By Christopher Douglas
In state legislatures across the country, Republicans are systematically making it more difficult to vote, premised on the “Big Lie” that voter fraud was behind President Joe Biden’s election. The former president and much of his party refused to concede the 2020 election loss, with most Congressional Republicans voting against ratification of the results, leading to the January 6th insurrection.
The disagreement among Republicans seems not so much between Republicans who see Democratic victories as legitimate and those who do not, but, as Adam Serwer argues, between Republicans who think violence might be necessary to hold power and those who prefer institutional malfeasance. These developments go well beyond Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s dark warning almost a decade ago that the Republican Party had become an “insurgent outlier … ideologically extreme … [and] dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Part of the reason for the increasing Republican extremism may lie in the biblical worldview of apocalypse that animates its conservative white Christian base. Apocalypse helps explain the radical political and epistemological crisis the U.S. is now facing.
Apocalypse is the genre of two biblical books, the Hebrew Bible’s Daniel and, of course, the Christian Bible’s Revelation. Apocalypse sees the world in stark moral terms, where a hostile political state persecutes God’s chosen people. Moreover, apocalypse portrays those worldly governments as sponsored by God’s cosmic enemies. In this battle of absolute good versus absolute evil, one’s political opponents are the enemies of God—as was suggested by President Trump’s evangelical adviser Paula White in 2019 when she strode the White House grounds praying against the “demonic networks” opposed to the President and later tweeted against the “demonic schemes” and “demonic stirrings and manipulations” to which she attributed his (first) impeachment.
Televangelist Paula White, a key spiritual adviser to President Trump, brags of using her access to the White House to declare it “holy ground” that is sanctified by “the superior blood of Jesus.” https://t.co/dwBFs2MCe8 pic.twitter.com/zz804kbY09— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) September 11, 2019
As a package of theological innovations, apocalypse gave hope to the oppressed. Things were going terribly wrong—but soon God would intervene to destroy his cosmic enemies and remake the world. Apocalypse was a kind of theodicy, explaining why God allowed the suffering of His people. Besides an imminent overthrowing of an evil world, apocalypse entailed the new idea of an afterlife of reward or punishment, which helped explain the fairness of Jews or Christians being martyred while their opponents prospered.
Yet it should strike us as strange that a biblical genre aimed at giving hope to the powerless in dismal circumstances of oppression now animates the self-understanding of the most powerful single demographic in the country, conservative white evangelicals. After all, the historical circumstance of Daniel’s 164 BCE composition was Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV’s brutal persecution of Jews. Executed for circumcising their sons, forced to eat pork, and victims of state terrorism as a military parade turned into a massacre of civilians in Jerusalem, Jews sought to understand how God could permit such evil. Daniel’s answer, along with other non-biblical apocalyptic writings, was that God had powerful cosmic enemies supporting the worldly powers that persecuted the Judeans.
The forms of persecution faced by Jesus-followers in Revelation is less clear, even if the anguish is as distinct. Both Daniel and Revelation symbolically portray empire—Seleucid and Roman—as monstrous entities that had temporarily overthrown God’s proper order. Jesus was an apocalypticprophet and such views were baked into early Christianity. Sometimes de-emphasized, apocalypse was reinvigorated by Anglo-Irish preacher John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century. He reinterpreted apocalypse for modern times, helping to formulate the premillennial dispensationalist theology that animates evangelical Christians today.