The notion of apocalypticism is new, but it has had a large impact - particularly in the US. Here Matthew Avery Sutton is interviewed about his new book American Apocalypse.
The idea that Jesus is coming back soon was a fairly radical and unconventional idea in the 19th century, but by the 21st century it’s the air American Christians breathe. The most recent polls said something like 58 percent of white evangelicals believe Jesus is going to return by 2050. They simply take for granted that there is going to be a Rapture and Jesus is going to come back.
I took those statistics and others like them and moved backwards in time. What I found in my research was that apocalypticism was central to fundamentalists and evangelicals. What made them most distinct, what set them apart from liberal Protestants is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s not questions of the virgin birth or how you read the Bible or questions of the nature of the incarnation or the literal resurrection of Jesus or Jesus’s miracles. All those matter, all of those things do set them apart, but they don’t affect how they live their daily lives. The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust.
In their minds, the imminent Second Coming would not be as important as getting people saved. Salvation, converting sinners, would be the most important thing driving them. But in terms of how they’re shaping and organizing their own lives, I think apocalypticism has been the driving force for much of the last century. It has fueled the movement and shaped it in fundamental ways.
The standard narrative of white evangelical history is a great withdrawal from culture in the 1920s and then a reengagement in the 1950s, leading to the religious right in 1980s. Do you want to revise that?
Yes. That’s one of the historiographical arguments I’m making in the book. The traditional argument is that fundamentalists were active and engaged in American society until the Scopes trial, the anti-evolution trial, in 1925. They were humiliated and defeated in the Scopes trial, they withdrew and focused on building their churches, their institutions, but they weren’t engaged in mainstream culture until the rise of Billy Graham who helped turn them around. Then it’s a few quick steps to the rise of the religious right.
That’s incorrect. They never gave up. They never withdrew or disengaged from culture. In the 1930s, for example, most of these fundamentalists were very critical of the New Deal. For Americans who were actively looking for signs of the coming Antichrist in the context of the 1930s, in the context of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, Roosevelt had all the markings of someone setting the stage for the end times. He was concolidating power. Government was growing.
I found a letter from one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s operatives. He had gone out to survey the country and look for areas of strength and weakness before the 1936 election and what he told FDR is that the greatest threat was not from the economic reactionaries, that was his term, but from the religious reactionaries. He said the “so-called evangelical churches are strongly against you.” It was shortly after that that FDR issued a letter to all the churches of the nation, asking for their support, and asking what he could do to better meet their needs.