#OccupyWallStreet and the Antichrist

RD friend and contributor Matt Sutton has an op-ed in the Times today, arguing that the apocalyptic fears of evangelicals who believe we are living in the end-times prophesied in the Bible will have an impact on the 2012 election. Sutton, who in 2009 wrote in these pages that paranoia about the president being the Antichrist stood between Obama and winning over evangelicals, advances this argument again in the Times, noting that these apocalyptic views “could help define the 2012 presidential campaign.”

Sutton provides a brief history of the apocalyptic fervor of American evangelicals, and its impact on our politics. But for Democrats pondering over how Obama can win reelection, I found this to be the most intriguing bit in Sutton’s piece (emphasis mine):

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.

Let’s unpack that. I’ll start with the second item first, because it pops a balloon of conventional wisdom that animated Obama’s religious outreach during his 2008 campaign, and throughout his first term, through his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and other efforts to peel away the votes of evangelicals, the most reliably Republican religious demographic. In the run-up to the 2008 election, there was a strenuous effort made by Washington political strategists and think tanks like Third Way to convince the public that a “new” generation of evangelicals was more moderate than its forebears, less likely to fixate on gay marriage as a wedge issue, and more interested in reaching “common ground” with liberals than wage battle in the culture wars. One of the prime examples of this “new” kind of evangelical was the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who has since gone on to compare health care reform to King Herod, give the benediction at the Conservative Political Action Conference, frame issues in spiritual warfare terms, and speak at Gov. Rick Perry’s prayerfest, The Response.

If someone like Rodriguez is considered a moderate, then Sutton is right: Rodriguez has not been interested in seeking “common ground” on abortion since being made the exemplar of “evangelical centrists” in 2007. Last year he participated in a protest of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston because, in the words of organizer Lou Engle, it would “target minorities for abortion.” (Engle refers to legislation he disagrees with as “Antichrist legislation.”) While others, such as Obama adviser Joel Hunter, may be still advocates for “common ground,” their efforts have been resoundingly overshadowed by increasingly vocal and successful anti-abortion activists who are making gains in restricting access to abortion and family planning.

Yet when a real centrist pipes up against the conventional wisdom, the Obama administration shuts its eyes and ears. Last week, when David Gushee and Glen Stassen implored their fellow evangelicals to rethink their apocalyptic reading of the Bible so that they could see the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Obama staked out ground that was far closer to Perry than to Gushee and Stassen, opposing the Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., and aligning himself ever closer to the intransigent Bibi Netanyahu. Who animates Perry? The Christian Zionists, the apocalyptic evangelicals who have turned their religious fervor into political activism. As much as Perry strained to criticize Obama, the president’s ultimate political position was far closer to the Texas governor’s position than to Gushee and Stassen’s.

Now for Sutton’s first item, that the left is in disarray. That is perhaps a more complicated story, with two parts: the left’s real problems, as historian Michael Kazin observes in his essay in the Times yesterday, and the public perception of it, illuminated by reporter Will Bunch in his critique of media coverage of the #occupyWallStreet protests. 

Kazin, in his condensed history of the past glory of the left and what ails it now, identifies what the right has done successfully and the left has failed to do:

Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause. . . . 

[T]he left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.

The story emerging about #occupyWallStreet is not about the protest itself, but that the NYPD has used excessive force against the protesters, aiming pepper spray directly into their eyes, and abusing power “in a cruel and cowardly” way, writes James Fallows in the Atlantic, hardly a bastion of left-wing activism. At his blog Waging Nonviolence, Nathan Schneider documents how such police force was completely out of proportion in any case, but especially in light of the expressed non-violence of the protests, which Schneider argues have been poorly covered in the media.

Bunch takes on the media coverage, including in the Times, that dismisses the protesters as silly for being in, well, disarray, without leadership, and without clearly articulated goals. But Bunch himself, while sympathetic to the protesters’ motivations, is critical of their methods. “I think a protest could be much more powerful with simple organization like recruiting advocates for the 25 million unemployed and underemployed Americans,” Bunch argues. “Unfortunately, the people who called for this protest disdain ‘organization’ — I think that’s a mistake. But still . . . I applaud people for at least doing something, and there’s plenty of time to coalesce around a message. The NYPD, by so foolishly heightening the contradictions, probably bought them even more time.” In other words, this was made a story by the police brutality, not by the message of the protesters. Why? Because the left has failed to build (and one might imagine the #occupyWallStreet protesters might be opposed to such a thing anyway) “an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas,” to use Kazin’s words.

The right, as Kazin notes, and especially the religious right, have built, for example, religious educational institutions which provide a “more coherent worldview” than liberal arts universities. I don’t know about “more coherent,” but certainly tightly internally consistent and by design insulated from questioning. These are reinforced by the other types of institutions Kazin names, and I’d add churches to his list of “think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best-selling manifestos.” 

The Democratic Party thinks it can’t afford in any way to support an institution that might take on the Wall Streeters who stuff campaign coffers with cash.

Fear of an imagined “false prophet of peace” and prophesied leader of a “one-world government” and “one-world economy” could help organize right-wing evangelicals more than outrage at the actual Wall Street crooks and economy-wreckers could help organize the left.