Who Knew that Armageddon Actually Matters in American Politics? Matthew Sutton Explains.Historians/History
David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.
Matthew Avery Sutton is associate professor of history at Washington State University, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America and the forthcoming American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse. He recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times outlining apocalyptic strains in American politics and was a guest on the Lawrence O'Donnell Show.
I spoke to Mr. Sutton last week via. telephone.
Your op-ed in the New York Times last week stirred up quite a bit of media controversy. What’s your reaction to it all?
I had no idea it would snowball the way it did. I did the Lawrence O’Donnell Show on MSNBC on the 25th, and an hour later a heckler at an Obama fundraiser actually called the president the Antichrist. That’s what really triggered the media storm; my phone’s been ringing off the hook ever since and I’ve been getting inundated with emails.
O’Donnell asked you this question, but I want to give a bit more room to expand on your answer. A lot of people aren’t really too familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Antichrist.
The whole scheme that conservative Christians (and understand I’m referring to conservative, fundamentalist, Protestant Christians) developed for predicting the end times comes from a combination of scriptures, and it’s actually a fairly complicated scenario. It’s always interesting to be in a classroom giving this lecture, then encountering a student who believes the conclusions—the Antichrist, the Rapture—but has no idea where the Bible supports it.
Essentially, it’s a reading of the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel, along with some of Jesus’s sayings in the New Testament—especially the Book of Matthew—and the Book of Revelation. What some conservative Christians do is map a variety of passages together and on top of each other to build this larger picture of how things are going to unfold.
And what the marks of the Antichrist?
There’s a lot of them. Essentially, what conservative Christians expect will happen is that nations will take on more of a totalitarian nature, that governments will consolidate power. More and more power will be exercised by the state and less and less will be exercised by individuals. There will be fewer religious liberties and fewer civil liberties. Nations will be subsumed into a one-world government, and as this happens there will be wars, rumors of wars, natural disasters, economic turmoil, famine and disease. After all of these things happen, the true Christians will be raptured to Heaven.
At that point the Antichrist will emerge—and he’ll already have been on the world stage, but not necessarily as a world leader—and he’ll emerge as the leader who offers a solution to the world’s problems and will salvage the world from the chaos. Things will then get better for a couple of years, but then the Antichrist will turn, and people will then realize he’s the Antichrist. There will be a series of wars as different leaders challenge him, and it will all culminate in the Battle of Armageddon, which will take place literally in the nation of Israel and in the Middle East.
There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of millennialist thought in Catholicism or the Orthodox church.
Right. It’s very different than Catholic or Orthodox thought, and in fact it’s only one segment of Protestants. American Protestantism has long been divided into more conservative branches and more liberal branches. These differences really come to a head in the early twentieth century, which is what sparked the creation of the fundamentalist movement. This is essential to understanding American fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, Protestant fundamentalism. Liberal Protestants had a different view, and there were lots of debates over millennial issues in the 1920s and 1930s.
You traced out in the New York Times why Franklin Delano Roosevelt was associated with the Antichrist. The landscape of the 1930s was one where totalitarian states were on the rise, and rightly or wrongly, fundimentalists interpreted the New Deal, FDR’s attempted court-packing, etc., as totalitarian in nature. There doesn’t seem to be that same sort of global trend today.
True, we really don’t have a Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini to draw comparisons to, but the sense today is that the economic chaos creates anxiety and unease about where we are as a nation and where we’re going. And certainly the rise of Islamic states in American consciousness, combined with the sense that Islam is growing more powerful, has led fundamentalist Christians to see this as a potential threat.
What about World War I? One of my favorite poems is W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming, which very explicitly wraps that war in apocalyptic imagery. And there were the Fatima miracles of 1917, which fed into (in this case Catholic) anxieties about the end times. What was going on with Protestants in America?
