The enemies of Israel have unleashed a massive air attack on the Promised Land. Hundreds of fighter jets streak across the sky. But before Israel can be destroyed, fire rains from the heavens and the enemy jets explode in mid-air with no explanation. Hailstones the size of golf balls follow the fire. The ground shakes. Birds pick clean the bodies of the fallen attackers. The enemy is vanquished without a single Israeli casualty, and the country is saved.
These are some of the opening scenes of the bestselling 1995 book Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, by Jerry B. Jenkins and the late evangelical minister Tim LaHaye. But don’t mistake this scenario for a mere action sequence: It’s based on the war of Gog and Magog, a biblical conflict prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel. In the Bible, Gog is the leader of Magog, a “place in the far north” that many evangelicals believe is Russia. According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, Gog will join with Persia—now Iran—and other Arab nations to attack a peaceful Israel “like a cloud that covers the land.” LaHaye, like many evangelicals, believed this battle would bring on the Rapture, the End Times event when God spirits away the good Christians to heaven before unleashing plagues, sickness, and other horrors on the unbelievers remaining on Earth. Meanwhile, the Antichrist reigns supreme.
The story of Gog and Magog is central to the bloody eschatology long embraced by millions of American evangelicals. In recent years, End Times has gained special political currency as believers have seen any number of Middle East conflagrations as fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy, notably the US invasion of Iraq and the war in Syria. Gog and Magog took on fresh relevance earlier this month, when the Trump administration assassinated Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
On many levels, President Donald Trump’s self-created crisis in Iran seems to have no relationship to any sort of coherent foreign policy or geopolitical plan for the future. The assassination has yielded few if any tangible rewards for the US. But there is an eager constituency for Trump’s improvised policy toward the Middle East and Iran in particular: the evangelical Christians who see it as a means of ushering in the return of Christ. Lured by the promise of conservative Supreme Court justices, anti-abortion measures, and a commitment to Christian supremacy under the guise of religious freedom, white evangelicals voted for Trump in higher numbers than any other group—more than 80 percent.
He desperately needs them if he’s going to be reelected. And while some have expressed concern about the administration’s inching toward war with Iran, many of those with what were once fringe beliefs have cheered the killing of Soleimani. “Iran has this big part to play in biblical history,” says religious historian Diana Butler Bass, who grew up in the evangelical church, attended an evangelical college and seminary, and wrote her Ph.D. thesis at Duke University on American fundamentalism. “There are these particular prophecies from Ezekiel, where there is talk of a war that will happen at a very important moment in Israel’s history. And that war is going to kick off the End Times. People in this prophetic community believe Iran is going to be one of these aggressors.”
Bass thinks this worldview may be central to understanding Trump’s foreign policy. “When Iran gets into the news, especially with anything to do with war, it’s sort of a prophetic dog whistle to evangelicals. They will support anything that seems to edge the world towards this conflagration,” she says. “They don’t necessarily want violence, but they’re eager for Christ to return and they think that this war with Iran and Israel has to happen for their larger hope to pass.”
Not all or even most evangelicals believe in the literal truth of these sorts of prophecies, though nearly 60 percent of white evangelicals, according to one 2010 poll, believe Jesus is definitely or probably going to return by the year 2050. But those who do subscribe to this apocalyptic world view seem to be overrepresented among Trump’s religious supporters and advisers. In October, a host of influential evangelical pastors came to the White House to pray with Trump to protect him from impeachment. Among those who laid hands on the president as he stood, head bowed, in the Oval Office, was repeat visitor Greg Laurie, pastor of a California megachurch. A few days after the killing of Soleimani, Laurie made a YouTube video with Don Stewart, author of 25 Signs We Are Near the End, to discuss Iran and the End Times. “The scenario that the Bible predicted, seemingly so impossible,” Stewart promised, “is now falling into place.”
From the outset, Trump has surrounded himself with people who hail from the fringes of the evangelical community that is steeped in the language of biblical prophecy, and his administration regularly reflects that language back to them in its messaging. In March 2017, for instance, Trump issued an official White House statement recognizing the Persian New Year in which he misattributed a quote to Cyrus the Great, the libertine pagan leader of the ancient Persian empire who was anointed by God to free Jews in Babylon. Ordinary Americans probably wouldn’t have even noticed the announcement, but evangelicals knew that Trump was speaking their language. Many of them believe Trump is like Cyrus, a flawed nonbeliever who nonetheless is chosen by God to work his miracles on Earth.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was reportedly instrumental in pushing for the killing of Soleimani, is also a master of such messaging. In March, during an interview in Jerusalem with the Christian Broadcasting Network (founded by another apocalyptic preacher, Pat Robertson), Pompeo showed his familiarity with another Iran-centric Bible story popular with End Times evangelicals. In the story, a Persian king is urged to slaughter the Jews in his kingdom at the urging of the evil adviser Haman. But his Jewish Queen Esther convinces him not to and saves her people. Asked whether he thought Trump could be a modern-day Esther, saving the Jews from Iran, Pompeo replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.” The secretary of state’s End Times beliefs made headlines again after the Soleimani killing, as meme-makers circulated a quote from a speech he made in a Kansas church in 2015. A few days after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Pompeo said: “We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle. … until the Rapture.”
