Evangelicals are the New Zealots, and that spells danger for democracy and for the planet.
The danger lies in the fantastical world created by evangelicals. The danger becomes personal in the symbol of guns and precarious in their climate denial. They are Zealots in the truest sense because they are on a suicide mission — marching us all to a new Masada.
Evangelicals in America have spent more than a century at war with secular America. With the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, evangelicals — long frustrated, alienated, angry and belligerent — believe they are on the cusp of total victory. With the fervor of the ancient Zealots of Jerusalem in the first century A.D., evangelicals have gathered the Christian army for what they hope will be their final victory. Failure to see evangelicals as Zealot warriors reflects misunderstanding the lengths to which they will go to win.
At first, I thought the Zealots were the best possible metaphor for evangelicals, but metaphor doesn’t do justice to this group. Evangelicals are the New Zealots.
A history of the Zealots
The original Zealot movement took root in Jerusalem in the first century. What would it have been like to grow up in a Zealot family in Jerusalem in 55 A.D.? Home would have been an incendiary mixture of Jewish patriotism and sheer hatred of the Romans. There would have been a fiery zeal for acts of violence. Were they the Proud Boys of Jerusalem? The Patriot Front?
The Zealots were a political movement in first century Judaism that sought to incite the people of Judea to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms. The Zealots, captured by a holy zeal rooted in the fantastical notion that a minority religious/political group in Palestine could defeat the Roman legions, incited the Roman army to invade Palestine in A.D. 66.
After Rome reduced Jerusalem to rubble and the Temple to ash, the Zealots retreated to the mountain fortress of Masada to make a last stand, which ended in mass suicide to avoid being captured by the Romans.
The image sticks: People fomenting insurrection, communicating violence and using emotions to spur people to rebellion against an unbeatable foe. A capital city reduced to dust and ashes. A people destroyed by religious zeal — the desire to control everything. The metaphor cries out, signaling Jan. 6, 2021, was only the beginning for the New Zealots.
Meet the New Zealots
Here we encounter the New Zealot party — a combination of passionate religion and right-wing politics first predicting, then promoting, apocalyptic violence. Evangelicals have raged against the liberal hordes, the supposed demonic enemies of the American way of life, for more than a century.
“Something has gone terribly wrong among this once deeply committed tribe of people. They have turned from bearing witness to waging war.”
Something has gone terribly wrong among this once deeply committed tribe of people. They have turned from bearing witness to waging war. They have changed the truth-speaking boldness of the gospel into the conspiracy-theory-laced alternative truth of secular politics. The New Zealots churn out religious emotion like Fox News spins out political emotion — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Conservative evangelicals always have inhabited a fantastical world different from the world occupied by the rest of humanity. In this fantastical land, a charismatic, powerful preacher with no theological education will be granted more authority on global warming, COVID, immigration and abortion than a room full of Ph.D.s, scientists, historians and philosophers.
This notion of the fantastic originated in my fascination with the genre of fantasy in cinema and television. Prime-time fantasy violent movies garner huge ratings because they encourage identification with violent antiheroes. As I watched Season 1 of The Old Man, I gasped at the protagonist’s proficiency in killing people. Yet I found myself pulling for the ex-CIA killing machine, played by Jeff Bridges.
Similarly, but in the real world, New Zealots support violent antiheroes in order to win at any cost. The only principle that matters is “might makes right.” Evangelicals have morphed into an army of Plato’s Callicles — the definition of pure evil masquerading as a good person.
“New Zealots support violent antiheroes in order to win at any cost. The only principle that matters is ‘might makes right.’”
When we encounter an extraordinary event, in the moment we cannot decide whether we are hallucinating or witnessing a miracle, we participate in the fantastic. The fantastic allows a Trump supporter to watch the Jan. 6 investigation hearings and conclude this is a “witch hunt.”
In fantasy, truth has no role to play. Beliefs about truth and reality are arbitrary. The fantastical world of conservative evangelicals is an imaginary world they believe they once inhabited, and they believe it is being taken away from them. In their fantastical world, they war against fellow Christians who accept abortion, gay rights, feminism and climate change.
When fact and fantasy merge
Evangelicals have produced a fantastical world for so long, they no longer recognize fact from fantasy. They believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and conspiracy theories promoted by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. Not since the cinematic pair Thelma and Louise have two women created as much chaos as Green and Rep. Lauren Boebert.
The fantastical claims of evangelicals about the Bible mix seamlessly with the fantastical claims of right-wing politics. Disneyworld is an example of a fantastical world. In American politics, the place the New Zealots go to have their dreams fulfilled is the Supreme Court. The court has become fantasy land — Disneyworld for the New Zealots. Main characters in Disneyworld: Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and Mary Poppins. Main characters in the fantastical world that dominates the Supreme Court: John, Clarence, Samuel, Neil, Brett and Amy.
In its recent term, the Supreme Court, demolished portions of the wall of separation between church and state, declared abortion illegal on the federal level, rolled back Native American rights in Oklahoma and restricted the right of the EPA to reduce the carbon output of existing power plants.
“The most dangerous issue facing the future of the planet has been decided in fantasy land.”
