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Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions

by Chip Berlet


The poisoned fruit of conspiracist scapegoating is baked into the American apple pie, and its ingredients include destructive versions of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. This is true whether we are studying Christian-based right-wing movements 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.
Apocalyptic themes are 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. 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.
Apocalypticism--the anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies--has influenced social and political movements throughout U.S. history. Early Christian settlers saw America as a battlefield for a prophetic struggle between good and evil. Starting in the 1620s, witch hunts swept New England for a century. Many of the insurgent colonists who brought about the American Revolution invoked apocalyptic and millennial themes, as did the Antimasons and Jacksonians who denounced banks in the 1830s. Many anti-slavery abolitionists around the time of the Civil War were mobilized by Christian apocalyptic beliefs, and that theme was reflected in the rhetoric of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Apocalypticism infused the evangelical Protestant revival that contributed to the Ku Klux Klan's rise in the 1920s, and influenced both fascist and nonfascist rightists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Today, apocalypticism remains a central narrative in our nation’s religious, secular, political, and cultural discourse. Numerous authors have discussed how the contemporary Christian Right is significantly motivated and mobilized by apocalyptic and millennialist themes. Yet as Richard Landes observes, apocalyptic activities rarely “receive more than a passing mention in ‘mainstream’ analyses.”
In its generic sense, 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. Christian apocalyptic fervor appears, often at seemingly random dates, throughout Western history. A major US episode of Christian millennialist fervor occurred among the Millerites in the 1840s, some of whom sold their worldly belongings and pilgrimaged to a mountaintop to experience the Rapture that they hoped in vain would sweep them up into God's protective embrace. The apocalyptic tradition also exists in Judaism, Islam, and other religions.
Apocalypticism is the principal source for what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in American politics. According to Damian Thompson:
“Richard Hofstadter was right to emphasise the startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief—the demonisation of opponents, the sense of time running out, and so on. But he stopped short of making a more direct connection between the two. He did not consider the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief.”
The process of demonization, a consistent factor in scapegoating, takes on special features during periods of apocalyptic fear or millennial expectation. Apocalyptic thinking meshes readily with producerism, since the good (and often Godly) people are counterpoised against the traitorous elites and their lazy and sinful allies.
Millennialism is a specific form of apocalyptic expectation. Most contemporary Christian fundamentalists believe that when Christ returns, he will reign for a period of one thousand years—a millennium. Yet not all contemporary Christians promote apocalyptic demonization. Within Christianity, there are two competing views of how to interpret the apocalyptic and millennial themes in the Bible, especially the book of Revelation. One view identifies evil with specific persons and groups, seeking to identify those in league with the Devil. A more optimistic form of interpreting apocalyptic prophecy is promoted by those Christians who see evil in the will to dominate and oppress. Apocalyptic thinking, in this case, seeks justice for the poor and weak. The two interpretations represent a deep division within Christianity. The danger comes not from Christianity per se, but from Christians who combine Biblical literalism, apocalyptic timetables, demonization, and oppressive prejudices.
Christian apocalypticism and millennialism are 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 Christian New Testament. Many Christians on the political right who are looking for the "signs of the End Times" adopt a particular demonizing way of interpreting prophecy in the book of Revelation.
In this view, a powerful and charismatic agent of the Devil--the Antichrist--comes to earth along with his ally--the False Prophet. They appear disguised in the form of widely respected political and religious leaders. Promising peace and prosperity, these leaders launch a popular campaign to build a one world government and one world religion. Many Christians are fooled, but a few recognize that these leaders are the prophesied Antichrist and the False Prophet, and thus actually Satanic traitors. Agents of the Antichrist try to force devout Christians to accept the Mark of the Beast (sometimes the number 666) which would mean they reject Christ. A wave of political and religious repression sweeps the world, with devout Christians rounded up and persecuted for their beliefs. Christians with this view read the book of Revelation as a warning about a government conspiracy and betrayal by trusted political and religious leaders in the End Times. A secular version of this narrative appears in conspiracy theories about liberal collectivists building a global new world order through the United Nations.
These apocalyptic themes buttress the producerist narrative in right wing populist movements. This is the narrative of Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV broadcasts, and the newsletter of Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, and scores of other Christian Right media outlets. As the year 2000 approached a number of apocalyptic and millennial social movements surged in excitement and activism. Some were religious, such as the Promise Keepers, some were secular, such as the armed militias. These social movements sought to influence public policy, social conduct, and cultural attitudes, sometimes coming into conflict with the established order and state power.


Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

James A. Aho, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994). “A Phenomenology of the Enemy,” pp. 107-121. See also Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth The Anatomy of Prejudices, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (1996); and Lise Noël, Intolerance, A General Survey. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994).

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, (New York: Vintage, 1996), p. 182.

Paul Caras, The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil, (New York: Gramercy/Random House, 1996 [1900]), pp. 70-72.