The State Department did not respond to questions about how Pompeo’s religious views may affect his foreign policy decisions. But it’s not hard to see how apocalyptic evangelicalism might be influencing the Trump administration as it seeks to mobilize the millions of evangelicals reached by televangelists and megachurch pastors preaching the End Times. The most blatant appeal to this constituency came when Trump made the controversial decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a long-desired goal of evangelicals who see it as fulfilling a biblical prophecy necessary in securing the Second Coming. What may be less obvious is how Trump’s disdain for international governing bodies like NATO also dovetails almost perfectly with End Times theology, whether he realizes it or not.
Matthew Avery Sutton, a Washington State University history professor and author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, says evangelicals who believe the end is near have always been hostile to any sort of international organizations. That’s because they believe biblical prophecies that say that in the last days, a world leader who preaches peace will emerge and move toward a one-world government. In fact, the prophecy goes, that leader will be the Antichrist who will force the world to accept a false religion and persecute people who don’t accept him as a Messiah. (In Left Behind, the Antichrist is a Romanian UN secretary-general.) Evangelicals love Trump’s talk of pulling out of NATO, his attacks on the UN, and his trashing of the Paris climate change accord. “They hate the UN,” Sutton says. “Trump’s unilateralism is also music to their ears.”
Trump is not the first president to surround himself with evangelical Christians with an apocalyptic bent. Ronald Reagan was advised by Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, and personally believed in the End Times and the coming apocalypse, writing about it in his journals. He appointed people like Interior Secretary James Watt, a Pentecostal fundamentalist whose disdain for environmental conservation seemed to be informed by his belief that the end of the world was nigh. In an appearance before Congress, he told stunned lawmakers, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
Apparently George W. Bush was also part of this apocalypse-now group. When Bush was trying to convince French president Jacques Chirac to support an invasion of Iran in 2003, he reportedly told Chirac: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.” Chirac had no idea what Bush was talking about and had to consult a biblical scholar.
George W. Bush: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.”
Trump, who seems unable to distinguish between the New and Old Testaments, doesn’t seem particularly fluent in the prophecies of Ezekiel. But he has brought into the White House a host of people who are. Quite a few also hail from what Bass delicately describes as the “not respectable charlatan wing” of evangelical Christianity. They’re the prosperity preachers and prophets of the sort depicted by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry. “I have no doubt at all that those people are sitting right next to [Trump], giving him these Bible verses, telling him about these prophecies,” Bass says, “which means that they are kind of egging him on, [telling him] that he’s part of God’s prophetic fulfillment for these last days.”
Many of those who have become White House regulars are associated with something known as the New Apostolic Reformation, what Christianity Today describes as “a loosely connected group of Pentecostals and Charismatics.” They’re the ones who speak in tongues, scour the news for clues to biblical prophecies, engage in faith healing, and preach prosperity gospel—the notion that faith in God (or, usually, the preacher) will make people wealthy (or at least enrich the preacher). These apostles tend to embrace “dominionist” theology that implores Christians to take over of all levels of government, media, and education as a way of preparing for the End Times and return of Christ. Influential politicians like former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who has made several visits to the Trump White House, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and former Trump Energy Secretary Rick Perry fall into this camp.
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the liberal nonprofit People for the American Way who has tracked the religious right for many years, says that the network of preachers who come from NAR and Pentecostal media operations “are telling people over and over again that Trump was ‘chosen,’ that God intervened in the election. Some of them say very explicitly that Trump is playing a role in God’s End Time plans to bring about the return of Christ.”
One of the most prominent representatives of the Left Behind wing of the evangelical movement is San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, who has been calling for a war with Iran for more than a 15 years. In 2005, Hagee wrote a best-selling book, Jerusalem Countdown, that claimed the Bible predicted a war with Iran. (In 2011, it was turned into a movie of the same title, starring Bionic Man Lee Majors and Randy Travis.) Shortly after the book was published, Hagee created Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist organization that now claims to have 8 million members. It lobbies for support for Israeli settlements, military aid to Israel, and for the US to join with Israel to launch a preemptive strike on Iran.
He has said that gays caused Hurricane Katrina, referred to the Catholic Church as the “great whore,” called Hitler a “half-breed” Jew, and said that Hitler was part of God’s plan to get the Jews back to Israel.
Hagee, now 79, had once been popular with powerful Republicans during the George W. Bush administration, despite some of his more controversial statements. Among other things, he has said that gays caused Hurricane Katrina, referred to the Catholic Church as the “great whore,” called Hitler a “half-breed” Jew, and said that Hitler was part of God’s plan to get the Jews back to Israel. His star began to fall in 2008 after he endorsed Sen. John McCain for the GOP presidential nomination. McCain rejected his support, calling Hagee’s views “crazy and unacceptable.”
