DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - For millions of American Christians the founding of Israel in 1948 is the flashing light on the road to the apocalypse - Christ's return and the end of the world are near.
Reading current events in the Middle East as unfolding Biblical prophecy, they believe that history is marching to the beat of ancient forecasts and that the ultimate battle between good and evil may soon be upon us.
For some critics such thinking in evangelical Christian circles has also had a disquieting influence on the Bush administration and helps to explain its foreign policy, including its decision to invade Iraq.
Nicholas Guyatt, a British national who teaches history at the University of York in England, set out to explore this world dominated by people like Texas mega-preacher John Hagee and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the popular "Left Behind" series of novels about the apocalpyse.
Guyatt spoke to Reuters by phone from England about his book "Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World," which is due for release next month.
Q: What prompted you to write the book?
A: "I did my PhD in American religious history ... And the stuff I was working on was Manifest Destiny, this kind of idea that God wanted the United States to be a great country to help the world and transform the world ... so it was interesting, while I was researching this topic in the late 1990s I also began to read in the New York Times and hear on NPR (National Public Radio) about apocalyptic Christians, people who are deeply religious, at least as religious as many of the people who I was studying in the 18th and 19th century, who had kind of the opposite belief about America.
"Whereas the people I was working on believed God wanted America to save the world, these apocalyptic Christians believed the world was going to come to an end. It just struck me that this thread I was following was replaced by this totally different thread."
Q: How do these people differ from the proponents of Manifest Destiny?
A: "American Christians (in the past) were never actually terribly apocalyptic. You didn't tend to get your big evangelical leaders believing that the prophecies of the Bible would literally come true.
"One of the reasons why they didn't spend a lot of time on prophecy was because they had quite long memories and they knew that in the 17th century during the English Civil War that there was all kinds of convulsion because of religion, a lot of it because the people around Oliver Cromwell in England thought that the prophetic books of the Bible were coming true. These guys in America from the country's origins were really wary of touching this prophecy stuff because politically they knew it could explode into all kinds of awkward directions."
Q: What appeal does it have to contemporary Christians?
A: "You would not think it would be very mainstream. But you saw from the "Left Behind" series of books, those prophetic novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, that this stuff has become incredibly mainstream, I mean these books have sold something like 65 million copies ... I think it appeals to a lot of people who feel estranged from the secular culture ...
"If the world ends then another one begins. Everything collapses and then you have this seven-year period where an evil world leader known as the anti-Christ takes over and is succeeded by Jesus Christ coming back down ... and then there's going to be a thousand years of peace and happiness."
Q: Your book strikes one as very objective.
A: "If you read a lot of stuff that people write from a more liberal perspective about the religious right it can be pretty abrasive. It's pretty aggressive stuff. I'm not trying to say it's not good but to win the trust of these people I kind of wanted to give them some measure of a fair hearing.
"I think it's very easy to kind of go nuts about the religious right but it's not very helpful to paint everybody who has flirted with these ideas with the same brush ... It was important for me to come at this with an open mind, obviously I don't come at it from a religious perspective and I don't believe this stuff. But all these beliefs are deeply rationale to people who believe them."