Media meltdown: Antichrist edition

Most people complain about how long this campaign season has been, but I've loved every minute of it. The primaries, the world tour, the advertisements -- I can't get enough.

Certainly the Barack Obama campaign has been the more exciting one over the last few months, but last week John McCain's staff came out of nowhere with advertisements. There was the one that compared the celebrity of Obama to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. (Who didn't love Paris' response?) And there was McCain's "The One" ad (right) that mocks the Messianic words and imagery used by Obama's campaign. Both were wildly popular and elicited howls of protest. McCain was accused of racism, racist sexual innuendo, using phallic imagery for evil, shooting the ads to evoke Triumph of the Will (they used news footage), and comparing Obama to Chairman Mao.

And now he's being accused of calling Obama the Antichrist.

And no, I'm not joking. I mean, I love a conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but I'm sorry to report that Amy Sullivan, who is a great writer, liberal Democrat, evangelical Christian and Time staffer, argues that "The One" isn't poking sarcastic fun at the Messiah complex but is a secret dog whistle to the conservative evangelical community. Perhaps it is true that no one can make fun of Obama! Here's her not-so-subtle lede comparing the ad to one accused of race-baiting:

It's not easy to make the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign seem benign. But suggesting that Barack Obama is the Antichrist might just do it.

She goes on to say that some Christian Democrats are claiming McCain's ad taps into widely-held views on radio, blogs and circulated e-mails that accuse Obama of being the Antichrist.

The thing is that there is a discussion -- though it's either complete humor or extreme fringe -- that Obama is the Antichrist. And it's a solid idea for a story. The thing is, in a country whose civil religion is largely one-Kingdom Protestant, where folks on the left and the right use the words of Scripture to argue for specific legislation, applying the spiritual language of the Antichrist to current public figures is hardly uncommon. You can basically type in the name of any national star and the word "Antichrist" into the Google and get a result. There's Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Edwards, John Kerry, Al Gore, the entire British Royal Family and, for good measure, more George W. Bush. Some allege Gary Coleman is the Antichrist. Even beloved Muppet Bert is a candidate for the horned dragon of darkness. Okay, just kidding about the last two. But I half think that "Antichrist" is synonym for "politician I oppose" in the American vernacular.

Still, alleging that McCain is painting Obama as the Antichrist is insanevery serious business. Sullivan quotes tons of Obama defenders freaking out about comparisons to the descriptions in the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction series, such as Tony Campolo: She points out that the ad was created by a "close friend" of Ralph Reed and nephew of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe -- and we know what that means! Actually, I have no idea how that supports the Antichrist allegations. Here's a snippet:

As the ad begins, the words "It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One" flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds The One World religion (slogan: "We are God") and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the senator saying, "A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we've been waiting for."

The thing that is so amazing about Sullivan's piece -- which, again, is built around an interesting topic -- is that it lacks any balance at all. Obama defenders may say the ad is unfair or awful, but it uses the actual words of Obama (e.g. "We are the ones that we've been waiting for.") and the language of his campaign (e.g. Oprah campaigning for him by telling voters he's "The One."). It's not like it's laying out a subtle case using Biblical texts about the Antichrist. Almost all of Sullivan's premise for the Antichrist parallels is the Left Behind series, which is somewhat odd. Sullivan says that unnamed McCain defenders say the ad was "humorous" and "creative" but there is no actual discussion of whether this Antichrist allegation is in any way reasonable. There isn't even a single quote from anyone who is not a Democratic operative. It seems someone else could have been consulted. Instead, there are these completely unsourced claims:

The visual images in the ad, which Davis says has been viewed even more than the McCain's "Celeb" ad linking Obama to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, also seem to evoke the cover art of several Left Behind books. But they're not the cartoonish images of clouds parting and shining light upon Obama that might be expected in an ad spoofing him as a messiah. Instead, the screen displays a sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven.

ObamaNapeThere was also this:

It's not hard to see how some Obama-haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don't stop there. Everything from Obama's left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain email claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be "A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent," which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.

It is all well and good to point out the error of fact in the e-mail. But I have to point out that if Amy Sullivan thinks that the comparison between Nicolas Carpathia and Obama is based in part on the speaking of several languages, that is also an error of fact. Despite his tut-tutting about Americans speaking only English, Obama doesn't speak any foreign language. There is no comparison on that basis. Anyway, as a piece of political polemic, Sullivan's article is fun and interesting and, sure, unhinged. And I realize that Time and the other newsweeklies are sort of abandoning their former stated stance of neutrality, but the piece would be better if it didn't make all conservative evangelical Christians sound like closet racists with two horns and a tail.

One piece of news analysis that did seem more balanced was Ben Smith's in the Politico. He basically points out that Obama's supporters have occasionally cast him in literally messianic terms.

I keep pointing back to that Pew survey that blamed the media for reporting on discrete events rather than the underlying subtext and context at play. Sullivan's piece takes the discrete event of the McCain ad and tries very hard to tie it to some Antichrist discussions that may be happening. A better piece would tie all that also into the messianic language of the Obama campaign.

Image via Exurban League.

Please respect our Commenting Policy