Is the Rapture schadenfreude turning sinister?

We’ve all had our fun with Harold Camping and his prediction of the Rapture, which if you haven’t heard, is scheduled for 11 pm PT tonight — or just as the shows let out here in Las Vegas, so Penn & Teller will be available for it.  Like my fellow Catholics, Lutherans, and other more traditional churches, we don’t accept the Rapture as doctrinal, so my concern and interest levels are somewhat on the low side anyway.  That’s really convenient for me, because if I did believe in it, the last place I’d want to be when it occurs is Sin City.  We’d barely know it was happening here anyway.  “Did that stage dancer just disappear into the sky?  Oh, wait, no, I can see the wires.”

Tiffany Stanley at The New Republic intended to spend today with Camping’s followers and deliver more snark by the barrel, but a funny thing happened on the way to the media beat-down — she began to worry more about what the coverage says about the media than what it says about Camping’s congregation:

Yesterday, references to Judgment Day made up the entire top five of Google’s Hot Searches. At The Washington Post, a story about Family Radio—the Christian broadcast network that Camping owns—was the site’s most popular item. Another piece, on the group’s followers, was the most-emailed from The New York Times. Meanwhile, Huffington Post has devoted an entire webpage to doomsday coverage, under its standard heading: “Some news is so big that it needs its own page.”

Here at TNR, we thought about joining the circus. Last week, when we learned that Camping was predicting the apocalypse, I was tasked with spending May 21—the day of the Rapture—with a few of his true-believing followers, who have been filling websites, billboards, and city squares, handing out pamphlets, and generally warning the world to repent. What an amazing story, I thought. I’ll spend time with people who believe the world is going to end, and then be able to watch their reactions when it doesn’t.

But before long, I had second thoughts. First, I ran into some accessibility snags. While the media-friendly end-timers wanted to warn heathens beforehand, they really just wanted to spend their last day on earth surrounded by loved ones, in quiet preparation. Their response to me was something like: Why would you want to follow us around on Saturday? We’re not going to be here anymore. Yes, there was a certain humor to this. But the more I looked into the story, the more it began to turn my stomach to think of spending my Saturday evening in someone’s living room, waiting for that gotcha moment when they realized it was all a lie—leaving me to file a story the next day, poking fun at their gullibility. I decided I couldn’t do it.

Yet the media coverage has continued, and now to me, the schadenfreude has turned sinister. Based on the high traffic the articles are garnering, it would seem as if many of us are intrigued voyeurs, gleeful in knowing the exact day when these people will experience their life’s greatest disappointment. We feel superior, knowing that even though they told us we were heading for death and destruction, now, they get theirs.

Well, that’s not totally unjustified.  Camping first predicted that Christ would return in 1994 — in fact, he published a book predicting it, although the title 1994? included a very convenient question mark.  People who follow doomsday demagogues even after a spectacular failure put themselves in position for some ridicule, not to mention the false prophet himself.

Still, these are real people, and their individual stories are troubling.  One mother with three children stopped working and saving for their college tuition, and her apathy about their future has become all too apparent to her kids.  Another young couple with one baby and another on the way have spent all of their money in anticipation that they won’t take it with them.  For most married couples, pregnancy is a time of hope and optimism, but not for this couple. And there are hundreds or thousands of people just like them who will face very difficult times indeed for having believed in a charlatan.

I suspect that the media feeding frenzy Stanley describes has less to do with an impulse to lampoon the ridiculous than an impulse to ridicule Christianity in general.  Despite Camping and his followers being an extremely small fringe group, the media has covered this story as if the entire Southern Baptist church made this prediction.  Stanley also concurs that this should be an extremely small story, not a dominating narrative, but also predicts that we’ve just seen the beginning of it.  Come tomorrow morning, we’re going to see a deluge of snarky reports about the silly end-timers who got left behind — excuse me, Left Behind — which will all carry an unstated theme of “oh, those silly Christians and their silly beliefs!”

Camping will pass the way of all false prophets, and the media will eventually find another obsessive focus.  It’s not out of bounds to chuckle over the gullibility of those who rely on false prophets, but it’s worth considering who and what benefits from this avalanche of coverage of an obscure, already-discredited crank.