In teaching the UN this week, we discussed the issue of purposeful American defunding of the UN since the 1980s and the rocky US-UN relationship since the 1970s. For a good review of the ‘this-wordly’ issues go here. But then, inevitably, one must discuss the ‘theological’ complaints of US Christians. Something like 30-40% of Americans have had a born-again experience, in which Jesus purportedly intervenes personally in their life, former President Bush being the most prominent example. Koreans already find this to be pretty bizarre. But then when you have to explain that lots of these people also believe the book of Revelation is a real prediction of future history (ie, Armageddon), then they just find it ridiculous. I tried as best I could to present it objectively, but I was genuinely embarrassed for the US to look so foolish. Most of my students were laughing out loud by the time I got to the end of the presentation. The same thing happened when I tried explain the Tea Party and those protestors with signs of Obama as Hitler. I don’t think American conservatives, who love the discourse of American exceptionalism, realize how much damage this kind of stuff does to foreigners’ impression of our ability and legitimacy to lead.
I struggled a bit on the details. In my Catholic grade school, we never read Revelations. The Church seemed to find it an embarrassment, and we spent most of our time on the Evangelists’ books. Most of my experience has come from watching the three Left Behind films (which I watched explicitly to get a handle on this material, although their unintentionally campiness is pretty hysterical). In that trilogy the UN Secretary-General (S-G) is the Antichrist. Speaking with a goofy pseudo-Transylvanian accent, he provokes a global war that inevitably includes an invasion of Israel. He assassinates people with impunity on the floor of the UN Security Council, and a shady Arab henchman organizes a global currency. The Rapture is there too of course (although not the fact that God would be thereby responsible for all the deaths from plane crashes due to raptured pilots). The demonic S-G, a slick Euro-bad guy, seduces the hot blonde and builds a global tyranny from the UN, complete with a new unitarian-style religion. The American heroes have macho names like Buck and Steele. (Grrr!)
But all this strikes me as more American than Christian. First, it is Americans who have come up with this stuff, and I never met a European or Asian Christian who even knew about the Rapture and end-times wars, much less believed it. Second, it seems conveniently American that the US plays such a central role in these future histories, and that the UN, already disliked in the US, is the enemy yet again. Third, the movie bad guy looks and talks like the stock, ‘slick Euro’ character, whom Americans love to hate (like Alan Rickman in Die Hard). To be fair, I haven’t read the Left Behind novels though.
Teaching can be a great profession, and moments like this are real classics you will always remember in your career (like the time I had a student ask me what OBL’s economic plan was for the caliphate after he re-united it). ‘Intercultural confusion’ would be the political correct expression, but honestly, the students just found it idiotic. Most East Asians come from a Buddhist-Confucian background (even the Christians, because Christianity is still pretty recent here). So most of my students had no context at all; indeed, for Americans who find this End-Times stuff ‘normal,’ nothing shows you just how absolutely absurd it is like trying to explain it to uninitiated foreigners. You want to convince Asians we aren’t fit to lead? Just let them watch Sarah Palin for awhile and then give a screening of Left Behind. Try explaining that it isn’t all anti-science, superstitious conspiracy theories. It’s just laughably implausible when taught as a straight ‘theory.’
First I had to lay the groundwork about the splintering of American Protestantism, because this eschatology is not mainline. Most Koreans are Catholics or Methodists. Korean Protestantism looks more like Europe than the US. Mega-churches built around one preacher don’t really exist. But they are coming. Indeed, one downside of the major US influence in Korea, because of the long alliance and commercial ties, is that US variants of charismatic-evangelical Protestant are coming, with an even greater stress on proselytization than in the US. Here, fundamentalists will stand at train stations and walk through subway cars holding big red crosses yelling (yes, yelling, not really preaching). Most Koreans resent them, so once I started discussing the details of evangelical end-times theology, my students were rolling their eyes immediately. That a Korean is the current UN S-G only raises their level of amazement and incredulity even faster. By the time I wrapped up, I was practically laughing myself – something I could never do in a US classroom, because there were always students who believed this stuff.
For all its absurdity, I do think teachers of IR should at least know the outlines of fundamentalist Protestant eschatology. It motivates UN hatred in the US far more than is acknowledged, and American ‘Christian Zionists’ – for whom Israel plays a role in the end-times wars – are far more important supporters of Israel than American Jews. This is a good IR article waiting to be written. I know of no serious investigation of the end-times version of world politics, despite its wide influence in the US electorate.
NB: I am just about positive that I will be ‘left behind,’ but thankfully the Tea Party is telling me how to stock up for it…