(Another in an irregularly produced series)
Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth
of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.
A NONTRIVIAL QUESTION RAISED
When and why did white evangelical Christians, or fundamentalists, become categorically opposed to American liberalism?
There is a journalistic rule that all headlines that ask questions are properly answered “no,” and this article is no exception; even to white evangelical Christians, it turns out, FDR was not the antichrist. According to Sutton, they thought he was moving in that direction, though.
This article fits in with the discovery that modern conservatism predates not only the alleged overreach of liberalism in the 1960s or early 1970s, but also World War II. As Sutton says, “As the actions of conservative Christians in the 1930s demonstrate, fundamentalist antiliberalism was not a product of the Cold War or of the social turmoil of the 1970s; modern liberalism and fundamentalist antiliberalism grew together from the same seed.” (1069) I’ve no doubt this will turn out to be true not only of fundamentalist antiliberalism but antiliberalism more generally, and in fact historians will probably discover that the strength of contemporary opposition was one of the reasons the New Deal remained itself so conservative.
Sutton has it that the New Deal marked a turning point in the history of fundamentalism. Premillenialist theology got its start in the late c19, deriving a forecast of the end-times from the prophetic books of the Bible, scrying the rise of a world dictator who would be antichrist.
And surely Theodore Roosevelt was echoing premillenialism when he said, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” Which would nicely illustrate Sutton’s point – Progressive-era liberalism did not incur the enmity of fundamentalists, perhaps because one of its major exponents was William Jennings Bryan (as Michael Kazin would remind us).
And in fact, despite the alarming portents of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolutions, fundamentalists remained supporters of government expansion in the name of reform through the 1920s, supporting Prohibition.
On Sutton’s account, it was the Great Depression and the rise of dictators throughout the world that set eschatological alarm bells ringing. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler … and then Roosevelt, whose “charismatic personality combined with his utopian promises convinced many fundamentalists and other conser- vatives that he might be laying the foundations for a revolution.” (1060-1061)
So the fundamentalists opposed the New Deal for all they were worth. Sutton has some amusing notes, including the US fundamentalists who meet with Mussolini and suggest to him, apparently to his delight, that he might well be the antichrist. And there are some thought-provoking notes, such as the point that, antichrist in the Oval Office or no, the fundamentalists had to work hard to get the white South away from the Democrats. Sutton doesn’t tease this point out, but surely this has to do with the Democrats’ still largely unshaken dedication to white supremacy. It was only when there was a clear break between liberalism and racism that the South broke away, too.
I wonder a little about a couple things. First, I’m not sure which came first – the New Deal or the fundamentalist opposition to FDR. In Sutton’s telling, it’s mainly the New Deal. But the thing is, FDR was a nationally known wet and opponent of the fundamentalist favorite William Jennings Bryan from the 1924 convention onward. I wonder if white evangelical opposition to him had its roots then.
Second, I’m a little nonplussed by some of the intellectual history here. Sutton makes a move early in the essay that’s entirely standard for the historiography of conservatism, criticizing the existing literature that has “dismissed as insignificant, irrational, or paranoid” the fundamentalist view of the New Deal. (1053) Which, fair enough: but then at the end of the essay when he tries to interpret the fundamentalist mindset he writes that he could do it with a variety of explanations, “none of which is likely to satisfy outsiders.” (1069) This is a little bit of a fast one, I think – it’s somewhat unfair to complain that people regard your subjects as irrational and then say, on the other hand, that they’re inexplicable to outsiders.
And one would like to know in greater detail what effect World War II, which saw FDR invoke not only God but the crusades, had on these views.