The Study

Harold Camping, Judgment Day, and American Politics

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As you may have heard (or seen on a billboard), the world will end tomorrow. Christian radio host Harold Camping has chosen May 21, 2011, as Judgment Day, that holiday to end all holidays. Literally. To promote the apocalypse, Family Radio, Camping's organization, has purchased over 3,000 billboards, (with cliched slogans like "Save the Date!" and "Guaranteed!"), at a cost that "could easily be in the millions." Although, technically, as Tina DuPuy notes at The Atlantic, Camping actually believes that said judging (or is it Judging?) begins whenever each timezone hits 6 p.m. So really, thanks to the time differences, Judgment Day, at least for those in Camping's home base of California, starts at 11 p.m. tonight, even though the wave of wrath won't reach here until the next day. Now, most people expect Camping & Co. to be disappointed, but what is the more macro effect of living in these subcultures? For example, what is the effect of apocalypticism on political beliefs?

One excellent and thorough source is a 2009 dissertation by Paula Brooke, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, entitled "Politics of the Apocalypse: The effect of premillenial* eschatology on American political behavior." Brooke took two groups of students, one from the secular University of Chicago, and one from evangelical Calvin College. All students completed a survey in which they were given $1000 to distribute among three types of charities active on a variety of political issues. Each issue was represented by three charities, one charity representing the policy preference "implicit in the premillenialist narrative," one the opposite preference, and one neutral charity. During the survey, half the students in each group read a short passage about charitable giving, and the other half read a plot synopsis of the best-selling Left Behind series. Contrary to Brooke's expectations, while exposure to the Left Behind plot synopsis did generally result in a more favorable attitude towards premillenial policies, such as anti-government regulation and anti-secularization, the increase in favorability was more pronounced among Democratic-affiliated and secular students. Brooke concludes that these findings are "highly suggestive" that effects of premillenialism and conservativism, while similar and "perhaps parallel, are in fact different."

* It should be noted that Camping and his followers are actually amillenialists--they reject the premillenialist belief that Jesus has a thousand-year reign on Earth after his second coming--but there are still important areas of overlap in the apocalypse theologies of both viewpoints.

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