Apocalypse Now?

How Religious Right Fear Mongers Are Exploiting The Y2K Computer Problem For Cash and Political Gain

Right-wing Christian fundamentalist activist Gary North believes he has seen the future -- and it doesn't look rosy.

On Jan. 1, 2000, he asserts, the so-called "Y2K computer bug" will spark widespread power failures, shut down banks and stores and paralyze communications and travel networks, spawning societal chaos.

"If the computer failures are sufficiently widespread, urban society will collapse," North writes in an article on his site on the World Wide Web, www.garynorth.com. "Without banks, water, sewers, communications and electrical power, cities will become nightmares."n

Concludes North, "Under such conditions, the Federal government would have to declare martial law.... In a Y2K crisis, the public will call for emergency actions. Congress will not object."

Formerly based in Tyler, Texas, North is now holed up in an isolated compound outside Fayetteville, Ark., where he plans to ride out the Y2K chaos. North seems to actually relish the idea of the U.S. government collapsing. A leader in the so-called "Christian Reconstructionist" movement, which seeks to impose a strict fundamentalist theocracy -- based on the Old Testament's legal code -- on the United States, North sees Y2K as the best hope for bringing down what he considers a corrupt, anti-Christian government, giving Reconstructionists the opportunity they have been waiting for.

"The Y2K crisis is systemic," North wrote recently. "It cannot possibly be fixed. I think it will wipe out every national government in the West. Not just modify them -- destroy them. I honestly think the Federal government will go under. I think the U.S.A. will break up the way the U.S.S.R. did. Call me a dreamer. Call me an optimist. That's what I think. This will decentralize the social order. That is what I have wanted all of my adult life. In my view, Y2K is our deliverance. Just don't be in a city when deliverance occurs."

For North, the Y2K problem is all part of God's plan. Y2K, he has written, "will call into question science, technology, the free market and the welfare state. It will call into question all of modern humanism. Christians will be in a position to win this battle. I'll put it bluntly: Y2K is about handing out blame. The corporate judgment of God always is."

North is not the only Religious Right figure worked up over Y2K these days. Better known leaders, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, TV preacher Pat Robertson and radio psychologist James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, are equally concerned about the so-called "millennium computer bug." Second-tier broadcasters, such as TV preacher Jack Van Impe, evangelist Morris Cerullo and a host of others, are busy spreading Y2K gloom and doom too.

As the nation inches toward the year 2000, Y2K hysteria has gripped many segments of the Religious Right. Prompted by TV preachers and other fundamentalist leaders, some church members are stockpiling food and water, hoarding gold and silver and preparing to raid bank accounts before the end of the year.

The Y2K problem is real, but many critics say that Religious Right leaders are overreacting to it and recklessly spreading hysteria. The problem stems from the 1960s, when computers first began to be commonplace. Programmers, trying to save expensive memory, used two digits for the last two numbers of a year, such as 98 or 99. The possibility exists that when the year 2000 comes, some computers will be unsure whether 00 refers to 1900 or 2000 and either stop functioning entirely or spew out bad data.

Governments around the world and private industry are spending billions to solve the Y2K problem. Many computer experts say great progress in correcting the problem has been made and insist that most people will not experience serious difficulties come Jan. 1.

But some Religious Right activists and a minority of computer professionals see things differently. They maintain that a Y2K breakdown will paralyze the country, spawning societal breakdown and turning urban areas into battlezones.

Some Religious Right strategists even see Y2K as a political opportunity. They insist that Americans plunged into anarchy will turn to ultra-conservative churches for answers, giving fundamentalist religious leaders an opportunity to usher in a theocratic government. And some go so far as to say the anarchy will pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ and herald the end of the world.

But many critics and computer experts are skeptical. They assert that while Y2K has the potential to cause some disruptions, the problems will be nowhere near as severe as the gloom-and-doom brigade asserts. They also note that the Religious Right kingpins spreading Y2K hysteria have a vested interest in the matter: Many are benefitting financially from it by selling Y2K books, videos and other materials or using the issue to increase their public profiles and win more followers

Falwell is a good example. The Lynchburg evangelist is selling a $28 videotape, "A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug." On the tape, Falwell urges born-again Christians to store food and water in the basement and get their hands on a few guns to protect their stash.

"[I]f I'm blessed with a little food and my family is inside the house with me, I've got to be sure that I can persuade others not to mess with us," Falwell says.

Falwell also has a cozy relationship with Essentials, a Colorado-based company that is selling "emergency food supplies" and Y2K doomsday tapes. Falwell has endorsed the company's line of SafeTrek canned goods, and in an ad in February's National Liberty Journal, Falwell's tabloid newspaper, he writes, "SafeTrek foods offers you an affordable and convenient solution should Y2K prevent food supplies from being conveyed to your hometown. I have SafeTrek foods in my home as a simple precaution. I urge you to call SafeTrek foods today and learn how they can help you be prepared -- just in case."

