Politics and Anti-Christ (2)
As I said in a sort of disclaimer about last week’s post, the subject was really too big for the work of a few hours. Toward the end I touched on some things that need elaboration, so I’m doing that now. The subject is still too big, but I've covered the main elements of what I’d been thinking about it.
I said the ground had been well-prepared for the anti-Christ. And although one of my main points was that I think the anti-Christ more likely to be a thing of the left than the right—using the terms broadly, to include not just political but social and cultural movements—the right has had at least as much to do with that preparation.
I’m using “the right” here as broadly as possible, and in the American context: the mixture of something that can reasonably be called conservatism with decidedly un-conservative forces like libertarianism, utilitarianism, capitalism, consumerism, and militarism. Though many Christians are part of this “right,” it is not in itself a Christian thing. In recent years many Christians have looked upon it as a defense against secular progressivism, not to mention sharing some of its bad ideas, but the alliance is uneasy and full of contradictions.
I don’t particularly like the term “consumerism”: its meaning is vague, and it’s impossible really to say where a sensible concern for material needs becomes destructive and obsessive grasping for ever more: indoor plumbing and hot water are hardly necessities in any literal sense, but no one in the developed nations views them as luxuries. And if the term does refer to that sort of grasping, it is not a set of ideas but a vice, and no one is advocating it as a principle. Moreover, it’s at best a debatable assertion that modern industrialized societies are any more acquisitive than most in the past have been. What is different is that the combination of industrialism and capitalism has presented us with so much more to acquire, including a sort of feedback system in which the activity of acquiring results in the production of more and better, or at least more desirable. things to acquire.
But yet there is a pathology which has developed in the industrialized world, especially in the United States, and it has no definite name, so consumerism will serve. It tends to take the relationship of the buyer to the seller as a pattern for everything in life. The buyer wants something; the seller wants to provide it, and is in a practical sense obliged to provide it if he wants to stay in business. It’s not in the seller’s interest to think about whether the buyer needs the thing purchased, or what he intends to do with it, or whether it’s good for him: in capitalism at the ideological level the question of the intrinsic worth of what is bought and sold is not to be asked. The buyer’s desire, and the purchaser’s willingness and ability to satisfy it, are the only things to be considered. At the extreme, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” only price. And so we have a huge and entirely legal pornography industry.
This is the point (or one of them) at which right and left impulses converge. Or perhaps one should say it is a common point of origin. At any rate, what we’ve seen emerging over the past 50 years or so in capitalist societies is a view of the person as first and foremost a complex of needs and desires, the satisfaction of which he views as something to which he has a right, as a customer has a right to expect that the buyer offer what he wants. Deep and genuinely human needs, desires which in reality cannot be satisfied in this world, are mixed with mere wishes, whims, and pleasures by what has been called the imperial self. As the imperial self sees things, what it wants is also what it deserves, and has lately become not just what it hopes for but what it expects, and what the world and circumstance are expected to provide. Soon there arises the sense that if these are not provided, someone must be to blame, and something must be done.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m an habitual reader of “Dear Abby.” Just the other day there was a letter from a widow with four teen-aged children. She was considering re-marrying, but her children were very opposed to the idea. Should she or shouldn’t she do it anyway? Well, I don’t know, and I don’t necessarily say she shouldn’t, but she intended to go ahead, and I was struck by her justification for it: “I know I deserve to be happy.” This, I think, is not something that would have been said fifty years ago. It bears the stamp of the combination of popular psychology and new-age spirituality which since 1970 or so has rivaled and infiltrated Christianity in the U.S. Years ago someone writing in the National Catholic Register described it as “America’s evolving religion of self-worship.”
The right may deplore the rise of this sensibility, but it cannot be divorced from the sense of self-indulgence and entitlement produced by capitalism, in which the desire of the consumer is the supreme value.
Simultaneous with this has been the expansion of the reach and power of government, especially the national government. The right has objected to some of this, but makes a notable exception for the military. In the name of defense it has supported placing any amount of money and quite a bit of power in the hands of the military and various security and intelligence agencies. Over the past ten years, with the appearance of the scarily-named Department of Homeland Security and various other anti-terrorism measures, many on the right have begun to have second thoughts about this. The futile “war on drugs” also has a great deal to do with it, especially with the militarization of local police, and I should note that some on the right have been sounding the alarm about that for many years.
For many years most of the right in general assumed that all this military power was truly there only to protect us, and would be used only against our enemies. By the time they begin to consider that its apparatus might one day be used against them by a left-wing government, it was far too late to begin reigning it in.
So. The “prepared ground” I referred to above involves at least two important developments in which the right has been as complicit as the left: a growing number of people who expect to have everything they want as a matter of entitlement, and an extremely powerful central government. (At least some on the right can say that they have opposed other threatening developments: the rise of technology for the direct manipulation of human life, and the tendency for the Constitution to become a dead letter, reinterpreted as meaning whatever a majority of the Supreme Court says it means. And opposition to abortion has been almost entirely a phenomenon of the right.) What remains is for the government to pass into the hands of people who believe they know what’s best for everyone and are willing to use the government’s power, untethered by Constitution, religion, or traditional notions about the character of the nation, to give it to them, whether they want it or not. This last step is one that the right does not aspire to take. But the left is eager for it. They assume that most will want what they promise, which is nothing less than peace, justice, and comfort for all—and that those who don’t—those who cling to outmoded religions, for instance—will have to be pushed aside. And it’s when I come to that thought that I begin to wonder about the anti-Christ.
I feel somewhat embarrassed about even talking about this subject because it attracts so many nuts and fanatics, so many that I think of it as being primarily their territory. But although it has always been a subject of controversy, consisting as it does of little more than hints, it has been a constant presence in Christian thinking from the beginning, and we’re told to watch the signs of the times. I do want to make it clear that I don’t at all claim to have this thing figured out; I’m only voicing suspicions and speculations.
Whether or not any of this has anything to do with the anti-Christ, it is the situation we find ourselves in: on the brink of social and technological transitions which, if carried through as their proponents hope, will lead to a condition for Christians which we can only hope is benign enough to be called marginalization, and not outright persecution.