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Revelation Interpreted as Apocalyptic Conspiracist Narrative


Two Apocalyptic Traditions in Christianity




Dances with Devils

How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes
Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism

by Chip Berlet

Senior Analyst
Political Research Associates

This study originally appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

Revised 4/15/99

Political Research Associates
1310 Broadway Street, Suite 202
Somerville, MA 02144

Part One:
The Roots of the Apocalyptic Paradigm

An Overview of the Dynamics

The approach of the year 2000 ... stimulated widespread discussion of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. Often lost in the discussion is the important ongoing role that specific types of apocalyptic and millennialist thinking play in shaping the demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism used by various right-wing political and social movements.1

A remarkable number of myths, metaphors, images, symbols, phrases, and icons in Western culture flow from Christian Biblical prophecies about apocalyptic confrontations and millennial transformation.2 The Bible's Book of Revelation contains warnings that the end of time is foreshadowed by a vast Satanic conspiracy involving high government officials who betray the decent and devout productive citizens, while sinful and subversive tools of the Devil gnaw away at society from below.

In The Origins of Satan, author Elaine Pagels points out that today:

"Many religious people who no longer believe in Satan, along with countless others who do not identify with any religious tradition, nevertheless are influenced by this cultural legacy whenever they perceive social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world."3

The anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies has become a central apocalyptic narrative in our nation's religious, secular, political, and cultural discourse.4 This is certainly evident in popular culture where films such as "Armageddon" and "Apocalypse Now" and the TV series "Millennium" name the tradition while mainstreaming the ideas. Films including "Rambo," "Mad Max," "Red Dawn," "Die Hard," "Terminator" and their sequels reinterpret apocalyptic visions while obscuring their origins.5 The "X-Files" film and its related TV series are quintessential apocalyptic narratives. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" stomps incarnate evil in a weekly TV series. Prophetic scripture provides the paradigm for sensational scripts. What is entertainment for some, however, is spiritual and political reality for others.

The irrational fear of powerful conspiracies--conspiracism--has flourished episodically throughout US history. Usually it is right-wing groups that have fanned apocalyptic fears of evil conspiracies to create a powerful political weapon. The results can be devastating. There have been crusades against sin; waves of government repression justified by claims of subversive conspiracies; and campaigns to purge alien ideas and persons from our shores.6 Starting in the 1620s, witch hunts swept New England for a century, and fears of plots by Freemasons or Catholics swept the nation in the 1800s. This century has produced allegations of a Jewish banking cabal behind the Federal Reserve, and the anticommunist witch hunts of the McCarthy Period in the 1950s.7

Could it happen again at the end of the 20th century? Holly Sklar, author of Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics, argues that it might:

"The demonization of immigrants, welfare recipients, people of color, and single mothers is already tolerated to an alarming degree in mainstream political debate. Now as we head toward the millennium, we also face the rising fervor of those driven by visions of culture war and apocalypse."8

Contemporary interpretations of apocalyptic millennialism can be sorted into three related and overlapping tendencies that range from sacred to secular: First, in the view of some Christian fundamentalists, we are in the apocalyptic millennial "End Times" or "Last Days" prophesied in Revelation and other books of the Bible; Second, a more generic and often secularized apocalyptic world view of impending crisis is reflected in diverse movements across the political spectrum; Third, there is a generic sense of expectation and renewal, generated merely by the approach of the calendar year 2000, because it is a millennial milestone in human recorded history.9

These apocalyptic fears and millennial expectations in turn influence three broad contemporary right-wing movements in the US:

    · Activists in various sectors of the Christian Right, ranging from electoral to insurgent, and with varying views regarding whether or not the year 2000 marks the End Times. This includes attempts by Christian hard-liners to purify the society as part of a religious revival, such as the homophobic statements by Trent Lott, and advertisements calling on homosexuals to "cure" themselves by turning to Jesus. The most aggressive activists engage in theologically-motivated acts of violence against abortion providers.

