‘Left Behind,’ again? The re-emergence of a political phenomenon

—Glenn W. Shuck

Critics just don’t get Left Behind, a new movie adaptation of the best-selling book series. Sure, it’s predictably awful. The acting is bad, the production is terrible, and the plot is thinner than Soviet toilet paper. But the stakes are far higher than with a typical, first-order howler. Left Behind preaches to the choir, sure, but this is no ordinary choir! The film, like the novels, doesn’t cater to Hollywood styles; it’s all about motivating people to “spread the word,” and that word is just as political as it is otherworldly.

Ten years have passed since the original Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins concluded. In a world where news cycles grow ever shorter, ten years is several lifetimes. Sure, the Christian suspense novels helped unleash powerful political forces then, but what about now?  The series and the values it champions may have found a way to return with the debut of the new Left Behind film.

Why Left Behind?  Why now?  Financial motives, as always, play a powerful role. Just look at recent films and television serials. Apocalypse sells. God sells. Fear sells. But another motive is at hand: apocalyptic narratives are also multi-stranded; they carry, after all, a revelation. They proclaim a new way of being in the world. In short, apocalyptic narratives often motivate action.

Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins helped politically conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s move beyond “single issue” and “values voters” labels to empower their political imaginations beyond narrow and predictable categories.  As the series progressed and the politics behind them came together, they helped an upstart and then highly disliked presidential candidate, George W. Bush, to two unlikely victories, selling millions of political primers along the way.  The Left Behind phenomenon helped embolden a hyper-energized religious right.

But something went wrong with doomsayers’ forecasts of evangelical political dominance: they stopped voting at the high rates that boosted President Bush. It wasn’t just that the original Left Behind film and its sequels were big–screen busts. “New” Republican standard-bearers Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney never held much appeal for evangelicals. Yes, it hurt that the Left Behind series and its spin-offs and spokespersons were no longer so influential. Moreover, Bush’s unpopularity became toxic. More “moderate” Republican candidates, however, without the full support of a key voting bloc, found a different kind of apocalypse.

Fast-forward to 2014. A president is not on the ballots but President Obama’s policies certainly are as Democrats fight to retain the Senate. Polls and pundits raise concerns for Democrats. But Democrats ought to also consider a voting bloc that has been under-engaged for a decade. Some experts have assumed evangelicals and the Tea Party are one and the same (or similar enough), hence one can already account for these potential voters. But it is simplistic to equate the Tea Party with the religious right. It takes more than faux filibusters to help push high percentages of mercurial evangelical conservatives to the polls, especially in a midterm election, albeit as critical as this year.

Re-enter the Left Behind phenomenon. Left Behind, another adaptation of the novels, is earning the Left Behind phenomenon and the values it champions, a closer look. The film does not have the highest budget, but this re-boot has fared much better than the 2001 original, grossing almost twice as much (roughly $ 7 million) in the first weekend as the ill-fated original all told.  Whether the film grosses $20 million or $50 million matters less, however, than the fact it has brought conservative evangelicals back into the news cycle.

Thus in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms, Republicans have a wild card in Left Behind that just may become an ace. It is absurd to suggest a low-budget film will change the balance of power in the U.S.A., but it has resurrected the dynamics of the novels, and conservative evangelicals finally have a powerful reminder to vote.  And as any pundit will admit, it won’t take much to tip the scales in Washington.

Finally, the timely release of Left Behind may owe to coincidence, one month before the crucial midterms.  Evangelicals do not believe in coincidence, however, nor should campaigners in evangelical-filled battleground states such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, to name a few. Left Behind is playing in the heartland, playing for the hearts and minds of conservative evangelical voters. Critics, who dismiss Left Behind as simply an awful film and fire dull hip-shots with dismissive derision and canned clichés, miss the point. Left Behind is not about film prizes or outstanding cinematography or even good taste. It’s all about “spreading the word.” Who will be left behind if the film re-energizes its core audience and steers them into action just weeks before the crucial elections next month?

Glenn W. Shuck is Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College and author of Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity (NYU Press, 2004).