By Amarnath Amarasingam
Kenneth Alex Randolf is a fifty-six year old former lawyer living in Seattle. When Barack Obama announced his presidential aspirations in 2008, Randolf got to work on a blog that soon attracted some attention, and was later featured on CNN. The blog presented several pages of evidence – some numerological, some astrological, some Biblical – for his overall argument: Barack Obama was the Antichrist. It is not really known how many people in the United States believe this, but what remains evident is that apocalypticism – and right-wing populism more broadly – is alive and well in the United States.
One of the individuals who first put apocalypticism on the bestseller lists in the United States was a charismatic preacher named Hal Lindsey. His book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was published in 1970 and has sold over 35 million copies to date. Apocalyptic thinking entered American politics on the back of an individual deeply inspired by Lindsey’s book. Ronald Reagan was so influenced by Lindsey’s book, that he wanted his military leaders to fully understand its significance. With Reagan’s blessing, Lindsey was invited to brief the Pentagon on the “divine implications” of their hostilities with the Soviet Union. No other president in recent history has allied apocalypticism and national security with such ease.
Speculation about the identity of the Antichrist has also been a constant presence in the United States. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy was suspected by some writers. After his death, a few waited for Kennedy to rise from his coffin, pointing to the Book of Revelation, which states that the Beast would survive a head wound. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was a suspect, as well as Ayatollah Khomeini (during the hostage crisis), Saddam Hussein (during the Gulf War), and Osama bin Laden (after 9/11). Beginning during the 2008 election cycle, the Internet began teeming with speculation about Obama. Emails circulated widely and amateur videos were posted on YouTube proclaiming strange personality and numerological resemblances between Obama and Biblical statements about the Antichrist.
One of the most popular videos propounding that Obama is the Antichrist is entitled, “Did Jesus Give Us the Name of the Antichrist?” The narrator of the video points to Luke 10:18, which states, “And he said unto them, I saw Satan as lightning falling from the heights.” The video notes that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, and since Aramaic is the “most ancient form of Hebrew” (which is false) it holds that we can translate the key terms in this verse into Hebrew to see what they really mean. The narrator says that, according to the Strong Hebrew Dictionary, the word for lightning is ‘baraq’. Similarly, the word for heights is ‘bamah’. The narrator then points out that the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, waw, is often transliterated as a ‘u’ or ‘o’ and is mostly used as a conjunction. Thus, “I saw Satan as lightening falling from the heights” would, in Hebrew, be: “I saw Satan as baraq o’bamah”. For a thorough treatment and debunking of this popular viral video, see Michael Heiser’s PaleoBabble blog.
Another viral video, one which Randolf also takes as strong evidence, argues that Obama’s name actually adds up to 666. It approaches the issue through the use of numerology and Gematria (the Hebrew system of assigning numerical value to words and phrases). According to the video, Barack in Arabic means ‘blessed’, Hussein in Arabic means ‘handsome’, and Obama is an African word meaning ‘leaning’. The video notes that when the Gematria values of blessed (246), handsome (268), and leaning (152) are added together, the sum is 666.
In addition to such obvious contributions by religious tenets, the internet must be seen as one of the main driving forces behind the persistence of apocalyptic thinking and right-wing populism more generally. This can be understood in two ways. First, the ease with which blogs, forums, and websites are created has given rise to an alternative media, existing outside traditional sources of information, and varying in size and reliability. The internet becomes hugely important for right-wing populists who nurse a deep sense that the individual is under attack, and express a fundamental distrust of those who produce knowledge and sanction truth. On the internet, any individual regardless of education or expertise can create websites, dialogue with others in forums or message boards, and produce viral video clips that may be viewed by millions of people.
Second, the internet fosters an environment in which individuals more easily interact with people who think like them. “Instead of getting together with people who are close to us physically, now we can get together with people who are close to us ideologically, psychically, emotionally, aesthetically,” says Farhad Manjoo in his book True Enough. In other words, the internet has the potential to create ghettos or enclaves where alternative viewpoints dare not enter. These enclaves only reinforce a belief among right-wing populists and apocalyptic writers that they are privy to certain kinds of knowledge that the rest of society is unable or unwilling to see. They are the embattled vanguards of a fight that the rest of the world does not even realize is taking place.
It is uncertain the extent to which online communities and enclaves, which exist only on the web, have an impact on actual politics. The internet is most powerful – as seen in the Tea Party movement – when it adds to the mobilization already taking place on the ground. When I asked Randolf whether he planned to take his views to the streets, he argued that the streets of the twenty-first century are on the internet. “If done properly and if the circumstances are just right,” he says, “it’s clearly possible to reach hundreds of millions of people on those ‘streets’. In terms of cost-effectiveness, time consumption, over-coming language and cultural and national barriers, there are no better ‘streets’ to be active on.” Randolf is optimistic, but it remains to be seen whether the rallying cries and slogans of socio-religious movements can be heard when shouted solely, or even primarily, from within the dark alleys of cyberspace.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate in the Laurier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies in Ontario, Canada, and is the editor of Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal.