The Long View: An Angel Directs the Storm

Calm  and  serene  he drives the furious blast; And, pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform, Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm. ~  Joseph Addison   By Gustave Doré and me, Angel 007 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradise_Lost_1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5885087

Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm. ~ Joseph Addison

By Gustave Doré and me, Angel 007 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradise_Lost_1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5885087

This is a fine example of John's best work. In retrospect, President George W. Bush did some crazy things, but his critics were often even crazier.


An Angel Directs the Storm:
Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire
By Michael Northcott
I.B. Tauris Co Ltd., 2004
200 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 1-85043-478-6

 

The title of this book comes from a famous question that John Page asked his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, about the American Revolution: “Do you not think that an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm?” The book’s author, a Reader in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, takes this apparently innocent question about the role of Providence in history and uses it as an emblem for this thesis:

“It is a tragic deformation of Biblical apocalyptic that in America for more than two centuries millennialism, far from unveiling [in the sense of unmasking] empire, has served as a sacred ideology that has cloaked the expansionary tendencies of America’s ruling elites.”

Northcott’s argument is compounded, in large part, of the ecclesiology of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, the eschatology of Rene Girard, the geopolitics of Andrew Bacevich, and the postmodern political prose poetry of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Unfortunately, these people are not obviously in agreement about fundamental issues, and the author makes little effort to reconcile them. What holds the book together is a rambling, Soviet-surplus critique of the United States, updated by the propaganda of the antiglobalization movement.

Some of this filler material is amazing. We learn, for instance, that 67% of the children of US veterans of the first Gulf War have some serious birth defect. We further learn that Islamism is, simultaneously, an artifact of American funding; an indigenous reaction to American-imposed post-colonial underdevelopment; and a modern, pseudo-Islamic ideology that mirrors America’s neoliberal globalism in being totalitarian and universalistic. The author even moves the great die-off of elderly people during the European heat wave of 2003 from France to Chicago. By the end of this book, American malefaction has become so ubiquitous as to be virtually unfalsifiable.

This is a shame, since there are real issues here about the nature of American political culture and the interrelationship of eschatology, soteriology, and macrohistory. The author makes a remarkable hash of all of them.

It is true, as Northcott points out, that the principle of “the priesthood of all believers” gave American political culture a bias toward voluntarism and the market. More important, it is also true that the Puritans in America saw their story as a reprise of the Book of Exodus, but on a larger scale, and with world-historical significance. There really is a strong millennialist streak that runs right through American history (the best-known discussion of which remains Tuveson’s “Redeemer Nation”). From the colonial era, and into the 20th century, the dominant model of history was “postmillennialism,” which holds that society would be perfected within history, during the millennium, only after which would the Second Coming occur. After the Revolution, a synthesis of ideological republicanism and Puritanism arose. It assigned an important but subordinate place for the Church, as the institution that would educate citizens in virtues needed to make the polity function. Northcott is not pleased:

“American postmillennial apocalyptic involves the claim that the American Republic, and in particular the free market combined with a sort of marketised democracy, is the first appearance in history of a redeemed human society, a true godly Kingdom. But true Christian apocalyptic, the Christian belief that Christ has come, that the spirit of Christ is present in the Church, and that Christ will come again, points Christians precisely to the temporary and imperfect nature of all efforts to establish the reign of God on earth.”

There are tensions in Northcott’s critique, to put it mildly. He posits, reasonably enough, that the philosophy of John Locke has strongly affected American political culture. The author then asserts that the Lockean understanding of government as essentially a device for protecting property is not orthodox theology, and is indeed postchristian, whatever the denominational affiliation of actual Lockeans may be. Well, maybe, but readers may find it hard to reconcile Northcott’s indictment of the sacralization of government with his antipathy to Locke’s political theory, which was designed precisely to keep government modest, both in its powers and in its ontological status.

Be this as it may, the most important development in the history of American eschatology was the transition to premillennialism, which began about the middle of the 19th century. Premillennialism, sometimes called dispensationalism, holds that the Second Coming will occur before the millennium, preceded by disaster and apostasy. It does not see secular progress as a good thing, if progress is acknowledged at all. Its influence has spread steadily; today, it is perhaps the most widespread historical model among evangelical Christians in the United States (and elsewhere, one might add). It is associated, often if not invariably, with Biblical literalism, and with support for Zionism, which is held to be a fulfillment of prophecies of the Endtime.

We are told that there is a synergy between dispensationalist fatalism and the ideology of the market, since both denigrate the possibility of collective action. This would be interesting, were it not for the fact that freemarketeers are optimists of the most annoying sort. Still, it is certainly easier to make that argument than to suggest, as Northcott also seems to do, that premillennialism is a religion of immiseration. In the US, the key figures associated with the revival of premillennialism were high-status churchmen and laity based in Manhattan. In the 19th century, this eschatology was not particularly popular in those regions that suffered social disruption in the course of industrialization. By the later 20th century, some form of premillennialism was becoming the mark of the rising classes of the Next Christendom outside the West. This only repeated its history in America, where evangelicals of all descriptions tend to be richer and better educated than the population as a whole.

Neither will it do to make premillennialism a religion of capitalism, either international or domestic. Contrary to what Northcott believes, Americans by the later 19th century were not satisfied with their “national Bank” and its capitalist ways. America did not have a central bank from 1836 to 1913 because the people in the states that later became highly evangelical were suspicious of large institutions. In fact, they also made sure that private banks could not operate nationally until relatively recently. High tariffs, restricted immigration, and suspicion of finance are the evangelical political tradition. The current association of evangelicalism with big business in the Republican Party is a historical accident, occasioned chiefly by the decision of the Democratic Party to walk the plank on the abortion issue.

