But apocalyptic thinking has not just shaped contemporary conservative politics. As part of the Christian tradition, it has also helped fuel the nation’s most transformative human rights movements. When secular liberals dismiss the religious fervor of those on the far right like Pompeo, they concede the left’s moral ground and may obscure the long history of Christianity fueling progressive reform. They are missing an opportunity to channel apocalyptic thinking into making the world a better place now, as Christians on the left long have.
In the early 20th century, predictions about apocalypse and the final days became especially contested, as Protestant churches grappled with modernity. The nation’s population grew rapidly through high levels of immigration, and women shunned Victorian-era gender norms. Evolutionary theory gained currency, and socialist ideals swept the nation as Americans observed unprecedented disparities between the rich and poor in an era of rapid industrialization. World War I only increased anxiety about the future of the nation.
“Fundamentalist” Protestants interpreted the new social and intellectual trends — especially women’s liberation — as signs that modernity was careening toward apocalypse. These religious figures warned that human sins were bringing a cataclysmic destruction that would culminate in the Second Coming of Jesus. While they supported Prohibition, “vice commissions” and other forms of state surveillance to protect against the perceived modern-day Gomorrah, they believed their best bet was to convert as many souls as possible through their ministry. They figured there simply wasn’t much they could do politically to avoid the End Times.
Accordingly, fundamentalists made no attempt to liberate African Americans from the throes of segregation or the working classes from brutal labor conditions, even if they publicly acknowledged the plights of these citizens. Spiritual redemption, rather than literal redemption, was the goal. Needless to say, this approach greatly served the status quo.
In contrast, “modernist” Protestants were optimistic about the times, though no less fervent in their apocalyptic beliefs, sensing that God was already immanent in the world thanks to progress. These Protestants cited the emancipation of the enslaved, the triumph of democracy in the Great War and even Darwinian theory as evidence that the world was growing increasingly Christian. Whereas fundamentalists perceived evolution to be an affront to the biblical account of creation, modernists believed Darwin’s account of the seemingly forward-marching species suggested Christians were making progress on earth.
Under the influence of new scientific accounts of the world, some modernists even began to question the divinity and Virgin birth of Jesus, suggesting certain elements of the Gospel were meant to be more allegorical than literal. They argued that Jesus’s origins mattered far less than his ethics of grace and love; and by imitating his good works, they could usher in a heaven on earth.
African American liberal Protestants tended to hedge the optimism felt by their white counterparts, as African Americans faced persistent threats of lynching and racial violence and were systemically denied basic civil liberties. While many believed they were living in a time of tribulation, they also largely agreed Christians needed to redress the sin that begot social inequality and racial violence. Such thinking laid the foundation for the Black Liberation Theology of the Civil Rights era, espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This intra-Protestant controversy over modernism prefigured the “culture wars” that erupted in later decades. As the century wore on, conservative evangelicals realized the best way to convert souls was not to withdraw from politics, as previously thought, but to occupy every crevice of legislative halls. In the late 20th century, they found a partner in the Republican Party willing to take on issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer.
But at the core, a deeper philosophical divide between the religious left and right continues to exist. For the evangelical right, fixed on some future catastrophe, redemption is inward looking and is predicated on human strife and violence. For many other people of faith and secular progressives, who are more (or entirely) focused on the present, redemption unifies the human community. In other words, for evangelical conservatives, redemption entails saving one’s soul before Judgment Day, while, for progressives, redemption entails saving society for the sake of all living.
This deep philosophical divide partially explains why some evangelical conservatives are willing to initiate global war, shrug off climate change and ignore vast racial and economic injustice, while liberals prioritize peace and equality.
Critics of the Trump administration describe Pompeo and his peers as “devout” believers and “religious extremists,” implicitly suggesting that their zeal distinguishes them from the believers who constitute approximately two-thirds of the Democratic Party, or that their religious beliefs are somehow dangerous. But this framework misses the point, and it also threatens to erase the many Progressives (Christian or otherwise) whose faith electrifies them, fueling their pursuits of a more just world.
While apocalyptic thinking has long fueled political mobilizations on the left and the right, it has become more visible and prominent in the Republican Party, and Pompeo and Pence have used it to justify political violence at home and abroad. But as progressives are grappling with how to energize their own causes and rival the religious fervor on the right, perhaps it is time to tap into their own tradition of apocalyptic thinking. At a time when certain powerful evangelicals appear to welcome global discord, Progressives can’t afford to quiet those fighting for harmony on earth.