Religion has become (again) a recognisable significant factor in many aspects of international politics. Any consideration of its role inevitably raises in the mind of the British reader the current threat of terrorism from 'Al Qaida and related terrorist groups' as MI5 puts it (1). For reasons that I will return to later, this 'international terrorism' is not labelled as being in any sense related to, or derived from Islam officially in the British language MI5 describes the threat as being not even from readings of Islam, but rather from 'Al Qaeda's ideology' (2). But all recognise this terrorist threat as being related in some form to religion. The attacks on New York and Washington, Bali, Istanbul, London, Madrid - have all brought into sharp relief the mobilising effect of religion. But religion is not only important in the twenty-first century because of those terrorist acts and threats.
Religion in America
For many in the UK, our view of American religion is of something quirky, taking place in those parts of the United States that we don't visit, and certainly not shared by our American friends and colleagues.
We often focus on the drive for creationism, or to be more accurate, the commitment to 'Intelligent Design', the view that God did create the universe, and that Darwin was wrong. With echoes of the Scopes trial of 1925, when the state of Tennessee forbade the teaching of science that denied the literal truth of the Bible in our minds, we construct such religious views as being marginal to American life, even crazy. A conventional example is the so-called Westboro Baptist Church (although they have no formal links to the Baptist hierarchy) who proclaim views from their website with an extraordinary title (3).
Yet we are wrong just to focus on the margins. Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year on developing an alternative to the theory of evolution. In Seattle, the Discovery Institute works to develop an alternative; they proclaim the peer reviewed scientific articles that justify Intelligent Design (4); a mission also followed at Answers Research Journal - a 'a professional, peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework' (5). Lee Strobel's book The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God, was a best seller, emphasising the point that debate has been joined at a different level (Strobel, 2005).
And then there are the popular cultural dimensions. Look for example at Paw Creek Ministries, where we learn that Harry Potter is a vision of the Antichrist. Pastor Joseph Chambers writes that 'The Harry Potter book reveals a very enlightening picture of the coming days for those "left behind" after the Rapture of the saints' (6). Such views may represent very few; and yet they are important, as they draw on a wider American conservative discourse.
Chambers' talk of those 'left behind' after the Rapture has a wide resonance. In this view of the 'end times' (that is, of the Second Coming), the believers are 'Raptured' (lifted to Heaven) to avoid the battle with the Antichrist. The theme is a cultural phenomenon in the United States. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' books, the Left Behind series, have sold over seventy million copies in the US. Films of the series are launched not in cinemas, but in churches; and the third movie, in 2005, was released simultaneously in 3,200 noncommercial outlets (Cooperman, 2005). Left Behind is even a computer game, despite many on the Christian Right being against such games (7).
The Rapture is a serious proposition amongst the conservative right; the conservative Swift Report reported in 2004 that 6 June 2006, otherwise known as '666' or 'Mark of the Beast' day, is cause for celebration among Satanists, teacher unions …