The Common Good
September-October 2001

Who is Tim LaHaye?

by Tom Sine | September-October 2001

And how did he become the 'most influential Christian' in the country?

This summer the Evangelical Studies Bulletin named Tim LaHaye as the most influential Christian leader for the past quarter century. The Bulletin, published by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, selected LaHaye over Billy Graham and a host of other evangelical leaders. "For the last 20 years LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, leader of Concerned Women for America, have been ‘key leaders of the religious right,'" the Bulletin wrote. The Bulletin concluded that LaHaye "rose from the ranks of the [evangelical] movement, then...played a strategic role at key points that have cemented-for good or ill-the direction [evangelicalism] will be taking in the next few decades."

The Institute is probably right, even though many Christian leaders have never read anything Tim LaHaye has written. LaHaye is the coauthor of the Left Behind series of novels about the end times-a remarkable publishing success, with 28.8 million sales at last count. Christian leaders tend to be indifferent to the series and its popularity or dismiss this eschatological fiction as "Christian lite." But LaHaye is a man with a mission, and it is a mistake not to take deadly seriously anything he writes.

Academics often don't recognize how influential authors like LaHaye are with the rank-and-file. Much of his influence on the church and the culture, regrettably, has not been positive. The Left Behind series, written with Jerry Jenkins, is propagating his ideological views to an audience that reaches far beyond his evangelical culture. LaHaye's writings tend to foster both an eschatology of disengagement and the politics of fear.

John Nelson Darby came as a missionary from Britain to the United States in the 1830s with some new theories about how the world will end. These speculative views-called premillennial dispensationalism-took much deeper root in the United States than they ever did in his homeland. Through books like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, which sold 19 million copies, this end-times theory has become widely popularized in American culture. Those who popularize these views are chronically trying to force-fit changing world events through this end-times filter, often with disastrous consequences.

Those reading the Left Behind series often say, "Regardless whether you like the books or not, they certainly are biblical." But LaHaye's eschatology is not supported by a careful study of scripture. Most biblical scholars largely reject the eschatological assumptions of this kind of pop end-times literature.

Implicit in this kind of literature is a fatalistic view of the future and a degenerative view of history. As a consequence many Christians who ardently embrace this view insist that "the Bible teaches that everything is destined to get worse and worse, so it makes absolutely no sense to work for social change. The best we can do is to get a few more people in that salvation life boat before Jesus comes back." Several years ago Jerry Falwell reflected this kind of end-times fatalism when a TV commentator asked him if he was concerned about growing degradation of the environment. He said, in effect, that he had no concern about the environment because Jesus is coming back, and therefore we had better use it before we lose it.

Evangelicals in the United States and the United Kingdom acted in starkly contrasting ways as we crossed the threshold into a new millennium. Many American evangelicals-believing that the "Y2K crisis" (remember that?) would trigger wide-scale social breakdown and set the stage for a one-world takeover-stored away large quantities of food, medical supplies, and guns. At the same time, British evangelicals hardly gave a thought about end-times fears. Instead they saw the crossing the threshold as an opportunity to birth a range of new ministries.

The difference reflects the difference between an eschatology of kingdom transformation and hope versus an eschatology of inevitable deterioration and fatalism. The Left Behind series could influence many outside the evangelical movement to succumb to an eschatology of escape and disengagement, in contrast to the biblical vision that people can be a part of the in-breaking of God's new order even now.

NO WHERE ELSE in the Western world do I hear the raging anger about the "threat of big government" that I hear in the United States. Elsewhere, one might find Christians who are cynical about their government, but they don't display the rage and fear common among many American believers.

To understand the American Christian Right, as I wrote in Cease Fire, you need to "understand not what they think or even believe but what they are afraid of." One of the mantras that we hear repeated constantly by a number of Christian leaders in America is that "there is a sinister elite of secular humanists, liberals, and feminists in Washington, D.C., who have as a conscious agenda the destruction of the Christian family, the elimination of Christian values, the revoking of our liberties, and the confiscation of our guns!" Only in America have I heard Christian leaders engaging in this kind of fear-mongering. Where does this conspiratorial fear come from?

Tim LaHaye has become such a dominant influence in American Christian culture because he has defined the terms of America's culture war. In 1979 he joined Falwell in starting the Moral Majority. He wrote the blueprint for how conservative Christians could "take back America" around a conservative political agenda in his most important work, The Battle for the Mind. This book was a huge bestseller, but interestingly is not listed in any of the Left Behind books. (His new manifesto, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium, was released in January.)

In Battle for the Mind, LaHaye identifies with laser clarity what he sees as the real enemy of American Christians. He borrows the phrase that Francis Schaeffer coined, "secular humanism," and gives it sinister new conspiratorial definition. LaHaye asks us to believe that there is a monolithic group of humanists in America who have as their single agenda the destruction of Christian faith, family values, and democratic freedoms.

Listen to Tim LaHaye's breathless warning in the opening pages of the book. "Most people today do not realize what humanism really is and how it is destroying our culture, families, country-and one day the entire world," LaHaye wrote. "Most of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the U.N., education, TV, and most of the other influential things of life." Perhaps it's already too late! LaHaye wrote in 1980 that unless American "Christians wake up to who the enemy really is the humanists will accomplish their goal of a complete world takeover by the year 2000." It is out of this kind of fear that many on the Religious Right have demonized those on the Left, and often those on the Left have returned the invectives.

American philosopher Eric Hoffer argued that "mass movement can rise and spread without a belief in God, but never without a belief in a devil." The devil, Hoffer said, must be "tangible" and "vivid." LaHaye succeeded brilliantly in Battle for the Mind in making his chosen devil extremely tangible and vivid. His explanation of what was wrong with the world and his identification of the enemy is the de facto apologetic for the Religious Right. It has influenced millions of American evangelicals to support the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, take their kids out of public schools, and support a number of right wing causes.

Tim LaHaye is not a non-ideological writer of novels. His mission is to galvanize support for the very narrow political agenda of the Religious Right. The Left Behind series reinforces the fictional fear that there is some sinister group (which LaHaye calls "the council of ten" or the "council of the wise men") actively at work creating the much feared one-world socialist gulag for all those who are left behind.

Why are so many people attracted to this kind of apocalyptic literature? First, there is something in our culture in which we love to be scared to death. Many seem to want to embrace the X-Files not merely as entertainment but as reality. Second, many of us are strongly attracted to simple black-and-white explanations of what has gone wrong in our world. Finally, it seems to me that American culture is more visceral and less reflective than that of our English-speaking cousins. As a consequence, we seem often to be more motivated by fear-mongering than reasoned discourse.

However, the greatest concern is with Christians leaders who share neither LaHaye's eschatological views or his right wing ideology, but who fail to acknowledge or understand the cavernous gulf between the important biblical work they do and the reading diet of the average American Christian. Christian communicators and educators have much to learn from Tim LaHaye about communicating in accessible and convincing ways. We need to find better ways to communicate compellingly a biblical vision of hope and transformation to those at the grass roots, to provide the alternative to the eschatology of escape and the politics of fear. If we don't find a more popular voice in which to express those concerns, we could be permanently left behind.

Tom Sine's latest book is Mustard Seed vs McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future (Baker Book House, 1999).

For more on pop eschatology-and how to counter it-check out:

  • Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture War, by Tom Sine (Eerdmans, 1995), available from Box 45867, Seattle, WA 98145; msasines@cs.com.
  • The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options, by Stanley J. Grenz (InterVarsity Press, 1992).
  • Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

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