Antichrist Blues

Matthew Sutton has been busy lately. On Sept. 25, the professor of American history at Washington State University in Pullman published an op-ed in the New York Times, under the headline “Why the Antichrist Matters in Politics.” Within hours of its publication, the emails came pouring in, as did the offers to appear on national television and radio shows.

The same day, a heckler at an Obama appearance stood up to accuse the president of being the Antichrist. Sutton’s story, already the most-emailed story on the Times site that day, took off.

INLANDER: So how did the New York Times column come about?

I’ve been working for a while on the rise of evangelical fundamentalists in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. There was a growing movement that seemed increasingly concerned by the rise of fascism. They saw Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin. Then they saw [Franklin] Roosevelt making some of the same moves, which was that he was consolidating power. And all of these things convinced them that things were getting very bad very quickly.

But the question that was driving my research was trying to understand evangelical anti-statism. It makes sense why modern conservative Christians would be upset about things like gay marriage or abortion, but I couldn’t understand why there was this knee-jerk hostility to the state — that the state was bad no matter what, rather than just a neutral tool that could be used for good or for bad.

And so, in doing my research on the ’30s and ’40s, I realized it was because fundamentalists had come to believe that the state was the means through which the Antichrist would assume power. I think that that created this long, deeply held suspicion of government.

And what I began to see in the 2012 election cycle seemed to be a resurgence of anti-statism. Obviously part of that’s attributed to Libertarians, though they’re not necessarily religious. But I think also evangelicals are very concerned about the growing power of the state.

So who is this Antichrist character?

The idea of the Antichrist comes from a number of different passages in the Bible. You have to take a verse here and a verse there and kind of line them all up, but the sequence is that Jesus died, rose from the dead and then returned to heaven. What’s going to mark the end of [the current] age is the rapture of true Christians to heaven.

And the world will have been experiencing these signs of the last days — wars and rumors of war, natural disasters, economic problems. And then the Antichrist, who will already have been on Earth and already been active, will emerge as a world leader and initially seem to offer hope and promise, but ultimately he will turn on most of humankind, and at that point will start this great tribulation for those who are left behind.

That will ultimately culminate in Armageddon, when Jesus returns with an army of saints. And it will end with the Antichrist’s defeat, and then Jesus will restore a new heaven and a new earth.

But seeing signs of the end times can’t be a new phenomenon …

Different biblical interpreters have read it differently. But this idea of connecting the Antichrist to a particular person and connecting that to particular geopolitical events is a fairly new interpretation. It’s never had the sort of prominence that it’s had in the last 150 years.

So what signs are bringing this back to the forefront today?

Well, economic depression’s one of the major ones. The global economic turmoil is a huge one.

And the Obama presidency, I think, because of the kind of conspiracies about his birth and where he was really born. Because of the fact that he’s tried to be an internationalist.
Evangelicals can read these signs — again, not that he’s the Antichrist, but that he’s paving the way.

But some people — like that heckler — think he actually is. Biblically, is that even possible?

There’s lots of debate about the timeframe, there’s lots of debate about who the Antichrist could be. [The point is that] I think there is a large evangelical movement that’s concerned about the way this nation is going, and I believe it sees current events through this apocalyptic lens.

How do you think this will play out in the 2012 election?

I think the anti-statist message will continue to resonate with evangelicals, whether it’s preached by Romney or Bachmann or Perry, or Ron Paul, even.

At the same time, I think the culture-war moral issues will continue to be an issue for evangelicals. So what we’ll see is the merger of these two things — anti-statism with the continuing battles over gay marriage, over abortion, over media.

[Of course] it may well be that this will really just come down to the economy.