Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98.4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

Matt Sutton’s recent article “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” breaks important ground in the study of conservative Christian antiliberalism. Though they agreed that FDR probably wasn’t the anti-Christ himself, many fundamentalists interpreted his New Deal policies in apocalyptic terms. With the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the reconstituted Roman Empire under Mussolini, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel (after the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917), fundamentalists knew the Last Days were near at hand. Says Sutton, “Premillennialism served as the filter through which the faithful understood American politics” (1061). They saw the expanding powers of the US federal government under FDR as a sure sign that the anti-Christ was about to appear on earth. If Roosevelt wasn’t personally the antichrist, he surely wanted to usher in the kind of world where the antichrist would feel at home. Fundamentalists would not stand for it.

Sutton draws two arguments out of fundamentalist responses to FDR. First, he concludes that fundamentalist antistatism did not emerge in the NAE of 1942 nor the Moral Majority of 1979, but instead “developed among fundamentalists during the 1930s, parallel to and corresponding with the birth of modern liberalism” (1053). Second, he suggests that international politics and global events importantly shaped fundamentalist theology and politics in America. No navel-gazing isolationists, fundamentalists understood their faith in global terms and looked to international events for evidence that the rapture was coming soon. Premillennialist political critiques at home arose as fundamentalists carefully scanned the globe for signs of the times.

Sutton’s argument about fundamentalist interest in international affairs corrects a glaring oversight in the field. Sometimes, we scholars lose sight of the fact that fundamentalists were referring to real events, real places, and real people when they talked about “wars and rumors of wars,” Gog, Magog, and the Beast. With his characteristic artistry, Sutton beautifully depicts an encounter between two fundamentalist missionaries and Mussolini that illustrates this point: “by the time the Nortons had finished with Mussolini, he apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator, the antichrist, prophesied in the book of Daniel” (1059). The story reads as a kind of humorous aside in the article, but it stands on the tip of an iceberg. The very fact that American fundamentalists could have detailed knowledge of Mussolini’s activities, travel to visit him, and read reports of such encounters soon after they happened speaks volumes about the cultural world in which fundamentalism thrived. As Sutton’s title suggests, this was indeed a global age, one in which industrial presses churned out international headlines around the clock, Lindbergh flew an airplane to France, and people’s home radios plucked world news right out of the air.

This article left me wanting more. I felt especially unsatisfied by the one-paragraph treatment of the late 1920s. From about 1925-1932, fundamentalist premillennialists went from supporting “big government” initiatives like prohibition and anti-evolution to vehemently opposing FDR. This essay simply skims over these crucial years, attributing the premillennial critique of the New Deal to a renewed interest in eschatology prompted by the nation’s economic collapse. In his book on this topic, I hope Sutton will spend more time in these crucial years—I think there’s an interesting story to tell there.

One Comment
  1. You are absolutely right that there is a bigger story to be told in the 20s. I gave a conference paper last year that covered much of the same ground that Matt deals with here, but my focus was on Pentecostals’ apocalyptic reactions to the Depression and the inevitable war. Throughout the 20s, Pentecostals were very much connected with their worldwide network of missionaries, and so had a fairly comprehensive flow of world news, which they interpreted in light of end times prophecy. Every issue of the Pentecostal Evangel and the Latter Rain Evangel included a page or more of current events and their relation to the apocalypse. Further, they were looking forward to potential dates of the apocalypse calculated for the 30s at the turn of the century, so in these earlier years, preparations were already being made for the war of Armageddon (which would involve death rays!).

    Interestingly, Assemblies of God magazines were almost uniformly in support of FDR and New Deal programs. While there was some discussion about the possibility of the NRA blue eagle being the mark of the beast, the notion was quickly quashed. At one point, an editor decided that “NRA” should stand for “Nominate Roosevelt Again!”

    I’m looking forward to Matt’s book, too. Based on the JAH podcast interview, it will be an important work.

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