    · Right wing populists, including survivalists, gun rights activists, anti-elite conspiracists, and participants in the Patriot & armed militia movements. Conspiracist scapegoating is rampant in this sector. A popular speaker in these circles is Robert K. Spear who believes the formation of armed Christian communities is necessary as we approach the End Times. Preparing to survive the coming apocalypse has led to a survivalist subculture that stores food and conducts self-defense training--a culture that now spans a continuum from religious to secular in right-wing populist groups.

    · The far right, including neonazis and persons influenced by far right versions of the Christian Identity religion. Identity beliefs were behind the assassination of Denver talk show host Alan Berg, a spree of armed robberies and murders starting in the 1980s, the tragic shoot-out between federal agents and the Weaver family in Idaho, and--in some reports--the brutal dragging death of a Black man in Jasper, Texas.

In each of these sectors, scapegoating is widespread. Scapegoating always needs to be taken seriously when it becomes tolerated in political and social discourse.10 But scapegoating that is generated or enhanced by apocalyptic fears has distinctive features and targets.11 Any group can be framed as doing evil or being evil, given enough creative energy on the part of the scapegoater, although the actual framing of the allegations will depend on the sector of the right--Christian nationalist, right wing populist, or far right.12

The approaching millennium creates an apocalyptic milieu in which demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism could again have serious consequences in our society, especially since rhetoric has already turned to violence. If we are to limit the potential short-term damage, and understand the significance of the long-term dynamic, we need to better understand the thinking of those who live in the shadow of the Apocalypse.

Most people delving into the topic for the first time find the layers of complexity, unfamiliar vocabulary, and competing timelines to be daunting. The effort is nevertheless worthwhile because it helps to explain what often appears to the uninitiated as inexplicable behavior among members of right-wing social and political movements.13 What do Christian fundamentalists mean when they warn about the "signs of the times?" How did apocalyptic millennialism set the stage for the Oklahoma City bombing? Why do members of ultra-conservative groups such as the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum worry that the UN is trying to create a globalist "One World Government?" What is the "The Mark of the Beast?"

Behind much of the current resurgence of scapegoating and the spread of conspiracy theories about secret elites lies apocalyptic and millennialist themes as old as Satan.


The word "revelation" is a translation of the Greek word "apokalypsis."14 The original Greek term referred to unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge concerning unfolding human events. Thus, the words "apocalypse," "revelation," and "prophecy" are closely related. Prophets, by definition, are apocalyptic.

In its more common usage, the word "apocalypse" has come to mean the belief in an approaching confrontation, cataclysmic event, or transformation of epochal proportion, about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations. Those who believe in a coming apocalypse might be optimistic about the outcome of the apocalyptic moment, anticipating a chance for positive transformational change; or they might be pessimistic, anticipating a doomsday; or they might anticipate a period of violence or chaos with an uncertain outcome.15

In Christianity, the Apocalypse refers to a gigantic global battle with Satanic forces that signals the end of time. The apocalyptic tradition also exists in Judaism, Islam, and other religions, and pre-dated Christianity.16 Apocalypticism can also be found among a few New Age devotees and environmental activists.17

Revelation Interpreted as Apocalyptic Conspiracist Narrative

Christian apocalypticism is based on many sources in the Bible, including the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel, and the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. The primary Biblical source, however, is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament.18 The central narrative of Revelation is that righteous Christians need to know they will be tricked and betrayed by trusted political and religious leaders who are secretly conspiring with Satan. Revelation, the chronicle of an apocalyptic vision, was written about 95 AD, but parts derive from prophetic elements of the book of Daniel and other Old Testament books.19 The identity of John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, is disputed, but most experts suggest it was not the same John, the disciple of Jesus, who authored the fourth Gospel.20

Revelation describes in graphic terms what will happen when an angry God finally intervenes in human affairs at the end of time. The narrative describes the End Times as a period of widespread sinfulness, moral depravity, and crass materialism. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride in bringing God's wrath in the form of wars, disease, civil strife, and natural disasters. Satan's chief henchman appears in human form as the Antichrist, a popular world leader who secretly harbors sympathy for the Devil. He promises peace and unity of all nations under one world government--but it's a conspiracy. His agents are tracking down and punishing Christians who refuse to abandon their faith. Satan's allies receive a mark--the Mark of the Beast--represented by the number 666.