It would be hard to quarrel with the assessment that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic Progressivism and his plan to make the world safe for democracy are manifestations of America’s traditional postmillennialism. That view of the world long lingered in elite circles. In fact, the sentiment never entirely dissipated, even if the theology did. There is a good argument to be made the Bush Administration’s War on Terror is just a revival of Wilsonianism with a Kantian twist supplied by the neoconservatives. However, Northcott’s analysis forces him to make a bad argument:

“[T]he mutation of the American dream into a global war with those who are said to oppose America’s interests and its values is a consequence of Enlightenment rationalism. The universal story of an enlightened humanity progressing toward peace legitimizes a perpetual war to bring it about…However it is not in the name of reason, but of an apocalyptic faith that Bush and bin Laden seek to take charge of the destiny of the world.”

Northcott asserts that Bush’s policy “is consistent” with the abandonment of the attempt to build the postmillennial Zion in America (of which the Puritan Fathers dreamed, however mistakenly), in favor of a premillennial project to aid the construction of a Jewish Zion in Israel. This is an interpretation against the text, since the fact is that the Bush Administration does claim to be acting in the name of reason. Certainly that is how the Administration talks about geopolitics. That is even how the Administration talks about Israel. Only when we dismiss the canard that George Bush is trying to trigger the Battle of Armageddon do we come to the really interesting point: under Northcott’s analysis, Christians would have to oppose any forcible attempt to maintain world order, or indeed national order.

This form of pacifism is based on a reading of the New Testament that retrojects 20th-century underdevelopment theory onto first-century Palestine, thereby turning Jesus into an ardent if peaceful anti-imperialist. To this end, Northcott adopts strange readings of such texts as Mark 12: 13-17. That is the passage in which Jesus, in response to a question about the licitness of paying taxes to the Romans, says to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. As Northcott would have it, that Jesus did not legitimize the payment of the tax:

“… Jesus already steals a march on his opponents because he demands that they show him the imperial coin – the Denarius – in which the tax was paid [since] neither he nor his disciples carried the coinage of empire… The question already names Jesus’ opponents as idolaters since they possess the coin and he does not.”

What we have here is a studied refusal to hear anything from scripture that the exegete does not want it to say (from my limited experience this is characteristic of Girardian exegesis). Northcott does not confine this practice to small points. Here is a broader misreading for you:

“The real meaning of Revelation is that the Roman Empire – variously the ‘beast,’ the ‘dragon’, the ‘whore of Babylon’ – and the Roman emperor – the Antichrist – are already defeated.”

To this, one may say that anyone who thinks that the word “Antichrist” appears in the Book of Revelation could have his license to practice eschatology revoked. In any case, we need to remember that if Revelation really were just an anti-Roman tract, it would not be very interesting, and we would not be reading it today. Anti-Roman sentiment is, of course, present in that book: the Whore of Babylon is Rome. However, she is killed at the behest of the Beast. The message is that, bad as Rome is, it’s really just a front for something much worse: of the archons, of whom St. Paul wrote, who really rule the world, and against whom it is the real business of Christians to struggle.

To be fair, we should note that the author acknowledges that Jesus did not preach political resistance, even of the passive Gandhian variety. We are also told, eventually, that Paul commanded obedience to the state, but then we are also told that Paul meant that the powers of the state were legitimate only when they were used for right purposes. At the risk of getting into a proof-texting contest, I find this hard to square with the remark of Jesus to Pilate that Pilate’s power was “from above,” even when Pilate was about to have Jesus executed. Theocracy is a poor notion, but it should not be confused with the immemorial Christian principle that the state is a part of a providential order, and not simply a feature of a fallen world.

The preferred eschatology of “An Angel Directs the Storm” is an almost complete preterism. Though allowing that the Lord will come again at some indefinite point in the future, under circumstances we cannot now imagine, Northcott repeatedly reminds us that all prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. Indeed, history ended then, with the resurrection. This is why, for instance, the doctrine of Just War is invalid (though Northcott says that George Bush managed to violate it anyway). The New Testament shows:

“[T]here is no more need for war; in the language of the Book of Revelation the war in heaven has already ended, Michael and his angels have already put down the elemental powers and the fallen angels…Christians are called not to fight against them, rather to enact their defeat in the communities of worship and reconciliation.”

Northcott’s pacifism rejects pietism. Pietism, he says, comes from the error of putting the soul in the care of religion, while leaving the body to the control of the state. That error, in turn, comes from viewing the Church as one association among many, rather than as a comprehensive community. The politics of the Christian community is “the non-coercive quest for peace and justice in a sinful world.” Christian community does not require self-segregation: far from it. Christians should pray for the welfare of the city into which they have been sent, and work for its welfare, as Jeremiah advised the exiles from Judea. They must never take charge, but hold those to account who try to take charge, particularly if they try to take charge in God’s name. On the global level, Christians are to reject the temptation to control history’s outcome, which was among the things that the devil unsuccessfully tempted Jesus to do.

