Evangelicals Love Donald Trump for Many Reasons, But One of Them Is Especially Terrifying
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.”