Is Obama Satan’s Warm-up Act?

Ever since my daughter and I noted in the pages of Religion Dispatches that some End Times believers consider Barack Obama a serious contender for the Antichrist, I’ve kept my antennae out for the ongoing development of this discourse.

Though certain conservatives floated the idea as a trial balloon during the presidential campaign—notably in an interview with John Hagee on the Glenn Beck show—that rhetoric has seldom been heard in the public square. It should not be forgotten, however, that in various subtle (perhaps only half-conscious) ways the idea has been insinuated through a narrative of Obama as a “savior” who harnesses people’s irrational emotion with his rhetoric of peace and justice.

The Obama-as-Antichrist rhetoric recently poked its head out of the closet when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, co-authors of the Left Behind series, discussed it on the Rachel Maddow show. Jenkins subsequently complained about how Maddow edited them, so she posted the entire interview (which you can watch at the bottom of this story). The exchange is worth watching in its entirety, but I will offer a brief summary analysis of the duo’s two-step.

Jenkins and LaHaye wisely distanced themselves from a bald assertion that Obama is the Antichrist, retreating instead to a somewhat more theologically tortuous position of Obama as something of a warm-up act. First, because the Antichrist will only appear after the rapture—and since Obama “claims to be a Christian” and “might be a closet Christian”—he may not even be on Earth during the crucial stages. (Familiar readers may recall, however, that liberal Christians in End-Times novels are almost always left behind.) Second, they argued that there must be an overwhelming consensus about the Antichrist’s popularity—a state of affairs that does not currently exist. In fact, Jenkins claimed that he had heard “from just about as many Democrats accusing McCain of being the Antichrist as Republicans accusing Obama” (a doubtful claim, though interesting if true). In any case, at worst Obama appears not to be the Antichrist, but merely to be setting the stage for his later appearance.

Despite these disclaimers, Jenkins allowed that “I can see why people might think that”—i.e., think that Obama fits the job description. LaHaye repeatedly returned to the dual claim that prophetic scenarios foretell a stage of socialism in which “government controls everything”—redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots—and that Obama is such a socialist working for such a world. His key argument was that Obama’s policies suggest that prophecies are falling into place. In other words, Obama is playing his part as a key leader of the bad guys even if he’s not the Antichrist himself.

Not surprisingly, “confusion in the Middle East” figured prominently in LaHaye’s vision. Citing Ezekiel 38 and 39, which according to LaHaye are about contemporary Russian and Middle Eastern politics, he claimed that: “For the first time in world history the Russians are working openly with the Arab world; that kind of makes you think [the fulfillment of prophecy] could be very close at hand.”

Asked about the impact of such thinking on government policies during the Bush administration, LaHaye began by claiming “I’ve never been asked that before.” He did go on to note that, no matter how much or little Washington politicians read Left Behind, all government actions are “going to be according to the End Times prophecies. You can’t have a world socialist government headed by an Antichrist [after the rapture] without similar patterns that are going on today” to set the stage.

Maddow did a nice job of pressing LaHaye about whether he looked forward to his scenario of doom (at least for unraptured people)—a vision somewhat akin to Rush Limbaugh’s desire for Obama to fail, but in this case intensified by religious emotion. LaHaye seemed unsure how to frame his response—how much to stress that he hoped for the sake of the country that his bleaker scenarios would not unfold, as opposed to hoping based on his theology that they would unfold.

Perhaps his uncertainty holds out a small thread of optimism for citizens who, like our president, “might be closet Christians” or unlikely candidates for rapture. If LaHaye continues to be slightly embarrassed spinning his theories in public, most likely because he fears how they will appear in the light of rational public inquiry, this cannot be entirely good news for the “Obama as Antichrist” discourse, even when it scores a prominent spot on prime-time television.

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mhulseth@utk.edu'

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Tennessee and the father of Lucia Hulsether. His most recent book is Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth Century United States (Columbia University Press, 2007).