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Mixing prophecy and politics

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In the US, premillennialist teaching has spread through TV and radio evangelists and, most recently, the "Left Behind" novels and prophecy websites.

Supporters range from avid believers to more passive participants who nonetheless believe in prophecy and watch for its fulfillment, scholars say. Such teaching may attract more followers in times of stress, observers suggest, as it offers one explanation for disturbing world events.

"[Christian Zionists] create a worldview into which people walk and don't realize how big a move they've made," says Martin Marty, religious historian and co- director of the Fundamentalist Project, set up to study worldwide religious reaction to modernity. There are sincere people in the movement who pray for the conversion of Israel but don't take up the political program, he says.

But he and others, including some Evangelicals, are increasingly concerned that many Christian Zionists have become activists whose actions could ultimately have serious - even disastrous - consequences.

"The danger is that, when people believe they 'know' how things are going to turn out and then act on those convictions, they can make these prophecies self-fulfilling, and bring on some of the things they predict," says the Rev. Timothy Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee, and author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."

"Before the Six-Day War, dispensationalists were content to sit in the bleachers of history explaining the End-Time game on the field below, pointing out events and identifying players," Dr. Weber adds. "But after expansion of Israel into the West Bank and Gaza, they began to get down onto the field and be sure the teams lined up right, becoming involved in political, financial, and religious ways they never had before."

A confluence of events in the 1970s and '80s set the stage for the current activism. After the 1967 war, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants joined the international consensus that Israel should give up the occupied territories for peace; a growing Evangelical community became more politically active; and for the first time the Likud Party came to power in Israel with an aim to hold on to "Judea and Samaria" (the biblical terms for the West Bank).

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