Tag Archives: Gay Marriage

Alabama, Gay Marriage, and Roy Moore’s Christian America

Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore once told God that He wasn't religious enough. True story.

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore once told God that He wasn’t religious enough. True story.

In the 1998 Cohen brothers cult-classic film The Big Lebowski, the mustachioed narrator (played by Sam Elliot) ruminates on how some people truly are authentic products of the age in which they live. “Sometimes there’s a man…I won’t say hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? Sometimes, there’s a man well, he’s the man for his time and place,” the narrator notes. In the film, this narration refers to The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a doobie-smokin,’ former hippy turned middle-aged slacker who is thrust into a series of events of that give the impression that he’s more important than he actually is.

In 2015, there’s another man who is indeed “the man for his time and place.” His name is Roy Moore. He’s the current (and former) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. And while Judge Moore couldn’t be more different from the Cohen Brothers’ fictional “Dude” character, he’s nonetheless a man thrust into a series of events that have overly magnified his own importance and rendered him a symbol of a particular American subculture that is taking its last gasps in a very public manner. Continue reading

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America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

A sign paid for by an Iowa Tea Party group. To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.

A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.

But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.

Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.

The United States' ownunique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal.

The United States’ own unique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal — and visceral.

So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.

Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.

Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.

But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.

Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”

Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.

The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.

The U.S. has its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler's Teutonic ass.

The U.S. has had its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler’s Teutonic ass.

Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.

On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.

But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.

The Christian Right, the Millerites, and the Historical End of the World

Congressnut Michele Bachmann (R-MN) speaks  at the Values Voters Summit, where the End Times are kind of a thing.

Congressnut Michele Bachmann (R-Toontown) speaks (possibly in tongues) to the Evangelical Values Voters Summit.

A large and very politically active segment of the American population, mostly Evangelical Christians, can’t wait for the end of the world. Indeed, as the Washington Times recently reported, a Barna Group poll found that 4 in 10 American adults believe that “the world is currently living in the ‘end times’ as described by prophesies in the Bible.” When the data was broken down further, the poll revealed that 54% of mainline Protestants agreed that the end times were immanent, while 77% of evangelicals and 45% of Catholics believed that Jesus would soon return to earth to do stuff that He could, as the Almighty, theoretically do from His celestial La-Z-Boy recliner instead. But I digress.

If millions of Americans believe that the biblical end times are near, then it stands to reason (in the unreasonable sense, of course) that American politicians and public figures will be ready to lead and represent their Christian constituents all the way to Jordan’s banks. Collectively, these Americans and their leaders are either pejoratively or proudly referred to as the Christian Right. Earlier this year, an elder-statesman of the Christian Right, the elfin televangelist and champion leg presser Pat Robertson told his 700 club audience that increased security cameras in U.S. cities evidenced the biblical “Mark of the Beast” that would usher in the Antichrist. During the 2012 presidential election, former Pennsylvania Senator, and Catholic sweater-vest model Rick Santorum claimed that the Iranian regime was trying to bring about the end times by calling on the return of the Shiah Muslim messiah.

Among the most fervent of U.S. end times-believing public figures, however, is Republican congressional representative from Minnesota — and noted poster child for the over-the-counter sale of horse tranquilizers — Michele Bachmann. The esteemed congresswoman is among the 1 in 4 Americans that, according to the Christian polling firm LifeWay Research, believes that possible U.S. air strikes against Syria portend the end of the world. Bachmann recently expressed this view on the Understanding the Times evangelical radio show, where she claimed that President Barack Obama’s “intentionally sending arms to terrorists” was evidence that we are in God’s end times history.”

Far from being depressed about the looming destruction that Heaven would apparently rain down upon earth, Bachmann is looking forward to the impending chaos. “Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand,” Bachmann stated, “yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

Puzzled as to why Bachmann, like so many other Americans, would welcome the destruction of known history at the hands of the alleged Prince of Peace (it’s complicated), Alternet’s Amanda Marcotte recently tried to get into their heads. She identifies four reasons why the Christian Right craves the end times: 1.) They think they’ll be raptured and thus, spared the worst of it. 2.) The end times will prove them theologically right. 3.) It’s a great escapist fantasy from a messy real word, and 4.) They want to be vindicated as the rulers of mankind.

All of these reasons sound, well, reasonable, but Marcotte is missing an important historical precedent that has made end times belief a major issue in American history. Millennialism — the belief by a religious group in a coming major societal transformation that will bring about massive change, based on a 1,000 year cycle — has long played an important role in American religious culture. As historian Frederic Baumgartner explains in his excellent book Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization, millennialism posits an eschatological view of  history, in which “at some point, a deity or some other extranatural force will bring an end to time, often through the agency of a messiah who has a special mission to punish the wicked and reward the fatihful.”* End times-expecting American evangelicals and other Christian conservatives subscribe to this view of history, and they have major antecendents in the nineteenth century group known as the Millerites.

