That’s what went through my mind when reading this op-ed by Matthew Avery Sutton, who is bylined as an associate professor of history at Washington State University, and author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America . The essay is a bizarre train wreck of an argument, which, as I sort through the various bits of detritus of which it consists, seems to say this:
Certain leading figures in American “fundamentalist” Christianity (or is it “evangelical” Christianity? the author is casual about any distinctions there might be) in the twentieth century were very concerned about the “last days,” the apocalypse heralded by the “Antichrist.” These leaders included Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. (Again, differences are coolly elided.) They read signs of the apocalypse in the careers of Hitler, Stalin, and even FDR. They were—you knew it was coming—politically conservative.
And their legacy lives on today! There are some on the Christian right today (and it is essential to this kind of pseudo-analysis that they are never, ever named ) who see Barack Obama as the Antichrist. And somehow or other (this logical bridge is never built, let alone crossed) this apocalyptic sensibility is evident among (again unnamed) supporters of presidential candidate like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. A standard disclaimer is thrown in that “few of the faithful truly think that the president is the Antichrist,” but the overall message is in the piece’s final, ominous sentence: “Indeed, the tribulation may be upon us.” In short: be afraid. Be very, very afraid of those crazy Christians who speak darkly of apocalypses and Antichrists and end times.
Even if you can’t name any, or actually spot any real trends in the real political life of the nation.
I have no doubt Professor Sutton knows everything worth knowing about Aimee Semple McPherson, about whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation six or seven years ago, before getting it published as the above-mentioned book. But this essay is written from inside the intellectual silo of the new associate professor at a big university, who has applied himself to a narrow expertise in order to publish and get tenure. Emptier political analysis than this is rarely spotted, even in the pages of the New York Times . But the editors loved it. This says much more about them than about Professor Sutton.