The Return of Jesus and the Radicalization of American Politics

The Return of Jesus and the Radicalization of American Politics November 2, 2016

Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before:

President Obama isn’t going to allow another election to happen. He’s going to use a crisis development of one kind or another to suspend the U.S. Constitution and declare himself dictator of the country.”

Hillary Clinton hates God and hates Christians, and she’s going to round up evangelicals who don’t support marriage equality or abortion and put them in reeducation camps for deprogramming.”

“After the election, Obama will seek to take over the United Nations and declare himself leader of the entire world, ushering in a new dark age of despotism, possibly even hastening the coming Judgment Day in which the entire world will be thrown into Armageddon, the last battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.”

Do these predictions sound outlandish to you? Well, to millions of Americans, each of these things sounds perfectly rational, and they sincerely believe these are events that could reasonably transpire over the next few months.

Where does one even start?

I wish I could speak some sense into people who say these things, but I’ve tried that before and it went nowhere. In order to have a meeting of the minds, you have to at least inhabit the same reality. In this situation, however, that is no longer the case.

Thanks to both the rise of the internet and to several decades of deregulating of our sources of news and information, a profit-driven, corporate-controlled polarization of public discourse has occurred in which people on opposite sides of the political spectrum no longer inhabit the same epistemic enclosures. Today I want to explain what role I see religion playing in this increasingly discombobulating circumstance.

How We Got into This Mess

I could point to a number of historical antecedents to this bizarre alternate reality. Before any of the necessary precursors to our predicament came into being, the increasing deregulation of the news and entertainment industries set the stage for a new kind of performance art that today passes for “news.”

Back when I was a kid and the Cold War was still a thing, we enjoyed the benefits of a federally enforced “fairness doctrine” which stipulated that major networks must provide alternative perspectives along with their reporting in order to ensure a balance of opinions was represented in their broadcasts. Granted, this made more sense when there were only a handful of channels and news sources available to the general public, and in fact it was the proliferation of independent cable news sources which inspired the federal government to discontinue the policy toward the tail end of the Reagan administration. Eventually “talk radio” came into its own as well, pushing the boundaries even further. Then came the internet.

But for a while there, newscasters knew that giving their own personal opinion on political matters was verboten. You could almost see the moments of restraint passing over the visages of the people who reported the news. There was a time once when it took the death of a president or seeing a man walking on the moon to break the dispassionate reserve of a Walter Cronkite. Those days are long gone, a relic of a more civilized age. Today’s newscasters are paid handsomely to be outspoken on political matters, pandering to one side or another as badly as the politicians themselves. This makes it considerably harder to find a representation of developing events that is truly “fair and balanced.”

The larger media conglomerates have grown, the more devastating has become their relentless prioritizing of the bottom line. Investors waiting to see those quarterly earnings don’t really care if the news is accurate; they only want to know that the viewership is strong. And it turns out the viewers’ only requirement for their sources of information is that they consistently offer perspectives with which they agree. We all like being made to feel that we’re right.

Incidentally, if you’re among those who thought the advent of the Information Age would spell the doom of things like creationism, pseudoscience, fundamentalism, or even religion itself, think again. It turns out that in a digital age, misinformation travels just as quickly as information. I believe it was Fisher Ames (not Mark Twain) who first said “A Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots.” Here at the end of this particular election season, I’m prepared to rename the internet the Misinformation Superhighway.

Related: “How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth

Pride, Prejudice, and Pendulum Swings

Another undercurrent at play today is the predictable pendulum swing of collective resentment that inevitably follows any major change in the cultural power dynamic. No one likes losing a position of privilege, and whenever it is diminished, we always see an angry pushback coming from whichever group just lost some of their share of the pie. Last year after a little back-and-forth on Facebook, my friend Mark Edward Caddo and I finally put into words what we’ve been witnessing unfold before our eyes over the last few years, a sentence we had no idea at the time would go viral:

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression.

