Apocalypse What?

Did you catch Bush's evangelical-deer-caught-in-the-political-headlights moment Monday?

It came during the Q & A session following his speech on Iraq. The first question came from a woman who asked: "[Author Kevin Phillips] makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?"

The president was clearly taken aback. He reacted as if he'd just seen a burning bush -- or had just been asked a really hard math question.

First he hemmed. Then he hawed. Then he hemmed some more.

"Um... uh... I... The answer is, I haven't really thought of it that way," he finally spit out. "Here's how I think of it. The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow." He then abruptly Left Behind the question at hand and went off on a long, standard-issue answer about 9/11 and fighting terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

It was the least convincing performance since, well, since the why-I'm-optimistic-about-Iraq speech that preceded it.

I mean, come on. The man is a born again, evangelical Christian whose favorite political philosopher is Jesus, has let it be know that God speaks to -- and through -- him, believes "in a divine plan that supercedes all human plans"... and he wants us to buy that he's never even heard of, let alone thought about the biblical implications of terrorism in relation to the apocalypse?

Sorry if I find this Revelation just a little hard to swallow.

After all, the notion that we are fast approaching the end of the world is not being espoused by some street corner Jeremiah wearing a "The End is Nigh!" sandwich board. Roughly 50 million Americans believe in some form of End-Time philosophy. And check out the best-seller lists: the apocalyptic Left Behind series of books have repeatedly been among the country's best selling titles, with over 70 million copies sold.

End-Timers have also spawned a mini-industry of imminent doomsday Web sites like ApocalypseSoon.org and Raptureready.com. The latter features a Rapture Index that, according to the site, acts as a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity" and a "prophetic speedometer" (the higher the number, the faster we're moving toward the Second Coming). For those of you keeping score, the Rapture Index is currently 156 -- an off-the-chart mark of prophetic indicators.

Questions about Bush having an apocalyptic worldview have been bandied about for years. So much so that his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, felt compelled, at a 2004 conference, to dismiss the idea that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with goosing the Rapture: "The president is not reading [Left Behind author] Tim LaHaye for his Middle East policy," he sniffed.

So why the president's over-the-top, "first I've heard of that" denial? If he really hasn't given any thought to the idea that the war on terror, which he has so frequently described as a battle between "good" and "evil," is in any way connected to the Biblical battle of Armageddon, wouldn't a simple "Hell no" have sufficed?