Matthew Avery Sutton is one of those scholars of American religion who I had in mind when I asked readers to consider the most recent “religious” turn in academia. Sutton is an associate professor of history at Washington State University, the author of the highly acclaimed biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, an alum of the IUPUI’s Young Scholars in Religion program, and the winner of the 2012 article of the year in the Journal of American History. I want to recommend that essay to this blog by contending with what I think is one of the substantial contributions Sutton makes through it.
The title of the essay is nicely provocative: “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.” The argument, as Sutton makes clear in a vigorously argued introduction, is that Christian fundamentalist eschatology developed a very particular ideological line in direct response to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Fundamentalist “criticisms of the New Deal,” Sutton asserts, “married traditional American fears of a leviathan state to a particular, depression-era apocalyptic Christian theology. It was this union that came to define fundamentalists’ suspicion of the federal government and their distinctive twentieth-century political ideology.” (1061) In short, the birth of the contemporary religious right emerged with the birth of contemporary liberalism.
What was distinctive, though, about fundamentalist critiques and fears of FDR? What made these any different than Catholic cries against Roosevelt’s creeping socialism or traditional conservatives (though not fundamentalist Christian) outright denunciations of the president’s “betrayal” of America?
By necessity, premillennialism played a role. Fundamentalists believed they understood “that they alone possessed the road map to God’s millennial kingdom.” (1057) Such confidence propelled fundamentalists to act in response to the signs of their times. And oh, what signs they saw! Following the shocking destruction of World War I and contending with the dramatic effects of the Great Depression, fundamentalists saw the rise of fascism in Europe and specter of another war (against the Jews, specifically) as definitive proof that the end times approached. FDR dropped into this narrative as the forsaker of Prohibition and usurper of local mores for centralized, secularized, perhaps “socialized” control over American lives. Sutton writes that Roosevelt’s “charismatic personality combined with his utopian promises convinced many fundamentalists and other conservatives that he might be laying the foundations for a revolution. Furthermore, his consolidation of power, his controversial policies, and his internationalist sensibilities seemed to parallel biblical descriptions of political conditions in the last days.” (1061) To forestall he who appeared to be the antichrist, fundamentalist Christians began to push their faithful toward specific ideological understanding of an emerging liberal consensus. “By preaching cultural engagement and working for conservative political causes while simultaneously predicting an imminent Armageddon, these fundamentalist leaders,” Sutton argues, “sensitized subsequent generations of believers to the dangers of modern liberalism.” (1067)
Sutton seeks to correct the idea that the rise of fundamentalist Christian politics is tied to the post-World War II era as an anti-statist, anti-intellectual movement that made Richard Hofstadter (among others) groan with frustration. Instead, according to Sutton, fundamentalist Christian leaders saw FDR and the New Deal as a dangerous development because it was part of a larger shift in world history.
It seems to me that a pithy way to get at Sutton’s argument is to say that fundamentalists hated Dr. New Deal but were significantly less definitive about Dr. Win-the-War. For one of the themes that I think emerges out of Sutton’s research is the paradoxical relationship fundamentalists have to the state–they opposed the tendencies of New Deal liberalism to expand state power (for reasons as varied as premillennialism to racism) and yet, as was clear for the every war since World War II, supported the most extreme form of state power, the authority to command its citizens to kill and die for it. Of course, the difference might simply be that while the “state” is always a threat to local control and the influence of religion to shape people who live in it, war defends those people who collectively sacrifice for the nation.
In this way, what fundamentalist Christians created an organizing principle that provided ideological structure to the postwar Religious Right–it was the nation versus the state as much as the church versus the state. Of course, Ronald Reagan used this alignment to great electoral success. And Sutton’s essay leaves me wondering why fundamentalist Christians did not extend their critique to the state’s war powers and whether there is something particular to premillennialism that allows for a configuration that is pro-war and anti-state. Can this difference be neatly answered by the argument that the Cold War (and by extension, almost any foreign war) provided yet another sign of the times? Clearly, the fight against “godless Communism” was one many Christians in the United States got behind, but was this support for the state’s war powers also an effective way for a group disposed toward a separatist theology to speak to other Americans through the language of patriotism?