Gordon W. Allport, Nature of Prejudice (Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1954), p. 244. On the ritualized transference and expulsion of evil in a variety of cultures, see Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Abridged (New York: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 624-686. On the process and social function of scapegoating in historic persecution texts of myth and religion, see René Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

Richard Landes, “Scapegoating,” Encyclopedia of Social History, ed. Peter N. Stearn, (New York: Garland Pub. Inc., 1994), p. 659. In contrast to our approach, Franz Neumann has argued against using the term scapegoating when discussing conspiracist movements. See Franz Neumann, “Anxiety in Politics,” in Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown, eds., Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p. 255.

Allport, Nature of Prejudice, p. 350. On anger, frustration, and aggression, see also: John Dollard, L. Doob, N. E. Miller, O. H. Mowrer, and R. R. Sears, Frustration and Aggression, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939); Theodor W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1950); and Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind, (New York: Basic Books, 1960).

Conversation with Susan M. Fisher, M. D. (clinical professor of psychiatry at University of Chicago Medical School and Faculty, Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis), 1997. For an interesting approach linking Jungian psychology to interventions against scapegoating in dysfunctional small organizations and groups, see Arthur D. Colman, Up From Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups, (Wilmette, IL: Chiron, 1995).

See Allport, Nature of Prejudice, pp. 243-260; Girard, The Scapegoat.

. Conversation with Herman Sinaiko, Professor of Humanities, University of Chicago, (1997).

Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 67-74. For additional views of the cultural context of conspiracism, see Jodi Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); and Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Fear Itself: Enemies Real & Imagined in American Culture, (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999).

Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 2, The Roaring of the Cataract 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 767. See also Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?. . . Not!,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine (Jan. 1992), pp. 17–19; Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?. . . Not, Again,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine (May 1992), pp. 86–88.

Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), pp. 37-38

Frank J Donner, The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1980), p. 11.

Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, p. 361.

Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, p. xiv.

Kathleen M. Blee, “Engendering Conspiracy: Women in Rightist Theories and Movements,” in Eric Ward, ed., Conspiracies: Real Grievances, Paranoia, and Mass Movements, (Seattle: Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment [Peanut Butter Publishing], 1996).

S. L. Gardner, “Social Movements, Conspiracy Theories and Economic Determinism: A Response to Chip Berlet,” in Ward, Conspiracies.

Interview with author Holly Sklar, 1997.

G. Edward Griffin, The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve, (Appleton, WI: American Opinion Publishing, Inc., 1994); Martin Larson, The Federal Reserve and our Manipulated Dollar, (Old Greewich, CT: Devin–Adair, 1975); Antony C. Sutton, The War on Gold, (Seal Beach, CA: ‘76 Press, 1977); Eustace Mullins, The World Order: Our Secret Rulers, second edition, (Staunton, VA: Ezra Pound Institute of Civilization, 1992); Eustace Mullins, Mullins on the Federal Reserve, (New York: Kaspar and Horton, 1952).

One book mixes the themes: Eustace Mullins, The Federal Reserve Conspiracy, second edition, (Union, NJ: Christian Educational Association, 1954).

See, for example, Eustace Mullins, The Secret Holocaust (Word of Christ Mission); see also listings on Mullins in Robert Singerman, Antisemitic Propaganda: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982), including, Eustace Mullins, The Biological Jew, (Staunton, VA: Faith and Service Books, ca. 1968); Eustace Mullins, “Jews Mass Poison American Children, Women’s Voice (Chicago), June 1955, p. 11; Eustace Mullins, Impeach Eisenhower! (Chicago, Women’s Voice, ca. 1955).

Books explaining the logical fallacies can be found in most libraries. An excellent and comprehensive online reference on fallacious arguments by Dr. Michael C. Labossiere can be found at <http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/>. A vivid and humorous exposé of illogical demagoguery is Ray Perkins, Jr., Logic and Mr. Limbaugh, (Chicago: Open Court, 1995).

Hofstadter, Paranoid Style, p. 37; Johnson, Architects, 23–25, 27.

Interview with Holly Sklar, 1996.

The author has been conducting these interviews since 1969.

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. G. William Domhoff, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979, (1978)); Domhoff, Who Rules America Now: A View for the ‘80’s, (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1986, (1983)); Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management, (Boston: South End Press, 1980); Sklar, Reagan, Trilateralism and the Neoliberals: Containment and Intervention in the 1980s, (Boston: South End Press (Pamphlet No. 4), 1986); Sklar, Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics, (Boston: South End Press, 1995).

For example, David Brion Davis includes articles by progressive investigative reporter George Seldes and radical Black power advocates Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in his collection of conspiracist writings, David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un–American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).

Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths: Reflections on Politics, Media, Ideology, Conspiracy, Ethnic Life and Class Power, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996.)

Michael Albert, "Conspiracy?...Not!," Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, Jan., 1992, pp. 17-19; Michael Albert, "Conspiracy?...Not, Again," Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, May,. 1992, pp. 86-88.

Jonathan Mozzochi and L. Events Rhinegard, Rambo, Gnomes and the New World Order: The Emerging Politics of Populism, (Portland, OR: Coalition for Human Dignity, 1991), p. 1.

