A recent poll about how many Americans believe in various classic conspiracy theories caused Diarmaid MacCulloch ask “If Obama isn’t the anti-Christ, who is?”
He says that the anti-Christ is a shape-shifter who has been very useful to conspiracy theorists down the ages.
The antichrist isn’t exactly Satan, because he’s a shape-shifter, and the shape-shifting is the reason he has been so useful for conspiracy theorists down the ages. The person who threatens you most: that’s the antichrist. The enemy constantly changes. Medieval kings and emperors were fond of saying the pope was the antichrist. Then, during the 16th-century Protestant reformation, Martin Luther was borrowing the name for use in his quarrel with Pope Leo X, though Protestants might equally identify the antichrist with the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. English Protestants were far away from Constantinople, so they preferred the pope. After all, as John Foxe (author of the Book of Martyrs) pointed out, it was obvious that 666 added up to A MAN OF ROME.
As US Evangelicals got more and more political in the 1980s, more entangled with the Republican party, it was inevitable that a Democrat president who promised great change, and (worse still) was both charismatic and pious, should take up the antichrist’s mantle, shared long ago by the pope and the sultan. After all, the antichrist must have ended up somewhere, having looked a bit of a fool when the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s very comforting to believe in him, because it explains why things go wrong for you and the folks you love. It nerves you for a fight: the beast in Revelation is part of a great cosmic struggle, in which you are a footsoldier. Not surprising that the angry, embattled folk who are the Republican party’s Evangelical core vote have gone down memory lane to resurrect the ancient stereotype as their world crumbles. This poll sounds scary – but here are two consolations. First, it shows three-quarters of Americans don’t think that Obama is the antichrist, and second, in the land of Family Guy, it is likely that quite a proportion of the remaining 25% were having a laugh at the pollsters.