This morning, the morning before Election Day 2016, I read a social-media post from an old friend who, over the past year, has felt the Bern and is now calling Donald Trump the Antichrist. It reminded me of another political post, which declared that a certain presidential candidate is the sort who
writes aghast the truths of God’s words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is . . . without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians.
Another partisan writer said that the election of this particularly ungodly candidate would mean that
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.
Those sound like the words of Russell Moore and/or Rachel Maddow, but actually they come from pro-Federalist newspapers writing in support of John Adams in the election of 1800; the devil incarnate for them was Thomas Jefferson. Did Jefferson have a secret bromance with Napoleon? Would Christians be forced to repudiate everything they believe to vote for the Sage of Monticello?
Four years later (during his reelection campaign) came the Sally Hemings charges.
The media did most of the presidential campaigning until the election of 1840, when William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison made speeches on behalf of himself and his Log Cabin Campaign against Martin “Little Marco” Van Buren. Harrison, the scion of Virginia planters, was for the common man! What’s more, he spoke from the gut, largely about his own successes, and without a teleprompter (i.e., notes)! “Tip and Ty” was a big hit on the pop sheet-music charts. “Van is a used up man” declared the song, which was compared (favorably) with the French Revolutionary “’Marseillaise” by New England’s magisterial North American Review: “It sang Harrison into the presidency.” The comparison is apt, in that both songs reveal that demagoguery is an unavoidable feature of popular/populist democracy whenever human beings are doing the campaigning and voting. Chesterton must have had this in mind when he declared the process of democratic voting to be akin to drunks arguing violently in a tavern called “the Blue Pig.”
The revolutionary violence of the words of “La Marseillaise” (“Let an impure blood soak our fields!”) would have to wait for Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to find their equivalent in American political pop music. Inspired by the terrorist John Brown, whose solution to the sectional conflict was to “send a message” by hacking men and boys to death, Ms. Howe awoke early one morning with the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn” in her bosom and “scrawled the verses” under cover of darkness. Soon it was published on the front page of The Atlantic Monthly.
“He”—that is, the Lord—“is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” calls (or once called) to mind Revelation 19, which makes President Lincoln’s war effort the equivalent of the Second Coming of Christ. In the memorable biblical passage, the Lord’s destruction of the enemies of His people is likened unto the stomping of human grapes, for “he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God”—before feeding their flesh to the fowls of the air. That’s quite terrifying to imagine, yet Christians have not shied away from the coming reality of Judgment Day: It’s there, and we’d better be ready. But what sort of imagination applies that scene of righteous carnage to a war to prevent states from seceding? Following the biblical reference, Julia Ward Howe’s “terrible swift sword” is the equivalent of the Word of God itself, for “out of [the Lord’s] mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations.” Can any action from a president or his armies be deemed unjust if they wield such a sword? Jehovah akbar!
Hyperbolic, quasi-religious rhetoric has been a feature of American presidential politics from the beginning. The election of 2016 has been no different. Threats of third parties, corruption and rigging, sloganeering, media lies and bias, both sides claiming to be for the “common man,” the loser “not accepting the results,” foreign intrigue and influence, dynastic families, violence at rallies—we’ve seen all of it time and again. And yet we forget—almost deliberately, in order to inflate the stakes of our own choice in this particular contest and to pressure others to side with us. We must be the terminal generation, according to us. How can the stakes not be supernal?
As it happens, I think there are clear reasons to support a candidate in this contest, and they have nothing to do with the qualifications St. Paul lays out for the bishop or with the “sort of people we want to be” or with the fate of Christendom. Only in a theocracy or a totalitarian state do people require such things of a Supreme Leader. My reasons have to do with policies concerning illegal immigration, trade, the Supreme Court, and, above all, with the potential for provoking war with a nuclear-armed Russia. We needn’t go beyond these practical political realities to apocalyptic ideology and the confusion of the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of our God and of His Christ in order to justify coloring in an oval, even for a boorish boob. Ideological rhetoric has only and always distracted us from taking a hard look at the practical consequences of particular policy proposals.
Put plainly: Hillary Clinton and her media acolytes salivate over imposing a no-fly zone in Syria and demanding a response (submission or fight) from Vladimir Putin. These ideas will have consequences.
Is there no limit to the bloodshed we are willing to inflict or endure?
Incidentally, the Antichrist sets himself up not in the emperor’s palace or the White House, but in the Church of God. “And as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists” (1 John 2:18b). To “deny the Son” is what it means to “repudiate everything [we] believe.” These stakes are infinitely higher than those of any election.