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Week of 5 November 1999

Vol. III, No. 13

Feature Article

Understanding the politics of faith

Conference to showcase millennial fears, hopes

By David J. Craig

If government officials had been informed about a phenomenon known as millennialism -- a belief that a dramatic, even metaphysical, change in the world is imminent -- the 1993 standoff in Waco, Tex., between federal agents and cult leader David Koresh might have ended peacefully. That's what historian Richard Landes and scholars in many other disciplines insist.

"If the government understood millennialism they would have sent in some biblical scholars to convince Koresh that his interpretation of the Bible was so brilliant that the world needed him to come out and share it," says Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies (CMS) and an associate professor of history at CAS. "You don't deal with a guy who thinks that the end of the world is about to arrive by calling him a child abuser and a criminal and threatening him."

Millennialism is in the spotlight as the year 2000 approaches, but it is an idea that has always underlain world events, Landes says. How it shapes history is the subject of an international conference at BU hosted by CMS, New World Orders: Millennialism in the Western Hemisphere, November 6 to 9. Academics from many disciplines will convene to discuss millennial themes in topics as diverse as anti-Semitism, science fiction, the tabloid press, and rap music.

Belief born of fear
The idea that the world is about to undergo radical change is as old as the wind, according to scholars of millennialism, who emerged first among anthropologists about 50 years ago. Apocalyptic preachers around the year 1000 warned that the world was about to end, inspiring waves of conversion to Christianity, mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and violence against Jews, according to Landes. He admits that scholars are divided as to whether millennialism was a significant phenomenon in that period.

Richard Landes

Richard Landes, director of the BU Center for Millennial Studies and a CAS associate professor of history, believes that the end of the millennium has focused light onto powerful ideas that underlie many historical events. Photo by Vernon Doucette

However, Landes says, there is little doubt that anticipation of the year 2000 in the United States has inspired a new wave of millennialism-inspired thinking within the past 20 years. Some private militia groups and members of the religious far right, which preach that the world is in the throes of a moral decay of apocalyptic proportions, are extreme examples.

A watershed publication in recent millennial thought is a book written earlier this decade by television personality and Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson, entitled New World Order, says Michael Barkum, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. He will speak at the conference about The Dark Side of Millennialism: Conspiracies, Nativism, and the New World Orders.

"In the last 10 to 15 years there have been a number of theories built around a so-called new world order, which is generally conceived to be some kind of plot to create a global tyranny," says Barkum. "Variations have to do with who is believed to be behind the conspiracy." The new conspiracy theories, he says, are strikingly similar to ideas espoused by late 19th-century American nativists, who disparaged Catholics, Jews, and Masons in their literature.

Currently, millennialism has a hold on the American social imagination like in no other nation, Landes says.

"People like Oral Roberts have been talking about premillennial visions for years," he says. "And from the United States, it's taken off in other countries. The surprising phenomenon is the success of movements that are marginal in our culture, like the survivalists and the militias, which have been thriving in 10 or 15 percent of the American population.

"At the same time, we have Y2K," Landes continues, "which for them is rocket fuel. If Y2K turns out not to be serious, the reading of the conspiracy theorists will be that the whole thing was created to unify the computer systems of the world."

An ubiquitous force
Millennialism doesn't refer only to the paranoia of fringe groups, however. The New England Puritans thought of their voyage to America as an exodus on a par with that of the ancient Israelites described in the Old Testament. And many American leaders during the Revolutionary War and the Cold War, Barkum says, thought of America as being guided by God to achieve a higher purpose.

"The theme of a special American role in the world was strongest during the period of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion," he says. "The hype that's associated with year 2000 has to be understood in the context of a long process of historical development, in which millennialism was a recurring feature."

In its most extreme manifestations, such as Waco or the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, according to Landes, millennialism is dangerous because those who adhere to millennial beliefs often have no fear of the future. They feel that theirs is a predetermined spiritual path.

At the same time, he says, the profundity of the phenomenon has been lost on the public, partly because the government hasn't initiated open discussion about the subversive ideas of extremist groups and also because few academics study the subject.

"Most people think the whole Y2K thing is just hype," Landes says. "But some of it goes much deeper. One problem with Y2K is the actual technical problems. But the other is the social panic." He says that the "malaise of our times" is a deep suspicion among the populace toward the American government, which he criticizes for not having encouraged more public discussion about the social implications of Y2K.

"We should acknowledge and address people's fears, not belittle them," he says.

The CMS conference will feature a panel discussion on millennial themes in rap music, led by Chris Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin. Panelists will include Glenn Loury, director of BU's Institute on Race and Social Division and a CAS professor of economics, Talib Kweli of the rap group Black Star, and Sarah Jones, an actress and poet.

Rap lyrics by African-Americans often deal with topics such as police brutality, the perceived disregard of the government toward hardship in African nations, and racism in the U.S. economy. According to Smith, rap's most common expression of fear is that prosperity in the next century, especially involving technology and the Internet, won't trickle down.

"I think that since the mid-1990s, rap has gone from the bleakest, most self-defeating nihilism to saying that you can't just blame the system and 'the man,'" he says. "Rappers are still saying that there needs to be some structural change, but now it's laced with the recognition that the free market isn't going anywhere and we're all going to have to take part in it. They're expressing a desire to take responsibility. That's new. But it's still millennial in that they're saying we're at a crossroads and there's only a small window of hope open."

For more information about the CMS conference, call 358-0226 or visit the CMS Web site at www.mille.org.