Why I’m Grateful for 2012, The Rapture, and other Millennial Delusions

The far left and the far right agree on many things: mainstream politics doesn’t matter, hidden forces control our destiny, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the world is about to end.

For the spiritual left, of course, the due date is December 21, at which time various Mayan calendars may or may not have predicted a global transformation of epic proportions. (Maya elders have recently pointed out that it’s transformation, not destruction, that’s in store.) From what I can tell, with one foot in the New Age world, 2012 chatter seems to have died down somewhat. But there are still plenty of true believers.

On the religious right, the world basically ended already: on November 6, with the reelection of a Kenyan Muslim Socialist to the presidency of the United States. The degree of the tragedy depends on the degree of the extremist describing it. For Republicans, it was a rude awakening—though judging from the ways the GOP has blamed the defeat on Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christie, improper voter turnout in black neighborhoods, or anything other than the reality that most Americans preferred Obama’s ideas to Romney’s, many have chosen to remain asleep. For those of a more conservative bent, it was inexplicable: doesn’t America watch The O’Reilly Factor? How could we all be so confused?

But for the hardcore, this defeat was much more than that. The “march to Socialism,” which has been plodding along, on and off, since the 1930s, is now a phalanx. But more than that: given the right’s rhetoric about the Obama administration’s “war on religion,” his reelection looks like nothing less than the anointing of the Antichrist. If I seem to exaggerate, consider the literally apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of the Rutherford Institute (one of the leaders of the right’s new movement to protect ‘religious liberty’), the National Organization for Marriage, Alan Sears, Donald Wildmon, Glenn Beck, or many of the pundits on Fox News.

Millennialism, as I’ve written about previously in these pages, is the general term for the belief—religious or secular, but usually religious—that a massive global transformation is imminent, from Christ’s Second Coming (the “millennium” refers not to the turn of 1999–2000 but to the thousand years during which Christ will reign on Earth) to the messianism of a Sabbetai Sevi or David Koresh to, well, 2012. 

We err if we suppose that all millennialists march around with banners proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. As scholars have rightly point out, millennialist thinking is found in Islamism, Marxism, and many other political theories which inspire real action in the real world. Not all millennialists are quietists; on the contrary, like the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, which unleashed Sarin gas in the Tokyo subways, many take matters into their own hands, often with tragic results.

One of the most important, if subtle, transformations in American public life, for example, was the shift in evangelical thinking from pre-millennialism to post-millennialism, which took place gradually from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th. Pre-millennialists believe that there’s not much we can do to affect when Christ returns; the world will just keep getting worse and worse, and eventually He’ll come and rescue us, and the millennium comes after (hence, Christ comes pre-millennial).  Post-millennialists, on the other hand, believe that we have to prepare the way. We must reform our society as the kingdom of God on Earth, and only then can Christ return. In this view, the millennium comes first (hence, Christ comes post-millennial).

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, most American evangelicals were pre-millennialist, and as such stayed out of politics. America was going to hell, and the best thing for Christians to do is hunker down and wait it out. For liberals, this was just fine; they had their Bible camps and special schools, and we had everything else. But as post-millennialism began to take hold, America saw the likes of Rousas John Rushdoony, the intellectual father of Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that Christianity is the only legitimate basis for American law, and the subsequent rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s, with its agenda to remake American civil law according to religious norms.

Conservative evangelicalism oscillates between these two positions. Following President Clinton’s reelection, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, many figures in the Christian Right declared defeat and argued for pre-millennial-seeming tactics: a withdrawal from overall society, a turn inward, an increased emphasis on homeschooling rather than trying to reform public schools. One wonders if we’ll see similar moves in 2012.

On the left, there are likewise pre-millennial and post-millennial tendencies, although they usually aren’t viewed this way. In my experience, 2012 New Agers tend to more pre-millennial than post-millennial: The calendar is going to turn over whether we’re ready or not.  Indeed, they’re hoping for a great planetary transformation later this month precisely because things seem beyond repair today. Pre-millennial 2012ers are the ones warning of global economic collapse, and advising us all to learn subsistence agriculture and barter economics. Daniel Pinchbeck, perhaps the most famous of the bunch—and a colleague and sometime editor of mine in the Evolver network and its publications—has taken this view several times. (Admittedly, he was right the last time, when in 2007 he predicted that there would soon be a massive financial crisis.)

Pre-millennial lefties also drive liberals insane by saying that there’s no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. In my view, this is a very sheltered, cozy, white, privileged thing to say—but if your scale of significance is not support for communities of color or fairness in the tax code, but rather alignment with cosmic forces of enlightenment, it makes some sense.

Post-millennial lefties tend to be really scary, or really wacky, or both. In pop culture, they inhabit films like Fight Club or the latest Batman flick: utopian idealists who will use any means, including violence, to bring about the transformation they seek. In practice, though, they tend to be mostly harmless. I once had a noted New Age peace activist tell me that, because all spiritual practice has ripple effects outward, “my cat is a contemplative contributor to the universe.”

I swear I’m not making that up.

The reasoning (if that’s what it is) is similar to New Thought / Law of Attraction / Teaching of Abraham / The Secret / est / Landmark Forum gobbledygook: you create your own reality, and your thoughts impact the universe. This is how, we’re told, a great Rainbow Bridge is going to manifest on December 21: we’re going to manifest it. It’s also why the Maharishi once tried to get one million people meditating at the same time, and why the myth of the paradigm shift—that at some moment, there will be enough people doing the right thing to tip the balance for all of us—is so attractive. We desperately want to believe we can make the world a better place, that we have the power to change things.

And yet, the hard work is hard—and messy. Millennialism is a kind of moral purism that brooks no compromise; its utopian vision, whether in radical or reactionary form, reduces incremental change to “nibbling around the edges” (as one radical LGBT activist recently described all of the movement’s gains in the last twenty years) and considers pragmatists to be pushovers. 2012 millennialists would rather meditate and compost than try to persuade moderates of their political platform. And religious millennialists’ crusade for ideological purity has torpedoed the Republican Party, creating a “Republican Gomorrah,” as Max Blumental called it, that cannot appeal to both swing voters and its insane rightist base. In other words, unless millennialists are right that a massive change is coming, they tend to subvert the realization of their dreams.

December 21, 2012, the absurdly popular Left Behind series, Christian Zionism, and the view (held by at least 30% of Americans, according to a Pew poll) that Christ will come again in the next fifty years, are all expressions of an infantile wish-fulfillment, at once eros and thanatos, that, failing to understand how change actually takes place, instead yearns for the whole system to be destroyed by magical means. It is a pathetic, if consummately human, fantasy. Yet given the violence of most millennialist prophecies, we should be grateful for their impotence.

Editor’s note: this article was changed on 12/20 to correct an editorial error regarding post- and pre-millenialism. We blame the imminent inversion of earth’s magnetic poles.