For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.
All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.
Sutton’s book provides a history of the defining political role apocalypticism has played in post-War evangelical thought, which he believes never really broke from its fundamentalist roots. His argument hinges on the premise that the evangelical movement is ensnared in the eschatological logic of premillennial dispensational theology. This doctrine suggested that in the run-up to the last days, the state of the world would worsen. Proponents of this view believed the Bible offered numerous signs to warn Christians that the end was near. As in the days of Noah, the world would be writ large with decadence and moral laxity. There would be great wars, natural disasters and false teachers who would lead the faithful astray.
Yet the telltale signs of the coming apocalypse—drawn from the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelations—demanded the fulfillment of two prophecies: Jews would regain their homeland, and central governments would considerably grow. The expansion of governments, so the argument goes, would eventually evolve into a one-world order. Leading the new global government would be a peaceful leader, who in due time would reveal his true colors as the anti-Christ. This figure would declare war on humanity, but the faithful would escape his wrath by being transported—‘raptured’—to heaven. Eventually Jesus would return to Earth—the so-called ‘Second Coming’—and defeat the antiChrist during the battle of Armageddon. Thereafter, Christ would establish his millennial reign.
On this reading evangelical suspicions of Obamacare and social welfare programs are the residual effect of an anti-statism theology that sees increasing government as a foreboding sign of the anti-Christ. The fight against the welfare state is thus ultimately rooted in the attempt to prevent an expanding government apparatus the Antichrist will take advantage of to establish his “one world” empire.
Neo-liberalism and conservative Evangelicalism converge exactly here. Perhaps one could even say that neoliberalism is a secularized anti-eschatology. To prevent the coming of the beast a strong state is necessary so as to enforce a Christian code of conduct. A truly Christian nation is a sign that the age of wickedness preceding the Anti-Christ’s emergence is not on the horizon. Hence the way which Sutton solves the paradox of evangelicals suspicion of “big government” and simultaneous desire to legislate morality and support the state of Israel. The incoherency of the doctrine, of course, is that the appearance of the anti-Christ also signifies the eventual return of Christ—a paradox that Sutton is quick to point out.
Leaving consistency aside, even if the apocalypse has faded to the background of evangelical thought, it has left, Sutton seems to argue, an indelible mark on how evangelicals view the State and its social responsibilities. His message is thus tragically clear: a bizarre theology—one that has led to all kinds of false predictions and ill-founded anxieties (the pilot has been raptured—who will fly the plane?)—has clearly played, and continues to play, a major role in shaping American political life.
As the responses to this forum indicate, there are many directions that one can take Sutton’s argument. Janine Giordano Drake, for instance, does not think that the apocalyptic worries of fundamentalists and evangelicals have been all that different from the political sentiments many conservatives outside these movements expressed throughout the twentieth century. For Fred Sanders American Apocalypse is not apocalyptic enough: there are many forms of American evangelical apocalypticism, argues Sanders, that are absent from Sutton’s story.
Interestingly, Sutton spends considerable time discussing how African American premillennialists differed from their white evangelical counterparts. African Americans often viewed racism, Christian hypocrisy, and social injustice as a sign of the end times. In her commentary Rachel Schneider pushes Sutton’s analysis further by placing his narrative within the context of the evangelical discourse of racial reconciliation that emerged during the 1990s.
Joel Carpenter—one of the leading historians of twentieth century Evangelicalism—expresses concern that Sutton’s book does not take serious enough the lived experiences and practices of fundamentalists and evangelicals. Instead, Carpenter sees them as unfairly forced into Sutton’s apocalyptic hermeneutic. In this regard, Joe Creech takes aim at Sutton’s definition of Christian fundamentalism and particularly challenges him do more by way of broadening the term. As the responses to this forum demonstrate, Sutton’s rendering of twentieth century evangelicalism challenges traditional historical narratives and makes for fascinating reading.