Oh Magog! Apocalyptic Christianity Returns to U.S.

By John
Feffer | ( Foreign Policy in Focus), 17 March 2018. Trump is
no churchgoer. But for evangelicals, his hard right line on Israel and
machinations against Iran make him an instrument of the endtimes. 
Welcome back,
Gog and Magog. I can’t say that I’ve missed you.
You might
remember the Gog and Magog story from 2003, when George W. Bush was making
plans to invade Iraq and assembling a “coalition of the willing.” French
President Jacques Chirac was quite unwilling, so Bush went to great lengths to
break down his resistance.

As part of
this wooing of Chirac, Bush referred to the Biblical prophecies regarding Gog
and Magog that suggested to some evangelicals that the end times were
approaching in the Middle East.

Chirac had to
consult a theologian to find out what Bush was going on about. Gog, Chirac was
told, is the leader of Magog, and Magog is the enemy. A war involving Gog and
Magog would basically trigger the apocalypse. Because the Bible was not precise
in its predictions, Magog could be anyone or anything: Satan, Muslims, even
(for Chirac) a poorly executed soufflé.

however, had a much more precise interpretation in mind: Saddam Hussein was
Gog, and the call had gone out to rally the forces of good for a grand
showdown. Chirac, who confirmed
the story in 2009
, was taken aback at Bush’s religious fanaticism.

A number of
U.S. officials around Bush, including diplomat Kurt Volker, have strenuously
 the story. But even if Bush himself didn’t indulge in
such millenarian fantasies, there were plenty
of evangelicals
in his circles who did have an impact on U.S. foreign
policy. Over the years, Washington has identified plenty of Magogs and set out
to topple nearly as many Gogs, always with the certainty of having “God on our side.”

Indeed, the
U.S. role in the realization of God’s plans on Earth has been a leitmotif of
American foreign policy since the days of John Winthrop and his assertion of
the new colony in the Massachusetts Bay as the future “city on the hill.” It is
a foundation stone of American exceptionalism. It is a contributing factor to
this country’s recurrent xenophobia.

