American politics is replete with apocalyptic and millenarian rhetoric; this has only ramped up in the leadup to the 2022 midterm election. Thankfully, those who feel this way are dead wrong.
Norman Cohn published his excellent academic tome on European religious apocalypticism, The Pursuit of the Millennium, in 1957. It dealt primarily with groups and events which occurred nearly a thousand years earlier, yet it is just as relevant to modern politics as it is to Medieval heresy. Cohn describes an era that was rapidly changing socially, culturally, economically, and politically; he writes of charismatic prophets, millenarian movements, and revolutionary vanguards. In the Middle Ages in Europe, these changes and the various group responses to them revolved heavily around religion – the center of life for the people of the time. This period was full of religious sects and ideologies which believed in the immediate coming of the end of the world and the replacement of the current society with a new world order – either the Kingdom of God, or a version of Hell on Earth. These millenarian movements were very Manichaean in their outlook; they saw only good and evil, with no area in between. Of course, the members of the in-group were good and fought for Christ, while their persecutors were evil servants of Satan or the Antichrist.
Given this eternal struggle for the future of existence – a future that would, again, be decided imminently – accepted social morality and religious doctrine were quick casualties to the necessity of winning the battle for the soul of the world. One such sect, the adherents of the Free Spirit movement, were spread across Europe over five centuries and, according to Cohn, represented “the only thoroughly revolutionary social doctrine that existed” at the time. Their brand of radical individual salvation led to “an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation;” everything could be theologically justified. This attitude was embraced by many millenarian groups during the Middle Ages, often leading them into violence, revolt, drastic social change, harsh treatment of dissent, and – eventually – death at the hands of the Church or State. All of this stemmed from the idea that the end was nigh, and true believers had to act accordingly to achieve salvation and defeat the foe which sought to destroy the world God built for His children.
If you’ve been paying attention to politics over the past several years, you may find these ideas and tropes painfully familiar. Our partisan politics – the closest thing modern secular society has to Medieval religion – has been riven by Manichaean thinking, revolutionary eschatology, radical ideologies, and apocalyptic warnings. People on both right and left see their ideological rivals as seriously attempting to destroy the country – if not the entirety of civilization – and claim the current moment as the precipice of either total victory or total defeat for their cause. These stakes are viewed as permanent, with no path back for the losers in the new world created by and for the victors. As such, any actions taken to avert this catastrophe are justified and justifiable. “By any means necessary” is not an uncommon adage to hear in radical political circles. This is all millenarian thinking. And as the 2022 midterms approach, this millenarianism has ramped up to 11.
Read More »