The election of Barack Obama consigned Hagee to his megachurch in San Antonio. But Trump has restored him to the corridors of power in Washington. Hagee endorsed Trump early in 2016. Once Trump was elected, Hagee met with the new president for two hours in 2017 to discuss moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Foreign policy experts feared the embassy relocation would destabilize the region and hamper peace talks, but Trump moved it anyway in May 2018. Israeli troops killed more than 50 people in the protests that followed.
Hagee attended the opening ceremony alongside notables such as Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner, and he gave the closing benediction. “Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: Israel lives,” he announced. “Let it echo down the marble halls of the presidential palace in Iran: Israel lives.” He later told the Texas Observer that he was looking forward to Trump confronting Iran, explaining, “The sum of Iran’s evil is greater than the whole of its parts.”
When Christians United for Israel held its annual DC confab and lobbying day last summer, Trump sent no fewer than five top administration officials to address attendees, including Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence (both evangelicals themselves), then–national security adviser John Bolton, a special envoy to the Middle East, and the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Pompeo opened the speech by telling the crowd of more than 5,000 people, “This is what it must have looked like to be part of the crowd for the fishes and the loaves. What a miracle that was.” Once more the story of Queen Esther came in handy, this time as Pompeo compared it to modern-day Iran.
Hagee is one of the most prominent of Trump’s evangelical supporters who see a war with Iran as a necessary step towards the End Times, but he’s far from the only one. The White House has hosted a steady stream of dominionists and NAR apostles since Trump took office, including Lance Wallnau, author of God’s Chaos President. An evangelical leader with a consulting business in Dallas, Wallnau has become famous as one of the few evangelicals who accurately prophesied Trump’s election after receiving divine inspiration to read chapter 45 of the Book of Isaiah. That’s the story of King Cyrus, whom Wallnau and many other evangelicals think Trump resembles. (For $45, Wallnau and ex-con televangelist Jim Bakker now sell a Trump/Cyrus coin that people can use to pray for Trump’s reelection.) Dr. Lance, as he’s known, has made several visits to the White House, including for a private briefing on Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace plan.
Facilitating many of these visits is Paula White-Cain, the controversial televangelist associated with the Trinity Broadcasting Network who became Trump’s spiritual adviser after he saw her preach on TV in the early aughts. White led a 20,000-strong megachurch in Tampa that was investigated by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in 2007 for lavish spending on private jets and big houses and possible violations of its tax-exempt status. His report did not find any wrongdoing—church leaders refused to cooperate with the investigation—but in 2012, White’s church declared bankruptcy. She went on to lead a mostly African American church in Florida where she remained until last spring, when her son took over the ministry.
Now on her third marriage, White has long been at odds with more elite, mainstream evangelicals because of her particular self-help brand of prosperity gospel. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore called White a “charlatan” and “heretic.” Nonetheless, in late October, Trump installed her in an official post at the White House office of public liaison to do outreach to evangelicals, formalizing access for some of the more extreme members of that group. She has referred to Trump as a modern-day Esther and called his enemies “demonic.”
Bass says that evangelical elites of the sort who associated with President George W. Bush have long looked down their noses at populist preachers like White and her crowd, but Trump has elevated them to positions of power. It’s a win-win situation. The evangelicals are at last in the influential positions those who disparaged them once held. And Trump’s narcissism is receiving special nourishment by their insistence that he was chosen by God. “I think that Trump likes it when people think he’s close to God—he called himself the ‘chosen one’—and to think that all of this has some sort of divine backing,” Bass says. “I don’t think there’s ever been a president who was quite influenced by this stream of evangelicalism as Trump has been.”
Naturally, there are political benefits to all of this. The administration has struggled to provide evidence of any imminent threats from Soleimani, but the timing for the assassination was certainly fortuitous for someone looking to mobilize evangelicals. Not only was Trump embroiled in impeachment hearings, he was still chaffing from a recent editorial in the evangelical publication Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, calling for him to be removed from office on moral grounds. Trump announced the killing of Soleimani just hours before appearing at the launch of his campaign’s Evangelicals for Trump coalition in Miami.
That event took place at a Pentacostal Latino church headed by Guillermo Maldonado, who speaks in tongues and hosts a TV show called “The Supernatural Now.” He’s the founder of the King Jesus International Ministry, a Miami megachurch with upwards of 20,000 members and a large TV and radio presence. Maldonado is also another regular White House visitor who has preached that Trump has a role in God’s plans for the End Times. At the 2019 Global Prophetic Summit, he claimed that God told him, “America, I have prepared this time, I have raised somebody in office to open the doors for my gospels.”
André Gagné, a theology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, says the apocalyptic worldview is concerning at such high levels of power, because believers may be rather sanguine about the possibility that assassinating an Iranian general might spur an even bigger war or nuclear confrontation in the Middle East. “If it brings the end of the world, it brings the end of the world,” Gagné says. “They’re ready. They can’t wait for the Rapture to happen. For them it’s the ultimate reunion with God.”
Top image credits: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP; Kenneth Thomas/AP; Sebastian Scheiner/AP; Steve Parsons/WPA Pool/Getty; Getty Images (2)