By Paul Simao
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, submerging entire neighborhoods for weeks with its ferocious tidal surge, some say it was not a freak act of nature but a message from an angry God.
That's the belief of some Christians in the United States, who have been warning the Mardi Gras capital, long known for its hedonistic ways, was bucking for a good dose of divine retribution.
The Army Corps of Engineers work to build a temporary levee on the sight of the breach at the Industrial Canal Levee in the Ninth Ward region of New Orleans, Louisiana October 11, 2005. Homes near the levee breach were destroyed by the rush of floodwaters that inundated the entire region during Hurricane Katrina and Rita. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
"There's been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years," the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of influential American preacher Billy Graham, said during an appearance this month at Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Saying New Orleans is a city known for Satan worship, orgies and widespread drinking and drug use, the younger Graham spoke about how some believed God was using the hurricane to spark a religious revival there.
That the death and destruction visited on residents of the city in late August could have been the product of divine intervention even found its way into the halls of government. "Maybe God's going to cleanse us," Oliver Thomas, president of the New Orleans City Council, told reporters after the storm.
For some Christians, a good cleansing would start with the saloons, gay bars and erotic dance clubs that line Bourbon Street in the city's French Quarter, which ironically was relatively unscathed by Katrina's wind and water.
It is there that tourists and locals flock when they come to town, especially during the annual Mardi Gras celebrations when public nudity and drunken revelry become staples of the historic district's street life.
Itinerant evangelists are also drawn to the quarter, although they seek stray souls rather than hook-ups and hangovers. "I'm here to spread the Gospel," said Michael Walker, who stood on Bourbon Street with a sign that read "Time is running out. Do you know Jesus?"
Indeed, millions of people, particularly in the Southern Bible Belt states, believe the physical world will come to an end as the result of a supernatural event, such as those described in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Those who embrace this Apocalyptic vision -- about 15 to 20 percent of U.S. Christians by some accounts -- have been bolstered in their beliefs by what they see as a spiritual decay in America that has lasted for decades.
From their perspective, legalized abortion, gay rights and the widespread availability of pornography are an affront to God and proof the world has descended into the darkness the Bible says is supposed to occur before the end of the world.
"Their rhetoric is that perhaps God's blessing has been removed and we can't expect to be protected," said Nancy Ammerman, a sociology professor at Boston University who has written about conservative Christians.
Indeed, some evangelicals latched onto Katrina, which hit New Orleans days before the city was to hold a "Southern Decadence" festival, as the sort of cataclysmic event the New Testament says will occur before Jesus returns to Earth.
Skeptics note Christians have been making incorrect predictions for 2,000 years about Judgment Day, including shortly before the dawn of the new millennium a few years ago.
Although most who subscribe to the idea of the world ending sooner rather than later peacefully practice their faith, there are a small number on the fringe actively working to help speed up the process, sometimes violently.
Often referred to as "Apocalyptic cults," these groups have on occasion convinced their followers to commit mass suicides in the belief that the world as they knew it was ending.