As a Christian and Jesuit-schooled Catholic, I can tell you in no uncertain terms: President Obama is not the Antichrist, although that's what about 25 percent of Republicans believe.
For those who like to make false comparisons, you might recall that there were some secular liberals who didn't even believe in an Antichrist but who nonetheless metaphorically expressed a similar sentiment about George Bush. But let's be clear: many on the religious Right literally believe Obama to be the Antichrist, just as they literally believe in the Rapture and Armageddon and that scapegoating Obama is their path to both. The political consequences of such extremism and the differences between the Left and Right in this regard are enormous. We see all over the world the consequences of violent political and/or religious extremism. And we felt it on our own shores on 9/11 and, lest we forget, in Oklahoma City.
Let's also remember that we never saw liberals dressed up in Ku Klux Klan regalia, bombing churches, showing up to anti-Bush rallies with guns, or threatening the Republican Congress with death. Nor is it liberals who are planning a march on Washington to coincide with the date Timothy McVeigh and his conspirators blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. But that is what certain conservative groups are now doing as they plan to march on Washington on April 19th, the fifteenth anniversary of McVeigh's terrorist act. As Rabbi Ben Kamin cogently noted, McVeigh's likely calendar inspiration for choosing April 19th was that it coincided with Hitler's birthday. According to Rabbi Kamin:
A thousand ghastly and genocidal plots are imagined, and a few attempted, every springtime around the world by aberrant men and women, fascists, neo-Nazis, every year on or about April 20--Hitler's birthday.
Their grievance? The totally fabricated and paranoid fantasy that Obama plans to take away their guns. In other words, they seem poised to provoke a pretext for that to possibly happen and eventually create the kind of springboard for another McVeigh-type terrorist attack.
So expect a rash of Karl Rovish "Reichstag antics" to be pulled any moment now by conservative operatives. They badly need a Rove style disinformation campaign to make the Left look like it's the real violent threat and create a false comparison with right wing extremism in the public's mind.
But why is Obama being portrayed as the Antichrist by so many "Christian" conservative demagogues, and why is this view and those who espouse it being given credence, encouragement, and protection by the right-wing media? Is it to cultivate what the militia movement and racist groups portray as "Christian soldiers," who like McVeigh and Scott Roeder can be mobilized against the president and progressives, to terrorize us with their hate and scare us away from implementing the positive change we need in this country? Remember, Roeder was the "Christian" activist convicted of first degree murder for killing a Kansas doctor because he provided legally protected abortions. And why do Conservatives continue to falsely tie health care reform to baby-killing and murder? Could it be to help rally their troops and put boots on the ground for an even bigger, potentially more violent battle? To terrorize the electorate and the media into acceding to right-wing demands in order to avoid the violence?
There is much research on what is called the "scapegoat mechanism" by psychiatrists like Arthur Colman and historical scholars such as Rene Girard. It shows that scapegoating, shunning, or demonizing others outside your "clan," "family," "religion," etc., or even someone within it, increases bonding and trust among the others in the "in group" and/or provides immediate emotional benefits for individuals who engage these types of ancient "survival instincts."
However, when both individual and collective benefits are combined, and the urge to scapegoat and demonize stoked by others (e.g. Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, friends, etc.), you get contagious transmission of these "survival instincts" and resonance between the transmitters. This amplifies the effect. Demonizing Obama as the Antichrist triggers this instinct among the believers, inspires and amplifies extremist behavior, while inducing the "high" of togetherness and superiority among the in group.
But what about the silent majority of us Christians who look upon these decidedly un-Christian deeds with horror? What lessons does our faith provide for us to put this into perspective?
As many of you know, Palm Sunday was just a few days ago. It's the first day of our Holy Week as we conclude the Lenten Season (and what "Christian" extremists apparently see as opening of "Scapegoat Season"). The culmination, of course, is Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the redemptive act of supreme love, symbolized by the death and rising of Jesus.
As I attended Palm Sunday Mass in the beautiful Franciscan Mission Church in Santa Barbara, I couldn't help but reflect on the gospel reading and its relevance to our times -- in particular, to the relationship between the president and the "Christianity"-cloaked terrorism and extremist wing of the conservative movement.
I'm sure you've heard this gospel story: it's the one where Jesus was greeted by the crowd as a liberator and was showered with Hosannas and Palms as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of an ass. But the crowd craved what I call a "Messiah high." They saw Jesus as an easy solution to their suffering who was also growing in fame and popularity.
So they did what many -- but not all -- do today: they jumped on the bandwagon hoping for an easy ride, simple solutions, and a feel-good high. We see this played out today in some of the prosperity-gospel-preaching megachurches, at Tea Party demonstrations, and, yes, even at rallies supporting Obama during his 2008 presidential run.
