By Paul A. Djupe
We might forgive the person believing that we’re at the end living through 2020. Whoever has “murder hornets” on their apocalypse bingo card is surely a winner by now after also experiencing the ongoing pandemic, worldwide protests, teargassing clergy, tropical depressions in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the kids never leaving the house. Do people believe that we’re in the so-called “end times”?
The idea of the end times comes from a specific (and selective) component of Christian theology called eschatology, the study of the end times – the prediction of the end of the world upon the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. While there is not a widely agreed upon understanding of how the end of days will unfold, the one that most people are familiar with is called dispensationalism. First popularized by the Irish bible teacher John Nelson Darby, the most well known event in Darby’s understanding of the end of the world is the rapture – where the righteous will be taken up to heaven as part of the sequence before (or after) a series of cataclysmic events will cause suffering and death for billions of people on earth. This view was popularized in the Left Behind series of books, which sold nearly 80 million copies worldwide.
In a late March 2020 survey put out by Andrew Lewis, Ryan Burge and I, administered to 3,100 adults with quotas set to match Census targets for age, gender, race, and region, we asked about their belief in the end times. As shown below, just over a third (35 percent) agree that we are very likely entering the prophesied ‘end times’ and 28 percent are on the fence. Only 37 percent disagree.
It is difficult to supply a precise comparison since previous estimates of end times belief vary considerably with question wording. For instance, a 2012 PRRI question asked whether, “[T]he end of the world, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, will happen in your lifetime,” to which 13% agreed. It varies quite radically from the figure reported in Barker and Bearce (2012), who report that 56 percent of Americans believe “in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ – that is, that Jesus will return to Earth someday.” It comes close to reports from Pew, finding in 2010 that 41 percent believe that by 2050 it is probable or definite that “Jesus Christ will return.” It seems like the general belief that there is an end, especially if it is distant, elicits more support than something imminent. From this perspective, seeing over a third of Americans assent to the idea that we are actually in the end times suggests just how scared most people were as states were locking down due to the coronavirus pandemic. They were seeing visible signs that suggested something like a final battle between good and evil was imminent or even happening.
Lest you believe that our survey data are way out of alignment with reality, consider that Lifeway Research reported that “Almost 9 in 10 pastors see at least some current events matching those Jesus said would occur shortly before he returns to Earth.” The precise content of their sample is opaque, but they suggest it consists of white and black evangelicals, so we should see a higher concentration of end times belief among them in our sample, which we do – they come close to 50 percent in agreement. But other religious groups are not far behind at all. This is a very widespread belief in American religion, with only mainline Protestants, Jews, and religious nones standing apart (but not far apart).
Are End Times Believers More Polarized?
What difference does it make? Here I’d like to introduce you to a puzzle. It’s easy to think that end times believers, on the lookout for signs of the final struggle, would map the distinction between good and evil onto their own identities. Since partisanship is one important public identity people have, end times believers in each party may be more likely to demonize the other side. We can examine that with a measure of affective polarization – the difference between feelings toward the Democratic and Republican Parties. However, end times belief has little effect on Republicans and independents, and is linked to less polarization among Democrats. Why?
One reason could be what they’re hearing. Conservative elites, from Trump to members of Congress to interest group leaders, have been peddling extreme arguments that Democrats will strip the rights and liberties of Christians if given control of the federal government. We’ve talked about this measure in an earlier post about how many people think that a Democratic president would ban the Bible. I’m starting to call these “end of democracy” arguments, because once you believe the other side will strip you of your freedom and ability to petition government, then there is little value in investing in democratic processes.
Are end times believers more likely to be exposed to such arguments? Yes, but only if they attend church. High church attendance, itself, is not linked with hearing many of these arguments, but high attendance coupled with end times belief increases that by at least one argument (out of four). And end times belief itself does not increase hearing elites make ‘end of democracy’ arguments. In fact, it has a negative relationship for Democrats when not coupled with attendance. What matters is being in particular end times professing churches, which increases exposure to this (dangerous) set of arguments.
Once we see this pattern, it’s now possible to make sense of the relationship of end times belief and polarization for Democrats – high attending, end times Democrats are hearing arguments that Democrats will strip them of their rights. They show less affective polarization because they like Democrats less (I confirmed that that’s true).
Short Time Horizon?
Though there are many avenues to explore, I’d like to head down one more. Several excellent pieces have found that end times believers have short time horizons and are not much interested in environmental protection. That logic could apply to a wider range of public policies and should undercut the efficacy of political participation. Why bother participating and investing in the difficult work of policy transformation if Jesus is returning soon? This is the exact message that Rev. John Hagee, noted end times advocate, made here, arguing that even your “acts of kindness to help the poor” do not atone for your sins; salvation can only be found through repentance and belief in Jesus.
However, the results do not support that conclusion. Using two measures, end times believers are both looking back and looking forward. That is, they are more likely to believe that “We must make amends for our country’s original sins” (no, it did not specify what those sins were) and engage in more political activities; that’s true even among independents, but are especially strong relationships for partisan identifiers (these models also control for religious tradition, worship attendance, race, age, education, and gender).
Perhaps in the past, end times believers were more focused on the next life rather than this one. But at this point in time, end times believers are hearing all about the signs of struggle between good and evil without the inefficacy of waiting for that moment to come. Maybe this explains why Hagee would decry the state of the world and push the imminent judgment of America, all the while calling on members of Congress to change public policy (e.g., ~8 minutes in) and blessing Tulsa for decades to come (1:05).
This post is yet another reminder that religion is not just a simple extension of partisanship. While people do make choices about their religious affiliations and identifications based on politics, those decisions are not deterministic and they still end up with beliefs and values that may dictate action that cuts against their partisanship. Their decisions about religious involvement can lead them to be exposed to communication from broader networks. These days, that means that some Democrats can be exposed to Apocalyptic rhetoric that undermines their own identity.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.