Politics and Anti-Christ
This is late because it’s long, and is one of those cases where I bit off a bit more than I could chew in a few hours. If I were a well-known pundit, I would not have written this: the propagandists would immediately accuse me of saying that all Democrats are possessed by Satan. But as an obscure blogger I have the luxury of writing for people capable of reason.
I’ve been thinking about this piece by Alasdair MacIntyre, which someone posted on Facebook a couple of days ago. I agree with its premises—that the Democratic and Republican parties are both seriously deficient. I disagree with the conclusion—that both are so bad that it would be wrong to vote for either of them.
I’m always a bit surprised to hear a Catholic make the point that neither liberalism nor conservatism is a fully Catholic political vision, that the terms “left” and “right” are not Catholic categories (and perhaps not even coherent) and are not useful in articulating a Catholic political viewpoint, and so forth. I’m surprised not because these assertions are wrong but because they seem so obvious to me as not to require statement; to me they are axioms. Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t seem to run into many people who are unaware of this, though they may need to be reminded of it from time to time. Not to say that they don’t take one side or the other, but for the most part they seem to recognize that such positions are responses to the issues of the day, not part of the faith. I myself at any rate start with the assumption that neither right nor left is philosophically or even practically consistent with Catholic teaching, but I do not conclude from there that the proper response is to hold oneself aloof from the battle. That’s an honorable position, but not the only honorable one. As frustrating as it may be to us,“right” and “left”, Republican and Democratic, are what we have to work with in American politics, and to denounce them both and withdraw from the field strikes me as being just as problematic as to identify too closely with one or the other.
It seems to me that those who incline to the plague-on-both-their-houses view are often people who once placed a great deal of hope in politics and are now disillusioned and sometimes bitter. The person who posted the MacIntyre piece, for instance, was once very active in conservative politics. (I’m not sure whether he reads this blog or not; if so perhaps he’ll comment.) But I have never expected much from politics, or been very active in it. And never for a moment have I believed in such a thing as a “political solution” for broad social problems. Even in my days as a radical leftist the revolution I had in mind was more a psychological and spiritual thing than a political one. I have very low expectations as to what good might be accomplished politically, but am very aware that a great deal of harm is possible.
We can’t ignore the historical and social context of our politics, and treat principles as if they were pure abstractions. In a culture which owes most of its ideas to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, and in which both those traditions are considerably decayed, we can’t expect to implement a political order (even if we could agree on what it should be) based on Catholic ideas about the common good. I regard the political area with more hope of constraining the evil than of constructing the good—not that we should ever give up on the latter, but we cannot reasonably expect swift movement in that direction, because it requires shifting some of the philosophical bases of politics.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve voted for Republicans for the past thirty years. In this year’s presidential election, as a practical matter, it doesn’t really matter who I vote for, because my state is so dominated by the Republican party that my vote is effectively irrelevant. I may not even vote, as I have no enthusiasm for the Republican candidates—except that they are not the Democratic candidates. My vote may not matter, but for the first time I am praying for the defeat of a candidate.
In recent years there have been a certain number of fundamentalist Christians who declared a Democratic president to be the anti-Christ. They did it with Bill Clinton, and they’ve done it with Barack Obama. I think it’s a preposterous claim, and yet: depending on what you think the anti-Christ may be, it’s a plausible argument that the left has made itself an instrument of the anti-Christ’s aims. No, I’m not suggesting that the Democrats are Satanists. But their political program has become anti-Christian.
I’m not referring, of course, to the more or less ordinary things that the left claims to advocate, and which used to be its mainstay: a reasonable degree of economic welfare for everyone, protection of the weak and naïve from the predatory, racial justice, and so on. I’m really talking about something more fundamental, something which has largely eclipsed the old-style populist causes of the mainstream left. Those have not been repudiated, but increasingly since the 1960s the left has been driven by a quasi-religious desire for the transformation of society and human nature itself. The main elements of the program involve sex, marriage, and family: sexual freedom, “reproductive rights” (which should rightly be termed a kind of anti-feminism, but that’s another story) and homosexual rights, now including the newly-created idea that it is “hate” to believe that the word “marriage” refers, intrinsically by definition, to something that happens between men and women, not between men and men or women and women. These are the issues on which the party as a whole is most committed, and on which it will not compromise. It’s always been an implicitly anti-Christian program, and the Obama administration has made that opposition explicit with its recent attack on religious liberty.