William Miller, founder of the Millerites. If he looks dissapointed, that's because he was.

William Miller, founder of the Millerites. If he looks dissappointed, that’s because he was.

The Millerites were named after their founder, William Miller. Miller spent his youth reading the deistic scepticism of Thomas Paine and other like minds before settling in the famous “burned over district” of upstate New York, the cradle of the Second Great Awakening. In New York he converted to the Baptist faith and developed an obsession with studying the bible in order to ascertain which texts therein could be interpreted literally and which could be read figuratively. Miller became particularly enamoured with the Book of Revelation, and soon believed that he could use it to create a chronology of history from the world’s creation to its apocalyptic end.

Using this reading of Revelation, Miller identified 1843 as the year when Christ would return and initiate the end times. He started preaching this conclusion publicly and gained a fairly large and extremely devoted following. Miller was among the first American proponents of premillennialism: the idea that Christ’s Second Coming, what he called the “Advent,” would set up Jesus’ thousand-year reign on earth. He initially claimed that Jesus would come sometime between March 21 1843 and 1844, but when the dates passed, he revised his prediction date several times before settling on October 22, 1844 as the day of the Advent.

Miller’s followers wholeheartedly embraced Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming. On the night of Jesus’ suppose return, thousands of Millerites across the country gathered in churches and on hilltops, many dressed in so-called “ascension robes” donned to greet the Lamb of God. But the sun indeed rose on October 23 and Jesus never came. Some of the Adventists waited for hours longer, and a few even hung around for days before leaving in the wake of the “Great Disappointment” at Christ’s failure to show. Many had sold off all of their land and belongings in the hopes that Jesus would put an end to history. Miller himself spent his remaining life puzzled by his failure to predict the end times before dying in 1849.

One Adventist, Hiram Edson, wondered, “Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise?..Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things?”* But Edson soon recovered from his grief, positing that Jesus’ Second Coming would be spiritual rather than earthly, and his sect developed into the modern-day denomination known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

The 700 Club's Pat Robertson. The end is near or your money back, but not really.

The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson. The end is near or your money back, but not really.

Contemporary Christian conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Pat Robertson may not identify as Seventh Day Adventists, but their longing for the end of the world via Christ’s Second Coming is drawn from the same eschatological view of history that animated the Millerites and continues to play a major role in the theology of modern American conservative evangelicalism. Moreover, contemporary members of the Christian Right, like the Millerites before them, live in a time of vast social and economic change that they believe threatens their cherished values and traditions.

The Millerites emerged at the height of the Market Revolution in America, during which the growth of a mechanized capitalist economy, the emergence of cities as major centers of culture and finance, and the universal white-male suffrage of Jacksonian democracy created an American nation in constant flux. Further, sectional debates between North and South over the institution of slavery threatened to tear the young nation apart. Faced with these anxiety-producing social changes, the Millerites embraced the end times as a way of escaping an uncertain corporial world. All of the stress, uncertainty, and change of modern American society would come to halt when Christ arrived and instituted paradise on earth.

Contemporary members of the Christian Right face similar changes in modern American society. Indeed, the fast-paced capitalist nation that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century has only continued to accelerate into the twenty-first century. In a globalized marketplace, capitalism’s dynamic qualities, what the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction,” has left thousands without meaningful work and split up families via employment-based geographical separation. On the cultural front, abortion, same-sex-marriage, and the liberal Barack Obama in the White House are all developments that are contrary to the Christian Right’s view of “traditional America.” Like the Millerites, the modern Christian Right sees the end times as the final say for their view of the world. For them, the end times are the ultimate escape from a society that has lost its way — the moment when Jesus will return to validate their beliefs and right so many cultural wrongs.

The Eschatological view of history, then, is like a soothing balm on the Christian Right’s burning psyche because it gives them a concrete reason for why things are the way they are, and assures them that these trying times will indeed pass. As Baumgartner observes, millennial cults, whether they be the Millerites or the modern Christian Right, offer their members psychological benefits via “a group to which they are fully committed where they can find a sense of love and belonging, the certainty of a truly happy fate, the expectation of vindication against those who have oppressed them, and of seeing their oppressors tormented and punished.”* For the American Christian Right, a group with no small persecution complex, the idea that Jesus will come and end history in their favor is just too good a hope to pass up.

If the history of the Millerites is any indication, however, folks like Michele Bachmann, Pat Robertson, and Rick Santorum will likely be left standing at the spiritual altar, waiting as lonely brides of an MIA Christ. Millennialism may offer hope to those who find it difficult to adjust to a world that seems to reject every value they hold dear, but merely holding values doesn’t legitimize those values as good or beneficial. The Christian Right should remember the Millerites the next time they wax apocalyptic in the wake of another disappointing election cycle. The Millerite experience shows Americans that there are far worse disappointments than losing an election.

See Frederic J. Baumgarter, Longing for the End: A History of Millenialism in Western Civilization (New York: Palgrave, 1999), 2, 6.