Book Review: ‘American Apocalypse’
Before writing this review, I Googled “Hillary Clinton Antichrist.” The top hits were news stories about Ryan Zinke, the Republican nominee for Nebraska’s only House seat, who at a campaign stop earlier this year declared the former Secretary of State the devil incarnate. Like other politicians’ apocalyptic pronouncements, this one caused a stir, some chuckles, some shrugs. Labeling American politicians and world leaders the Antichrist, and claiming the end-times are nigh and Jesus will return soon, are staples of our political lexicon. Yet despite their recurrence every election cycle, they are still seen as fringe, serving as easy fodder for ridicule by pundits, comedians, and the denizens of social media.
Zinke’s Antichrist remark stemmed not from a casual effort to discredit the Democrat Republicans most love to hate, and it was not a throwaway barb snatched from the pages of a Left Behind thriller. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism shows that Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, was giving expression to an impulse long embedded in the intersection of conservative white evangelicalism and American politics and foreign policy. Sutton, a historian at Washington State University, argues that this form of evangelicalism, a precursor to today’s religious right, did not, as most histories have maintained, isolate itself from political affairs. Instead, Sutton shows how an apocalyptic theology that burgeoned in the late 19th and early 20th century coalesced as a definitive American religious-political movement during and immediately after the First World War, laying the groundwork for an enduring entanglement between white conservative evangelicalism and contemporary politics.
At the heart of Sutton’s argument is a repudiation of the theory of the fundamentalist retreat, which he supports with ample and fascinating evidence. The conventional history of American fundamentalism holds that its adherents, shamed by the outcome of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, and long wary of injecting themselves into the earthly realm, withdrew from public life entirely. Sutton maintains that this version of events misapprehends the history, and, more crucially, obscures the inroads evangelicals made well before the Scopes trial in melding their unique apocalyptic ideas with politics, both at home and abroad.
Sutton, a biographer of trailblazing evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, draws on his intimate knowledge of the fundamentalist terrain of the period. This is insightful and valuable, but the standout of Sutton’s work is his deep archival dive into a previously unplumbed world of late 19th and early 20th century prophecy conferences, sermons, fundamentalist publications, and letters from citizens and demagogues alike to editors, policymakers, and presidents. The text is peppered with reproductions of pamphlets, photographs, and even apocalyptic cartoons from the period, a thrill for nerdy appreciators of the ephemera of popularized American religion.
In telling this story, Sutton persuasively shows how this early apocalyptic expression in white American evangelicalism formed the basis for what he calls “a different kind of morally infused American politics, one that challenged the long democratic tradition of pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus.” This politics of apocalypse presaged later conflicts over wars, both cold and real, and even today’s congressional obstructionism. In creating an “absolutist, uncompromising, good-versus-evil faith,” Sutton observes, “evangelicals have transformed the lives of countless of individuals and established a new form of radical politics.”
Several internal and external events merged to bring this about. Apocalyptic-minded white evangelicals were inspired first by William Blackstone’s 1878 publication of Jesus Is Coming, an attempt to read the Bible as a roadmap to current and future events. Blackstone, who later played a prominent role in lobbying for the creation of the state of Israel, drew on writings from across the pond, notably those of Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby, who brought his dispensationalist theory of the end-times on a tour of the United States in the 1860s and 70s.
At the time, pre-millennialism — which holds that the world is careening toward a period of tribulation with the Antichrist at the helm of a one-world order, only to be vanquished by the returning Jesus at Armageddon, followed by a one-thousand year reign of Christ over the Earth — had fallen out of favor. Darby, and in turn Blackstone and other American evangelical promoters, revitalized it. Pre-millennialism “gave the fundamentalist movement its most definitive shape and character,” Sutton writes. Fundamentalist preacher and editor J. Frank Norris considered it “the most vital doctrine of all,” as it served as a litmus test for theological orthodoxy.