As a once-Christian, straight white male living in the heart of the Deep South, I feel like I can speak to this privilege, and to the loss of it. I can tell you first-hand that people around me are angry. They feel like they are being pushed out of their rightful place as guardians of both cultural decency and national security. They see pictures of our current president looking down his liberal nose at the rest of the country (their memes always show that same condescending expression), an uppity black man who clearly didn’t know his place, and they seethe with resentment. How dare he!

Noble efforts by journalists have been made to downplay the importance of racial resentment and white nationalism in the rise of Trumpism (which behaves much more like a personality cult than a political movement), highlighting anything else they can find in order to avoid the charge of being unfair. But as Dylan Matthews of Vox pointed out a couple of weeks ago, in order to do so they have to turn a deaf ear to what Trump’s supporters themselves are actually saying. If you really listen to them, what you hear about most from them isn’t their economic predicament or trade agreements or some other bit of public policy. No, they are simply tired of being displaced over and over again by foreigners, by women, and by people of color.

All of this sets the stage for the ascendancy of Donald Trump, who toward the end of his life seems to have accepted that he is a better entertainer than he ever was a real estate developer. You have to admit, the man knows how to sense an audience and play to the crowd. Against all contrary advice, he rode a wave of “earned media” to the top of the Republican ticket, passing up several legitimate presidential candidates whose campaigns outspent him by millions of dollars. He may be many things, but he’s certainly not stupid.

But even these things would not be enough if it weren’t for the heretofore dependable evangelical voter, standing ready to pull the lever for the Republican Party like a well-trained army awaiting its marching orders every two to four years. I wrote a piece last Sunday (as a part of my now weekly “Godless Walk Through the Bible” series) about how from the start the abortion issue was used by the GOP to co-opt evangelicals into the party. But that’s not the only handle they’ve been gripping in order to steer conservative Christians into the voting booth to do their bidding.

[Read “What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?“]

The Republican Party also figured out decades ago that the Christian faith was founded on a belief that the world would come to an end at any second, and it turns out you can get an awful lot of mileage out of that, because fear sells. It’s made quite a lot of people filthy rich, in fact.

Milking the Apocalypse for All It’s Worth

Return-of-JesusWhatever you think of Jesus, the New Testament indicates he was a man driven by an apocalyptic expectation. He seemed to believe the world was going to end at any minute, and his famous call to abandon everything (even family responsibilities) to follow him was firmly situated within this ominous expectation. The apostle Paul was arguably more central to the founding of the Christian faith than Jesus, and he was so convinced the world would end during his own lifetime that he encouraged people to remain single if at all possible so that they wouldn’t become distracted by family life. The time was short and the days were evil, he said.

The Christian faith never did shake that expectation, even after twenty centuries, and that makes them ripe for the picking.

The Republican Party figured this out a generation ago, and in 1980 this enabled them to replace an evangelical president with a nominal believer who better understood how to pander to a conservative religious audience.

Reagan was not exactly an easy sell to the Bible Belt. Divorced and anything but a devoted churchgoer, he was closely associated in the public mind with that Sodom of the West Coast, Hollywood. In the 1980 election, he was also up against Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who openly discussed his faith.

Admittedly, Reagan benefited from the endorsement of the Moral Majority, founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1979, and he began playing directly to the religious crowd by establishing a new tradition of inserting “God bless America” into his speeches.

But it was those repeated references to Armageddon that cemented his relationship with the religious right. Apocalyptic thinking is central to the worldview of evangelicals. Indeed, it’s what principally distinguishes them from mainstream Christians. “The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives,” writes historian of religion Matthew Avery Sutton, “is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust.” (emphasis mine)

The thing about expecting the sudden cataclysmic end-of-the-world is that it doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a divine intervention, a supernatural judgment followed by the destruction of pretty much everything human beings have made. That means it doesn’t need continuity with anything else leading up to it.