SafeTrek foods, which come sealed in cans direct from "a brand new canning factory in Bozeman, Montana, in the heart of grain country," aren't cheap. A one-year "emergency food supply" for four people costs $4,895 plus shipping costs that range from $452 to $640.

Not surprisingly, Falwell has found a way to implicate President Bill Clinton in the Y2K problem. The National Liberty Journal has run a series of articles on Y2K by Brannon Howse, whom the paper identifies as a "guest writer." In one titled "Will President Clinton Take Advantage of Y2K?," Howse speculates that the president may use the computer bug as an excuse to declare martial law.

Howse asserted that Clinton has signed a series of 11 executive orders which "if invoked, could virtually suspend the U.S. Constitution." One directive, Howse says, authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency "to order the postmaster general to begin a national registration of all residents of the United States for purposes of controlling population movement and relocation."

Writes Howse, "I have personally talked with one U.S. representative that [sic] is very concerned about Clinton's executive orders and the real possibility of martial law. Our fears of the Clinton administration are not unfounded."

Robertson has also shown great interest in the Y2K problem. The Virginia Beach televangelist is running a "Y2K Resource Center" through the website of CBN News (www.cbn.org), and he sponsored a 1998 conference on the topic that drew 500 attendees. Last summer CBN broadcast two hour-long specials on the problem.

On the CBN website, Robertson recommends stockpiling supplies and tells his followers to be prepared to "do without power, heat, usable water or other utilities for at least some period of time....The phone system may go down as well in some parts of the country. Make provisions for these possibilities."

On his March 23, 1998, "700 Club" show, Robertson interviewed Ed Yourdon, a software consultant, who, along with his daughter Jennifer, wrote a popular Y2K doomsday tome titled Time Bomb 2000. During the interview, Robertson told Yourdon he had read a pamphlet by North recommending that people move to rural areas and asked Yourdon if he really believes there will be periods of societal breakdown.

"Unfortunately I do," replied Yourdon. He asserted that utility companies and banks are not ready for Y2K and added, "I think we have the prospect of some degree of chaos." Yourdon also said he expects Y2K to spark a "very, very severe recession" and said he personally has removed enough money from his bank to live on for a month.

On July 6 "The 700 Club" returned to the topic. Although Robertson was absent, guest host Harold Calvin Ray took an unusual perspective of the Y2K problem. The millennium bug, Ray asserted, is an orchestrated effort by unnamed nefarious forces to create one-world government.

"I think the whole Y2K piece is really a deliberate process," said Ray. "I mean, it's ridiculous to feel and to understand that in the process of having created this incredible, mammoth computer network, global alignment, Internet systems, informational systems, that we could not have also prepared for 2000 and beyond."

Continued Ray, "What we really have here is the growing inter-dependency among nations, the re-alignment among nations globally, that we are moving toward one-world government. And so what has to happen is, there must be the precipitation of social collapse, economic collapse, so that the sovereign nations begin to look toward a global alignment, that we can have the one-world government, that we can worship that religion of government that will protect us, provide for us, take care of us."

Asked by co-host Lisa Ryan if the Y2K problem is intentional, Ray answered, "I think it's absolutely deliberate, I sure do. It's nothing to be afraid of, but it is deliberate because in order to form the type of society where we can precipitate social and economic collapse, it must be under the exclusive control of a few or even one."

Dobson of Focus on the Family takes a less extreme tack. To the FOF head, Y2K is an opportunity for evangelism. The January issue of FOF's Citizen magazine carries a cover story by Shaunti Christine Feldhahn, author of Y2K: The Millennium Bug, A Balanced Christian Response, calling the computer bug not a problem but an opportunity. The cover type reads, "January 1, 2000: Computers crash, the lights go out, the government is in disarray...It could be the Church's finest hour."

According to Feldhahn, Y2K could present a perfect opportunity to spread the fundamentalist gospel. If chaos breaks out, she writes, secular government officials will turn to Christian fundamentalists for comfort and advice since they are already prepared for Y2K.

"Although Christians today often feel scorned and battered by secular society, we do have myriad contemporary examples of secular leaders turning to the Christian community for help and even leadership in the wake of crisis," writes Feldhahn. "Look at the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Gulf War, Hurricane Mitch and other natural disasters -- whenever there is a true emergency -- have you noticed that nonbelievers find that the things of this world can't truly meet their needs?"

Concludes Feldhahn, "Just as God has historically used times of crisis to touch and save hurting souls, He has also used turmoil to bring about change and accomplish His ultimate purposes."