But nothing, Sutton writes, has equaled the impact of the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, an annotated text by evangelist Cyrus Scofield, which “has been guiding Christians through the intricacies of pre-millennialism — whether they realize it or not — ever since.”
While Blackstone and Scofield had immeasurable impact on the masses, white male elites, Sutton argues, shared and reinforced pre-millennialist theology through publications and conferences, which have also left an indelible print on a cottage industry of prophecy that still exists today. These white male elites purposefully injected themselves into affairs of state, currying favor with politicians and presidents. Several decades after the publication of Jesus Is Coming, Blackstone — far from withdrawing from politics — sent President Woodrow Wilson prophecy-laced missives, warning that the Rapture was imminent, and praying that “God will provide a fit Successor to guide our nation through the Tribulation Period.”
World War I was a pivot point, Sutton writes, as it thrilled pre-millennialists into believing that God’s plan for Jesus’ return was being set into motion. The early pre-millennialists, certain that World War I would result in the Biblically prophesied end-times, did not initially fuse their religion with patriotism. Yet their disappointment when prophesied events did not come to pass did not cause them to retreat, but rather to regroup.
After the war, conservatives faced off against liberal theologians in an ongoing battle against modernity. In reaction to the rise of communism and the moral crusades of the time, including Prohibition, these evangelicals began to wrap themselves in the flag and present themselves as the true arbiters of the American way. The term fundamentalism — which Sutton maintains was imprecisely coined after the Scopes trial by the acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken — “came to define the interdenominational network of radical evangelical apocalypticists who joined together to publicly and aggressively herald the imminent second coming while challenging trends in liberal theology and in the broader American culture.”
Here Sutton finds evidence that the culture wars have dogged us far longer than since the 1960s. Refuting well-worn arguments that evangelicals were supportive of abortion rights, or at least indifferent to that defining culture war issue until a marriage of convenience with anti-choice Catholics in the 1970s, Sutton documents a fundamentalist opposition to abortion in the 1920s. (Notably, too, he documents the more familiar anti-Catholicism running through much of the fundamentalist rhetoric of the time.) The evangelist Billy Sunday denounced “the murder of unborn babies,” saying abortion would be “the curse and damnation of America.” A letter from a supporter to the pastor and moralist John Roach Straton described abortion as “the shedding of innocent blood, the sin of blood-guiltiness, the unpardonable sin, the MURDER OF THE UNBORN,” showing that abortion was an issue for grassroots fundamentalists as well. Years later, the evangelist Dan Gilbert said World War II was God’s judgment on America for abortion, which was “more appalling” than “the violence practiced by the Japs and Nazis against helpless prisoners.” For every three American women who become mothers, Gilbert said, “one American woman became a murderess!”
Fundamentalists raged against homosexuality, sex education, contraception, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, and even women’s hairstyles (especially the bob). These culture wars carried on into opposition to the New Deal, to unionization, and efforts to nationalize health care. World War II offered new opportunities for prophecy, each more absurd than the last. Some fundamentalists wondered whether Italian fascist Benito Mussolini was the Antichrist; another said the Book of Revelation “was the first religious magazine… to discuss Mein Kampf.”
As Sutton takes us to the present, he traverses more familiar territory, particularly the creation of the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian anti-communism demagoguery during the Cold War, the evangelist Billy Graham’s forays into national politics, fundamentalist opposition to integration and the civil rights movement, the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Ronald Reagan’s interest in the end-times, and the blockbuster Left Behind series. Even for those familiar with that more recent history, though, will find much to inform them here, particularly the ways in which Sutton meticulously details how apocalyptic ideas — far from being a fringe — have been entwined with our politics for over a century.
Non-evangelicals have long mocked the apocalyptic strain in American Christianity and often dismiss the possibility that rational adults can take it seriously. American Apocalypse is essential for understanding just how deeply this religious strain is entrenched in our history and politics.
Sarah Posner is a contributing writer to Religion Dispatches and has covered religion and politics for Al Jazeera America, The American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, and many other publications. Her website is http://sarahposner.com.