Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anti-Apocalyptic Apocalyptism

The Gray Lady gives space to one Matthew Avery Sutton, associate professor of history at Washington State University and author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America to suggest that Christian apocalyptic expectation may fuel the rise of a seriously libertarian candidate who could receive the GOP nomination for POTUS and actually win the election.

SWNID responds, "Hmm!"

Sutton offers a history of American apocalyptism that's in the SWNIDish view just fair enough to be noted and just imprecise enough to leave the impression that super-strong end-time speculation is a serious part of many evangelicals' daily lives and decision-making. As an example, Sutton offers:

Conservative preachers, evangelists and media personalities of the 20th century, like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, shared these beliefs.

Graham? Really? Yes, Graham believes in the return of Christ and has often stated that it could be imminent. But we defy Sutton to offer any repeated example of Graham indulging in speculation that this or that move might presage the end. More specifically, we defy him to show that Graham held to the notion that the return of Christ is connected to the rise of one-world government. One must observe the differences before drawing conclusions on the similarities.

We emphasize that point because it appears to us that Sutton routinely assumes that all expectation of Christ's return among evangelicals is somehow subject to the concomitant belief that one-world government will arise and that all moves toward the same must be opposed. This is, of course, nonsense.

It's especially nonsense because even those who profess to believe as much don't believe it enough to act on the belief in a serious, panicky kind of way. SWNID asserts that most evangelical Christians who take seriously the idea that a one-world government will arise near the end, and who even wonder whether this or that political development is the prelude to such, nevertheless are unwilling to stake a significant decision on that outcome. To wit: few liquidate their assets and households to acquire gold, rural land and firearms. To wit: few act differently about financial and career planning than do others in their social group. To wit: few in the end decide to back a political candidate because that political candidate seems least likely to cooperate with a one-world government.

An example: Years ago, we were at one of those academic meetings that we are blessed to attend, this one populated entirely by leaders of Christian IHEs. A person leading a session was talking about changes in federal regulations for IHEs, mostly stuff about steps of compliance for continued good standing to receive Title IV student-aid funds, the lifeblood of American higher ed. In the Q&A, someone asked this gentleman where he thought everything was headed. He replied, "Well my answer is determined by my eschatology. I believe that we're headed toward a one-world government." So he said, things will get more stringent, and eventually all of us Christian IHEs will be made illegal. The remark garnered the kinds of grunts that signify grudging assent to an inconvenient truth.

SWNID guarantees that not a single officer of a single IHE at that meeting went home to develop a contingency plan for keeping some kind of leadership training operation going through the tribulation, and that includes those who don't believe in a pre-tribulational rapture. And these folks are about as hard-core as they come.

Granted some folks do have their decisions dictated by specifics of apocalyptic speculation, and maybe a few more will in 2012, thanks to the miserable state of the economy. But last we checked, Mitt Romney still had a lot of political support, more than Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul put together. And Rick Perry's sudden rise (and fall?) can hardly be explained as the apocalyptic libertarian vote finally having found a voice.

In other words, this stuff plays virtually no role in political decision-making.

The end of Professor Sutton's essay is, we believe, the best explanation for the anxiety that it presents:

Barring the rapture, Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could well ride the apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians into the Oval Office. Indeed, the tribulation may be upon us. 

There it is! The rise of a libertarian-minded conservative would be The End of the World as We Know It. There's the secular, liberal version of Armaggedon: a world in which Bible-thumpers are in charge and the welfare state is systematically dismantled. The main prop of their smaller-government message is a bunch of hooey about a one-world government and the rise of the antichrist. How quaint, but how pernicious and ignorant! Pray to the God who isn't there that this doesn't happen!

OK, here we go on the SWNIDish big picture.

First, why do so many Christians listen to and seem to take seriously the warnings that this or that political thingie means that the end is near? Well, largely because such announcements are presented by people who seem knowledgeable, who appeal to deeply held respect for God and fear of his judgment, and who prey on the average American Christian's ignorance of the Bible and unease about her or his relative comfort. Folks want to believe these talented preachers, don't want to be unprepared for judgment, don't really know much about the Bible, and don't feel that they are entitled to the prosperity that they enjoy, though they can't really contemplate life without it.

Second, why do so few Christian act on these warnings? First, because they're at least unconsciously hedging their bets to preserve their prosperity in the present. Second, because acting on the hard things that belief demands is, well, hard. But thirdly, and here we're going out on a limb, in their heart of hearts they know there's something fishy about what they're being told. They realize that per the typical dispensational-premillennial description of the "rapture" and the "tribulation," the God who is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to do weird, inexplicable stuff before he brings his world to his intended goal. So they're holding out some unconscious skepticism about the conclusion.

Which brings us to another conclusion: most Christians, whatever they claim, functionally are "pan-millennialists," including our apocalyptically minded colleagues at the aforementioned academic conference. That is, they trust God to take care of the future and don't worry much about the details (except their personal details, about which they worry as most people worry, as in "will I keep my health and wealth?"). Apocalyptic hucksters may sell books and gain a following in the media, but they don't influence the substantial decisions of more than a handful of tragically misled people.

Which is why the Republicans, evangelicals and all, will nominate a relatively mainstream conservative, who will be able to govern only as conservatively as Congress and the judiciary and the body politic allow him to govern. And why people like Dr. Sutton should be ignored by their prospective audience of lefty seculars, who shouldn't be taken in by his prophecy that somehow the weirdos are taking over.

Without realizing it, though, Sutton has indirectly raised a point of theology that does impinge on political decision-making for thoughtful Christians. The Bible's apocalyptic imagery portrays the fall of the autocratic human empire to the reign of God. Along the way and especially in the end, God, not overweening humans who build kingdoms and empires and towers to make a name for themselves and become like God, will rule all. Humans, when they try to rule all, always fail in the end. Utopian claims are inherently and fatally flawed.

That observation cautions Christians against the hope that their government can do bunches of stuff for them. They look for incremental progress in human affairs that's grounded in the transformation of the human character. They don't look for geniuses to take over and make things better.

That means that they don't expect a utopia to emerge by means of smaller government, either. They just don't want a government that makes things worse by trying to do what government inherently can't do because of the inherent weakness of all people who govern and who are governed.

So chill, Dr. Sutton. Wild-eyed masses of people who read Left Behind for instructions on voting--they're just not out there. And the world won't collapse if the Bismarkian experiment with welfare statism happens to gently be reversed to a more appropriate point of deployment.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Your last three paragraphs are on. the. money.