The most extreme Y2K rhetoric is found among less well known religious conservatives and low-rent TV preachers. At the website of televangelist Morris Cerullo (www.mcwe.com), for example, visitors are warned that governments around the globe may lose control of their nuclear arsenals come Jan. 1.

"That means that at the tick of midnight 2000, America could be less than 30 minutes away from nuclear devastation...," writes Cerullo. Lapsing into capital letters he asserts, "THE Y2K PROBLEM COULD WELL TOUCH OFF A GLOBAL NUCLEAR WAR, ENSURING THE DEATHS OF BILLIONS OF PEOPLE!"

Cerullo then offers his followers a two-hour "Millennium Meltdown" video "to prepare the Body of Christ for the coming disaster!" To obtain the video, supporters need only to donate a $35 "love gift" to Cerullo's "TOP SECRET JEWISH WORLD OUTREACH PROJECT," a plan to "reach every Jewish home on the face of the earth with a witness of the Messiah!"

Is all of this millennium madness over Y2K affecting rank-and-file fundamentalists? Some are certainly preparing for the worst. The Dallas Morning News in January ran a profile of Karen Anderson, a Colleyville, Texas, woman who is convinced that American society will collapse after Jan. 1. When Anderson is not busy stockpiling military food rations and filling empty soda bottles with water, she spends her time with other like-minded fundamentalist women in operating a website, www.y2kwomen.com, designed to give practical advice to women concerned about the issue.

Anderson is certain that the end is near. The Dallas Observer reported last August that Anderson had a dentist remove the wisdom teeth of her two daughters, aged 13 and 15, even though the girls had not been experiencing problems. "I really did it because of Y2K," she said. "A lot of this stuff with year 2000 is we don't know. If you have to have elective surgery, do it before the equipment goes bad or before the rush. It's the pre-panic position."

In Sheldon, Iowa, Sioux County Sheriff Jim R. Schwiesow has taken it upon himself to warn the populace about Y2K-spawned chaos. In a lengthy letter to the editor of the Northwest Iowa Review, Schwiesow mixed Christian fundamentalism, Bible prophecy and Y2K hysteria into a potent cocktail.

Schwiesow believes Y2K has been sent by God to punish America for its wicked ways. "Our persistent unfaithfulness," he wrote, "includes decades of idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, abortion, a Messianic view of government, broken marriages, rampant immorality, and sad to say, much of the Christian church losing its savor, saying precious little about many of these things, and neglecting to bring the light of God's word to these matters."

Schwiesow recommended that the entire county "repent of our sins and rest our hopes for salvation fully and only upon [Jesus], and then live in obedience to his law." He also suggested that local residents and Christian churches store up extra food, wood and coal to help out neighbors and added that the sheriff's office might need "able-bodied young men, as special deputies, to help keep order in a potential time of great disorder."

Not everyone in the country agreed. Loren Bouma, chairman of the Sioux County Board of Supervisors, said he planned to ask the county attorney to determine whether the sheriff had illegally used county supplies to further a religious agenda.

Concerning Schwiesow's views on Y2K, Bouma remarked, "I don't think a majority of Sioux County residents feel that way. But that's Jim's belief, and he's free to express it."

Talk of stockpiling food and guns and forming vigilante bands to ward off looters exasperates Steve Hewitt, founder and editor of Christian Computing magazine in Raytown, Mo. An evangelical Christian himself, Hewitt is convinced that the claims of the Y2K doomsday brigade are unfounded and are causing undue panic. He has dedicated his life recently to stemming the hysteria and now travels around the country, giving Y2K seminars in evangelical churches. (Hewitt's articles on the subject can be read online at www.gospelcom.net/ccmag/.)

"When we first started following this story, we were shocked and amazed when we saw how some Christians were handling this," Hewitt told Church & State. "They seized upon it so quickly and easily. Many of those in the Christian community were disseminating what we believe to be sensational and false information. Everyone seemed to know someone who was overreacting. It was affecting people's lives, and if it's affecting people's lives, and it's not factual, that's just not right."

Hewitt points out that many of the Y2K horror stories circulating in the fundamentalist community are unsubstantiated. In a Wall Street Journal interview last January he pointed to a story contained in Feldhahn's book about how the head of a "large Southern power company" was frightened when equipment failed to operate during a Y2K test. A footnote attributes the story to "confidential information from the personal contacts of a respected Christian leader."

Speaking at a church in Spring Valley, Mo., Hewitt pointed to the claim and said, "Give me a name, give me a state, give me anything." (Feldhahn told the Journal she trusts her source.)

Hewitt believes many people are exploiting fears over Y2K to get rich quick or gain greater control of their followers. He notes the proliferation of companies hawking freeze-dried food, books, videos, generators and survival gear. By contrast his message -- there's no need to panic and the year 2000 will in many ways be a non-event -- can be a hard sell.