This period of hard times are called "the Tribulations" and culminate in a final cataclysmic doomsday confrontation of massed armies in the Middle East, at a place named Armageddon. Good triumphs over evil at the battle of Armageddon, ushering in a millennium of Christian rule.

The narrative of Revelation provides important clues for understanding the rhetoric and actions of devout Christians who are influenced by apocalypticism and millennialism. Among Christians, belief in an actual coming apocalypse is particularly strong among those Fundamentalists who not only read the Bible literally, but also consider prophetic Biblical text to be a coded timetable or script revealing the future.21 Those that believe the apocalypse is at hand can act out those theological beliefs in social, cultural, and political arenas. An example might be when believers view current world events as "signs of the End Times" or see those with whom they disagree as agents of the Antichrist. Today, apocalyptic themes influence many diverse Christian groups, including those who do not think the End Times are close at hand. Conspiracist appeals also reach a wide secular audience of alienated persons on a cultural and often unconscious level.


Considerable attention has been focused on the fact that the year 2000 marks the turn of a calendar millennium. The word Millennium specifically refers to a span of one thousand years. It has come to mean the point at which one period of one thousand years ends and the next begins. For most Christians, the millennial year 2000 will be a time of celebration, reflection, and renewal.

Contemporary Christian Fundamentalists interpret Revelation as a prophetic warning about tumultuous apocalyptic events marking End Times that herald the second coming of Christ. Most also believe that when Christ returns, he will reign for a period of one-thousand years--a millennium. So the turn of the calendar to the year 2000 doesn't necessarily have theological significance. Norman Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, chronicles how Christian apocalyptic fervor appears at seemingly random dates throughout Western history.22 A major US episode of Christian millennialist fervor occurred among the Millerites in the 1840s.23

Any date in any calendar system (Judaic or Islamic for example) can be understood as significant given the creativity of those using numerological equations to find justification.24 But the rotund numerological significance of the year 2000 has spawned millennialist expectations both inside and outside Christianity, with apocalyptic warnings now coming from contemporary Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and New Age prophets. 25

Visit a large bookstore and scan the titles in the religion, prophecy, new age, and occult sections and you will see a cornucopia of books anticipating the year 2000. Surfing the Web reveals a pulsating multimedia cacophony of millennial expectation. The topics range from secular to spiritual and from cataclysmic doom to transcendent rapture in what Michael Barkun has called an "improvisational style" of millennialism and apocalypticism.26

For instance, the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in 1997 merged millennial prophetic visions from the Bible, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and the literary genre of science fiction.27 Conspiracist William Cooper weaves an apocalyptic vision out of historic anti-Semitism and modern UFO lore. 28

Two Apocalyptic Traditions in Christianity

In Anti-Apocalypse, academic Lee Quinby argues that "Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic," and that "this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level." What makes apocalypse so compelling," argues Quinby," is its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression."29

Yet not all contemporary Christian interpretations of the book of Revelation promote apocalyptic demonization. Within Christianity, there are two competing views of how to interpret the apocalyptic themes in the Bible. One view identifies evil with specific persons and groups, seeking to identify those in league with the Devil. This view easily lends itself to demonization. A more positive form of interpreting apocalyptic prophecy is not based on demonization; it is promoted by those Christians who see evil in the will to dominate and oppress. Apocalyptic thinking, in this case, envisions a liberation for the oppressed. The two interpretations represent a deep division within Christianity.

Even some relatively conservative and orthodox Christians look to the prophetic tradition of siding with the poor and oppressed, and these themes can be found in both the New and Old Testaments.30 This is the tradition of the Social Gospel in Protestantism, and Liberation Theology in Catholicism. It can be found in today's Sojourners group and the tradition of "prophetic anger" coupled with "evangelical populism."31 Social justice activist Daniel Berrigan uses apocalyptic discourse in the Bible as a tool in challenging oppression, corruption, and tyranny.32 Philosopher René Girard argues that the New Testament can be used to help unravel scapegoating.33 Author and activist Cornel West identifies himself with a prophetic tradition rooted in African-American Christianity and the struggle for Black civil rights. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from this tradition when he spoke truth to power.