The confusion here is obvious enough: Northcott has a divinized concept of history. Hegel did too, of course, but Hegel was trying to replace theology rather than practice it. Perhaps this will clarify the question:

The fate of the modern international system is important, because the international system is a very big thing. The atmosphere is a very big thing, too, but we usually don’t accuse people who study or to try to influence it (by controlling industrial emissions, say) of usurping a divine prerogative. The historical world is different from the atmosphere, of course, particularly in that the historical world consists of human groups in conflict. Northcott says that God does not choose sides between these groups. To that, the short answer may be to stop telling God what to do.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told

The minutiae of eschatology matter quite a bit to many people. This book review was my introduction to preterism, the claim that all of the events prophesied in the New Testament have already happened. Like John, I don't think this really fits into a systematic Christian theology, but systematic theology has never really been a popular endeavor.


Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told
by John Noe
Preterist Resources, 1999
300 Pages, US$ 17.95
ISBN 0-9621311-4-8

 

The idea that the eschatological prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the life and mission of Jesus is scarcely new. That is why the Old Testament is part of the Christian canon. However, most forms of Christianity have usually held that prophecy also points to events in the indefinite future, when the work of salvation will be completed along with history itself. The proposition that all the prophecies of the "end times" were fulfilled in their entirety in the first century is known as "preterism." In "Beyond the End Times," John Noe, a writer on business topics and president of the Prophecy Reformation Institute, makes a vigorous case for preterism. His intended audience are the theologically conservative evangelicals who, he feels with some reason, have been ill-served by the premillennialism that has dominated American evangelicalism for the last century and a half.

Quite a few members of the evangelical audience are likely to find this book more than a little disconcerting. All the familiar landmarks by which many believers have oriented themselves in contemporary history are systematically leveled. The founding of modern Israel becomes a political accident, with no significance for salvation history. There will be no Third Temple, no Antichrist and no Battle of Armageddon. There will be no Rapture of the Saints before the Tribulation, and no Tribulation. Indeed, there will be no Second Coming.

And, since the millenarian streak in evangelicalism is only a special case of the millenarianism that runs through American culture generally, evangelicals are not the only ones whose most cherished images of future horror are dismissed. Preterism, in Noe's understanding, requires the doctrine that the world will have no end. This means that neither the human race, nor the planet Earth, nor the universe itself will ever cease to exist. Noe makes a moderate critique of the more hysterical kinds of environmentalism. He also points out that, while a general nuclear war would be very terrible, it would not exterminate the human race. Perhaps most remarkably, this is the only book I have ever encountered which suggests that the second law of thermodynamics, at least as applied to cosmology, may be contrary to scripture.

Noe does not argue, as might a typical theological liberal, that the prophecies of the Old Testament were simply mythology or metaphor. Wherever possible (which is not everywhere), he prefers a literal interpretation of prophecy. Rather, he argues that the prophecies referred to concrete historical events that have already occurred. His particular care is to show the compatibility of Matthew 24:34 with history. That verse comes at the end of the so-called "Olivet Discourse," in which Jesus predicts great tribulation and the coming of the Son of Man. Then he says, "I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened." Noe argues that this need not be, as C.S. Lewis called it, "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible."

The basis for Noe's argument is the Book of Daniel and its prophecy in chapter 9 of "70 weeks of years." This prophecy was supposed to predict the history of the Jews after their return from the Babylonian Exile. Daniel is set in the sixth century BC, though most scholars prefer a date for its composition in the second century BC. Noe is willing to live with either date of composition. If the second-century date is accepted, then the book's "prediction" of the desecration of the Temple by a wicked tyrant was actually a contemporary account of the successful Maccabean revolt in 168 BC against the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who had in fact defiled the Temple. In contrast, the book's prediction of the coming of "Michael" to save the people really was a prediction, and did not occur. At any rate, it did not occur in the second century BC. Christian apologists, however, have long noted that, if you start the 70 "weeks" running from any of several plausible dates for the end of the Exile in the fifth century BC, then "Michael" is predicted to appear during what turned out to be the life of Jesus. Noe explicates the arithmetic in detail, capping it with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. That event, he holds, was the finale, foretold in both the Old and New Testaments, of the "end times" that began with the career of Jesus.

Noe's system has unusual implications for scripture. To begin with, if this version of preterism is to work, then the books of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation most especially included, must all have been written before AD 70. The proposal of such an early date for Revelation is new to me, as it is to both traditional and modern biblical criticism, both of which were quite happy with a late first-century date. Furthermore, the "Babylon" which is destroyed in Revelation turns out to be Jerusalem itself, which is here characterized as apostate for its refusal to accept Jesus as the messiah in the generation after his life on earth. References traditionally thought to have been prophetic of the Antichrist, such as the ruler mentioned by Daniel who would end the sacrifice in the Temple after three-and-a-half years, turn out to refer to Jesus himself, whose crucifixion made the Temple and its liturgy obsolete.

Noe attempts to be faithful to the principles of both the "plain meaning" of the text and of "sola scriptura." The result is often a cautionary example of the degree to which these principles are incompatible. There are numerous passages in both Testaments to the effect that "the earth endures forever," and Noe insists on their literal truth. On the other hand, he says that passages which speak of a "new Heaven and a new Earth" after the "time of the end" actually refer to the New Covenant, which will follow the end of the Mosaic Covenant. The images of cosmic catastrophe in the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament, from the earth being shaken to the stars falling from the sky, are just that: images. He notes that they also occur in prophecies in the Old Testament that predicted punishments against specific peoples and cities. These prophecies actually came to pass, quite without a universal conflagration.

