The heated controversies around President Obama – the questioned birth certificate, the supposed Muslim connections, his seeming foreignness – have generated more than a whiff of fire and brimstone. Snopes.com, the website devoted to fact-checking common rumors, felt compelled in 2011 to fact-check whether the president was the antichrist. They decided he was not.
The concern on the religious right about a president’s satanic connections is not new. Historian Matthew Avery Sutton, in the Journal of American History (here; and podcast) describes the rise of similar suspicions about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Given the events of the day, the suspicion probably fit FDR better then than it does Obama today. Sutton also argues that the connection that developed in the 1930s between millennialism – anticipating the End Times – and politics lay the groundwork for today’s religious right militancy.
Protestant fundamentalism arose in late 19th- and early 20th-century American cities in reaction to modern trends such as Darwinism and women’s movements. (Fundamentalism is not really the “old time religion.”) Fundamentalists were much concerned with preparing for Christ’s return. Ministers interpreted certain biblical texts as foretelling a period of global political unrest that would bring forth redemption: Evil empires would emerge in the East; Jews would return to the Holy Land; a promising but ultimately false leader, the antichrist, would arise; true Christians would be “raptured” to Christ’s side in heaven; and after the battle of Armageddon Christ’s forces would triumph and bring in the glorious millennium.
The 1920s and ‘30s seemed full of signs. World War I had devastated nations and England had retaken Jerusalem from the Muhammadans. The Depression wreaked suffering. Evil empires arose in the East – Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, and notably Mussolini in the capital of Catholicism, Rome. Jews fled the Nazis to return to Palestine. (A Boston minister said that Hitler was “an instrument in the hand of God” for this purpose.) The end of days drew nigh.
FDR’s moves inflamed these visions. He was utopian; he was building another strong nation-state and expanding his personal power (including eventually running for third and fourth terms); he took anti-traditional stances such as opposing Prohibition; he recognized the Soviet Union; and he tried to join the World Court. It didn’t help that in the initial balloting of the 1932 convention that nominated him he got 666 votes (a number associated with the antichrist). If he was not the antichrist, his moves seemed to support the antichrist, perhaps Stalin or Mussolini.
For the deeply believing, working against FDR became part of the resistance to the antichrist. Even if their efforts failed and the apocalypse came as was foretold, at least the believers would have been tested and found worthy of salvation. (The same Boston minister said, “We labor as though Christ would not come for a millennium. We live as though he were to come to-night.”)
Protestant fundamentalists and their ministers were not initially political and, when political, were often Democrats. Opposing FDR, Sutton argues, changed that; it initiated alliances of fundamentalists with secular conservatives and with businessmen hostile to the New Deal – although leading evangelists such as Billy Graham took care to stay bipartisan. In the late 1970s, a new generation of fundamentalist ministers, younger but still rooted in the earlier experiences, sealed the political realignment by energetically supporting the Republican party. Ronald Reagan, by the way, had a serious interest himself in End Times prophecy.
Sutton concludes that the fundamentalists of the 1930s “maintained both that the rise of the antichrist was immanent and that it was never too late for revival. Every generation since has heeded this message. While most fundamentalists never really believed that Roosevelt was the antichrist, they felt sure that he had moved the United States one enormous step closer to Armageddon.”
We are not, right now, in the sort of multiple global crises that surrounded FDR’s presidency. And Barack Obama has, compared to FDR, barely expanded the role of the state; he is hamstrung by the Supreme Court and the House. Yet, the sort of polarization and politicization of religion that Sutton says started during FDR’s time seems to have accelerated so much that from his first days in office Obama has had to deal with the view among a militant group that he is the embodiment of a satanic force.
(Cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on March 16, 2012.)