Within mainstream denominations, independent evangelical churches, progressive Christian communities, and followers of liberation theology are many Christians who are painfully aware of those historic periods when some Christian leaders sided with oppression, and used demonization as a tool to protect and extend power and privilege. This discussion seeks to honestly explore the heritage of apocalyptic demonization, or a doomsday version of millennialism, but not to stereotype all Christians as continuing that heritage.34 In The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind, Peter J. Gomes, minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard University, argues that the Bible must be read carefully to avoid using the text to legitimize "doctrinaire prejudices" in the dominant culture. Gomes suggests Biblical literacy as an antidote to Biblical literalism.35

Some of the most vocal critics of apocalyptic demonization and conspiracist scapegoating come from within Christianity. One such critique is Gregory S. Camp's Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-Times Paranoia, which is impressive both as a historical and theological work. Camp warns of the "very real danger that Christians could pick up some extra spiritual baggage" by credulously embracing conspiracy theories.36 As early as 1993, Bruce Barron wrote a stinging rebuke of apocalyptic Christian conspiracism in the Christian Research Journal, when reviewing Pat Robertson's 1992 The New World Order and Gary H. Kah's 1991 En Route to Global Occupation.37 Paul T. Coughlin, cautions conservative Christians in Secrets, Plots & Hidden Agendas: What You Don't Know About Conspiracy Theories.38

Even skeptics can attempt to be respectful of Christianity as is author Tim Callahan who debunks the idea that the Bible can be used as a crystal ball in the 1997 Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment?39 The danger comes not from Christianity, but from Christians who combine Biblical literalism, apocalyptic timetables, demonization, and oppressive prejudices.

From Demonization to Scapegoating to Conspiracism

The poisoned fruit of conspiracist scapegoating is baked into the American apple pie, and the ingredients include destructive versions of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. This is true whether we are studying the sector of the Christian Right that is consciously influenced by Biblical prophecy, or more secularized right-wing movements for which Bible-based apocalypticism and millennialism have faded into unconscious--yet still influential--metaphors. To fully comprehend the subtext of many US right-wing movements, we need to review the interactive dynamics among demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism.


Demonization often begins with marginalization, the process in which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than as real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people are inferior or threatening. The final step is demonization; the person or group is seen as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. Needless to say, it is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.

Demonization fuels dualism--a form of binary thinking that divides the world into good versus evil with no middle ground tolerated. Dualism allows no acknowledgment of complexity, nuance, or ambiguity in debate, and promotes hostility toward those who suggest coexistence, toleration, pragmatism, compromise, or mediation. James Aho observes that our notions of the enemy "in our everyday life world," is that the "enemy's presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing expression, liquidation and expulsion."40


The ritualized transference of evil onto a demonized "other" and the subsequent expulsion of that "evil" is a familiar theme across centuries and cultures.41 In western culture the term "scapegoat" can be traced to an early Judaic ritual described in the Book of Leviticus in the Bible.42 The term scapegoat, however, has evolved to mean "anyone who must bear the responsibility symbolically or concretely for the sins of others," Richard Landes explains. "Psychologically, the tendency to find scapegoats is a result of the common defense mechanism of denial through projection."43

One cannot, however, take a psychological model and directly apply it to society.44 As psychiatrist Susan Fisher explains, the mechanism of scapegoating within a family--a well-studied phenomena--does not necessarily work the same way as the scapegoating of groups on a societal level where "the scapegoated group serves more as a metaphor,"45 Scapegoating by large groups and social movements is not an indication of mass mental dysfunction, even though there may be psychological issues involved, and even though some of the individuals involved may suffer from a variety of psychological problems.46 Recent research on the subject suggests the phenomena is more complicated than commonly pictured, involving several personality types and multiple psychological processes.47

Scapegoating on a societal level can be seen as a process whereby the hostility and aggression of an angry and frustrated group are directed away from a rational explanation of a conflict, and projected onto targets demonized by irrational claims of wrongdoing. As a result, the scapegoated group bears the blame for causing the conflict, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of innocence and increased unity. It is scapegoating whether the conflict is real or imaginary, the grievances are legitimate or illegitimate, or the target is wholly innocent or partially culpable. Scapegoating can be used as a rationale to justify the retention or acquisition of unfair power and privilege.

