‘It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid’: Matthew Sutton on how ‘Bible prophecy’ and Rapture mania deform American politics

‘It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid’: Matthew Sutton on how ‘Bible prophecy’ and Rapture mania deform American politics December 8, 2014

At Religion Dispatches, Daniel Silliman interviews Matthew Avery Sutton about his new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. The title of the piece tells you where this is going: “It’s the Apocalypse Stupid: Understanding Christian Opposition to Obamacare, Civil Rights, the New Deal and More.”

Sutton is a history professor at Washington State, and his book is being published next week by Harvard University Press. So this isn’t some snarky blogger lobbing spitballs here but, like, scholarship and footnoted intellectual history and whatnot. But Sutton’s scholarship might seem familiar to anyone who’s been following the spitball-lobbing at this particular snarky blog.

This is pretty terrific stuff. Sutton hits on two big themes in particular that I think are really important to anyone trying to understand white evangelical Christianity and/or American politics: First, the pervasive and pernicious anti-government influence that comes from the anti-Antichristianity of “Bible prophecy” and Rapture mania, and second, the confusion that comes from imagining that Rapture-obsessed premillennialism retreated into a-political quietism during the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement before re-entering politics in the Reagan years.

That second point reinforces the argument Carolyn Renée Dupont makes in Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975. The white evangelicals who upheld white supremacy and Jim Crow throughout the 20th century claimed to be a-political, but there’s no reason for us to accept that claim without examining it. Otherworldly religion supports the status quo. That doesn’t make it non-political. Far from it.

And but so, go read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches, but I’m going to quote big chunks of Sutton’s argument here.

From Spire Comics’ 1974 adaptation of Hal Lindsey’s “There’s a New World Coming.”

Sutton’s two-sentence summary of his argument captures the implicit and explicit political view that tens of millions of white evangelical readers have been absorbing from the Left Behind series. Sutton says:

My argument in a nutshell is that the apocalyptic theology that developed in the 1880s and 1890s led radical evangelicals to the conclusion that all nations are going to concede their power in the End Times to a totalitarian political leader who is going to be the Antichrist. If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event, you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties, and anything that is going to give more power to the state.

Tim LaHaye’s John Birch Society propaganda in the Left Behind series is an extreme form of that premillennial anti-government suspicion. For most white evangelicals, as Sutton argues, the suspicion of government arises from the fear of a coming Antichrist one-world government. For LaHaye, I think, cause and effect go in the other direction. He was precommitted to his anti-government, yet authoritarian, Bircher ideology and therefore drawn to Antichrist mythology and “Bible prophecy” ideology as a way of giving that political agenda a religious expression.

But, as Sutton argues, people like LaHaye, John Hagee and Hal Lindsey are only able to sell so many books because the supposed “mainstream” of white evangelicalism is preaching and teaching the exact same thing — the same pop-apocalyptic theology and the same thinly cloaked Bircherism:

Billy Graham gets a pass from a lot of scholars who pay very little attention to his apocalypticism. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s been a core of his ministry. In 1949, when Graham had his first major revival in Los Angeles, the famous one that put him on the map, the revival began just days after Harry Truman announced that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb. So Graham used this to say, the end is near, the time is close. You have to get saved today because Jesus is coming back.

He would say getting people saved is the engine driving him, but the reason there’s an urgency to getting people saved is that Jesus may be coming back before we wake up in the morning. And he would say that at every revival campaign. That was his message.

He wrote about it more than just about any other topic. He published books on apocalypticism in the 1960s and the 80s and the 90s and 2010. In 2010, writing as a 91-year-old, he believed this message was one of the most important things he could leave behind on this earth. In this book he says the signs are now clearer than ever. He’s written a lot of books, but five on apocalypticism? I don’t know that he’s covered any other topic in five books.

In this interview, Sutton himself doesn’t say a great deal about the origins of this white evangelical apocalyptic theology, but once you grasp his main point about the political effect of this theology, the cause and the root of this ideology becomes clearer. Premillennial dispensationalism, as he notes, “developed in the 1880s and 1890s” and produced/embodied/nurtured a religious sensibility that ws fervently opposed to a more centralized form of government. Is it simply a coincidence that this came immediately after Reconstruction and the revolutionary expansion of federal authority embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments?

Sutton provides a valuable service by showing how white evangelical Rapture ideology influenced these Christians to oppose FDR and the New Deal, but I suspect the real roots of this — and the origins of this ideology, or of its popularity — go back a half-century earlier, to white resentment (North and South) over Reconstruction.

This is the one place that I think Sutton goes astray in his nutshell summary quoted above. “If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event,” he writes, “you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties.” But that’s not an accurate description of the political effect of “Bible prophecy” ideology. Rapture enthusiasts and Anti-Antichristians have never been civil libertarians. They have never been champions of “individual rights and individual liberties.” They have always been, instead, champions of states’ rights in opposition to the federal government.

And “states’ rights” has always been a euphemism. Always. From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats to the tea party.

Here’s some more choice quotes from Matthew Sutton:

What I found in my research was that apocalypticism was central to fundamentalists and evangelicals. What made them most distinct, what set them apart from liberal Protestants is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s not questions of the virgin birth or how you read the Bible or questions of the nature of the incarnation or the literal resurrection of Jesus or Jesus’s miracles. All those matter, all of those things do set them apart, but they don’t affect how they live their daily lives. The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives 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.

In their minds, the imminent Second Coming would not be as important as getting people saved. Salvation, converting sinners, would be the most important thing driving them. But in terms of how they’re shaping and organizing their own lives, I think apocalypticism has been the driving force for much of the last century. It has fueled the movement and shaped it in fundamental ways.

Rapture4If you haven’t been in the archives it’s really unbelievable to read these articles, these sermons and these letters, to realize how much apocalypticism saturated the minds of fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 20th century. The looming rise of the Antichrist was just the forefront of their thinking.

And they say that. Over and over again. They’re very clear.

This is significant because to believe the world is rapidly moving to its end effects how you vote, how you’re going to structure your education, how you understand the economy, how you’re going to treat global events, how you’re going to look at organizations like the United Nations. …

… It’s a relatively complicated theology that fundamentalists and then evangelicals drew from a lot of different influences, a lot of different impulses. The key to unlocking their theology is to see some fairly obscure passages from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, and Jesus’s sermon in Matthew 24 through their eyes.

But their conclusions, broken down to their simplest form are these: We’re living in the church age and we’re moving towards the Rapture. Jesus will Rapture all true believers out of this world, they’ll just disappear, they’ll go up to heaven with Jesus, and then with the loss of Christian influence in the world, Satan will have free rein to take power through a political leader, called the Antichrist, who is then going to rule over the world for seven years. This period is called the Tribulation. Antichrist rule will lead to a series of wars, which will then culminate with Jesus coming with an army of saints and fighting the battle of Armageddon, in the literal land of Palestine. Jesus will defeat the Antichrist, vanquish evil and then establish a new kingdom. …

The rough picture is that we’re moving towards the End Times. Instead of the idea that Christians are building the kingdom of God on earth, the earth is on a quick, slippery slope descending to hell. …

… What apocalypticism did was give white evangelicals a framework and a rationale for fighting the Civil Rights movement, for example. In the last days, they insisted, there will be lawlessness. So they saw the Civil Rights movement as an example of people who break the law. Whiteness influenced these evangelical theologians, and when we compare them with African American theologians we can see how their sensitivities influenced the way they read, understood, and applied the Bible.

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