The same method is applied to predictions of the Second Coming. When Jesus spoke of the Son of Man "coming on the clouds" in a way that would be visible "to all the nations of the Earth," he was in fact predicting his return to exact a judgment that would be famous throughout all later time, but in a mode familiar from other chastisements that God had exacted in the Old Testament. This mode was the "sign" of his coming spoken of in Matthew 24:30.

Actually, the principle of sola scriptura notwithstanding, Noe seems to come close at times to opening up the biblical canon to include the "History of the Jewish War" by Flavius Josephus, the famous turncoat of the anti-Roman revolt of AD 66-70. At any rate, it is only through reference to such nonscriptural sources that we can clearly see how the fall of Jerusalem might be interpreted as the culmination of the time of the end, since nowhere in the Bible is that event referred to directly as an accomplished fact.

Noe's use of Josephus is frequently ingenious. For instance, he uses him to identify "the Antichrist," or at any rate, the worst of the class of persons to whom that title might be given. One of the passages frequently cited as referring to a future Antichrist is II Thessalonians 2, where St. Paul says that the Lord cannot come until the "Man of Sin" sets himself up in the Temple as God. Jesus refers to an "Abomination" in the Temple in Matthew 24:15, and both passages can reasonably be taken to echo Daniel 9:27. Consulting Josephus for the events of the Roman-Jewish War, Noe identifies the Abomination as the slaughter of the Temple priesthood by the insurgent John of Gischala, the son of Levi, whose intransigence and viciousness made impossible both negotiations with the Romans and the coordinated defense of the city. This person, Noe concludes, must have been the Man of Sin Paul was predicting 20 years earlier. Well, that's settled.

People who are at all familiar with biblical prophecy can easily think of many verses that would seem to tell against this outline of Noe's version of preterism. All I can suggest is that they read the book. Noe does get around to attempting an answer to most of the familiar proof texts, though not always in the principal discussion of the doctrines to which they are supposed to relate. (Something this book needs is an index, and particularly an index of scriptural citations.) Let me put aside the labor of a close analysis of scripture, however, to ask a larger question: Does this really work? Can Christian theology, even within its own frame of reference, really claim that biblical eschatology was completely fulfilled in the first century? Most important, would such a theology be of more than academic interest?

Again, all I can suggest is that Christian eschatology has always had a large element of immanence, an element that is present in greater or lesser degree throughout the New Testament. Even within the lifetime of Jesus, even in what he says of himself, it is clear that the Kingdom of God already exists. It is accessible through prayer and sacrament, a matter of personal experience that may affect history but that transcends it. The remarks of Jesus about the Son of Man coming in glory in that generation have traditionally been linked with the account of his Transfiguration before Peter, James and John (Matthew 17) and his mock-triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The higher criticism implicitly endorses a "partial-preterist" point of view in the early church, by insisting that the synoptic gospels could not have been written before AD 70. The argument is that the fall of Jerusalem was experienced by contemporaries as an apocalyptic event, the foretelling of which was later put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelists. As for the Gospel of John, normally considered the latest of the gospels, it deals with little except eschatology, yet is quite devoid of "apocalyptic" elements in the conventional sense: God is fully revealed in the life of Jesus, and salvation is complete.

There are problems with the modern dating of the synoptics: Luke may well be post-AD 70, but I have doubts about Mark and even Matthew. Still, there is little doubt that the first century church thought of the fall of Jerusalem as a confirmation of eschatological expectations that were already well established when it happened. But did they think of the catastrophe as a complete fulfillment of prophecy? There is a dearth of evidence that they did, plus a lot of evidence that they did not, including just about all the earliest post-biblical writers on the subject.

The fact is that the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans just was not big enough to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, or even of the Olivet Discourse. To try to limit the "end times" to that single event smacks of the complacent surmise by Tacitus that the whole of Jewish messianic prophecy was fulfilled by the ascension of Vespasian to the imperial title in Rome. Christians living through AD 70 may well have expected a quick, universal end to the order of things when Titus, the son of Vespasian, took Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. As things happened, they did not get to witness the fall of Babylon the Great (which I think it is a bit perverse to associate with Jerusalem in any case), but they did understand that they were living through a "type" of the tribulation of which Jesus spoke. Four hundred years later, Christians did get to see Babylon the Great fall. Maybe they got to see it fall again in 1989. As John Newman remarked, Revelation is a drama that is produced on an ever increasing scale.

Aside from the theological issues, is there any hope that a system like preterism could ever become the basis of a living religion? Preterism presents many of the problems that Francis Fukuyama's famous "End of History" thesis presented at the end of the Cold War, when he proclaimed that the history of political theory had terminated with the triumph of liberal democracy. I share this thesis, with certain reservations, but it leaves you with the problem of what to do next. In preterism's case, we are left with the problem of what the 1,900+ years of Christian history were all about. Biblical prophecy provided a sort of plot for the story of history to follow, but preterism claims that the story ended in AD 70. Is God now to be found only in the text of the Bible and in religious practice, and not at all in history?

Noe clearly does not think so. In fact, he does not even think that revelation, broadly defined, is yet at an end. He has written on the many "theophanies" of Jesus in the Old Testament, and says he sees no reason why these cannot happen at any time. He even looks forward to the 21st century as the occasion for a new Reformation, this one concerned especially with the church's understanding of prophecy. While not precisely a Social Gospeler, he does deplore the deadening effect that millenarianism has on the participation of Christians in constructive politics and other social activities. That is something which he hopes the coming Prophecy Reformation will remedy, after people see that conventional evangelical premillennialism is a false idol.

