Ross Douthat on the rise of ‘messianic and apocalyptic’ impulses in American politics

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Author and columnist Ross Douthat sat for a fascinating interview with Canada’s National Post.

His comments should be taken as both interesting and alarming.

Here’s an excerpt:

When religious institutions are weak, as they are now, people with strong religious impulses are more likely to pour that fervour into politics. I argue that this take two forms — messianic and apocalyptic. Both are mirror-image heresies. It can take a messianic form where you assume that politics is the mechanism for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on Earth. This has always been the liberal temptation: to basically assume you can overcome human nature through political reform and bring the New Jerusalem down to Earth yourself. Look at the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 and its quasi-religious air: Magazine covers showed Obama with halos on his head and you had celebrities singing for him on YouTube. He had a messianic style.

Q: What is an example of the apocalyptic style?

Glenn Beck. Obama’s messianic campaign prompted an apocalyptic backlash and Beck’s popularity was the most obvious expression of that form. The apocalyptic temptation is that the kingdom of heaven has already been brought down to earth and it’s your political enemies who are taking it away. And that’s what you saw from Beck. He went beyond a healthy Christian patriotism to an almost idolatry of the American founding and this became part of his broader narrative in which his political opponents were not only wrong but evil.

This strikes me as correct.

In modern times, the desire to “immanentize the eschaton” has led to especially bloody results, ranging from the French Revolution to the rise of the Soviet Union. This utopian notion, of course, flies in the face of what David Brooks (I think correctly) argues is the essence of conservatism: “Epistemological modesty.”

As Brooks notes, followers of this modest, conservative worldview, “knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.”

People who realize they are inherently flawed — who believe in a fallen world and the concept of original sin — would never attempt to create a top-down, centrally planned economy.

Meanwhile, conspiratorial tendencies have ebbed and flowed on the right (consider, for example, Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay titled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”) The apocalyptic style seems to be back in vogue these days. As Peggy Noonan recently warned:

[T]oo many conservatives have unconsciously come to ape the left. They too became all politics all the time. Friendships were based on it, friendships were lost over it. “You agree with me? You’re in. You don’t? You’re out.” They became as good at ousting, excluding and anathematizing as Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, as Jacobins. As self-righteous, too, and as adept at dehumanizing the enemy.

Historically speaking, both the messianic and apocalyptic impulses have been largely tamped down here in America — perhaps because of religion. But as Douthat’s thesis indicates, as our institutions — especially the church — become less important in American life, these impulses become stronger.

This, of course, is worrisome.

Matt K. Lewis