By Rob Boston
One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., is the National Mall. When you stand in the center with the U.S. Capitol on one end, the Washington Monument on the other and the Smithsonian museums flanking the sides, you can’t help but feel you’re having the quintessential D.C. experience.
Because the mall is so popular, it has become a type of free-speech zone. People often stand around hoisting signs with various political or religious messages and pass out literature.
The Washington Post has a story about a group of fundamentalist Christians who are working the mall with an aggressive pamphlet campaign. These folks, who follow a radio evangelist named Harold Camping, are convinced that the world will end on May 21 at 6 p.m. Not surprisingly, they feel compelled to warn us all.
Call me a skeptic. A few years ago, I read an interesting book titled End-Times Visions (authored by an evangelical Christian) that chronicled a long list of failed end-of-the-world predictions. Somewhere around the house, I have a flier handed to me by a fellow who was convinced that the world was going to end in October of 1988. When it didn’t happen, the man who made the prediction, Edgar Whisenaut, insisted that his calculations had been off by one year, and it was definitely going to happen in 1989.
Although I regard these predictions as off base, I fully support the right of any group to disseminate them. As I said, the National Mall is something of free-speech zone. Campings’ followers have an absolute right to spread their religious message, just as groups that believe the evangelist is all wet have the right to disseminate their point of view. I would defend that right until my last breath.
The one thing that concerns me is when wacky views like this work their way into public policy. Don’t think it doesn’t happen. I remember President Ronald Reagan’s rather unhealthy obsession with Armageddon and his belief that it would look like nuclear war. It made a lot of us nervous in the ‘80s. (Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, was accused of saying that we didn’t need to conserve natural resources because the end of the world was nigh. It turns out this is false, but I’ve encountered fundamentalists at Religious Right meetings who said much the same thing.)
In January of 2009, environmental groups expressed alarm when U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) opined that global climate change is a crock because God said he won’t allow the world to be flooded again. The implication was that it’s safe to ignore climate change because God won’t allow sea levels to rise.
“The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over,” Shimkus said. “Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”
Over the years, I’ve also heard numerous politicians and preachers assert that we should decide controversies over issues like same-sex marriage and gay rights using the Book of Leviticus. Interestingly, few of the people who say this actually follow all of the rules of Leviticus (as some observant orthodox Jews do). They just cherry pick the parts that conform to their political goals.
Religious Right “Christian nation” propagandist David Barton believes that the answer to every issue we face can be found in the Bible. According to Barton, the Bible opposes the minimum wage and even takes a stand on “net neutrality”!
All of this is a reminder of why scripture is not an appropriate guide for public policy in a secular republic. It is open to interpretation – and those interpretations can really vary. Campings’ followers and the evangelicals who disagree with him are all reading the same Bible – and drawing radically different conclusions from it.
When comes to determining U.S. law, I prefer a document that, while it is still open to interpretation, is more precise in its language and thus less likely to lead people to strange conclusions. It’s called the U.S. Constitution.