I would not dismiss these expectations out of hand, but I suspect that preterism would have to grow in certain ways to realize them. Frankly, the model needs a future. If it cannot provide a universal eschaton, it must at least define some goals for the world short of eternity. The slightly unsettling thing about preterism is that it seems to leave itself almost absolute freedom in that regard. The Bible is capped by AD 70, and has nothing more to say about history. One cannot help but wonder whether something like preterism might be the necessary predicate for a "Third Testament."

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Son of Rosemary

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.


Son of Rosemary
by Ira Levin
Penguin Books, 1997
255 pages, $22.95
ISBN: 0-525-94374-9

 

Bloodfest at Tiffany's

 

One of the rules of supernatural fiction seems to be that the devil gets the best lines but the Antichrist sounds like an unpersuasive used-car salesman. This pattern holds in "Son of Rosemary," Ira Levin's long-delayed sequel to his well-known 1967 novel, "Rosemary's Baby." ("Son of Rosemary" is dedicated to Mia Farrow, who starred in the film version of the earlier book) Mr. Levin at least has an excuse. He is perhaps best known as the author of the play "Deathtrap," the longest-running thriller in Broadway history, so it is not surprising that "Son of Rosemary" is really a murder mystery that runs on the dialogue. (The title of this review is taken from a tabloid headline in the story.) Though of course there is some action and other descriptive writing to illuminate the situation, still most of the burden of arousing our suspicions falls on the Antichrist himself. As much as his mother loves him, she thinks he sounds just too good to be true. The only problem with this technique is that an intimate family drama is not really the appropriate setting for a murder mystery whose victim is the entire human race.

As doubtless the whole world knows, "Rosemary's Baby" dealt with the birth of the Antichrist in a noted New York City apartment house that bore a more than passing resemblance to the Dakota. This building darkly and famously overlooks Central Park in Manhattan, and its reputation has grown still darker since the assassination of resident John Lennon in its lobby in 1980. In the sequel, we learn that Rosemary Reilly divorced her loathsome husband Guy, who had sold her body to the building's coven for insemination by Satan. The coven put her into a coma when the resulting child was six years old and she was secretly planning to flee with him. (The fact she stayed in the building six years is another illustration of how hard it is to find a decent apartment in the city.) Rosemary comes out of the coma 27 years later, just as the last member of the coven, a retired dentist, is run over by a taxi. She then goes about discovering what her little demon-eyed tike has been up to in the interim.

By 1999, of course, Andy is 33 years old, the same as Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. The difference is that, unlike Jesus at that age, he is the most popular man in the world. It is hard to say why this is the case, exactly. He goes around negotiating international peace agreements and encouraging people to be nice to each other, apparently to some effect, but he lives the life of the sort of media mogul whose natural environment is Manhattan Island south of 90th Street. Still, for whatever reason, most of the people in the world wear lapel buttons that say "I Love Andy" ("Love" is represented by a heart-shaped symbol). Soon they start wearing "I Love Rosemary" buttons, too. He does not ask much of his admirers. All that he requests is that everyone in the world light a candle at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, on New Year's Eve, 1999. Exactly at 12:00 a.m. A harmless gesture. Surely.

When Rosemary comes out of coma, she is not-unreasonably dubbed "Rip Van Rosie" by the media. The interesting thing, though, is how little explanation the 1990s seem to require. Aside from personal computers and the end of the Cold War, there is not much that is really new. (One cannot help but reflect that, had this novel been written 10 or 15 years ago, it would have dealt at length with how much New York had worsened.) Certainly Rosemary's politics seem well-preserved from the late 1960s. Andy the Antichrist is in cahoots with certain easily recognizable conservative Republicans and members of the Religious Right ("Rob Patterson," for one), who want him to endorse a slightly goofy millionaire publisher for president in the presidential race of 2000. (Ah, if only they knew!) Even more remarkable than the Antichrist's friends are his enemies, who seem to consist mostly of the followers of Ayn Rand. Known generically as "P.A."s (Paranoid Atheists), they are the only people in the world who do not buy Andy's talkshow piety. The main problem they pose, however, is not that they threaten his personality cult, but that they might not light their candles with everyone else.

"Rosemary's Baby," or at any rate its popular success, is often cited as evidence for an anti-natalist streak in popular culture that is supposed to have appeared at about the time of its publication. Certainly in the United States those were the years when the Baby Boom ended, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that people might have been more open to a story that did not view the birth of a baby as an unalloyed blessed event. (Levin's 1976 novel, "The Boys from Brazil," was a high-tech version of the same theme.) Be this as it may, there are certainly none of the conventional anti-natalist motifs in "Son of Rosemary." There is no huffing and puffing about overpopulation, for one thing, though that theme is hardly unknown in eschatological fiction. There is no occasion to mention kids as a career drag, and certainly there are none of the gruesome descriptions of morning sickness that figured so prominently in "Rosemary's Baby." Of course, the whole human race is exterminated, so you could say the book illustrates the effect of a really strict population control program, but somehow I don't think that is the point.

Something else that is not the point is universal eschatology. Although the Antichrist (and of course the Anti-Mary) are the central characters, "Son of Rosemary" really has nothing to do with late 20th century beliefs about the Last Days, or for that matter the endtime beliefs of any time or place that I am aware of. In both this novel and the earlier one, we are dealing not with apocalyptic, but with the world of ritual magic. Though this sort of thing does have its demotic side, the Levin books follow the literary tradition that places it among the educated and well-to-do. Its ceremonies must fit into private apartments (however high-ceilinged), and its conspiracies are little vendettas. You cannot profitably fit an apocalypse onto a stage so small. We see the world end on television and in that spectacular view of the Park.