But the
application of Biblical prophecy to the geopolitics of the Middle East is
something more recent.
Not So Great
publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in
1970 brought the wild predictions of end-times fundamentalists to the mass
market. Issued by Bantam Books, Lindsey’s book started a cottage industry of
pseudo-scholars combing through the Bible for clues to deciphering the puzzle
of Middle Eastern politics.
predicted that the war of Gog and Magog would begin with a Soviet invasion of
Israel. The Anti-Christ would appear in the form of a United Europe, and the
rapture would usher all the chosen up to heaven some time in the 1980s. In a
sign of the mainstream appeal of this nonsense — and I confess that I devoured
the book as a pre-teen under the impression that it was science fiction, which
it was — Orson Welles provided
the voice-over
 for the film version. (And you thought that
Orson shilling on TV for Paul Masson wine was the lowest he went!)
The 1980s
came and went. The world didn’t end. And neither has Hal Lindsey, who at the
age of 88 still produces a
half hour of fabulous folderol every week.
After all,
the failure of predictions to come true has never stopped peddlers from making
new forecasts or the gullible from listening to them (just ask the Seventh Day
Adventists). Some years after Lindsey’s success, the Left Behind books brought the end-times narrative
to a whole new generation. This version of Gog and Magog also centered on
Israel, but identified the United Nations as the villain. And this time it was
Nicholas Cage who embarrassed himself by
appearing in the film version.
Today, some
millenarians continue to identify the United Nations as
Magog. Others happily enlist North Korea for the role of anti-Christ.
generally, the focus remains on Israel — and Jerusalem more specifically.
And that’s
where Donald Trump comes in.
The current
U.S. president would seem an even less likely crusader against Gog than was the
eternal fratboy, George W. Bush. Yet the evangelical community rallied around
Trump in force in the 2016 election and has largely stayed by his side despite
the nonstop revelations of his myriad sins (Summer Zervos, Stormy Daniels, and
so on).
Much of the
support derives from Trump’s domestic promises (abortion, Supreme Court
nominees). But there’s also a foreign policy component.
For example,
despite some early nods in
the direction of the Palestinians, Trump has become a major champion of Israel.
He has even announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the
capital of the country. For run-of-the-mill, right-wing evangelicals, Trump’s
decision is
just plain good geopolitics
: They believe that Israel is a force for
good in the world, and anything that Washington does on its behalf helps both
the United States and Christianity in general.
For the
dispensationalists who are obsessed with the Rapture and the coming of end
times, the Jerusalem decision is a sign and portent that Trump is willing to
stand against the entire world, if necessary, to stand up for Israel. Mainline
evangelicals often pretend that dispensationalists attract only a small number of
folks. According to one poll, however, 65 percent of evangelical leaders identify with
premillennialism — that’s the strand of Christian doctrine that involves the
second coming of Jesus, a period of tribulation, and a 1,000 year reign of
Christ on earth (with the Rapture happening at some point during that period).
kick-starts the end times into motion is Israel’s political boundaries being
reestablished to what God promised the Israelites according to the Bible,” Nate
Pyle, a pastor and author of a book about Jesus, informed Newsweek. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in
other words, is the instrument of God when he blockades Gazans, encourages
illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and otherwise defeats any two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump is
Netanyahu’s fanboy, so Trump too is God’s instrument. As I wrote back in
October 216, “Much millenarian support comes from a belief that God has anointed Trump
the ultimate disrupter of the status quo, the human wrecking ball that will
smite all the structures standing in the way of Christ’s Second Coming. No one
(other than the Donald himself) would confuse the candidate with the Messiah,
but some evangelicals imagine him in the role of a John the
 gone slightly berserk.”
In the
secular world, the Doomsday Clock has moved to within 150 seconds of midnight.
Likewise, the clock of the end times has been ticking along, and many of the
faithful are preparing for the Rapture.
The Trump era
has kicked off a boom time for apocalyptics.
Signs and the Portents
Don’t let the
defeat of the Islamic State fool you. The Middle East remains a cauldron of
conflict, and there are still plenty of Gogs to go around.
One of the
best candidates for a Hal Lindsey-like showdown in the Middle East is Syria.
Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, has all the hallmarks of a good Gog.
Like Saddam
Hussein, he’s a Baathist who represents a ruling minority (in Assad’s case it’s
the Alawites in a majority Sunni country, while Saddam presided over a minority
Sunni government in a majority Shia country). Also like Saddam, Assad has been
ruthless in eradicating his own population, though he was considerably more
selective in his killing before the Arab Spring protests broke out. The most
recent attacks by Russian and Syrian planes in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of
Damascus held by opposition forces, have resulted in
more than 500 dead and more than 1,500 injured (in a conflict that has already
claimed hundreds of thousands of lives).
Syria is now
the focal point of numerous contesting powers. Russia and Iran are backing
Assad. Turkey has invaded to suppress the Syrian Kurds, which has caused the
latter to team up with Damascus (on the principle that the distant enemy is
better than the enemy nearby). Despite Trump’s
pledge to Turkey
 to stop backing the Syrian Kurds now that the
Islamic State is no more, this military support is still a hefty line item in
Trump budget.
the United States is maintaining an unknown number of U.S. troops in Syria…for
what? Answering that questions leads to Trump’s true Magog.
Trump doesn’t
care about Assad. Sure, he’s called him a “butcher,” and lobbed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian forces last
April in response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons. But Trump has
something of a fondness for embattled autocrats and has
acceded to Russian wishes
 to keep Assad in place, at least
until 2021.
What Trump
does care about, however, is Iran. The administration wants to keep U.S. troops
in Syria to
block Iran from expanding
 its influence in the country. Add to
that the
various indications
 that the Trump administration is gearing up
for a direct confrontation with Iran, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for Gog
and Magog.
Of course,
there are other apocalyptic scenarios in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran
might go to war, directly or through their proxies. If the Iran nuclear deal
falls through, Israel might decide to bomb Iran’s nuclear complex. A new
version of Sunni radicalism — a la al-Qaeda
or the Islamic State — might mutate out of the primordial stew of resentments
in the region.
But all of
these scenarios converge if Trump decides to create an explicit coalition of
the willing against Iran, with Israel and Saudi Arabia as founding members, and
some secret side agreements with Sunni terrorist organizations to carry the
fight to the Iranian Shia.
For Trump’s
purposes, which would be to rally his base and distract attention from his
various policy failures, the confrontation with Iran would really be of
biblical proportions. The mullahs of Iran are much better candidates, in the
long run, for Gog than a secular nationalist like Assad.
Trump is not
a religious man. He can’t quote the Bible properly, and he has the most tenuous connection to the Church
of any modern president. Don’t expect him to quote Gog and Magog in his
conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But Trump is
itching for a fight. He wants to shake things up. With evangelicals and
right-wing Likudniks forming a significant core of support, he is already
fulfilling the Middle East agenda of the apocalyptics. And, unfortunately,
there’s more to come.