By MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON
Published: September 25, 2011
THE end is near — or so it seems to a segment of Christians aligned with the religious right. The global economic meltdown, numerous natural disasters and the threat of radical Islam have fueled a conviction among some evangelicals that these are the last days. While such beliefs might be dismissed as the rantings of a small but vocal minority, apocalyptic fears helped drive the antigovernment movements of the 1930s and ’40s and could help define the 2012 presidential campaign as well.
Christian apocalypticism has a long and varied history. Its most prevalent modern incarnation took shape a century ago, among the vast network of preachers, evangelists, Bible-college professors and publishers who established the fundamentalist movement. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and independents, they shared a commitment to returning the Christian faith to its “fundamentals.”
Biblical criticism, the return of Jews to the Holy Land, evolutionary science and World War I convinced them that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. Basing their predictions on biblical prophecy, they identified signs, drawn especially from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, that would foreshadow the arrival of the last days: the growth of strong central governments and the consolidation of independent nations into one superstate led by a seemingly benevolent leader promising world peace.
This leader would ultimately prove to be the Antichrist, who, after the so-called rapture of true saints to heaven, would lead humanity through a great tribulation culminating in the second coming and Armageddon. Conservative preachers, evangelists and media personalities of the 20th century, like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, shared these beliefs.
Fundamentalists’ anticipation of a coming superstate pushed them to the political right. As the government grew in response to industrialization, fundamentalists concluded that the rapture was approaching. Their anxieties worsened in the 1930s with the rise of fascism. Obsessed with matching biblical prophecy with current events, they studied Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, each of whom seemed to foreshadow the Antichrist.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt troubled them as well. His consolidation of power across more than three terms in the White House, his efforts to undermine the autonomy of the Supreme Court, his dream of a global United Nations and especially his rapid expansion of the government confirmed what many fundamentalists had feared: the United States was lining up with Europe in preparation for a new world dictator.
As a result, prominent fundamentalists joined right-wing libertarians in their effort to undermine Roosevelt. That this mix of millennialism and activism seemed inconsistent — why work for reform if the world is destined for Armageddon? — never troubled them. They simply asserted that Jesus had called them to “occupy” until he returned (Luke 19:13). Like orthodox Marxists who challenge capitalism even though they say they believe it represents an inevitable step on the road to the socialist paradise, conservative Christians never let their conviction that the future is already written lead them to passivity.
The world in 2011 resembles the world of the 1930s in many respects. International turmoil and a prolonged economic downturn have fueled distrust of government, as has the rise of a new libertarianism represented in the explosive growth of the Tea Party.
For some evangelicals, President Obama is troubling. The specious theories about his place of birth, his internationalist tendencies, his measured support for Israel and his Nobel Peace Prize fit their long-held expectations about the Antichrist. So does his commitment to expanding the reach of government in areas like health care.
In 2008, the campaign of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, presciently tapped into evangelicals’ apocalyptic fears by producing an ad, “The One,” that sarcastically heralded Mr. Obama as a messiah. Mr. McCain was onto something. Not since Roosevelt have we had a president of charisma and global popularity, who so perfectly fits the evangelicals’ Antichrist mold.
While Depression-era fundamentalists represented only a small voice among the anti-Roosevelt forces of the 1930s, evangelicals have grown ever savvier and now constitute one of the largest interest groups in the Republican Party. In the past, relatively responsible leaders like Mr. Graham, who worked with Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and even Mr. Falwell, who reined in evangelical excess in exchange for access to the Reagan White House, channeled their evangelical energy.
Not now. A leadership vacuum exists on the evangelical right that some Republicans — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and even Ron Paul — are exploiting. How tightly their strident anti-statism will connect with evangelical apocalypticism remains to be seen.
The left is in disarray while libertarianism is on the ascent. A new generation of evangelicals — well-versed in organizing but lacking moderating influences — is lining up behind hard-right anti-statists. While few of the faithful truly think that the president is the Antichrist, millions of voters, like their Depression-era predecessors, fear that the time is short. The sentiment that Mr. Obama is preparing the United States, as Roosevelt did, for the Antichrist’s global coalition is likely to grow.
Barring the rapture, Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could well ride the apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians into the Oval Office. Indeed, the tribulation may be upon us.