Still, "Son of Rosemary" is a genial book, considering the subject, and it will please people who remember the earlier novel when it was new. My memory played tricks with me as I read "Son of Rosemary." At first, I did not recall having read "Rosemary's Baby" at all; I thought that I remembered the story just from the movie. Gradually, though, I realized that I recalled information that could not have been on film, so I probably did read it while I was in grammar school. The little details are lovingly recalled in the new book. The tannis root. The scrabble. And then, of course, there is the wicked anagram, ROAST MULES. One word. No, I won't tell you.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View: Active Faith

This one is now eighteen years old, but it has only gotten more pertinent, as American politics fossilizes into the Late Republican phase. We find ourselves doing the same things over and over, because there really are no other options left. This is what is meant by the End of History, not the ceasing of events and intrigue, but a limitation of the possible. By way of example, read John's concluding paragraph, and tell me whether this is an apt description of the Tea Party:

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

It will be interesting to see how the election of Pope Francis changes the landscape of Catholicism in America. With John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we had over thirty years of politically conservative papacy. Francis is definitely a man of the Left, although nearly everyone forgets he is also completely orthodox. If you want a vision of what a politically engaged Catholicism might engender, post-WWII Europe is an excellent example. France, Germany, and Italy all implemented something very much like Christendom reborn. It all went off the rails seventy years later, but no one can expect any political program to have a shelf-life better than that.

Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics

by Ralph Reed

The Free Press, 1996
$25.00, 311 pp.
ISBN: 0-684-82758-1

All Dressed Up and No Place To Go

 

It is not Ralph Reed's fault that he looks like Antichrist to some people. Sure he has slicked-back black hair and unnaturally perfect teeth. Sure at 35 years of age he has the sort of perpetual adolescent appearance that gets police detectives assigned to work undercover at high schools. Sure he has an unfortunate predilection for having his picture taken back-lit (as the jacket of this book illustrates). None of this is evidence of dark ambition or bad character. It is the press, ignorant of religion and terrified of resurgent cultural traditionalism, that has made this very sharp Executive Director of the Christian Coalition into the face of liberalism's nightmare. The fact that he and his organization are, usually, punctiliously reasonable only makes them the more threatening.

People looking for strange opinions in "Active Faith," such as those that so richly inform the books of Reed's mentor, Pat Robertson, are likely to be disappointed. Judging by this memoir, he is a prosaic, perceptive man. A doctor's son, raised as a conventional Methodist in the New South, he has been a Young Republican since high school. He was the sort of student who interns with the state legislature and who works on political campaigns for the sake of working on political campaigns. In early adulthood, his faith became evangelical, a matter he disposes of in a few sentences. After a brief stint in Reagan's Washington, he went on to acquire a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University. (Are history doctorates now to play the role in political life that law degrees once did?) We learn a great deal about his views on how today's Christian politics fits into America's tradition of political reform sparked by religious revival. By his own account, it was just as he was finishing his doctoral thesis in 1989 that he got the call from Pat Robertson about becoming director of a new Christian lay organization whose creation Robertson was considering. The rest is history.

Reed takes up a lot of space explaining what the Christian Coalition is not, sometimes to rather disingenuous effect. Thus, we are repeatedly assured that the Coalition is not a partisan political organization dedicated to the promotion of Republican candidates. Those candidate information summaries they hand out at churches across America just before election day are merely objective accounts of the candidates' positions on issues important to people of faith. Oh, the things people will say to keep their tax deductions. Since I don't believe the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when they make similarly coy claims about their peace-and-justice activities, I don't see why I should find the Christian Coalition's far more blatant politicking any less political. Rather more plausibly, he insists that the Coalition is not a front for white racists. Indeed, for political reasons if nothing else, he fervently desires the expansion of the Coalition to include more black churches, more evangelical Hispanics, more of all those who still cling to the disintegrating raft of the New Deal's "majority of minorities." Perhaps the stereotype he rejects most convincing is the conventional wisdom (found not only in the liberal press) that the Coalition consists of the "poor, the ignorant, and the easily led." In reality, as Reed is at pains to instruct us, his membership tends to be richer and better-educated than the population as a whole. (It is also somewhat older and more female.) As events of the past few years have demonstrated, those who assume that the Christian Coalition is simply the nation's white trash in arms will suffer unpleasant surprises.

The most important thing that the Christian Coalition is not is the Moral Majority. "Active Faith" gives you as lucid an account as you are likely to find of how the rise of evangelical participation in American politics, marked in the 1970s by the election of the genuinely pious Jimmy Carter to the presidency, stumbled badly during the Reagan years. The Christian Coalition is one form that the recovery from that stumble took. Culturally conservative Christians have learned from their mistakes. One suspects that they are in for the long haul. What they lack, however, is what their critics are most afraid of: judging by this book, the Christian Coalition has no real plan for the future, nor any idea how to develop one.

Evangelicals faced two problems when their resurgence began in the aftermath of the cultural chaos of the 1960s. The first was purely practical. They had withdrawn from politics for most of this century, particularly on the national level. Politics was tainted, worldly. While it might be morally permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, to actually enter his service was to risk criminal conviction in this world and damnation in the next. Evangelicals could and did run for office, of course, but not for he most part on peculiarly evangelical platforms or with the help of self-consciously evangelical organizations. Thus, there was no effective organizational mechanism for representing this important sector of the American people.