The fundamentalist movement in the United States was just growing and developing in the 1910s, and World War I was a major spark. I’m working on another book now, and the second chapter will lay out the foundation of fundamentalist Christianity, with World War I being a huge turning point. This is for several reasons. Part of it is the global chaos—the violence and destruction—but especially because the violence came in such contrast to the optimism of the Progressive era, which often spoke of world peace. There was this sense that the nineteenth century was over and we were going to shoot up to some global utopia. Then World War I hits. The fundamentalists were really shaking their fingers saying “We’re right. We were right before, we’re right now, we told you so. We said things would get worse, and they have.”
And they were right about another thing: the Jews returned to Palestine. Fundamentalists had long believed this to be a prerequisite for the end times, and in 1917 the British issued the Balfour Declaration.
Where does the belief the Jews need to be back in Palestine for the end times to come originate?
It comes from one of Jesus’s parables, the parable of the budding fig tree (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, and Luke 21:29-33). The fig tree was supposed to be symbolic of Israel. Fundamentalists were ardent Zionists even before the Zionist movement really got going. Fundamentalists were calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine even before Hertzl. So then, once you have World War I, the British capture of Jerusalem, and the Balfour Declaration, fundamentalists were ecstatic. It had been just what they were asking for, and something they’d been predicting for a couple of decades. So when you go from there to the rise of totalitarian states…
This is why as an historian I’ve very sympathetic to that generation of fundamentalists—the ones who lived through the ‘20s and ’30s and ‘40s, because they laid out this scenario and saw it almost fulfilled, until about 1943. They had to reconfigure their plans after that.
Let’s discuss the political implications. One of the direct consequences of millenialist theology was the rise of conservative fundamentalist Christianity in America. What can we expect today?
This is where I, as an historian, need to be a bit careful. In the Times, I wrote that throughout the twentieth century, when we have a so-called liberal president, there seems to be a rise in apocalyptic thinking among evangelicals on the heels of that. We had Roosevelt and a major rise in apocalyptic thinking. Then it sort of subsides until the 1960s, as things get crazy with the student movements, with Vietnam, we then see a rise again in apocalyptic thinking, especially in response to the Great Society. The symbol of that, for me, is the publication in 1970 of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which was the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade. And then it subsides in the 1980s and 1990s, but then during the Clinton years Tim LaHaye publishes the novel Left Behind, which became another insane phenomenon. The whole series revolved around the scenario I outlined earlier: the Rapture, the Tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming. But it subsides a bit during the Bush administration.
I’m being speculative, but what we’re seeing now is, once again, a rise in apocalyptic thinking. It’s not just tied to Obama—global terrorism plays its part—but there’s a sense that, with Obama in the White House, and the characteristics he shares with what fundamentalists and evangelicals believe the Antichrist will possess, they’re once again making the connections.
Every time there’s been an up-tick in apocalyptic thought, there’s been a Democrat in the White House, with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter, who was (and presumably still is) himself an evangelical Christian.
There wasn’t a strong up-tick under Carter, or at least not one I can document as easily as some of the other ones. He wasn’t perceived as as much of a threat as Roosevelt, as Johnson, and certainly as Obama. That may be because people believed his religious sincerity even if they believed he was misguided on some of his policies. I’m not sure exactly what accounts for that.
It sounds like there’s a natural political alliance between apocalyptic evangelicals and libertarians. Their objection to Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama seems to have been ambitious social programs that increase the power of the state because it fits with their apocalyptic narrative.
I think that such an alliance does exist, though I’ve gotten a bunch of angry emails from libertarians this week for lumping them together with evangelical Christians, so they’re not necessarily happy about it. But certainly the anti-statism of libertarianism resonates with the anti-statism of evangelicals, and there are a number of journalists who have been doing work on this recently, looking for links between fundamentalists and the Tea Party.
And there have been stories showing that there are indeed strong connections and strong parallels, though libertarians and evangelicals differ in a lot of things (marijuana, abortion, gay marriage). In terms of anti-statism, though, they have a lot in common, and this is exemplified by candidates like Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry, who preach anti-statism to both libertarians and evangelicals.
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