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December 1996
Volume 14, Number 12

Bad News for Modern Man
Shawn Ritenour

The big 2000 is approaching, and with it comes renewed interest in millennialism and the Book of Revelation. Everyone is looking for signs of something to happen, either cataclysmic or glorious. Will the Kingdom of God be established on earth? If so, what will it look like and who will be its prophet?

Of course, millennial speculation has been with us for, well, thousands of years, and just as in the past, it has begun to invade the political culture. Trendy New York Times writers say it's in the form of Pat Robertson and the religious right. More accurately, the prophet of the new millennium is none other than Bill Clinton and the religious left that backs him.

A certain proof is Clinton's campaign speech at the National Baptist Convention, perhaps the most theologically significant moment in an otherwise dull campaign season. Clinton preached the gospel with gusto before a cheering congregation. This was not the tradition gospel, but a secularized version with dollops of Scripture, and even a promise to bring us--this is true--"the kingdom of God here on earth."

His alarming sermon that day began calmly as a standard stump speech in which he restated his bridge-to-the-next-century theme. Knowing that a religious crowd would expect more, he turned to millennial speculation.

What, according to the man himself, will the twenty-first century look like? There will indeed be a kingdom of a god, but that god will be the state administered by politicians well-versed in a peculiar understanding of the Bible. It's as if the bridge he asks us to cross runs right over the river Jordan.

Clinton plunged right in to the good book. He pointed out that Hebrews says "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." He then explained that these verses mean simply having faith in politics. If we just believe enough, then, Clinton said, "we can see those things that we hope for, that we're convicted about."

And what are those? For every social concern he mentioned, he and his running mate had a government program designed to take care of it. For example, we should have faith in his million-man reading tutor scheme, or his proposed economic lockout from federal lands, and then we will be rewarded with Medicare budgets that reach the heavens.

A few minutes later, Clinton referred to Nehemiah's prayer: "Now strengthen my hands." Nehemiah said this in order to finish building the wall of Jerusalem. Clinton sees this as a command to build more infrastructure and cyberspace access in his new Jerusalem. That way, "every eight-year-old will be able to read, every 12-year old will be able to log in on the Internet, every 18-year-old will be able to go to college."

Next, Clinton's new-found affection for family values took him into the book of Proverbs. "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it," he quoted. Clinton interpreted this as a command for the federal government to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, to ban cigarettes, and to curb television programs produced by some of his biggest supporters.

You see, that church-state separation stuff isn't meant to apply across the board. For example, if anyone to the political right of Clinton used biblical rhetoric to justify so much as a tiny tax cut, the Democratic National Committee, the People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State would be all over him, like ATF agents on an Idaho farmhouse.

Imagine what would happen if Steve Forbes used the parable of the talents to justify cutting the capital-gains tax. Or imagine a politician pointing to the political implications of 1st Samuel. When Israel clamored for a king, Samuel objected on grounds that a king would tax them into poverty. Point this out, and we'd be warned that the country was being taken over by theocrats.

It's different for Clinton. Even in his direct plea for subsidies to churches who give welfare recipients a job, he escaped criticism. If the First Amendment does not allow so much as prayer at a graduation ceremony, how can it allow direct cash transfers to churches? Well, we can't worry about court precedent when the kingdom of Bill is at hand.

Clinton's millennial vision is just what the media ordered. In it, the executive state is god walking on earth. Remember, however, that this god is a pagan god: it cannot provide unless it also takes, roughly the opposite of traditional Christian teaching.

Ever since Murray N. Rothbard's History of Economic Thought, we've become more alert to how governments and court intellectuals have used religious rhetoric, distorted biblical exegesis, and imagined millennial scenarios, to impose coercive designs on the public.

The German and Dutch Anabaptists, for instance sought to use government force as a short cut to the kingdom. This secular vision drove both the socialism of Marx and the disastrously egalitarian Progressive movement earlier this century. The Social Gospel movement did little more than put a religious gloss on socialism.

Clinton's campaign sermonizing was squarely in this tradition of "immanatizing the eschaton," as Erik Voegelin called it. And wouldn't you know that the first president in memory to make extensive use of Holy Scripture would do so in an effort to transfer more property and power away from the people and toward Washington? This god requires much more than a tithe.

Yet faith in government programs will not lead to a thousand years of Heaven on Earth, but to something much more mundane, like another recession. Don't complain, or the president might call you a rich man and demand you give all your possessions to the government.

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Shawn Ritenour teaches economics at Southwestern Baptist University and is an adjunct scholar with the Mises Institute

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