As the world awaits Obama's accession to power with unlimited hope and enthusiasm, this is certainly a time to celebrate the success of American democracy. Optimism and idealism reign supreme and it's about time after far too many years of deep disappointment. But a dark shadow mars the American political landscape. What will happen to the extreme right wing embodied in Sarah Palin's ascendancy to the national stage? Will it slide into well deserved obscurity or will it continue to plague the American body politic? It seems to me that this is a crucial question as we look ahead.
As the Republican Party attempts to regroup and begins to splinter between the moderate and far right wings, progressive thinkers will have to be conscious of any tendency to smugness. No need to worry, some say. If Palin's crowd comes out on top of the power struggle they will be so extreme and irrelevant that they will attract insufficient numbers to ever pose a significant threat again. They can be gleefully consigned to history there to be viewed occasionally as a bizarre relic of a disturbed and wacky time in the country's political journey.
However, things will not necessarily be that simple. As the organizer of a large conference after the 2004 presidential election on The Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right, I am concerned that things may not unfold so smoothly. We know from the 1930's that a global depression can provide the most fertile ground for the rise of extremist politics. The militant nationalisms of that time would never have retained their grip on power without the economic desperation of the population and their longing for charismatic leadership that would restore the power and wealth of the nation and assign blame to the groups responsible for unemployment, idle factories, dropping incomes, diminished national pride, hopelessness and futility.
That is why Obama's first priority must be the economic well being of both the United States and the world. If we were to be faced with decline and poverty, the door would open to dark, nationalist forces that would undoubtedly take a religious form. And what would that form be? The conference in New York in spring 2005 examined a phenomenon known as Dominionism -- the belief that godly Christians are now mandated by the Lord to take political power to purify America, return it to its Christian origins, and create a biblical society with biblical laws for biblical crimes. The End Times would be upon us, the Book of Revelation would provide the geopolitical road map, and the spiritual war with secularists, Muslims and others would be conducted ruthlessly.
Well educated people and progressives do themselves a disservice if they dismiss this worldview as simply idiotic, unthinkable, and confined to a lunatic fringe. Sarah Palin's rise shows there is still an appetite in America for charismatic leadership devoid of political substance; for a pretty face, a down home manner, and a torrent of ugly, distorted political attacks delivered with a sexy vibe - the heels on and the gloves off.
Serious political thinkers need to be alert to the real dangers here. Obama in all his wisdom, vision and huge emotional intelligence has vast potential to bring America the leadership it so desperately needs. But he faces global challenges unseen since 1932. If he falters, an abyss might yawn. From it might emerge combined political and religious forces convinced of their spiritual rectitude and their opponents' evil, and intent on establishing a militaristic theocracy that elevates America and Jesus combined to godlike status.
It's time to educate ourselves more about The New Apostolic Reformation and the spiritual warfare to which Palin's Assemblies of God Church appears to subscribe. When the prayer warriors of this movement delight in the burning of a Transcendental Meditation Center and the persecution of African 'witches' as perceived results of their spiritual efforts, we should all be concerned. We can learn more from web sites like talk2action.org that are engaged in thorough investigations of the disturbing belief systems prevalent in Dominionist churches. Journalists need to ask Sarah Palin directly about her religious beliefs regarding spiritual warfare, the End Times, even the appearance of the Anti-Christ.
It's well known that certain fundamentalist circles suspect that Obama is 'The One,' a forerunner of the Beast foretold in the Book of Revelation. Check out the views of Hal Lindsey, author of the fundamentalist classic, The Late, Great Planet Earth. Could that suspicion lie behind their unwavering attempts to 'expose' his links to terrorists, his sympathy for Islam, his phenomenal charisma that, they feel, can only be explained by diabolical forces that stand behind him? No doubt Sarah Palin thinks of herself as a good mom, a nice person, a follower of Jesus, and a devoted public servant. But death threats against Obama immediately spiked when her inflammatory, lipsticked rhetoric began to work its influence on the minds of unthinking people.
We can't assume this kind of thing is now over. It seems to me that despite the current ascendancy of progressive politics we must educate ourselves about the beliefs of the religious far right, be alert to their strategies, and insist that the media penetrate into the core worldview of any major political candidate. Cathleen Falsani's interview with Obama at Beliefnet on the nature of his spirituality offers a fine model of how to approach this crucial subject. And, above all, we must hope that the world turns away from Depression and moves firmly toward prosperous, sustained, green renewal.