Scapegoats are often pointed out by demagogues--leaders willing to use emotionally-manipulative appeals coupled with simplistic and subjective explanations.48 The arguments that demagogues use to prove the culpability of the scapegoats may seem obviously artificial, but given the unresolved anger and frustration of the persons being mobilized, any attempt at explaining and perhaps resolving the conflict seems better than indifference and inaction. Demagogues often portray the scapegoat as not just culpable but actually evil; demonizing the scapegoat by claiming the scapegoat is involved in a sinister conspiracy that threatens to sabotage the entire society.


It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. In conspiracist discourse, the supposed conspirators serve as scapegoats for the actual conflict within the society.49 The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to "prove" connections; blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats; and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.50 Historian David Brion Davis notes that movements to counter the "threat of conspiratorial subversion" have a special status and meaning in the US, "a nation born in revolution and based on the sovereignty of the people."51

By blaming a small group of individuals for vast or horrific crimes, conspiracism serves to divert attention from the institutional locus of power that drives systemic oppression, injustice and exploitation. As explained by Frank P. Mintz:

"Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power."52

Right-wing conspiracist scapegoating not only identifies and blames elites, but also identifies and blames alleged "subversives" and "parasites" from groups that have relatively low social or economic status.

In Western culture, conspiracist narratives are significantly influenced by metaphors from Biblical apocalyptic prophecy. Stephen O'Leary in Arguing the Apocalypse contends that the process of demonization is central to all forms of conspiracist thinking.53 Leonard Zeskind argues it is impossible to analyze the contemporary political right, without understanding the "all-powerful cosmology of diabolical evil."54 To Zeskind, conspiracy theories are "essentially theologically constructed views of events. Conspiracy theories are renderings of a metaphysical devil which is trans-historical, omnipotent, and destructive of God's will on earth. This is true even for conspiracy theories in which there is not an explicit religious target."55

S. L. Gardiner points out that many current "conspiracy theories directed against the government are part of a rhetorical strategy genuinely intended to undermine state power and government authority," but this occurs in a "metaphysical context" in which "those in control are implicated in a Manichean struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. That they are the agents of the devil is proved by the very fact that they control a corrupt system."56 The fear of a subversive conspiracy to create a collectivist one world government, however, spans a continuum of beliefs from religious to secular.

Philosopher Herman Sinaiko observes that "The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies. When a community is in crisis, the standards and control mechanisms are weakened, and these people step forward and find their voice and an audience."57

Mass outbreaks of conspiracism are a distinct narrative form of scapegoating in the political and social arena rather than a mass outbreak of paranoid psychological pathology. There are certainly mentally-unbalanced individuals who promote paranoid-sounding conspiracist theories, however it is simplistic to imagine that these suspicious and often anti-social individuals periodically join together to form large mass movements around shared goals. It is also naive to assume that power elites or government agencies are exclusively populated by clinically paranoid leaders who see subversion behind all social change and, therefore unilaterally activate the repressive agencies of the state. Conspiracist scapegoating certainly involves psychological processes, but it plays an objective role as a useful social and political mechanism in actual power struggles throughout US history. An understanding of that role is essential to explaining its power and effectiveness.

Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra-elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating is woven deeply into US culture and the process appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies as well.58 An entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreads dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions, using a variety of corporate and alternative media. 59

In highlighting conspiracist allegation as a form of scapegoating, it is important to remember the following:

    · All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified through hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice,

    · People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world,

    · Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such should not be ignored,

    · Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following,

    · Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively unthreatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits,

    · Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.

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