"People are much more likely to buy a book called Countdown to Chaos than Hey, Nothing's Happening," said Hewitt. "They [the Y2K doomsday crowd] say, 'We're not trying to scare people.' Yet the titles of their books have words like 'chaos,' 'bomb,' 'meltdown' and 'disaster' in them. Read the jackets. The jackets will scare you to death. They know what sells."

Hewitt is especially fed up with North, who, he said, sees Y2K as an instrument to bring about a theocratic government. "You have to understand that North's cards have been called," Hewitt said. "North should be totally thrown out of the picture on Y2K as uncredible....Y2K is a dream come true for North; he hopes it will happen. It will bring about his belief -- Reconstructionism. He wants government to fail and the banking system and stock market to fail, so we can go back to the days of Little House on the Prairie."

Hewitt and other critics note that many of the Y2K doomsday peddlers have been predicting some kind of societal collapse for years. Robertson, for example, predicted in 1981 that there would be a worldwide economic collapse "sometime between 1983 and 1985." On Jan. 1, 1980, he called the staff of the Christian Broadcasting Network together to warn them of an impending invasion of Israel by the Soviet Union. In Robertson's endtimes scenario, war in the Middle East would spark the crash of the U.S. and European economies, paving the way for a U.S. dictatorship headed by the Antichrist. All of this was supposed to have happened by the end of 1982.

North's predictions have been no more accurate. In 1987 he warned readers of one of his newsletters that the AIDS crisis would become so severe that by 1992 "we will run out of available hospital beds. This means that when you take a family member to stay in the hospital, you will either be sent away, or be sent to a very expensive private hospital, or they will start stacking AIDS victims up in minimal care, crowded facilities." North added that all homosexuals would be dead from AIDS within 10 years.

According to Wired magazine, in 1980 North predicted eminent nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and warned his followers to hoard gold and silver and move to "a safe place outside the major cities."

Despite North's spotty record as a prognosticator, he continues to play the role of an economic forecaster. The Reconstructionist guru produces a newsletter, The Remnant Review, that offers financial advice and comment on current events. It is not cheap. A 24-issue subscription to Remnant Review goes for $225. Other, less costly, North newsletters include Biblical Economics Today and Christian Reconstruction.

Government officials are working to counter some of the rhetoric coming from people like North, Falwell and other Religious Right figures. Last month Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman told a Senate committee looking into the matter that Y2K will not spawn food shortages and said there is no need for people to stockpile food.

Acknowledging that "there are some fear-mongers out there," Glickman told the committee, "By and large, our nation's food supply will remain reliable." In the "highly unlikely" event of food shortages, Glickman said, government and industry would intervene.

But these types of statements don't faze many of the Y2K hysteria mongers, who distrust the federal government and assert that officials are trying to downplay the scope of the Y2K bug to keep people from panicking.

In a sense, the Religious Right's Y2K demagogues have nothing to lose by promoting hysteria. Their dire predictions could become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy: If large numbers of people start to panic, societal unrest could result. If throngs of people become convinced banks are unsafe and rush to withdraw their money, the economic system could become de-stabilized.

"If the panic continues, North wins," Hewitt said. "That's why people are now saying that the greatest danger of Y2K is overreaction."

Many officials in government agree, and various agencies are taking steps to assuage fears. The Federal Reserve will print $50 billion in extra currency by the year's end, just to make sure banks enough cash on hand if there are runs. (A Gallup poll last December indicated that 10 percent of the population said they plan to withdraw some or all of their money from banks before Jan. 1.) The federal government has also established a toll-free Y2K hotline to answer citizens' questions at (888) USA-4Y2K.

Hewitt remains optimistic that most Americans will not buy into the Religious Right's fear-mongering and panic. He believes his message is getting out, though it can be an uphill struggle. Even Falwell, Hewitt said, seems to be backing off from some of his earlier claims about Y2K. Falwell has agreed to host Hewitt at his Thomas Road Baptist Church and allow him to write a column for an upcoming edition of the National Liberty Journal.

What should the prudent person do to prepare for Y2K? Hewitt notes that the Red Cross recommends that people keep a week's supply of food on hand, keep the car's gas tank at least half full and have flashlights, blankets, batteries and other emergency supplies around. But he also points out that the Red Cross recommends people keep these supplies around at all times, since foul weather or natural disasters can knock out power and heat just about any time.

Hewitt anticipates that Jan. 1, 2000, will be just another day. But he doesn't expect that to faze the doomsday crowd. "They say the sky might be falling," he said. "When it doesn't happen, they'll say, 'We've been praying. Guess what, my prayers were answered. Hallelujah and thank you!'"