The other day I posted a critique of Matthew Avery Sutton’s claim that “the vast majority of American evangelicals” are radical fundamentalists who are soon going to conclude that President Obama is the Antichrist. My critique came in the form of a question: Where’s the evidence? Although it’s fun and easy to pick on evangelicals, at least in some quarters, an argument of this kind should feature at least a few facts if it’s to be taken seriously.
Indeed, the evidence we have so far suggests that Sutton’s claim is highly unlikely. According to exit polling data, 26% of white evangelicals voted for Barack Obama. I can’t immediately find information for evangelicals as a whole, but let’s assume that blacks, Latinos, and other minorities push the figure to around 30% or so. Now let’s further assume — conservatively — that at least a couple percentage points of McCain’s evangelical votes came from late deciders who felt torn in some way. It’s pretty safe to say that these groups are not so prejudiced against Obama that they will inexorably march like lemmings off the Antichrist cliff. They voted for him, after all, or almost did.
That leaves about 67% of other evangelical voters to even possibly comprise Sutton’s “vast majority of evangelicals.” Now depending on one’s definition of “vast,” one could argue that Sutton has already lost the ballgame. But let’s not. Let’s assume that two-thirds is a high enough figure to constitute a “vast majority.” Even then, almost every one of these people would have to be a premillenialist who will (or already has) come to see Obama as the Antichrist. Once we consider that many evangelical leaders who strongly opposed Obama have already stated they don’t believe he is the Antichrist — including the authors of the Left Behind book series, the success of which Sutton cited to buttress his thesis — Sutton has a tough job ahead of him to prove his point.
Still, he responded to my post in the comment thread, which I surely appreciate. Here it is:
First, Obama himself is unlikely to be a candidate for the actual Antichrist in evangelicals’ minds. Most evangelicals believe that the Antichrist will be at least partly Jewish and likely from Europe (probably somewhere within the bounds of the old Roman Empire). Obama, I suspect, will be seen as a precursor, like FDR and Mussolini, not the big guy himself.
Second, certainly I have made some broad generalizations. If you want specifics and a ton of footnotes, read the book when it is published in 2012. But in the meantime, yes, the evangelical camp is and always has been diverse. In fact, the premillennial eschatology that drives apocalyptic fears has been waning at the seminary level for a generation. Nevertheless, I stand by my claim that the vast majority of evangelicals in the pews still believe in the following scenario: the world will get worse—socially, religiously, and economically—the true believers will be raptured out of the world, and the Antichrist will rule for seven years, which will culminate in the battle of Armageddon. As a result, things like more centralized federal power, a stronger United Nations, and the perceived decline in morals (abortion, gay rights, etc.) are interpreted by most evangelicals through the lens of declension on the road to rapture.
Third, I should have been clear on this point: I am talking about white evangelicals—African American and Latino evangelicals do not share white evangelicals’ apocalypticism. When your community historically does not have much to lose, you are not afraid to lose it. Black evangelicals have long begun with the same theological premises as white evangelicals but have reached very different conclusions.
Finally, your invocation of the 2008 election results is irrelevant to my point. I am making an argument from history about what I suspect will happen. Each of the last significant “liberal” presidencies in the US have been followed by—not started with—a surge in apocalyptic thinking. FDR was not viewed as a forerunner to the Antichrist until a few years into his first term; Hal Lindsey’s success came well after LBJ had stepped off stage, and Tim LaHaye struck publishing gold towards the end of the Clinton era. Yes, white evangelicals disillusioned with Bush voted in surprising numbers for Obama. The question is, will this last? Maybe, but if history is any guide (and since I am a historian I have a vested interest in believing that it is) by 2012 and especially 2016 the number of evangelicals supporting Obama will decrease and we will see a new surge in apocalyptic rhetoric linked to his actions.
I hope I am wrong.
I have several responses to Sutton’s reply, but they mostly boil down to this: Why didn’t you say that in the first place?
First, on the business of whether Obama is the “actual” Antichrist or just a precursor, Sutton rightly points out in his reply that evangelicals are much more likely to believe the latter than the former. Fine. But unfortunately, that’s not what was indicated in his original post. The teaser blurb said this:
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 as evangelical interpretations of the Bible point to Barack Obama as the Antichrist.
