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The religious right in America is a slippery phenomenon, difficult to categorize by theology or identify by denomination. We know something of certain fundamentalist and literalist segments of the population: In the past, NCR has reported on the Left Behind series (June 15, 2001, issue) whose titles consistently make it onto bestseller lists.

In an exegetical sleight of hand that many Catholics might find simultaneously frightening and amusing, these books, and others of the genre, bring all of biblical history crashing apocalyptically into current political and religious circumstances.

I say amusing not to demean others’ biblical viewpoint, but because in an earlier era that is perhaps how we Catholics might have viewed things also. But the view was so far outside the mainstream that it was easy to leave to itself.

It would not stay to itself, however. In recent decades that right-wing element, based on a fundamentalist view of the world, has asserted itself like never before. In the hands of right-wing religious leaders such as Pat Robertson or the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others, our sacred texts become blueprints for an equally right-wing American political agenda. The gospel is turned into a tract justifying every capitalistic whim. And the Book of Revelation becomes a literal point-by-point guidebook on the countdown to Armageddon, with Jerusalem smack in the epicenter.

All of this may seem rather fantastic to those outside such circles, but as Margot Patterson’s reporting shows this week (see Page 13), that circle has grown in recent years and has moved beyond its solely religious framework to have a significant effect on international relations -- and even U.S. foreign policy.

It may seem appalling to some that such extreme views would hold any sway in serious political circles, but the convergence of two fundamentalisms -- Christian and Jewish -- has made for a powerful, if bizarre alliance. It is unlikely that very many in any administration in Washington sit around sifting through Robertson’s or Falwell’s takes on Armageddon. But it is unmistakable that political leadership feels both Christian and Jewish fervor in the form of political force and pressure. What is more distressing is that political leadership too often caves in to such pressure.

As in much of the thinking of the religious right, in this case theology and our sacred literature is at the service of strange gods indeed.

As the volume on the war rhetoric gets cranked up another notch every day, there’s some consolation that more reasonable voices will be heard. In this issue, we report on a group of 100 ethicists at leading universities around the country calling for extreme caution and use of reason as the Bush administration continues to beat the war drums. We report also in this issue on the growing voice of the peace lobby, both stateside and internationally.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002