April 3, 2008

Profiles in Christian Extremism: Tim LaHaye

This evangelical Christian pastor turned author is best known for his Left Behind series of fiction books, but his influence extends well beyond his writing. He is considered one of America's most influential evangelical Christians and was instrumental in the 2000 "election" of George W. Bush. LaHaye is appropriately considered a theocrat in that he wants to impose his view of morality, which he claims to be based on the Christian bible, on the rest of us. He serves as an excellent example of all that is wrong with the extremist strain of evangelical Christianity.


After graduating from Bob Jones University in 1950 and collecting a Doctor of Ministry degree from Western Seminary, LaHaye became pastor of the Scott Memorial Baptist Church (since renamed "Shadow Mountain Community Church") in the San Diego, CA, area. Taking on this role in 1958, he would remain at the helm of this church for nearly 25 years, also founding the San Diego Christian College in 1971.

But leading his church would not be sufficient for LaHaye, for he was determined to exert an influence in politics. He helped launch the Institute for Creation Research and served on the board of directors of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. He left Shadow Mountain in the early 1980s to help found the Council for National Policy, an invitation-only lobbying group. As the 1980s rolled on, LaHaye would found the American Coalition for Traditional Values and the Coalition for Religious Freedom. Despite being expelled from Jack Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign for making anti-Catholic statements, LaHaye would play an important role in George W. Bush's campaign and would endorse Mike Huckabee in 2007.

As for his infamous Left Behind series, widely characterized as "apocalyptic fiction," he focuses on the rapture and the horrors in store for non-bible-believing Christians after the good ones are raptured away. According to LaHaye, the idea for the series came to him in 1994 during a flight in which he witnesses a married pilot flirting with a flight attendant. He wondered what would befall the pilot if the rapture happened at that moment.

This Is What's Wrong With Evangelism

Last week while driving home from work, I heard an NPR interview with British journalist, Pico Iyer, who had followed the Dalai Lama for 30 years, meeting with him for many interviews, and who had just written a book about his life. LaHaye's name came up in the context of the Dalai Lama's openness to other religious perspectives and his interest in learning about them. They played an excerpt from a 2001 interview with LaHaye in which he described his brief encounter with the Dalai Lama.

According to LaHaye, he was in "the holy land" attending "a religious conclave" when the Dalai Lama and his entourage walked by. LaHaye described how he went approached the Dalai Lama, shook his hand, and said,
"Sir, has anyone ever explained to you who Jesus Christ really is? If they haven't, I'd be glad to spend an hour with you and just to share with you the truth about him."
LaHaye explained what most of us would regard as completely inappropriate as follows:
"That was just an involuntary response toward a man who is very religious and very pious and probably very sincere but he doesn't know the truth of the word of god."
This is precisely what is wrong with evangelical Christianity - the unwavering conviction that my interpretation of the Christian bible is the only correct one combined with the need to tell everyone that they are wrong and I am right. Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse, that LaHaye thought he could convert the Dalai Lama or that he would try at all.

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