I’m less certain than Mara Vanderslice that John McCain’s recent pattern of decrying Barack Obama’s “messianism” is a deliberate effort to label him as the Antichrist. It’s not that I consider Team McCain incapable of “dog whistle” appeals to the Christian Right; their candidate has certainly mastered those dark arts in a variety of abstract references to his hatred of “judicial activism,” which to that audience means legalized abortion, gay partnership rights, and church-state separation. But unless John Hagee spent some time whispering in McCain’s ear during their brief public partnership, I wouldn’t guess he or his campaign advisors possess the kind of theological dexterity necessary to paint the 666 on Obama’s forehead. But maybe Mara’s right. We’ll see if McCain’s campaign continues using religiously-charged terms like “the anointed one” in references to their opponent.
The more obvious problem with McCain’s attacks on Obama’s charisma is simple hypocrisy. No recent presidential candidate in either party has done more to build a cult of personality around himself and his biography, from the arrogant assertion that he is uniquely a “straight-talker,” to the massive investment his campaigns past and present have made in the proposition that his courage and suffering as a POW should fully qualify him for the presidency and rebut any criticism. (Yes, I know he has a long record in Congress, but even many Republicans admit that record is something of an incoherent mess, particularly given his vast flip-flopping during the current campaign cycle).
McCain has also been an eager participant in the self-parodying WWRD (What Would Reagan Do?) idolatry so common among conservatives. And let’s don’t forget (which is easy to do given subsequent events) that during the brief moment of triumphalism before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, many conservatives engaged in an orgy of messianism about George W. Bush as a towering world-historical figure who was decisively and single-handedly smiting the forces of Islamofascism by deposing Saddam Hussein (another candidate for the Antichrist job in some Christian Right precincts) and creating a pro-American revolution throughout the Middle East and beyond.
When it comes to your garden-variety Antichrist-seekers, of course, no degree of messianic idolatry would qualify a conservative political or religious figure for the Sign of the Beast. As the pioneering apocalypse-fiction-peddler Hal Lindsay demonstrated in a column just the other day, suspicions of satanic complicity revolve around Obama because of his political ideology and his purported willingness to “apologize” for America before godless foreign audiences, not to mention his refusal to denounce “enemy acroynms” like the U.N. (long associated with the Antichrist in the Christian Right fever swamps).
What the whole controversy really points to is the enormous spiritual as well as political damage that can be attributed to the sudden and widespread outbreak of dispensationalist enthusiasm in broad swaths of the evangelical community–and even beyond it (as the vast success of the Left Behind novels illustrates)–in recent decades.
Once limited mainly to a small stratum of premillenialist evangelicals, the abuse of the Book of Revelations as a sort of devout version of Nostradamus has spread like topsy, particularly among biblical literalists who see no irony in their willingness to ascribe all sorts of allegorical meanings to this or that symbol in the book.
There’s nothing “traditional” or “orthodox” or “conservative” about this point of view, even within evangelical Protestantantism. There’s a long tradition of theological fretting about the speculative excesses that might be associated with Revelations.. Luther once said that “Christ is neither known nor taught in it,” while the Swiss Reformers Calvin and Zwingli generally forbade preachers to interpret it. Like the less theologically significant but equally popular “War on Christmas” hysteria that has recently enlivened the Christian Right (often among the theological descendants of Calvin and Knox, who at some points in their careers banned the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity as a pagan or papist abomination), Revelations-mining for political insights is an example of the marginal becoming “mainstream.”
And that leads me to Paul Raushenbush’s brief post today about efforts to de-legitimatize “liberal” Christianity. There’s no question that religious and political conservatives engage in all sorts of myopia and revisionism in mocking liberal Catholics or mainline Protestants as adherents of dying, secularized, “relativistic” cults. But that’s the nature of agitprop. What bothers me more is that secular observers–including the MSM–have largely accepted the idea that the only “real” or “traditional” Christians are those holding conservative or even fundamentalist views. This is evident in the coverage of the ongoing crisis in the Anglican Communion, which is almost invariably described as a “conservative” or “traditonalist” revolt against “liberal” or “radical” innovations. Rarely do you see any mention of the fact that much of the “revolt” itself stems from a highly self-conscious evangelical movement among Anglicans that predated the gay-bishop controversy, and that often advances a scriputural literalism that’s always been controversial at best among Anglicans (many Anglo-Catholic “traditionalists” either left the Communion earlier over ordination of women, or have stayed out of the current furor).
The bottom line is that religious progressives, no less than political progressives, need to constantly challenge the assumption that the Right represents sane-and-settled traditions that would be destroyed by a Bishop Robinson, or a President Obama. There’s nothing inherently conservative, much less reactionary, about Christianity or the United States of America. And we shouldn’t be bashful about pointing that out.