The South, where they were demographically strongest, was traditionally Democratic. The Democratic Party therefore would have been the logical vehicle for the evangelicals, as it had been at the beginning of the century, in the days of William Jennings Bryan. However, while the Democratic Party had never lost the moralistic tone which it acquired in the days of the Social Gospel and the Populists, the content of its worldview had proven to be extremely malleable. In Prohibition days the party was Progressive, during the New Deal it was Social Democrat, during the first half of the Cold War it was the supply train for the great anticommunist Crusade. By the time the evangelicals had need of it, however, it was firmly in the grip of the cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s. That left the Republicans, who had no idea what they were in for.

The Republican Party had grown from the Abolitionist movement, one of the social reform movements that owed their impetus to the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. As is often with case with successful crusaders after the crusade, by the turn of the century the party had lost it moral fervor and become a party of economic interests. It frowned on the enthusiasms of Bryan and his native Populists and on the largely immigrant labor movement, both of which had so much to do with the making of the Democratic Party in this century. Under the inspiration of people like Theodore Roosevelt, it did give some play to the muscular Christianity of the Social Gospel, but this tradition within the party tended to become more and more attenuated with the passage of time. Thus, by the time of the final insult of Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party really did not have many ideas of its own about social or cultural issues.

What the Republican Party did have was a great need for new members. Therefore, when evangelicals and some conservative Catholics began drifting into the party as the Democrats became stranger and stranger, the newcomers were more than welcome. After all, in the beginning, they did not act as a self-conscious faction within the party. All you had to do to win their support was buy them off with a few token phrases about the defense of the traditional family and opposition to abortion. They rarely showed up at meetings, but they would vote Republican like clockwork, at least for president. Poor, ignorant and easily led, so the party's traditional leaders thought, they made the perfect electoral cannon fodder for high-visibility races.

The problem with this strategy was that it succeeded. When Ronald Reagan was elected Emperor of the Last Days in 1980, his devoted followers among the cultural conservatives thought they were owed something. Jobs in the new administration would have been nice, but more than cursory attention to their agenda would have been better. As it happened, they got nearly nothing. Reagan would not even address the annual anti-abortion rallies in Washington in person. They had not just been slighted, they had been deprived of access to the only political institutions they could consider using. They therefore began to build their own institutions. At first, they did this badly.

Evangelicals and conservative Catholics had no permanent local political organizations. Politics for them was largely something that happened on television. Thus, while they might be important for presidential politics, they were much less important in deciding who sat in Congress or on local school boards. (Most important, they had little say about who would be nominated to run.) There are two general strategies for mobilizing an inchoate voting block, a "rally" strategy or a "grassroots" strategy. The first is a strategy of mailing lists and television. It is the sort of politics for which the term "hot button" was coined, meaning any issue that is certain to attract the attention of easily defined constituencies and, hopefully, provoke them to donate money. A "grassroots" strategy sounds like it should be something homey and neighborly, but in fact it simply means political organization as it has been traditionally understood. It means building permanent local organizations of volunteer workers and precinct captains, people who may pay regular dues but who, much more importantly, can be counted on to donate some of their own labor to a campaign. It has long been known that the best way to maintain such an organization is as a collateral activity of some other institution. Labor unions are very good frames to hang a political party on. The Christian Coalition would eventually show that local churches are, too.

Before the evangelicals proved the power of organized religion in politics, however, they first tried a rally strategy. This is what the Moral Majority organization was all about. It was certainly conspicuous enough. The press loved it, like vampires love young women who neglect to wear crucifixes around their necks. It lived and died by its own knack for publicity. It was a remarkably clerical organization: at one point, all but one of its board of directors were ordained ministers. Since the televangelists of the 1980s could claim an audience in the tens of millions, ignorant reporters translated these figures into millions of political followers. The problem with the Moral Majority was that there was really nothing to it. Being a member simply required writing a check, so it had little control over what the prominent people associated with it did. More to the point, it had no troops on the ground. After a while even reporters began to notice that the only actual representative of the Moral Majority in a state where it claimed hundreds of thousands of members might be a single pastor with no staff. It was not a "majority" by any reasonable construction of the word. Then the garish downfalls of the great '80s television preachers amidst charges of embezzlement and sexual scandal suggested that it wasn't particularly moral, either. By the end of the Reagan Administration, it appeared that the era of the evangelical in politics was over.

The Reverend Pat Robertson thought otherwise. His experience during his run for the presidency in 1988 gave him some notion of what actual politics was like. If he conceived the "long march" of the Christian Coalition by himself, then he must be a very smart man indeed. But even if, as Reed suggests, Robertson was at first uncertain about whether to continue with the rally strategy or try the grassroots method, then he at least deserves credit for continuing to support what at first must have seemed like a doubtful enterprise. He is also, perhaps, to be given credit for having the good sense to limit his public association with the Coalition as much as possible. Everyone knows, of course, that Robertson provided the inspiration and backing to get the Coalition off the ground. Indeed, Reed began work in a warehouse amidst the old posters, office furniture and mailing lists of Robertson's 1988 campaign. However, the Coalition was never just a branch of Robertson's ministry, nor indeed a particularly clerical organization at all. Its board of directors, says Reed, contains only a single ordained minister. I do not think it is being cynical to suspect that Reed is exaggerating the independence of the Coalition from Reverend Robertson. Nevertheless, the Coalition has benefited immensely from not being structured as a preacher's fan club.

