Students of American religion always have claimed that America is a millennial nation. The United States, they say, has perceived itself as the harbinger of the perfect 1,000-year reign of God foretold in the Book of Revelation, that most apocalyptic of all books in the Christian Bible.
This American self-perception is partly true and partly false. On the false side, the Americas were not settled first by a millennium-thinking people but by great Amerindian tribes. In those earlier civilizations, the Great Spirit was not a God of time, calling people forward to a future apocalyptic kingdom. Rather, God was, and remains, a God of space -- one who is present in the mountains and valleys, rivers and plains. America as a whole has yet to lay claim to this rich theological tradition. We give it only halfhearted lip service in a politicized ecological movement.
No one can deny that millennialism has contributed untold variety to the lively experiment of religion in America. Without a doubt, American preachers, including America's preeminent evangelist, Billy Graham, continue to espouse a healthy-minded apocalyptic faith. It is significant that Graham led the mourning at a worship service for bomb victims in Oklahoma City with President Clinton in April. But Graham neither targets the "enemy" nor menacingly sets the day or the hour of the Second Coming.
On the other hand, no one can deny that something has gone awry in our penchant to live in the apocalyptic future. If we have a "paranoid style in our politics," as historian Richard Hofstadter has written, we also have an apocalyptic penchant in our religion. What is most distressing in our present-day apocalypticism is the ever-increasing tendency to materialize the dense and symbolic language of the Bible. This tendency was present from the very start. As early as 1919, The King Business, a dispensational premillennial journal, identified signs of the Great Beast as heresy, higher (biblical) criticism, social service, socialism and, most ominously, bolshevism. In time, premillenialists have expanded the list to include the cabal of Jewish bankers described in the bogus Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the Rothschilds, the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Among radical patriots, minions of the Great Beast now include agencies and personnel of the U.S. government. Just underneath this material interpretation of the Scripture lurks not only anti-Semitism, an ever-present danger in a Christian "redeemer" nation, but also an anti-catholicism that views the papacy as the whore of Babylon.
Our Puritan forebears were a millennium-imbued people. They crossed a Red Sea (the English Channel), sojourned in a desert (Holland) and passed over a Jordan (the Atlantic) on the way to the Promised Land. They came in hopes of setting up, in the words of John Winthrop, a "city upon the hill," a new Jerusalem that was to be a light unto all nations. The Puritan God was a God of time, one who acted in history and was to come again to judge the living and the dead. This millennial vision sustained the new land through the peaks of the 18th Century's Great Awakening and the foundation of the Republic, as well as the pits of the Half-Way Covenant and the Civil War.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), the chief theologian of the Great Awakening, sensed that the 1737 revival of religion among young people and their families in Northampton, Mass., signaled the preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Edwards' theopolitical position came to be known as postmillennialism. Christ was to appear at the end of the great events depicted in Revelation 20:1-10. The postmillenialists were both optimistic and progressive. American history, despite the aberrations of slavery and demon rum, was a continuous record of God's election of this land as a redeemer nation.
But there were weaknesses in the postmillennial position. …