I’ve never made a study of the idea of the anti-Christ, and am certainly open to correction from someone who has, but if we assume that the essential aim of the anti-Christ is to separate men from God, then it makes more sense to expect that he (it?) would work for the establishment of an earthly paradise than that he would inaugurate a regime of violent oppression. People seem sometimes to expect it to be the latter. And that a man like Hitler is satanic is not in doubt. But the anti-Christ is not merely an agent of evil, but a powerfully subtle and seductive one. The key to understanding it seems to me to be that found in Mark 13:22: that it would be able to deceive, if it were possible, even the very elect. That surely must mean that it will bear much more of the appearance of good than a brutal oppressor ever could. The anti-Christ will be an oppressor, certainly, but one who will succeed by making his subjects happy.
I’ve been arguing for a long time that the dystopia toward which modern civilization has often appeared to be heading is more plausibly depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World than in Orwell’s 1984. Certainly history is on my side in this argument. Violent totalitarianism in the forms of fascism and communism have been pretty soundly defeated. Totalitarian Islam has a lot of energy but is attractive only to a small minority within Islam itself. Fascism has almost no support anywhere in the world, and although Communism survives it is in control in very few places (whether China can currently be described as a truly communist system seems very debatable). And the reason that the one is more or less defunct and the other still holding on buttresses my argument: communism at least promises something much more benign than fascism.
Today’s left has much in common with the communists of old, but its implicit totalitarianism is at once vaguer and more potent. It appeals to the dream expressed in John Lennon’s awful song “Imagine”: if we can just get rid of religion, nationalism, and other atavistic forces, “the world will live as one.” In a society which is dominated by practical materialism and utilitarianism, this is a very appealing vision, to say the least. This is what anti-Christ promises: not conquest and riches for some at the expense of others—the elect would never fall for that—but peace and justice and plenty for all, the same things that the Church wants. Only: anti-Christ makes the rejection of God a condition for the achievement of its heaven on earth.
And now the Obama administration has moved to assert openly its power over the Church: to reject the historic American accommodation between Christianity and the state by decreeing that in matters of conscience the Christian must bow to the state, and not in some rarely-occurring circumstance like conscientious objection to military service, but with an order that requires hundreds of religious institutions to violate their own teachings. The apparent intention is to define “freedom of religion” as the freedom to do what you like inside your church, but not in public life. This goes far beyond the sorts of specific wrongs and mistakes that any government can be expected to commit at times. It is the initiation of an explicitly anti-religious principle—Christians of “conservative” theology are its main target, but it would affect Jews and Muslims and everyone else as well.
Arguably this development is possible only because there is no positive statement of ultimate good in the American system; this was by design, but it could only work as long as there was broad agreement about fundamentals. That agreement no longer exists, and the resultant struggle can be expected to continue for a long time.
I’ve never been inclined to think much about the end times, to watch for signs and fret about prophecies. Maybe I’m being overly apocalyptic now, and this is really just another episode in the long struggle of church and state. I would like to think so. But what seems different in our situation is the power our wealth and technology have given us. It now seems plausible to many that we do in fact have the means to make life perfectly comfortable, if only we will give the enlightened ones the power to make it happen.
I am by no means unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the capitalist program favored by most of the right in this country, and by the Republican party, is profoundly corrosive of Christianity, and for that matter of any system of belief rooted in the eternal and in the notion of objective good and evil. But the undermining of Christianity by capitalism is a side effect of the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, not a consciously-defined program to be implemented by the state; in fact it’s all too unconscious, which keeps many people from seeing how it works. But it’s only an especially powerful manifestation of the lure of the world against which the Church has always warned us, and as such is not a new enemy. The left’s program is not new, either, but it has never had at its disposal such powerful tools, or ground so well-prepared to receive it. I often think, when considering the current social and political landscape, of something I read years ago. I think it was in an early issue of Caelum et Terra, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know who the author was, but he speculated that the United States could in time become “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.”