Apocalyptic Politics

Millennial fervor vs. Protestant statecraft

Sometime just before midnight, on October 22, 1844, thousands of people across the northern United States sat down and confronted “The Great Disappointment.” They had been told by men they trusted—their families, communities, and leader William Miller—that Jesus Christ would return and bring the millennium that day. One man watched the darkness of the night grow and collapsed, overcome by disappointment. He had “waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come…I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint.” He was so weak from his emotional distress he needed “someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain—sick with disappointment.” The Millerites fractured. Some went back to their former religious traditions, some joined the radical revivalists like the Shakers, and others quit Christianity altogether.

Successive generations of American Evangelicals have prepared for different types of millenniums, and have been left with lingering and powerful disappointments. Mark Noll noted in America’s God that Evangelicals believed expanding American values was synonymous with expanding the kingdom of God. This would eventually bring about Christ’s return. Millerites represented just one episode in the long story of American millennialism. Some English Puritans believed that their civil and social activities would inevitably bring Christ’s second coming. Cotton Mather wrote about the millennium constantly. The Second Great Awakening, historian David Goldfield argued, “veered toward a general reform of society as a prelude for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.” Post-millennialism sustained Gilded Age imperialism and programmed Americans to think societal progress was inevitable. Progressive millennialism urged on American involvement in the First World War to end all wars and inaugurate an era of world peace to bring about the return of Jesus. Two world wars ended optimistic millennialism for the moment but the impulse towards apocalypse and what scholars call “immanentizing the eschaton”—bringing about the Second Coming—did not die. In only strengthened as the USSR’s rise presented a new likely candidate for a powerful enemy of God’s people that would be hopefully and finally defeated. Evangelicals listened breathlessly as ministers opined that the Six Day War between Israel and its massed Arab neighbors would certainly bring about Armageddon. Dispensationalist novels in the 1990s programmed a new generation of apocalyptic millennialism.

The dispensationalist millennialism of the Cold War that motivated Americans to live well in preparation for a final cosmic battle with the Soviet antichrist gave way to a neoliberal Evangelical millennialism wherein liberal capitalism would recapture cultural institutions and lead to the coming kingdom of God. The presidency of George W. Bush brought Evangelicals unprecedented access to culture and government. Young Evangelicals flocked to urban spaces, intent on being “for the city” and engaging in culture construction. Neocalvinist polemicists like Cornelius Plantinga offered a new millennial hope in which young Christians need not engage in unpopular culture wars to bring about the Kingdom. The coming kingdom of God, Plantiga argued, was just the New Testament’s way of spelling Shalom, the timeless heavenly peace between God and man.

Whatever peace there was in the early 2000s didn’t last. Obergfell, debates on gender and sexuality, and cultural and even political exclusion of traditional Christian practice restarted so-called culture wars with a vengeance. Most Evangelicals did not change. They attended the same churches and statistically voted the way they always had. But the peace was gone and an entirely new generation of Evangelicals vocally expressed disappointment in their parents, in Evangelical “leaders,” and in the Evangelicalism they know. Donald Trump’s rise and the downfall of neoconservative dominance of the Republican party triggered an outpouring of writers, pastors, and politicians declaring their disappointment in Evangelicals for their electoral choices.

Educated Evangelicals since the 1990s drank in a new millennialism based on relatively undisturbed cultural engagement with more elite cultural, educational, and social institutions than those Evangelicals interacted with in the Reagan Era. Prominent Evangelical ministers embraced the possibility of meaningful social change via broadly popular reform movements and political change via Bush-era compassionate conservatism. While none of those priorities were problematic in themselves, their perceived inevitability, and churches’ absolute commitment to them, became the new Evangelical eschaton, or final event in the divine plan. Progressive overreach and the rise of political populism ended the political conditions that Evangelical millenialists of the Early Twenty-First Century predicated their millennial project on. Donald Trump in 2016, and the socio-political fracture of so-called Evangelicalism that came with his rise, was their Great Disappointment.

Young Evangelicals, we are told, leave the faith because Evangelicals have changed political and social behaviors. There is little evidence for that. What evidence that is offered—Trump’s supposed popularity—is more evidence of Evangelicals not changing their political habits than of them changing. Since the middle of the 1980s, roughly eighty percent of Evangelicals voted for Republican candidates. Trump’s election was a confirmation of a historical pattern, not a radical break. The better explanation for the disappointment of the Evangelical millennialists and the breakup of so-called Evangelicalism lies less with Trump’s presidency or a supposed change in Evangelical political morality than with socio-cultural disappointment that a peaceful post-political Evangelical millennium never came. History didn’t end, and Christian political engagement must return to a sometimes adversarial posture with society at large. The key is that for the first time in nearly a century conservative Protestant political thought is not hemmed in by the cartoonish biblicism inherited from the Fundamentalists, but has a robust intellectual ecosystem based in Protestant ressourcement and the reclamation of Protestant natural law theory. 

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Miles Smith

Miles Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He specializes in intellectual and religious life in the Nineteenth Century United States and the Atlantic World.