That’s pretty straightforward: to evangelicals, Obama equals (or will equal) the Antichrist. But let’s be charitable and allow for the possibility that Sutton didn’t write that blurb and it mischaracterized the post. Well, in the post itself, Sutton contends:
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.
Now in that last paragraph, Sutton doesn’t technically say Obama will be deemed the Antichrist. But he strongly suggests it. Indeed, if we took his reasoning seriously, that’s precisely the conclusion we’d draw. After all, he says, the more Obama succeeds in his presidency, the more evangelicals will become suspicious of him — due, of course, to their fears of being “duped by the devil” and their interpretation of the Bible’s descriptions of the Antichrist. Sounds an awful lot like Sutton’s making a direct connection, here.
Next, Sutton now agrees evangelicals are “diverse” and contends that the premillenial view he discussed in his initial post is waning, at least in seminaries. It’s good that Sutton’s saying this. But it already adds a level of nuance that did not appear in his original argument, which insisted evangelicals are so monolithic that Obama shouldn’t bother reaching out to any of them. Sutton allowed for no meaningful cleavages in the evangelical movement.
To be sure, Sutton still stands by his claim that evangelicals “in the pews” — as opposed to those in seminaries — continue to believe in an end-times scenario that includes the rapture, a seven-year rule of the Antichrist, and Armageddon. So is that a sufficient clarification? Not quite. Sutton’s new formulation is still a weakened version of what he stated in the original post, which layed out a very specific chain of events including the Jews’ return to Israel, the consolidation of world governments, and the like. And either way, a little evidence of what pew-sitters believe about premillenial Christianity would be nice, since I have serious doubts about the theological knowledge of most pew-sitters. Do they even know what premillenialists are saying, let alone agree with them? Many obviously do. But do they constitute a “vast majority” of evangelicals? We’d need data, not pontificating, to know the answer.
Number three: Sutton now redefines evangelicals to mean white evangelicals. There’s some subtle racism in that assumption, but I’m hardly one to judge on that. Many of us, including me, have inadvertently been guilty of this shorthand from time to time. So no big deal; I’m glad he’s clarified. But in terms of the numbers I laid out at the beginning of this post, that doesn’t fundamentally change the calculus: when 26% of white evangelicals actually vote for Obama, you’re gonna have a tough time showing that “the vast majority of American evangelicals” despise him so much that they’re inevitably going to declare he’s the Antichrist — or, according to the updated argument, a precursor to him.
But wait. Sutton has a response to that one, too. The 2008 election results, he says, are irrelevant to his point, since he’s arguing about what will happen, not what has happened. Really? The amount of support that Obama currently has in the white evangelical community has no bearing whatsoever on how much support we might reasonably expect him to have within the next couple of years? Color me unconvinced. The idea that mass amounts of evangelicals will go from 60 to zero on Obama within a very short period of time solely on the basis of Antichrist-related rumblings that they already heard loud and clear during the 2008 campaign is counter-intuitive, to put it mildly.
To be fair, Sutton does have a substantive point here. Since premillenialist fervor increased during the administrations of FDR, LBJ, and Bill Clinton, it’s likely to do so again now that Obama is in the White House. That’s a fascinating point, and one that deserves more discussion. It may well be correct. But my beef was with Sutton’s broad and sloppy generalizations. To predict an increase in Antichrist-related panic is not the same as assuring readers that “the vast majority of American evangelicals” will inevitably fall into that camp — thereby relegating all liberal, centrist, or center-right evangelicals to a trivial corner of the evangelical world. The former is an intriguing claim; the latter is a vastly overblown one, at least without numbers to back it up.
So let’s sum all this up. Sutton made broad generalizations in his initial post. He has since restated or backtracked on them slightly, which is good, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of my initial response. And when Sutton has stuck to his guns, he has done so unconvincingly, at least in my view, though others can judge. In the process, he has made some interesting historical insights into the evangelical community and how it tends to respond to liberal (or supposedly liberal) presidencies. But then he blows those insights into maximalist claims that are far more ambitious than the evidence warrants.
If Sutton had started off by saying fundamentalist wackiness will expand over the course of the Obama presidency, I’d have gone “Huh” and gone on to something else. But he didn’t. He stretched his thesis to cast aspersions on the entire evangelical community and then used the stretch marks as a basis for delegitimizing all evangelical outreach. And he did it without much in the way of evidence. That’s the part that went a bridge too far.
Jesse Lava also blogs at jesselava.com.