Barack Obama has an evangelical problem—he just doesn’t know it yet. Since Jerry Falwell’s funeral, Pat Robertson’s withdrawal from the national spotlight, and James Dobson’s retirement, many journalists and historians have joined the Democrats in dancing on the grave of the religious right. But the celebration has been premature.
There is no doubt that we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of moderate Christian leaders, including Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, who look more like Oprah Winfrey than Billy Sunday. Nevertheless, while the president has reached out to the faithful, he has yet to realize that he is dealing with a countercultural movement that at its foundation is obsessed with the apocalypse. But he will know it soon enough. With the culture wars heating up again—fueled by a Catholic nominee to the Supreme Court, the murder of an abortion provider, the administration’s positions on gay rights, and ongoing discussions about the environment—a surge in apocalyptic rhetoric is imminent.
The vast majority of American evangelicals interpret the most obscure books of the Bible (Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation) in a very narrow and particular way. They believe that when these three books are read in conjunction with one another and overlaid with a few of Jesus’ statements, a hidden “plan of the ages” emerges. According to their decryptions, a number of events will transpire just before the apocalypse. These include a return of the Jews to Palestine, a decline in morals, religious apostasy, and the consolidation of independent nations into one super-state led by a seemingly benevolent leader who is actually the Antichrist.
During the last 100 years, evangelicals have witnessed more and more evidence of these prophecies being fulfilled. In the reigns of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they saw the Antichrist foreshadowed. The rapid expansion of the New Deal state and FDR’s dream of a global United Nations threatened evangelicals’ sense of religious liberty and national independence. For the faithful living in the 1930s and ’40s, to support Rooseveltian liberalism or internationalism was to be complicit in the rise of the Antichrist.
In the late 1960s, evangelicals once again faced growing state power in the form of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” while simultaneously witnessing the apparent evaporation of cherished American values. They responded by reverting to apocalyptic jeremiads. This was most evident in the runaway success of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s. At the same time evangelicals, although scorning Hollywood, turned to modern technology to preach Armageddon. The result was the cult phenomenon A Thief in the Night, an Armageddon-themed film that popularized one of the first pop Christian hits, Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The movie scared countless teenagers (and probably an equal number of adults) into preparing for the rapture.
Millennial fervor swept evangelicals again in the late 1990s on the heels of the two-term Clinton presidency. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published Left Behind, the first in a series of novels that grew into the best-selling series of the past decade (until they were finally overtaken by the true prince of darkness himself, Harry Potter). Films, music, and even a line of kids’ books turned Left-Behind apocalypticism into a billion dollar business. Evangelicals were well prepared then to view the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as evidence of God’s judgment for the Clinton years.
So what does this mean for the Obama administration? Nothing very promising. Despite the president’s desire to find common ground with evangelicals, he is unlikely to be able to penetrate the apocalyptic fears that have characterized the evangelical movement since the Great Depression.
Obama is caught in a classic catch-22. The Antichrist, the Bible explains, is going to masquerade as an angel of light. This means that the more Obama accomplishes as president and the more he improves America’s image abroad, the more suspicious evangelicals will become; they don’t want to be duped by the devil. Obama’s talk of more cooperation with other nations, the possibility of a national health care plan, his move to nationalize some private businesses, and his goal of expanding protection of the rights of gays and lesbians will drive evangelicals to one certain conclusion: the End of Days are upon us.
So what can we do? Pray for the rapture. If evangelicals vanish, the rest of us might finally get better medical care, a healthier environment, a more just international community, and full civil rights for gays and lesbians. But short of this miracle, we can at least begin to understand that before Obama is able to penetrate the evangelical heart, evangelicals themselves will need to do some serious soul-searching. Rick Warren and Joel Osteen’s shallow, positive-thinking, feel-good sermonizing is not going to help them do this. Instead, it is up to the younger evangelicals to engage in serious intellectual debate and a rigorous rethinking of the theology at the root of their politics. Anything less and the doomsayers will turn fears of Obama-as-Antichrist into big business. But hell, maybe that’s just the spark the economy needs.