Tarso Luís Ramos, “Feint to the Left: The Growing Popularity of Populism,” Portland Alliance, (Oregon), Dec. 1991, pp. 13, 18; Chip Berlet “Friendly Fascists,” The Progressive, June 1992; Berlet, Right Woos Left: Populist Party, LaRouchian, and Other Neo– fascist Overtures to Progressives and Why They Must Be Rejected. (Cambridge, MA: Political Research Associates, 1990, (revised 1994)).

People Against Racist Terror (PART) Turning the Tide, (“a quarterly journal of anti–racist activism, research and education,”), Summer 1995 Volume 8 #2; Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons, “Militia Nation,” The Progressive, June 1995, pp. 22–25.

This analysis of apocalyptic demonization and millennialism is drawn primarily from the following sources:
For apocalypticism: Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1992); Charles B. Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994); Stephen O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Robert Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy, (New York: Plenum, 1996); Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium. (Great Britain: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996); Richard K. Fenn, The End of Time: Religion, Ritual, and the Forging of the Soul, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997).
For Christian critiques of conspiracist apocalypticism: Gregory S. Camp, Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End–Times Paranoia, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997); Richard Abanes, End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon?, (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998); and Tom Sine, Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America’s Culture Wars, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995).
For a progressive challenge to apocalyptic thinking: Lee Quinby, Anti–Apocalypse: Exercise in Geneological Criticism, (Minneapolis: Univ. of MN Press, 1994).
For apocalyptic demonization: Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, (New York: Vintage, 1996); and Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); James A. Aho, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994).

The word apocalypse comes from the Greek, “apokalypsis” which means unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge concerning unfolding human events. The word “revelation” is another way to translate the idea of apokalypsis. Thus, the words “apocalypse,” “revelation,” and “prophecy” are closely related. Prophets, by definition, are apocalyptic. See Tim LaHaye, Revelation: Illustrated and Made Plain, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon, 1975). p. 9.

Devout Christians in Salem and other towns sought to expose witches and their allies as conspiring with the Devil. Fuller, Naming the Antichrist, pp. 56–61, 63. Modern scholarship has shown that persons accused of being witches were disproportionately women who did not conform to societal expectations, and that there was frequently an economic dimension to the charge, such as a disputed inheritance. See Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), pp. 46–116.

Lamy, (1996), pp. 56-59.

This can be found in a wide range of sources; see: Gerry O’Sullivan, “The Satanism Scare,” Postmodern Culture v.1 n.2 (January, 1991); Jeffrey Victor, “The Search for Scapegoat Deviants,” The Humanist, Sep. /Oct. 1992, pp. 10–13; Leonard Zeskind, “Some Ideas on Conspiracy Theories for a New Historical Period,” in Ward, ed., Conspiracies; Kathleen M. Blee, “Engendering Conspiracy: Women in Rightist Theories and Movements,” in Ward, Conspiracies; Evan Harrington, “Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia: Notes from a Mind–Control Conference,” Skeptical Inquirer, Sept./Oct. 1996, pp. 35–42; Kenneth S. Stern, “Militias and the Religious Right,” Freedom Writer, IFAS, October 1996; Robert M. Price, “Antichrist Superstar and the Paperback Apocalypse: Rapturous Fiction and Fictitious Rapture,” and Nicholas Stix “Apocalypse, Shmapocalypse: You Say You Want a Revolution,” in “On the Millennium,” Deolog, Feb. 1997, online, <http://www.stealth.net/~deolog/297.html>.

See, for example, Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, pp. 254-339; Strozier, Apocalypse, pp. 108-129; O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse, pp. 134-193; Fuller, Naming the Antichrist, pp.165-190; Sara Diamond, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 197-215; Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, (Boston: South End Press, 1989), pp. 130-36; Diamond “Political Millennialism within the Evangelical Subculture.” in Charles B Strozier and Michael Flynn, The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York: New York University Press, 1997); Fred Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1997), pp. 125–138; Linda Kintz, Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right–Wing America, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 8-9, 134-139, 266-267; Didi Herman, The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 19–24, 35–44, 125–128, 171–172

Richard Landes, “On Owls, Roosters, and Apocalyptic Time: A Historical Method for Reading a Refractory Documentation,” (Union Seminary Quarterly Review 49:1-2, 1996), pp. 165-185.

David G. Bromley, “Constructing Apocalypticism,” pp. 31-45; and, Catherine Wessinger, “Millennialism With and Without the Mayhem,” pp. 47-59; both in Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer, eds., Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970 {1957}).

Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, pp. 80-85.

See generally, Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come.

Thompson, The End of Time, p. 307.

The word millennium refers to a span of one thousand years, but also has many deeper meanings. It has come to mean the point at which one period of a thousand years ends and the next begins, and for some this has important religious, social, or political significance. This was certainly the case as the year 2000 approached. All millennial movements are apocalyptic in some sense, even when positive and hopeful; but not all apocalyptic movements are millennial.

See, for example, Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997); Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind, (New York: William Morrow, 1996); Camp, Selling Fear.




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