Mark Hulsether over at Religion Dispatches looks at the whole interview that Tim LaHaye and Jim Jenkins, co-authors of the Left Behind series, had on the Rachel Maddow show last week, when she asked them if they understood President Obama to be the anti-Christ.
Jenkins and LaHaye wisely distanced themselves from a bald assertion that Obama is the anti-Christ, retreating instead to a somewhat more theologically tortuous position of Obama as something of a warm-up act. First, because the anti-Christ will only appear after the rapture—and since Obama “claims to be a Christian” and “might be a closet Christian”—he may not even be on earth during the crucial stages. (Familiar readers may recall, however, that liberal Christians in end-times novels are almost always left behind.) Second, they argued that there must be an overwhelming consensus about the anti-Christ’s popularity—a state of affairs that does not currently exist. In fact, Jenkins claimed that he had heard “from just about as many Democrats accusing McCain of being the anti-Christ as Republicans accusing Obama” (a doubtful claim, though interesting if true). In any case, at worst Obama appears not to be the anti-Christ, but merely to be setting the stage for his later appearance.
Despite these disclaimers, Jenkins allowed that “I can see why people might think that”—i.e., think that Obama fits the job description. LaHaye repeatedly returned to the dual claim that prophetic scenarios foretell a stage of socialism in which “government controls everything”—redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots—and that Obama is such a socialist working for such a world. His key argument was that Obama’s policies suggest that prophecies are falling into place. In other words, Obama is playing his part as a key leader of the bad guys even if he’s not the anti-Christ himself.
The idea that Obama might be the anti-Christ has been floating round some Christian circles. Those who follow a dispensationalist understanding of salvation history are particularly attracted to this idea, since they are always looking for specific events and people to play out their anticipated end of history.
For all you Episcopalians who may wonder what the fuss is all about, Dispenationalism divides salvation history into a sequence of eras, called dispensations, in which God is doing something specific in human history. Different dispensationalists have different theories as to the exact sequence of the end times and it can really get rather complex to sort one theory from another. The writers of the Left Behind books expect Christ's return to be preceded by a thousand year reign of the anti-Christ which, they say, is at once preceded and triggered by the sudden removal of all true Christians from the earth in an event called "the rapture." The Left Behind books turned what was once a fringe theological theory into a pop-culture phenomenon.
American religion has always had a millenialist streak. The inside discussion as to whether a highly popular president who is both a Democrat and African-American might also be the anti-Christ has political consequences for the rest of us.
Hulsether, who is Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Tennessee, talked about this trend with his daughter, Lucia, who a freshman at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta:
LH: ...I am sure that this type of division occurs across academic disciplines, but I would guess that the problem is especially apparent in Religious Studies because of the deep-seated commitments that people bring to the table. And it’s not limited to academic settings—it’s an issue in public discourse as well. For example, the issue of Obama as Antichrist…
MH: Yes, this problem goes deep into the challenge of teaching on religion. But whether or not a given class includes people who worry about Obama’s place in prophecy, this is just one example of a huge phenomenon in our culture. In my book, I use the example of a quarter of the population telling pollsters that the attacks of 9/11 were predicted in the Bible. Any support for the United Nations is suspect—Pat Robertson even wrote that George H.W. Bush was part of “an occult-inspired world socialist dictatorship” because he worked with the UN during the first Gulf War. It’s almost a cliché to mock Robertson and Falwell for saying that gays and secularists helped caused 9/11, but the background logic they used is pervasive.
Every now and then, the idea appears the public square. Preacher John Hagee floated the idea that Obama is the anti-Christ (while denying that he believed it) to Glen Beck on Fox News. Maddow's interview was an attempt to explore the connection between the politics of the religious right and the pre-millenial views of certain segments of Christianity.
Maddow did a nice job of pressing LaHaye about whether he looked forward to his scenario of doom (at least for unraptured people)—a vision somewhat akin to Rush Limbaugh’s desire for Obama to fail, but in this case intensified by religious emotion. LaHaye seemed unsure how to frame his response—how much to stress that he hoped for the sake of the country that his bleaker scenarios would not unfold, as opposed to hoping based on his theology that they would unfold.
Jenkins said on his personal blog that he and LaHaye were ambushed and that their words were edited out of context. In response, Maddow posted the entire, uncut interview here.