Beyond belief: Doomsday religion
Beyond belief: Doomsday religion
When the Harold Camping "Judgment Day" billboards started popping up around the Bay Area, I felt a mix of humor and disgust. I shook my head when I learned that Camping was a neighbor of mine in the East End of Alameda, and when Judgment Day passed without any visible judgment, I snickered as I walked past his tightly shuttered house.
Like many charismatic spiritual leaders before him, Camping convinced seekers to stake everything on what turned out to be his mistaken interpretation of the truth. According to his Family Radio broadcasts, the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011 and approximately 2.8 percent of the population would immediately ascend to Heaven. The rest of us would live on Earth for a hellish five months of plagues and starvation before God finally wiped us off the map. Camping publicized the prediction in numerous countries and spent an estimated $5 million on advertising in 2011 (a fraction of the money his followers have donated since he started broadcasting in the late 1950s).
Of course, no Apocalyptic activity occurred on the predicted date, and Camping was left to defend all manner of accusations. But staying on Earth has worked out okay for him. He still lives on Gibbons Drive in Alameda, with a reported net worth of more than $75 million. His followers? Not so much. (Attempts to contact Camping and the organization were unsuccessful.)
While Camping raked in the money and put up billboards, his devotees were busy selling possessions, quitting jobs, and saying goodbye to loved ones who would be left behind after the righteous flew to Heaven. One man spent his entire life savings on bus and subway ads proclaiming Camping’s message. At least one family stopped saving for their children’s college education. Nastya Zachinova, a 14-year old Russian girl who was apparently terrified she'd die a fiery death at 6 p.m. on May 21, hung herself that morning.
Camping is not the first person to claim to know the mind of God or to profit from fear, and he bears responsibly for the chaos has he created. But his adult followers? Did they not get what they deserved? It is tempting to assume that Family Radio fans – people who relied so wholeheartedly on the arrogant ravings of a radio evangelist - are either crazy or dim-witted. But they’re not. I could easily have been one of them.
Like all devoted members of the Worldwide Church of God, my family spent about 40 years planning for the Apocalypse. Both of my grandfathers joined the group after hearing its founder, Herbert Armstrong, speaking on the radio in the 1940s. My grandfathers didn’t know each other back then, but they had a lot in common. Both were Southerners of Scotch-Irish extraction and young children during the Great Depression. Both were products of generational trauma and poverty; one of them was the son of itinerant farm workers in the Dust Bowl. Both grew up in the Jim Crow South and held racist beliefs that dovetailed nicely with Armstrong’s principle of Anglo/British Israelism: the belief that the British (and by extension Anglo-Americans, Canadians and Australians) are the spiritual and genetic descendants of the ancient Israelites. (Though it certainly was one, Worldwide did not identify specifically as a white supremacist church; it had African American members but prohibited interracial marriage.)
Armstrong could probably have been anyone – maybe Harold Camping if he had been on the radio back then. My grandfathers weren’t psychotic or dumb, but they were emotionally wounded and yearning to be part of something important. A few radio broadcasts and they were hooked: Both men started tithing 10 percent of their meager incomes to Armstrong in a fervent belief that the "End Times" were near. The two families raised a cumulative 12 children in the church.
For my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, the Final Judgment was not an abstract eventuality or mere scary story. It was happening on January 7, 1972, and they knew more or less how it would go. According to church authorities, a fleet of airplanes would carry the faithful to Petra, a wilderness area in the present-day Kingdom of Jordan. Those deserving of salvation would wait it out while everyone else endured "the Great Tribulation" and "the horrors of World War III." After a God-led three-and-a-half year “intensive training course,” the Chosen would be ready to take the reigns of a new worldwide theocracy. Church elders reassured nervous families that life in the End Times would include education (everyone would attend the Church-run college) and housing (not to worry - Jordan had “plenty of caves”).
Of course, the Rapture wouldn’t be so cushy for the 99 percent of the human population who weren’t on board with Armstrong and his church. While we hunkered down in our caves, everyone else would be fighting tooth and nail to survive a nuclear holocaust. There would be no food or water, and “starving mothers would eat their own children.” Eventually, all the nonbelievers would be mercifully incinerated by a giant atomic bomb.
So in between studying for chemistry exams and shopping for prom, my parents and their siblings tried to prepare themselves for the Rapture. But then January 7, 1972 came. And went. While the Church scrambled to explain its "miscalculation," my confused family was faced with an uncertain future: No one had thought it necessary to make serious life plans beyond 1972. Armstrong and his successors wised up and got less specific, telling people that the end would come in the "next 5-10-15-20 years." Literature written by contemporary splinter groups still tells members that the "time is short," "the end is near," and "we may have only two to three years left." People still attend these churches while working office jobs and volunteering for the PTA. You don’t have to be a total wacko to believe a leader like Harold Camping or Herbert Armstrong. All it really takes is isolation, selective hearing, and fear of the unknown for some people to feel the pull of doomsday religion.
Fortunately for me, my childhood dreams were not haunted by the specter of the Final Judgment. When I was two years old, my mother walked away from the church forever. She took us to a new house and new life in which Armageddon was an intentionally distant memory. I celebrated holidays, wore makeup, said the Pledge of Allegiance and ate shellfish (none of which she was allowed to do as a kid). Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, and no one in our house even noticed.
Camping has been quiet since his prediction failed in 2011, and even more so since suffering a stroke in June of that year. In March of 2012, his organization sent out an apology letter to its members, indicating that it was mistaken in its insistence on specific dates. But Family Radio has made millions, and you can bet it’s not going away. The group’s website maintains that the world is “very close to its end.” (The events section of Camping’s Facebook page does not have any upcoming events. Its last listing: "These are the events that it has hosted in the past: Judgment Day; Friday, October 21, 2011 at 12:00 a.m.; 2,535 guests.”)
So the followers of Harold Camping now find themselves just about where my family stood in 1972, when it became obvious that Armstrong didn’t know quite as much as he said he did. They can try to rationalize Camping’s “mathematical error” and hope that Family Radio’s next prediction will be right. They can choose to spend years of their lives glued to their radios, desperate for answers that will never come. Or they can walk away from Harold Camping’s Apocalyptic rant.