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  • Intellect and ActivismThe Secular Authority of Left Behind
  • David Morris (bio)

Offering a thrilling action story, accessible theology, and passionate characters fighting a just struggle against evil, the Left Behind series found readers beyond born-again Christian circles. The series sold more than sixty million copies between 1995 and 2005, and also built a multimedia franchise that included three films, many children’s books, a video game, and online fan forums.1 The series’ widespread popularity has invited scholarly examination of the books as biblical exegeses, science fiction, family therapy, and political propaganda. Particularly compelling readings have situated the series within the wider late twentieth-century engagement of born-again Christians with mass culture and politics.2 This “mainstreaming,” to use Melani McAlister’s term, included activism around social and political issues, entrance into discussions of economic theory, and the production of cultural products for consumption within and outside of born-again circles.3 Left Behind and like products performed crucial cultural work within the broader sociopolitical project of the New Christian Right (NCR): reversing the political and cultural advances made over the previous four decades by women and people of color.4 While the influence of the New Christian Right has been profound and lasting (born-again Christians still occupy positions of power in government and the military, for example), the popularity of Left Behind waned in the latter part of the last decade. Several years later, it has become reasonable to ask what, if any, lasting impact the series has had. Left Behind colonized the secular for the purpose of evangelizing mainstream culture. However, this evangelization went beyond the popularization of preexisting conservative theological and cultural ideals; it required a reconfiguration of U.S. secularism. In Formations of the Secular, Talal Asad argues that “secularism is not simply an intellectual answer to a question about enduring social peace and toleration. It is an enactment in which a [End Page 64] political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion” (5, emphasis in original). Secularism, in other words, is a discursive site of conflicts over political legitimacy. Part of a broader battle pitched at the site of secularism to pull mainstream political-economic discourse to the right, Left Behind links born-again Christianity and conservative cultural politics to a global capitalist political economy that exploits and contains cultural others.

The NCR had already been active for decades when the first novel was published; however, Left Behind seizes the opportunity of a particular moment in the 1990s to imagine NCR goals as a global project. In Life between Two Deaths, 1989–2001, Phillip Wegner argues that, after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the absence of the global symbolic order of the Cold War opened the world to the imagination of radical new collectivities (9–10). The 9/11 attacks, however, helped to establish a dominant symbolic order characterized by the spread of ruthless global capitalism and the containment of cultural others in the global “war on terror” (24–25). Left Behind indulges a utopian hope that injustice might be opposed and finally ended with the return of Christ; however, through its struggling born-again characters, it idealizes a subject protected by global security apparatuses and benefited by a ruthless global economics that concentrates power and wealth in few hands. The series legitimizes this order by yoking a born-again-leaning secularism to an emergent American global order. The first three novels of the series, Left Behind (1995), Tribulation Force (1996), and Nicolae (1997), construct a born-again Christian male subject endowed with overlapping types of authority, which Stephen D. O’Leary identifies as one of the central topoi of apocalyptic rhetoric (19). In this essay, I examine Left Behind’s representation of an ideal modern Christian subject characterized by the selective embracing of secular standards for public action and private life. By basing the authority of the characters in secular intellectualism, fundamentalist theology, and proper domestic behavior, the protagonists of Left Behind represent ideal modern Christians because they are endowed with religious and secular authority. These ideal subjects move within a dystopia that constructs...


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pp. 64-87
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