was stood up.)
“In American history, you have always had a fascination with this stuff,” said Doug Weaver, professor of religion at Baylor University.
End Times, as the phenomenon is known, has spawned an economy that rivals the GDP of small countries. There have been scores of books, movies, video games and albums that revolve around Armageddon and the end of the world.
There was, among others, the 1991 movie “The Rapture,” starring Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the “Left Behind” series, have sold more than 63 million books. Even Johnny Cash dabbled in End Times lyrics, particularly in his popular song “The Man Comes Around.”
“This is a cottage industry,” said Weaver. “People really love this stuff.”
And for many Christians, it is a core part of their beliefs. About 41 percent of Americans think that Jesus will return before 2050, according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The man pushing the current forecast is Harold Camping, an 89-year-old Christian fundamentalist radio host and co-founder of the Family Radio network, which broadcasts on dozens of stations across the country. His group has sponsored the end-of-the-world caravan and plastered cities, including Washington, with billboards and signs.
This is not Camping’s first end-of-the-world prophecy. In a 1992 book, he predicted that the world would end in 1994. When he woke up in 1995, clearly something had gone wrong.
“It’s just like anyone who invents something or comes to a truth or any technician — they don’t immediately make a finished product,” he explained. “I did not come to the finished product until three years ago. It was at that time that God showed some exquisite proof.”