But in his day, Jesus taught tough and complex truths that challenged many of the crowd's most cherished beliefs and their corrupt and compromised leaders. So when things got tough, he became their scapegoat, and the mob and their leaders threw him under the bus. His final words as he hung from the cross:
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
Well, 2000 years later it seems as though they know exactly what they do. In fact, they appear to be experts at scapegoating and inciting mobs to violence.
This is where it becomes quite handy to peg Obama as the Antichrist. For example, we have three nationally recognized conservative Christian pastors -- Stephen Anderson, Wiley Drake, and Peter Peters -- calling on conservative Christians to pray for President Obama's death, literally! We also have the Tea Partiers and their conservative Republican supporters in Congress crying out, "Kill ObamaCare!" Black congresspersons who supported the health care bill are being spat upon and called racial slurs; others are subjected to homophobic slurs; and still others are threatened with violence and death.
So this is what I ask of the silent majority of Christians horrified at such defilement of our faith: let us pray for President Obama and our better angels and against Christian-cloaked conservative extremism.
Let us pray that we have the courage to stand up and push forward a realistic and positive agenda of change.
Let us pray that we have the courage to confront those misled by right-wing media and political demagogues, and that we not let our country be weakened by those who see Obama as the Antichrist and hate America's rich diversity.
Let us pray that those idealists who sought an Obama "Messiah high" but later turned against him learn that there are no simple solutions, that he is our best hope right now, and recommit themselves to the cause.
Let us pray that, collectively, we are successful in bringing forth an agenda that is humane, and that Christians re-root themselves in the true Christian ethos, which Jesus described as:
"Love thy neighbor as thy self and as I have loved you."
Many people who legitimately feel dejected and disillusioned are being rallied like never before by Sarah Palin and other demagogues, by hate-mongering "Christian" conservative pastors, by militias and other racist groups, by the right-wing media, and by powerful interests with lots of money. And the internet gives them unprecedented capabilities to raise money and mobilize boots on the ground. They are looking for scapegoats and willing to encourage and/or use violence, just as they did during Jesus' time and have done over millennia. They have perfected the art of getting others to do their dirty work and do so with plausible deniability. And then when groups like the Hutaree militia are caught in the act of planning a "Civil War II" of terrorism against our Union, they deny any responsibility for stirring up the very fear and hate that fuels these groups, while giving them political cover.
Sadly, many of them call themselves Christians, doing an incredible disservice to our great faith and the silent majority of us Christians who accept the New Covenant of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, not Old Covenant calls for violent stonings, death, and revenge.
These latter practices and beliefs were the ones favored by the mobs and their leaders during Jesus' time, as well as by those who now pretend to worship his name yet cry "communist" and "baby-killer" and throw F-word and N-word bombs against congresspersons who only want to extend a helping hand to those who need it. Yet they will take the helping hand themselves in the form of unemployment benefits, social security, Medicare, police, fire and other public services. They maintain that life begins at conception, but for them it seems to end at birth; after that, it's every man for himself. "The devil take the hindmost" is what they practice and they preach, except when it comes to themselves and their in-group.
That's why they must be confronted now, by the secular and non-secular alike, before they gain any more momentum, further defile true religious faith and spirituality, and pervert our precious Union with their secessionist and fascistic fervor.
To all my secular friends on the Left, especially those who battled in Seattle and Copenhagen and against the Iraq War but look down their nose at the "messiness" of the political process, I plead:
Stop scapegoating Obama and ceding the political process and media landscape to mobs whose fascistic fervor is successfully moving the media and subconscious minds of the electorate to the right. Stop for a minute and consider that it may well be a form of white privilege to so steadfastly maintain the supremacy of a type of ideological purity and idealism that will exact a heavy price on all of us if the Republicans, this time with Tea Party and militia support, take over the government again. The price? Drastic, if not permanent, erosion of our freedoms, civil rights, and dignity as human beings, not to mention violence and intimidation by force of arms.
I'm asking -- no, I'm praying -- that you get out there like you did in Seattle and Copenhagen and confront face-to-face the real threat. Cease your fire on Obama. Remember, the Secret Service has more that it can already handle without additional fuel being added to the fire.
Finally, I offer this prayer to my fellow Christians: that we truly follow the New Covenant and let the words and deeds of Jesus himself guide us; that we consecrate the conclusion of Lent and enter the Paschal Triduum and observance of Good Friday and Easter with humility and awe; that we remember that even Jesus asked that the cup be passed from him before he finally accepted his difficult fate as an act of supreme love.
We, too, have difficult days ahead. But we must accept our fate to restore our faith as we confront those caught up in the fervor of FOX-encouraged, fact-free fundamentalism, which daily defiles the meaning of true Christianity. May we do so with a vigorous love for our faith, our country, and a humanity that does not fear the hate of those cloaked in a false Christianity that bears no resemblance to the teachings of Jesus and who seem hellbent on tearing asunder our beloved community and Union.