An estimated 70 million Americans call themselves evangelicals, and their beliefs have already reshaped American politics. In the last election, 40 percent of the votes for George W. Bush came from their ranks, and now those beliefs are beginning to reshape the culture as well -- thanks to a group of best-selling novels known as the "Left Behind" series.
If you want to understand the people behind this political and cultural shift, the place to begin is in church. Correspondent Morley Safer reports.
"I don't think the media has really caught on to what's been going on in the last 30 years or so in America. An enormous number of people have come to faith in Christ and consider themselves evangelical Christians. And these are people that are buying, reading and distributing our books," says Rev. Tim LaHaye.
LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have written a series of runaway bestsellers known as the "Left Behind" novels. All together, there are 40 million books in print, and another 17 million in spin-offs. Plus, "The Kids" series, audio books and comic books are worth $100 million in annual revenue.
The books give a graphic version of the New Testament prophesy of the end of the world, happening in our time, in which only the righteous are saved. It's a triumphant tale -- unmistakably Christian, undeniably American.
"I think if you cut us, Jerry and I would bleed red, white and blue," says LaHaye. "We believe that God has raised up America to be a tool in these last days, to get the Gospel to the innermost parts of the earth."
The "Left Behind" sagas begin with a mysterious event: one third of the passengers on a transatlantic flight suddenly disappear, leaving only their clothes behind.
What has happened? It's an event that evangelicals call the Rapture, where every true-believing Christian, and every child under the age of 12, vanishes in an instant to a better place. All others will face the Tribulation.
"It could happen at any moment. It could happen, as we like to say, during this interview. Like that. Bang," says Thomas Ice, who might be called a professor emeritus of the Rapture. He runs the Pre-Tribulation Research Center out of his garage in a Dallas suburb. It's a one-man think-tank funded by LaHaye and dedicated to preparation for the last days on earth.
"There is a lot of debate over where … artificial body parts, and contact lenses, and clothes would be "Left Behind" or not. But the body would definitely be taken," adds Ice.
That's what happens to believers. But the rest of humanity is condemned to suffering.
"That's what the Bible teaches. There are gonna be many Southern Baptists, for example, or many Presbyterians, or many Catholics, or people who are a part of Christendom," says Ice. "But if they haven't personally trusted Jesus Christ as their savior, even if they … a lifelong member of a church, you know, then they will be damned."
At the Watermark Community Church in Dallas, Rev. Todd Wagner tells his flock that the books may be fiction, but they are based on hard facts. Non-believers are doomed.
Safer asked Wagner who would be "Left Behind": "What would be my fate?"
"Folks like yourself that are gonna be here, are gonna go through all the events that Christ outlined in Mark:13 and Matthew:24 -- some of which are quite horrific," says Wagner. "It would be the time of trouble like we've never seen before."
For evangelicals, the Rapture and what follows are factual history, history of the future, prophecy.
"It's not a minority view, it's not a group of folks that are niched somewhere over there. It's a very mainstream view," says Wagner.
It's such a concrete reality that the publishers of the "Left Behind" books can even market a videotape for those who don't make the celestial cut.
People who believe in the Rapture believe the Bible -- word for literal word.
"The Bible says what it means, and means what it says," says Don McWhinney, an oil executive from Dallas.
60 Minutes discussed the "Left Behind" books with him and three other evangelicals. And for these readers, the characters in these novels are quite real.
"Will they just take the body and leave the clothes? Watches, and rings, and fillings? Will the whole body be taken? I don't know," says McWhinney. "But all I know is that God is in control of it. And I have to accept that and believe it. Or I begin to reject it, then it begins to work on my faith in the wrong direction … It would lead to doubt. Doubt is not even an option."
All four evangelical Christians, however, agree that they feel confident that they won't be "Left Behind".
But do evangelicals think they will live to see the Rapture?
"My thinking is I sure hope so. I think it'd be really cool," says Ice.
Rev. Peter Gomes, a Baptist theologian at Harvard University, is one of this country's preeminent Christian thinkers. He says that the chief source for such belief is a highly controversial book of the Bible: Revelation.
"One of the things we know about this book is that it is written in a period of intense persecution of the church. And so the theme that runs through it is what happens to the faithful if they stand up for their faith," says Gomes. "Terrible things will happen to them in the short term. But in the long run, they will triumph, and those who persecute them will be destroyed."
Gomes believes that this provides some kind of solace and encouragement to believers in today's society: "The events of September 11 gave an even greater urgency to believers, and some non-believers."
"I think 9/11 was a wake-up call to America. Suddenly, our false sense of security was shaken. And we're vulnerable. And that fear can lead many people to Christ," says LaHaye, who takes that message around the country. "When Jesus shouts from heaven, there are going to be millions of people taken to heaven, and there will be millions of people who are "Left Behind"."
"I realize that our message is inherently offensive and divisive, especially in this new age of tolerance. Especially since 9/11," says Jenkins. "I understand how that sounds. But I'm telling you this 'cause I really do believe it."
And Gomes says that belief goes well beyond the pews of churches and the aisles of bookstores. He says that it's both a political and cultural movement.
"Evangelicals have been on the cultural defensive. But they have waited in the wilderness. And now in the fullness of time, they have come into possession of what they felt was once rightfully theirs," says Gomes.
"And so, with the White House, and Tom DeLay, and in the House of Representatives, the attorney general … talk radio, the conservative Fox News, all that sort of thing, these are parts of the righteous army that has finally come into its own."
Gary Bauer, who once competed with George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, now runs a Washington organization that lobbies for evangelical Christian issues. He remembers being at the Iowa Republican Presidential debate, when all candidates were asked which political philosopher they most identified with.
President Bush said: "Christ, because he changed my heart. When you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life."
How is Mr. Bush different from Jimmy Carter, who is a born-again Christian?
"When Jimmy Carter began to support abortion or other things, then that became a jarring inconsistency for many of these voters," says Bauer. "With the president, what he says he believes as a matter of faith also seems to be reflected in many of the policies in his plan to distribute social services through religious institutions."
Other examples include his rejection on gay marriage, his stand on stem cell research – views that fit perfectly into the agenda of the most powerful bloc in the Republican party.
"I'm not accusing my Democratic friends of being ungodly. But I'm just saying statistically, people that attend church frequently, at least once a week or more -- two thirds of them vote Republican," says Bauer. "Those voters that say they seldom if ever attend religious services, two thirds of them vote Democratic."
For evangelicals, the war in Iraq is seen not merely as a war against terror.
Last year, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense, and an evangelical, made headlines when he publicly described the war on terror as a religious mission. Of one Muslim warlord, he said, "My God is bigger than his. My God is a real God."
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the Bush administration, and its cozy relationship with church and state. But Bauer disagrees.
"I don't see it. I don't know why they're uncomfortable. Nobody in America is being told how to worship," says Bauer.
But in a country that is home to millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians who believe otherwise, such exclusivity can take on the appearance of extremism, especially when you add politics and patriotism to the gospels.
"The trouble with evangelicalism of a certain stripe in America is that it's been so long from power that it is seduced by power. And once it gets it, it is very hard to distinguish secular power from spiritual power," says Gomes.
These are heady times for evangelicals: an election year, with one of their own in the White House, the final book in the "Left Behind" series to be published in March, and, of course, always the chance, even hope, of that greatest of events, the Rapture.
"Not everybody who thinks they know what's going to happen knows," says Gomes. "So, I'm willing to take my chances, not with the evangelicals, but with the Lord. I'm going to place my hands in his."