Unlike the Moral Majority, its has a professional lobbying presence in Washington that does not go away. This means that it can exert pressure, not just on the sort of hot button issues that were sometimes manufactured in the past to keep evangelicals placated, but on day-to-day legislation affecting welfare and education, or for that matter on things like telecommunications reform, which might seem to be peripheral to the Coalition's concerns. Even more important, legislators hear about the Coalition's positions not just from lobbyists, but from their own constituents. The Coalition is adept at organizing letter-writing and telephone call-in campaigns, as well as delivering live bodies to party caucuses and other meetings.

In some ways, the most interesting successes of the Coalition have not been in Washington or national politics, but in their ability to win races at the local level. Their special forte has been school board elections. They do not, perhaps, win quite so many of these as the consternation they cause among liberals may suggest. Still, they everywhere have served the function of slowing the advance of multiculturalism into the primary grades. Local party organizations in the United States have come to be notoriously skeletal affairs, easily dominated by small groups of enthusiasts. Since the 1960s, the enthusiasts have mostly been on the Left, and have turned their attention to the Democratic Party. With the Christian Coalition, we see the beginning of a similar process on the Right with the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition makes no claims to be a "majority" (it has 1.7 million members). An well-organized minority is important enough. There is nothing about its demographics which suggests that it could become the dominant force in American politics. Nevertheless, it is seven years old and a force that must be reckoned with. One can easily imagine it and organizations like it becoming as important as the unions were in their heyday. The problem with this picture, however, is that the unions knew more or less what they wanted. Because they had some vision of how society as a whole should work, they were able to advance beyond their original concern with wages and hours to present coherent policies on everything from foreign affairs to the structure of the health care system. The Christian Coalition, as Reed himself recognizes, is in contrast characterized mostly by what it is against.

The failing is fundamental, indeed theological. The fact is that evangelicals have no coherent political theory in their tradition. American evangelicalism is without a theory of natural law, or even of good government. Reed calls his agenda the "pro-family" agenda, a characterization that I doubt many people find informative. Certainly it is an extraordinarily pale allusion to the ancient certainties that an organization purporting to represent Christianity in politics should have. Evangelicals have a foggy premise that government must be bad because the world is bad. They then reach the equally foggy conclusion that the best government is the least government. Thus, they manifest an inordinate preference for gum-up-the-works amendments to the Constitution, such as the proposals for limiting the number of terms legislators may serve and requiring super-majorities to increase not just tax rates, but government revenues. To Reed's evident discomfort, they are without a clue about foreign policy, except for the premises that foreigners are wicked and international organizations are wickeder. They are, of course, consistently in favor of support for Israel, but the Middle East is fast becoming a backwater as the focus of world history shifts eastward.

Liberation theologians like to say that they are formulating a theology "from below," giving revolutionary voice to the voiceless masses. American evangelical political theory, such as it is, really is "from below." It has been formulated by people who have never thought of themselves as rulers and, consequently, have no idea how to rule. It is not enough.

The Catholic Alliance is perhaps the most daring of all Pat Robertson's innovations. It was designed to provide a political home for culturally conservative Catholics. The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has is probably the fault of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops themselves are for the most part faithful and intelligent men, their national organization is served by the sort of fatuous liberal bureaucracy that has done so much to destroy the mainline Protestant denominations. The bureaucrats can tolerate, because they must, the traditional Catholic opposition to abortion and euthanasia, but they seek without respite to submerge these things in a popular front agenda that is otherwise indistinguishable from that of the most reactionary-left elements of the Democratic Party. Like the evangelicals, culturally conservative Catholics have turned to the Republican Party and its collateral organizations for lack of a hospitable alternative.

Reed shows a certain predilection for aspects of Catholic social theory. He admires the ability of educated Catholics to frame moral issues in terms of natural law. He quotes Pius XI on the need for limited government. Like most people interested in devolving functions from a central government, he is intrigued by the notion of subsidiarity. However, the fact is that Catholic statecraft and evangelical political theory cannot survive in alliance indefinitely. Catholic theory does not look on government as an unavoidable evil, but as a divine institution, the means whereby we achieve collectively that good which we could not achieve as private individuals. It is democratic, in the sense that it requires rulers to rule with the consent of the government, but it is not egalitarian. It does not find hierarchy suspect, whether based on learning or birth. It never quite came to terms with market economics.

If given its head, Catholic social theory will restructure society as did the great Catholic post-war statesmen of Europe. Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, and later de Gaulle in France, all created "christian democratic" regimes that worked spectacularly well for several decades, which I suppose is all that you can ask of any political philosophy. They produced what were in essence moralistic welfare states, which proved far more successful than the secular-left welfare state being built by the Labor Party in Great Britain at the same time. These states were friendly to religion, breathtakingly solicitous of families by American standards, and even good for business unless you wanted to start your own company. Doubtless they were doomed by the excessive faith of their creators in the ability of the state to control the economy for the common good, but there was nevertheless a great deal to be said for them. Still, I do not think they are what the Christian Coalition has in mind.

Perhaps America will do better. The Christian Coalition, in alliance with like-minded organizations, might be the template for a future Christian Democratic Party of America (which might, of course, be called the Republican Party). American Christian Democracy would, one hopes, have a clearer understanding than its European predecessors that wealth is easier to redistribute than to create. It would also, I trust, avoid the European mistake of supporting churches so much that they no longer have to worry about maintaining an active membership. Naturally, American Christian Democracy would also have to recreate a legal structure consistent with human life as we known it.

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

 



This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. For more information, please click on the following line:
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly


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