The Dark World of
William J. Bernstein on a Troubled Evangelical Genre
As early as the turn of the 20th century, Christian writers began to produce novels about the Rapture of the righteous, the rise of the Antichrist, Tribulation, Armageddon, and final judgment. In 1905, an Ohio physician named Joseph Burroughs published one of the earliest known Rapture novels, Titan, Son of Saturn. The title’s Titan refers to the now easily recognized Antichrist character, “a young Greek, who is to unite the radical Socialists and lead them in a world-wide effort to destroy the Christian Church.” Burroughs’s preface states that the novel was not the mere product of his imagination, but that it threw “a searchlight out over the consecutive distant events that are surely coming to the Church.”
While the Rapture scenes and description of the rise of Titan/ Antichrist engaged readers, the characters spouted entire chapters of stupefying biblical exposition. Titan sold well enough to require ten printings and sold more than ten thousand copies over the decade following initial publication—respectable, to be sure, but hardly a bestseller.
Nonetheless, the book exuded what would become the hallmarks of Rapture fiction, and of American evangelicalism in general: xenophobia, Islamophobia, and both ideological and moral panic. The nation-hero of Burroughs’s novel, England, stands alone against the Antichrist-led ten-nation confederation. The United States, sadly, cannot come to the mother country’s aid because of “the twenty-five million European-born citizens in the States.” American “Saxons” rush to help England but are overwhelmed by the dark confederation, now aided by Muslims screaming, “Allah! Allah! Allah!” The European/Muslim force invades the United States and dissolves the culture of “the Saxon people” in an evil cauldron of foreign-derived socialism.
Over the ensuing decades Rapture novelists improved their art by adding compelling narratives that fed off current events. By the 1980s, the foremost practitioner of dispensationalist fiction was Frank Peretti, a skilled literary craftsman whose most famous book, This Present Darkness, sold more than two million copies.
By the time of its initial publication, with the threat of godless communism in rapid decline, dispensationalists needed a new enemy. They were forced to settle for a decidedly down-market world-ending scourge: New Age movements, particularly any that gave off even the faintest whiff of Satanism.End-times fear-mongering is far from harmless.
Set in the idyllic fictional college town of Ashton, This Present Darkness pits its two heroes, the devout minister Hank Busche and hard-bitten newspaperman Marshall Hogan, against an obscenely wealthy city slicker, Alexander Kaseph, who for inexplicable reasons plots a takeover of the small burg.
Kasepth’s allies include a battalion of winged, red-eyed, scaly-skinned, sulfur-breathing demons who suck the will out of ordinary mortals, but are fortunately uniquely vulnerable to the devout, especially Busche. These creatures, though, cannot match the satanic potential of Juleen Langstrat, a feminist professor at the local college who attempts to despoil the religious faith of Hogan’s daughter with courses such as “Introduction to God and Goddess Consciousness.” Kaseph conspires to frame Busche and Hogan, who find themselves in the same cell, compare notes, and join forces to defeat Kaseph and his minions, both inhuman and human.
Peretti’s sense of moral panic was nothing new. Hal Lindsey’s books, for example, conducted a cultural jihad that deemed the writings of Darwin, Kant, Marx, and Freud “thought bombs” that doomed modern society. A year before he wrote The Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey published Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth, which contains an interview with a Los Angeles “police commander” who described a “Kiss-In” on a Santa Monica beach that reminded him of “the rites of African Savages”:
There were about four hundred people, so tightly packed together that they were just one big mass swaying to the throb of drums and weird music. Some of them began to peel off their clothes. Some began to indulge in open sex, oblivious to any around them. We noticed that most of them wore charms around their necks. They believe in the spirit world and will readily tell you that the Devil is very real to them.
Historically, end-times movements have flourished in the worst of times: the slavery and dislocation of the Babylonian exile, the slaughter and wholesale physical destruction of the two Jewish revolts against Rome, and the horrors of the medieval European religious wars and pogroms. End-times believers who live in prosperous, secure, and peaceful modern nations are forced to settle their outrage on less tangible societal plagues: astrology, the cognitive dissonance of evolutionary and geological science, ecumenism, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and an ever-present Satan.
Such end-times fear-mongering is far from harmless. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dispensationalist aversion to New Age spiritualism and astrology morphed into a classic “moral panic”—itself a form of mass delusion—over nonexistent outbreaks of satanic child sexual abuse and mass murders. A profusion of self-proclaimed Satanism experts, including prominent law enforcement officials, gained national prominence and spoke of tens of thousands of child ritual murder victims. Supposedly, Satanists abducted young women and forced them to become “breeders” to supply infant victims; newborns were plucked from hospitals before their birth certificates had been filled out so that “they were never missed.” One such “expert” was Ted Gunderson, a former FBI official who had worked on the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of John Kennedy, and who had headed the Bureau’s Los Angeles, Memphis, and Dallas offices. Gunderson postulated that four thousand American children were ritually murdered each year:
I have been told it is a common occurrence for these groups to kidnap their victims (usually infants and young children) from hospitals, orphanages, shopping centers and off the streets. I have been informed that Satanists have been successful in their attempts to influence the Boy Scouts and, in recent years, have concentrated their efforts in recruiting Little League baseball players by infiltrating the coaching staffs and establishing pre-schools throughout the US. A Boise, ID police officer believes that fifty thousand to sixty thousand Americans disappear each year and are victims of human sacrifices of satanic cults. Most of the victims are cremated, thus there is no body and no evidence. I know of an occult supply store in Los Angeles, California that sells portable crematory equipment. I have alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Department of Justice, and members of Congress of these facts, and suggested that these matters be investigated by the Federal Government. My requests have been ignored. (italics original)
In 1988, the nationally syndicated The Geraldo Rivera Show ran an episode entitled Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground on the supposed mass murders; “investigations” into the phenomenon even appeared in mainstream media programs such as 20/20 and NPR’s Morning Edition. The most infamous episode of the era played out with the 1985 M Martin trial, precipitated when a psychotic young mother, in an incident eerily reminiscent of Denis Michael Rohan’s schizophrenia, reported to the police that her toddler had been sodomized at his preschool. Her story was wildly implausible: children lured into airplanes and tunnels, where horses were slaughtered and teachers dressed as witches flew through the air and conducted rituals in which their young charges were sexually abused and exploited to make child pornography.
“Experts” on satanic abuse and social workers converged on the school, run by an extraordinarily unlucky woman named Peggy McMartin Buckley, and they soon extracted descriptions of the abuse from children far too young to accurately convey what had allegedly happened. The trial of Buckley and six other nursery school workers for the abuse took seven years, cost $15 million, and ruined the defendants’ lives: in an egregious miscarriage of justice, Buckley spent two years in prison, and her son, five years, while awaiting trial. Ultimately, investigators found no tunnels or child pornography, none of the children’s parents reported seeing dead horses, and the one black robe entered into evidence turned out to be Ms. Buckley’s graduation gown.
Their trial involved just one of roughly a dozen large-scale Satanism/ childcare moral panics, complete with fraudulent prosecutions, that swept the nation during the 1980s, many of which actually resulted in draconian sentences. When the ensuing appeals and investigations trials made obvious the bogus nature of the cases and highlighted the hallucinatory character of the moral panic, evangelical paranoia moved on to other pastures and prosecutions dried up. Warned New York Times journalist Margaret Talbot, “Ambivalence is a difficult state of mind to sustain; the temptation to replace it with a more Manichean vision is always close at hand,” especially when the Antichrist and end-times loom on the immediate horizon.
Excerpted from The Delusions of Crowds © 2021 William J. Bernstein. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, and imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.