The forecasted words and deeds of national leaders don’t even have to sound like anything they’ve ever said or done before because in “the Last Days” a totally different reality would have set in. In the Great Tribulation, the devil can take over pretty much anyone he wants, even the president of the United States. We learn in school that most social and cultural changes happen slowly and incrementally, but this way of thinking cuts against that grain. In the mind of the devout evangelical Christian, history is punctuated by a series of divine judgments—sudden starts and stops without explanatory precursors, because supernatural acts of God wouldn’t require any, would they?

The same goes for demonic possession, I suppose. The moment you’ve accepted the idea that a public figure can be possessed by the devil, you will believe pretty much any claim that’s made about him or her. Nothing would sound unrealistic to you at that point. Trump knows this well, and he instinctively seizes on such ideas like a seasoned salesman ready to close the deal.

When the Donald says that Hillary is “the devil” and America’s going to hell, this constituency—steeped in Biblical prophecy, survivalist ideology, and racist conspiracies—takes him literally. America is on the verge of (take your pick): the Rapture, an end-of-days contest between American patriots and UN invaders, or an all-out race war to the finish.

The man himself couldn’t care less for biblical prophecy or the end times madness that fuels these people’s fears. He only knows that he can use them for his own purposes, and he has no scruples whatsoever about taking advantage of this vulnerability. He doesn’t even care what kind of damage his reckless undermining of the democratic process produces because all he really cares about is advancing his own brand. John Feffer over at The Nation puts it this way:

At heart, Trump is an arsonist. At some level, he’s ready to pour that gasoline and strike that match. His apocalyptic approach to everyday politics is what puts fear into the hearts of liberals and conservatives alike—and what puts fire in the belly of the whitest of America’s insurgents.

In this environment, you can say pretty much anything you want about our nation’s leaders and people will eat it up. Nothing is too unrealistic.

Normalizing Crazy Talk

Michelle Bachmann can insist that Obama wants to arm our enemies so that they can turn around and attack us, ushering in the “End of Days.” She and others for some time have been pushing the narrative which says that Obama’s end game is to control the United Nations in order to dissolve the United States government and rule the world from a global throne.

“I believe without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.” —Michelle Bachmann

Ben Carson made a splash early on when he suggested that a coming burst of anarchy would empower the president to postpone any future elections so that he could impose martial law. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council echoes each of them by repeatedly saying this election may be our last because Democrats are going to tear the country apart somehow. The sky is falling, it would seem. No hyperbole is too far-fetched.

I’ve also lost count of how many times my newsfeed has blown up with claims that Obama (soon to be Clinton, I’m sure) wants to implant microchips inside of every American citizen in order to track us wherever we go, which is clearly the mark of the beast in case you’ve never read any modern apocalyptic novels. And incidentally the bit I mentioned earlier about putting evangelicals into reeducation camps comes from Sandy Rios, who is the Governmental Affairs director for the American Family Association:

“We can’t trust our federal agencies. And we are going to be, many of us, in fact in inside circles in D.C. we’re always saying we’re going to be in reeducation camps, and really that’s not a quantum leap.”

There was a time once when I ignored these people’s wild imaginations because I figured they wouldn’t impact much beyond the sales of Christian fiction novels and maybe an occasional movie franchise starring either Kirk Cameron or Nicholas Cage.

But Donald Trump has taken the fringe elements and conspiracy theories of multiple subcultures and has thrust them upon a national stage, placing them front and center for the whole world to see (and mock). I’m certain he doesn’t believe a word of what he’s saying, but the saddest part is that I think evangelicals know it, too. They just don’t care.

In the end all they really care about is recovering the lost position of social privilege they once enjoyed, even if it means selling their souls to get it back. I’m quite convinced that one way or another this Faustian bargain will bite them in the rump, but they’ll still find a way to blame everyone but themselves because nothing in their theology teaches them to take responsibility for anything that happens. It’s all either the Lord’s doing or else it’s the devil.

This is how you radicalize American political landscape. It all starts with teaching people to see others as somehow less human than themselves. If I’m being honest, I’m starting to lose hope that they’ll ever learn any different.

[Image Source: Joy Digital]

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