Obama’s fruitless evangelical outreach?

Over at Religion Dispatches, Matthew Avery Sutton argues that President Obama’s entreaties to evangelicals will inevitably fall flat because the conservative Christian movement is “obsessed with the apocalypse” and bound to think Obama is the Antichrist.

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….

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.

This strikes me as a tad histronic.  Sutton offers no evidence for his claim that “the vast majority of American evangelicals” accept this radical and uber-specific account of how the world will end.  He certainly isn’t persuasive that some huge percentage of the evangelical population will end up seeing Obama as the Antichrist.

True, almost all evangelicals believe Jesus will eventually come back to earth — in literal, bodily form — to defeat evil once and for all.  But to claim credibly that the “vast majority of evangelicals” have firm faith in the chain of events described above and will come to see Obama as the baddest of bad guys in their historical narrative requires at least a little evidence.  “Mark my words” doesn’t cut it.

Nor, for that matter, does Sutton explain why he lumps evangelicals together as one radical group.  Although he gives a cursory mention of “moderate Christian leaders” such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, he quickly dismisses their relevance — as if they represent a statistically negligible segment of the evangelical population despite enjoying more prominence and selling more books than pretty much anyone else in that community.

The fact is, Obama is reaching out to evangelicals not in an attempt to win the votes of the most diehard, Tim LaHaye-loving fundamentalists.  Rather, Obama is seeking to minimize the vehemence of his opponents, earn the trust and respect of fence-sitters, and energize the quarter or so of evangelicals who voted for him.  Sutton insists that this effort is a fool’s errand, but if we’re to take this claim seriously, some evidence would be nice.

Update: My comment above that Obama got about a quarter of the evangelical vote was incorrect, in that it was an understatement.  In fact, that’s about how much of the white evangelical vote that Obama received (26%); the total evangelical number is presumably higher.  So for Sutton’s claims about “the vast majority of American evangelicals” to hold water (within the electorate anyway), pretty much every evangelical voter that didn’t go for Obama would have to embrace radical right-wing dispensationalism and soon come to see him as the Antichrist.

Jesse Lava also blogs at jesselava.com.

5 Comments

  1. Allan Blizzard
    July 22, 2009

    This is the first time I have read anything by Jesse Lava, and I can almost guarantee you that this will be the last. I am one of the “radical” right-wingers he is writing about. I not only believe, I know that Yeshua the Messiah is coming back to rule this planet and those that are not dedicated completely to and living for Him will spend eternity in Hell. Having said this, along with millions of others, I don’t believe Obama is the anti-Christ. My reason? He isn’t intelligent enough, his actions since the election have been anything but smart. If by “improving America’s image abroad” you mean apologizing for what we have done over the past couple hundred years and bowing to an Arab, we don’t need that king of “improving”.
    Whoever you are, you are not a born-again Christian. As such, you have no right to speak for nor remark on what we believe or what our actions and reactions will be.
    You say that Obama is “reaching out to evangelicals”. Well, as you have said, where is the proof?

    In my opinion, you are a complete idiot that opens his mouth before putting his brain in gear, if it ever is in gear.

  2. Matt Sutton
    July 22, 2009

    Jesse,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I have a few comments below:

    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.

    Matt

  3. Jesse Lava
    July 22, 2009

    Allan –

    You are correct that I would not call myself a born again Christian, inasmuch as the phrase has evangelical overtones and I’m not an evangelical. But your claim that this means I have “no right to remark on” what evangelicals think suggests you oppose the first amendment of the Constitution. You must be one of those anti-Americans I hear so much about.

    As for the question of idiocy, I’ll let your comment speak for itself.

    Matt –

    Like the Kingdom of God, a follow-up post is at hand.

    Jesse

  4. Nicole
    July 22, 2009

    Christians & “Hate” Bills

    If “hate bill”-obsessed Congress [and Obama] can’t protect Christians from “gays” as much as it wants to protect “gays” from Christians, will Congress be surprised if it can’t protect itself from most everyone? If “hate bills” are forced on captive Americans, they’ll still find ways to sneakily continue to “plant” Biblical messages everywhere. By doing so they’ll hasten God’s judgment on their oppressors as revealed in Proverbs 19:1. (See related web items including “David Letterman’s Hate, Etc.,” “Separation of Raunch and State,” “Michael the Narc-Angel,” “Obama Avoids Bible Verses,” and “Tribulation Index becomes Rapture Index.”) Since Congress can’t seem to legislate “morality,” it’s making up for it by legislating “immorality”!

  5. WaveTossed
    July 22, 2009

    “If ‘hate bill’-obsessed Congress [and Obama] can’t protect Christians from ‘gays’ as much as it wants to protect ‘gays’ from Christians, will Congress be surprised if it can’t protect itself from most everyone?”

    In the first place, you have no right to claim to speak for all Christians. I am Christian and your views do not represent my own, nor do they represent the Christians that I know.

    Further: Please give me the number of gays who have murdered or assaulted those calling themselves “Christians.”

    As opposed to those gays who have been murdered or assaulted by those calling themselves “Christians.”

    There are those gays who are Christian. One of them, Matthew Sheppard, was tortured and murdered. You certainly do NOT speak for all Christians in this matter.

 
 

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