“The goal of this movie was to not be preachy,” said Paul Lalonde, writer and producer of the new Left Behind movie released last weekend. “You get too preachy, it turns people off. That’s what’s kept faith-based movies in the church basements and out of the theaters.” But the latest Christian Right film to hit the big screen preaches little else other than a reinforcement of the Right’s culture wars.
The new film, starring Nicolas Cage, follows the action-packed first few hours following the Rapture, when pre-millennial conservative evangelicals believe good Christians will rise to Heaven in accordance with Biblical prophecy, beginning a period of tribulation on Earth that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Audiences won’t even meet the Antichrist until the sequel, so those unfamiliar with the book series might miss how Left Behind feeds into right-wing conspiracy theories, opposes peace and social justice, and promotes culture wars-ideology.
Lalonde, CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures and producer of the original low-budget Left Behind films, founded another production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, to do the reboot and focus “on producing big budget faith-themed films for a wider audience.” “I think it can open a lot of doors that would not have otherwise be opened,” Lalonde told Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, which spent extensive time on set during the filming. “People are fascinated by it. People are fascinated by the idea of the rapture.”
“What makes ‘Left Behind’ different is that it is a contemporary story that could actually happen at any moment,” explains Lalonde. “It’s also a historical account in a sense, because it’s based on a true story, it just hasn’t happened yet.” According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans expect that Jesus Christ will return by 2050. Lalonde himself has “no doubt we are living in the end times [before the Rapture] so therefore it could happen tomorrow that the church is going to be called home and caught up in the air and taken to heaven and that’s what this movie’s about.”
Lalonde’s maxim to not be “too preachy” in the pursuit of mainstream appeal sums up the strategy of not only the new Hollywood movie but the entire franchise of Christian Right adult and children’s books, films, graphic novels, and video games. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ fictional imagining of the Rapture graphically portrays the disaster of car and plane crashes, emotions of families torn apart, and heroes fighting against an evil overlord—a winning combination that has sold 65 million books, secured regular top spots on bestseller lists, and landed a cover story in Time magazine in 2002.
But these books intend more than entertainment; interwoven with the high-tech weaponry, romances, and disasters, LaHaye and Jenkins spin a tale intended to thrill believers, push political agendas, and bring the “unsaved” to Christ by giving them a peek at the suffering awaiting nonbelievers.
When he recruited Jenkins to co-author the Left Behind books, LaHaye was already an established Christian Right leader known for supporting creationism and anti-LGBTQ beliefs. He founded or helped to found a series of right-wing organizations, including the Institute for Creation Research, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Council for National Policy, and the Coalition for Traditional Values. He capitalized on his high profile as Left Behind’s author to win over the Christian Right to George W. Bush’s presidential candidacy, and supported education and research on prophecy and pre-tribulation (the period before the Rapture).
Here’s just a brief overview of the series’ political agendas for the blissfully unaware:
The Antichrist rises to power as the secretary-general of the United Nations by promising world peace, expressing and reinforcing right-wing fears of takeover by secular world government and aversion to promoting peace. (“I’ve opposed the United Nations for 50 years,” LaHaye boasts, indicating the storyline was no accident.) According to LaHaye, Jesus does not promise peace, he promises the sword—so any politician promising world peace could be the Antichrist himself. People unacquainted with this belief system sometimes find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea of being anti-peace, especially since conservative evangelicals typically know better than to voice public criticism in those terms.
Social justice and humanitarian action also fall under the shadow of collaboration with the Antichrist. Religious scholar Glenn Shuck described the Antichrist of the Left Behind series: “His ungodly traits include a silver-tongue, a handsome face, and a devilish charm that he uses to soothe the world during its time of crisis. To unbelievers he seems like a saint or even the Messiah. He works to correct economic inequalities, attempts to end poverty and cure dreaded diseases, and leads the world onto a path of total disarmament.”
In the midst of the battle against the Antichrist, LaHaye and Jenkins work in traditional culture war issues through their array of characters. They slip in an argument about the evils of abortion here, an unpleasant lesbian woman who cannot be saved there. Left Behind: The Kids, a series of 40 short books, provides an opportunity to discuss how the Antichrist’s public schools “persecute” Christian youth for their beliefs, deploying arguments similar to real-world evangelical critiques around issues like school prayer.
Then we have the role of Israel and the Jewish people. The Left Behind narrative, in short: Israel’s preordained role in the Second Coming includes its bloody destruction, while 144,000 Jewish witnesses play their part in publicly converting to Christ. For those interested in how Jews and Israel factor into millennial theology in the present-day Christian Right movement, see Rachel Tabachnick’s 2010 article in The Public Eye magazine, “The New Christian Zionism and the Jews: A Love/Hate Relationship.”