In writing this piece, I am incredibly indebted to Fred Clark’s incredibly thorough excoriation of the Left Behind series. Is it not written, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he reads the World’s Worst Books so we don’t have to.”
Over the course of the 20th century, religious predictions of the end of the world became increasingly popular. This should not be regarded as particularly surprising–people like round numbers, and so there was mounting belief that the Christian world was coming to an end back when the year 2000 was approaching, just as happened with 1000. These predictions intensified with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948–those who read the Bible as a work of apocalyptic prophecy (millennialists) see the conquest of Israel and slaughter of its people as one of the signs of impending doom, and of course a country has to exist before it can be conquered.
This also gave a way around one of the most powerful arguments against reading the Bible this way, Matthew 24:34, in which Jesus is quoted as saying “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” Everyone Jesus preached to directly is dead, and the world is still here, so anywhere “these things” refers to the end of the world must be read as metaphor or hyperbolic descriptions of things that happened back in the 1st century. (Or, you know, as Jesus being wrong, but Christians usually don’t much like reading the Bible that way.)
“Not so!” reply the millennialists. Their argument is that Jesus wasn’t referring to his own generation, but this generation, the reader’s generation–and they know it refers to the current generation of readers, not any of the generations between the writing of the New Testament and now, because there wasn’t a state of Israel until now. (I’d argue this is a tortured and tenuous reading, but I’ve written about the Qabala of My Little Pony and the destruction of Krypton as the end result of a magical ritual performed by Harley Quinn; I have no room to talk.)
So religious apocalypticism, and especially Christian millennialism, rise even faster in the latter half of the 20th century. One relatively minor figure in that rise is Marshall Applewhite, who dabbled in the Christian prophecy industry in the early 1970s. After he met Bonnie Nettles, who was similarly interested in predictions of impending apocalypse, but from a more New Age perspective, the two gradually came to believe that they were the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation. They preached an ascetic blend of Christian millennialism, Gnosticism, and New Age UFO lore, in which extraterrestrial demiurgic entities had infected all Earth religions with lies, but good alien “walk-ins” (a kind of extraterrestrial possession common in New Age UFO belief) had taken over the bodies of Applewhite and Nettles so that they could preach the truth and help followers shed their earthly ties, sparing them the horrors of the destruction to come. This could be accomplished by ascendance to “the next level,” which could be achieved by the faithful through physical transportation (via a spacecraft Applewhite later declared to be hiding behind the comet Hale-Bopp), natural or accidental death, or martyrdom.
Also, they did web design. (Really.)
By the mid-90s, a decade after Nettles’ death, the group had evolved into what is known as a cybercult. From behind a front organization, the web design firm Higher Source (see?), the cult uploaded recruitment materials to the Internet and sought out the lonely and disaffected. In March 1997, as Hale-Bopp passed Earth with no sign of a spacecraft behind it, Applewhite posted a video online in which he described a revelation that there was a fourth way to achieve the next level, by deliberately letting go of one’s physical body. On March 22 and 23, 1997, at a house outside San Diego rented by Higher Source, 39 members of the cult, including Applewhite, killed themselves by ingesting poison and then putting plastic bags over their heads.
To be fair, they thus actually did avoid the horrors to come, as by and large the early 21st century has not been a fun time. Of course, anybody who has ever died at any point has avoided the horrors to come, because there are always horrors to come.
This idea, however, that there are particularly bad horrors in the near future, but a way for the faithful to avoid them, is a common, albeit not universal, theme in contemporary Christian millennialism. Its most popular form is the Rapture, in which, shortly before the beginning of the Tribulation–the years-long period of mounting suffering culminating in the apocalypse–the faithful will be evacuated to Heaven instead of dying. (Because apparently ceasing to exist on Earth and going to Heaven is somehow different from how Christianity normally describes dying.)
One of the popularizers of this particular form of millennialism is Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist evangelical pastor who emerged from much the same time and background as Applewhite, but kept his predictions firmly in the fantasy genre rather than incorporating elements of science fiction, and thus found more popularity. In the mid-90s, LaHaye teamed up with alleged writer and fellow fundamentalist evangelical Jerry B. Jenkins to present LaHaye’s apocalyptic timeline in fictionalized form, beginning with the 1995 book Left Behind, which followed a group of characters who, following the Rapture, embrace LaHaye-style millennialism and form a resistance cell against the Antichrist.
Except that they don’t do any actual resisting, because everything evil the Antichrist does is part of the prophecy, and therefore has to happen because the divine plan says so. The whole thing is a pantomime orchestrated by God; the Antichrist thinks he’s rebelling, and is therefore evil, while the “Tribulation Force” resistors think they’re serving God, and are therefore good. There really isn’t a difference between their actions; good and evil are names for sides.
Left Behind, in other words, is very much part of the same 90s aesthetic as The Death of Superman. LaHaye’s disappointment in the fizzling out of the Cold War is palpable, to the point that Left Behind essentially ignores it–Russia pretty much plays the same role that the Soviet Union did in pre-1988 millennialist prophesy, namely as the Biblical “Gog and Magog.” In LaHaye’s interpretation, that translates to an attempt to nuke Israel some months prior to the Rapture.
And much like the superheroes of the 90s, the fantasized protector becomes more authoritarian as it becomes more violent against those from whom it protects. A combination of bad writing and general lack of empathy leads to a depiction of a monstrous God, who visits terror and destruction on all who oppose or are even indifferent to him, while those who surrender utterly and unquestioningly to his whims are protected and rewarded. It is not even that goodness becomes identified with obedience; the Antichrist, after all, is just filling out his role in the timeline set down by God. Rather, it’s that the in-group are to be protected, and the out-group to be destroyed. Failure to defer to the authority of the protector is one way to demonstrate one belongs in the out-group, but not the only way; some people are just inherently Not Like Us. You know who.
And indeed, the books are unrelenting in their casual racism (mostly in the form of all characters of color being walking stereotypes), pointedly deliberate sexism and homophobia (women are to submit to men, while gay and lesbian coding are used as indicators of villainy), and predictable anti-Semitism (good Jews convert to Christianity or reinterpret Judaism in ways that make it indistinguishable from Christianity; the rest of the Jewish people exist for purposes of dying horribly in the wars leading up to the apocalypse).
This is what the protector fantasy becomes at its most extreme. Weare to be protected, they are to be slaughtered. We are good and our protector is therefore also good; anything bad that we or our protector does to them is their fault, for not being us.
There’s a word I’ve studiously avoided using, not just in this entry but in the entire project thus far. It’s a word that tends to shut down thinking, because it describes an evil so extreme that any reference to it is prima facie assumed to be hyperbole. Yet it is a word that must be said, especially now as I write this, in 2017. A word for this extreme form of protector fantasy, for an authoritarian division into in-group and out-group in which any and every act of violence against the out-group is permitted. Here at the very heart of the superhero, in the protector fantasy itself, we find that word lurking, waiting for us all along.
Wertham was right.
Superheroes are fascist.