Along with the court already ruling to destroy parts of the Voting Rights Act, it sided with a part of America that is as white as tennis outfits at Wimbledon. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the court’s conservatives, admitted the transition away from coal to reduce carbon output may be a sensible “solution to the crisis of the day.” This didn’t stop him from joining the 6-3 vote to do just that. The most dangerous issue facing the future of the planet has been decided in fantasy land.
Building group consciousness
Rhetorical scholars suggest holding common fantasies transforms collections of individuals into cohesive groups. Through symbolic convergence theory, individuals can build a group consciousness that grows stronger as they share a cluster of fantasy themes.
For New Zealots, the cluster of fantasy themes includes precarious white male existence, exhibited as melancholy and victimization; notions of freedom based on libertarianism; commitment to gun culture; climate-change denial; history denial, including attacks on “wokeness,” political correctness and Critical Race Theory; and an insistence America was founded as a Christian nation. These issues bounce around our culture like pinballs, creating noise and flashing lights, but no substance.
The unifying trope of this cluster: Fantasy.
In the process of creating this fantastic world, an ethos ultimately overshadowed and conquered its creators. “I believe it because it is unbelievable” the church father Tertullian allegedly said. When a version of the Christian faith that depends upon believing 12 or more unbelievable ideas before breakfast dominates our politics, we live in a fantasy world. The same people who brought us a literal Bible, a real Adam and Eve, an actual flood, rocks that float, a sun made to stand still by the word of a prophet, and a preacher swallowed by a large fish and then spat out now bring their fantastical, naïve, enchanted world to politics.
In the fantasy world of the New Zealots, the fictional becomes real, truth becomes fake, facts become irrelevant. Fantasy land proffers a different set of truths: The 2020 election was stolen. Black Lives Matter is a socialist terrorist group. Democrats are devils and mortal enemies.
Painting a dark world
Americans susceptible to the fantastical are not looking for an evangelist to tell them they are sinners responsible for our current state, but for a preacher who will paint pictures of supernatural, horrible enemies. The New Zealots’ world is dark; things are not always what they seem to be, and evil forces work behind a veil of secrecy.
“The New Zealots’ world is dark; things are not always what they seem to be, and evil forces work behind a veil of secrecy.”
Whispers from the camp of the New Zealots have grown into a crescendo of angry shouts: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” And “This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”
Reflecting hyperbolic tendencies of the fantastic, New Zealots’ conspiracies acquire superhuman, supernatural proportions. They would have us believe American historians have not told us the truth about our nation’s past. In place of history, they recite a revisionist version of a white, Christian and godly America. They would have us believe science is a vast conspiracy designed to destroy faith, starting with evolution and continuing with requirements to be vaccinated and wear masks for COVID.
Like a church full of Joe McCarthys, the New Zealots live in a fantastical world populated by evil geniuses and sinister cabalists in unholy alliance. Their foes parade as journalists, honored generals, secretaries of state and presidents, all meeting in richly paneled but outwardly innocent-looking barns. They pore over secret documents, engaged in secret plots involving spies, espionage and infiltration, ultimately bent on destroying Christian civilization. Scenes from Spider Man and Thor would be a match for the fantastical world of the New Zealots.
A response to fear
This world turns out to be a response to fear. Only when we recognize the fantastic as a form of spiritual impoverishment can we evaluate what the New Zealots have wrought. They are false prophets. In an age increasingly suspicious of the bases of belief, they provide sustained doubt. The fantastic offers the sound and fury of political activity while, in fact, signifying nothing.
“Only when we recognize the fantastic as a form of spiritual impoverishment can we evaluate what the New Zealots have wrought.”
The fantastical seems to act as human compensation for a failure of the transcendent. The evangelical insistence on a literal reading of the Bible falls under the same category of being unable to accept other ways of reading and being in the world. Fantasy and literalism are imagined principles attempting to make up for loss of faith.
Now, the fantastical world of evangelicals has invaded national politics. This is no longer about Eve and dinosaurs; this is about the survival of democracy. Now, the politics of the nation come layered with multiple fantasies constructed around nativist, heteronormative, sexist, ablest, racist, classist power dynamics.
The fantastical world has given us dangerous political fantasies that depict white males as victims, history as misguided, science as fake and climate change as a hoax. This fantastical world should seem bizarre. But to New Zealots, it now sounds like “common sense,” even as it threatens to block actions that would prevent existential threats to our survival as a species.
There’s more to come
The New Zealots are just getting started, and they have no concern for how many millions of people they will put in harm’s way. Their lack of empathy for humanity and overwhelming zeal for ultra-conservative values endangers us all.
“Their lack of empathy for humanity and overwhelming zeal for ultra-conservative values endangers us all.”
After all, Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, cavalierly insisted that God drowned close to 4 billion people. Pastor Robert Jeffress believes that after the rapture, billions of people who refuse to accept Jesus as Savior will be destroyed.
The expansion of authoritarian rule, supported in America by evangelicals, has had negative effects on human life and security. Even more alarming than the threat to democracy is the threat to human life.
Pushing gun control and climate denial, the New Zealots lurch toward an apocalypse of their own making, but there will be no Jesus at the end to save them with a rapture. There will be only the mass suicide of the planet. Zealots indeed!
Rodney W. Kennedy serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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