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There has never really been a common religious experience in America, and that is as true as ever now: some ministers report that these days when they announce they will be preaching on the Apocalypse, attendance jumps at least 20%. But elsewhere church attendance is back down to where it was before Sept. 11, and those pastors see little sign of existential dread. Pastor Ted Haggard, who started a church in his Colorado Springs, Colo., basement that now has 9,000 members, attributes the surge in End Times interest to the Christian media empire as much as anything else: "Because of the theology of our church, I don't think we're close to a Second Coming," he says. "But many of the major Christian media outlets believe that there is fulfillment, and people respond to that. People love gloom and doom. People love pending judgment. No. 1, they long to see Jesus, and No. 2, they look for the justice that Jesus will bring to the earth in his Second Coming."
Go into a seminary library, and it's hard to find scholarly books on apocalyptic theology; academics tend to treat this tradition as sociology. They see End Times interest rising and falling on waves of cataclysm and calm. Masses of people became convinced the end was nigh when Rome was sacked in 410, when the Black Death wiped out one-third of the population of 14th century Europe, when the tectonic shudders of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 caused church bells to ring as far away as England, and certainly after 1945, when for the first time human beings harnessed the power to bring about their total destruction, not an act of God, but an act of mankind.
America, a country born with a sense that divine providence was paying close attention from the start, has always had a weakness for prophecy. With its deep religious history but no established church, this country welcomes religious free-lancers and entrepreneurs. Both the visionaries and the con artists have access to the altar. It took the shocking events of the last mid-century to draw apocalyptic thinking off the Fundamentalist margins and into the mainstream. The rise of Hitler, a wicked man who wanted to murder the Jews, read like a Bible story; his utter destruction, and the subsequent return of the Jews to Israel after 2,000 years and the capture of Jerusalem's Old City by the Israelis in 1967, were taken by devout Christians and Jews alike as evidence of God's handiwork. Israel once again controlled the Temple Mount, a site so holy to Islam and Christianity as well as Judaism that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's simple act of visiting the mount was sufficient to ignite the current Palestinian uprising. The Temple Mount is the location of al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, and is also the very place where Christians and Jews believe a new temple must one day be rebuilt before the Messiah can come. An Australian Evangelical once set fire to the mosque to clear the way, and to this day security remains exceptionally tight for fear that those who take Scripture literally might not just believe in what the prophets promised, but might also try to help it along.