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Randall Balmer Headshot

Pavlovian Premillennialism

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I suppose you've got to give the Republicans of the Rove era credit for their inventiveness, if not their chutzpah. In 2004 their nominee, who had essentially been a draft dodger, was pitted against a genuine Vietnam War hero (a species hard to come by). How did they respond? They went directly after John Kerry's war record in an attempt -- largely successful -- to tarnish his credentials as a combat hero.

This year the Republicans have a decidedly uncharismatic and relatively untelegenic candidate pitted against a fairly unexperienced Democrat who nevertheless knows how to give a good speech and motivate the masses. At a time when the nation and the world are looking for inspired leadership, after eight years of moral bankruptcy in the Oval Office, the Obama candidacy has captured the imagination of millions of Americans and, not surprisingly, the citizens of the world.

So how do the Republicans propose to counter Barack Obama's appeal? In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they are seeking to portray the presumptive Democratic nominee as the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelation.

Others have offered detailed analyses of John McCain's ad, "The One," that depicts Obama as a nefarious force on the world stage. And there is no doubt that the ad plays effectively on evangelical fears of the Antichrist and a "one-world government."

But attempts to stir evangelical fears, based on premillennial sentiments (Jesus is coming at any moment) and the nineteenth-century teachings of John Nelson Darby, miss a larger point: Evangelicals are no longer as devotedly premillennial in their convictions as they once were.

Premillennialism became popular late in the nineteenth century when evangelicals felt marginalized in American society because of industrialization, urbanization and the influx of non-Protestant immigrants. They carried premillennialism into the twentieth century in large measure because it comported with their own sense that they were marginal figures. Jesus would come back at any minute and avenge their sufferings.

Despite concerted efforts on the part of leaders of the Religious Right to stoke those sentiments of marginalization, however, evangelicals no longer feel as peripheral to American society as they once did. They are overwhelmingly middle-class and upwardly mobile. They have, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, achieved remarkable successes politically, economically and socially over the last half century so that the siren song of premillennialism no longer has the same appeal it once did.

When I was growing up as an evangelical in the 1950s and 1960s, the mantra was always, "Lord, come quickly." Now, with evangelicals feeling more and more comfortable in American society, despite the rhetoric of their leaders, the mantra (albeit unspoken) is "Lord, take your time; we're doing okay."

That's not to say that the McCain ad is not effective. The popularity of the Left Behind series suggests that premillennialism still has a hold on many evangelicals (though I suspect that much of the appeal lies in a kind of lingering curiosity rather than heartfelt conviction). Evangelicals, in their heart of hearts, however, may no longer be the Pavlovian premillennialists that the Republicans think they are.

Cross-posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival blog.

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