The Antichrist in U.S. Politics

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Matthew A. Sutton observed that the Antichrist is relevant to evangelical voters, who tend to vote Republican. Specifically, he wrote:

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.

Sutton, an associate professor of history at Washington State University, is the author of the award-winning Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (2007) and is currently working on a book that examines American evangelicals, apocalyptic thought, and politics. (He expanded on his thoughts in an interview with HNN, which is worth a read.)
Thomas S. Kidd, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion, is less convinced than Sutton that evangelical Republicans are influenced by the Antichrist conspiracy theory when it comes to U.S. politics. He criticizes Sutton for creating bogeymen where none exist:

Sutton names no evangelicals who supposedly see Obama as the Antichrist. In fact, he can’t name names, because there are no serious evangelicals who believe that. I am sure that somewhere in the bowels of the internet one could find evidence of a crank or two who have speculated about Obama as Antichrist, but they would be so obscure that they would damage Sutton and the Times’ case. Better to leave everything at the level of implication and innuendo.

Oh, how the left would love it if they could actually find a mainstream evangelical who sees President Obama as the Antichrist, or who believes in Dominionism! In the absence of that, Sutton is left with absurd notions like the idea that John McCain’s campaign was playing on hazy evangelical dreams of the Antichrist with their 2008 video send-up of Obama as “The One.” Of course, it is unfathomable to the Times that Obama and his followers really did, on occasion, slip into quasi-messianic rhetoric about the significance of his campaign. No, we are told, this video was used by those crafty (and non-evangelical) McCain staffers to speak in code to the evangelical base, getting them to the polls to vote against the “man of sin.”

Unlike these two historians, I do not study religion, so take this for what it’s worth. I didn’t read Sutton as arguing that the Republican candidates themselves believed in apocalyptic thought; rather, he argued that they are appealing to a segment of the party base. There is an element of Christianity that responds to this imagery and language coding, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that most of its adherents vote conservative/Republican. If I can see that, surely Republican party strategists can see it as well.

This identification of the Antichrist is not new in U.S. history. I was surprised to find at the Filson Historical Society this past summer a reference to Andrew Jackson as “the Beast” (or Antichrist). In 1835, Aaron Tufts, about whom I know nothing, wrote a member of the Beatty family with his theory about who the Beast was. He predicted that the Antichrist would be 67 years old. After thinking that it might be the Russian emperor Nicholas I, he “finally concluded it was old Hick[or]y.” Tufts then changed his mind, naming Austrian emperor Frances I as the most likely culprit. Still, he was convinced that Jackson was “one of the six beasts spoken of in Rev[elation] and Daniel.”

What to make of all this? Who knows. It seems clear that the Adams campaign missed a grand opportunity to seal the deal in the 1828 campaign, though. Adding “Antichrist” to its depiction of Jackson as a murdering wife-stealer could have given Adams a second term and sent Old Hickory back into retirement at the Hermitage.

My thanks to the Filson Historical Society for permission to quote from the following letter in its collection: Aaron Tufts to Adam Beatty, 4 August 1835, Beatty-Quisenberry Family Papers, 1796-1962 (Mss. A B369), Adam Beatty Correspondence, 1835, f. 12, Filson Historical Society.

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