A Democratic Senator’s Surprising Bout of Name-Calling

By Kate Hawley

Perhaps Colorado Senator Ken Salazar was consolidating his liberal base after a series of conservative-friendly votes. Or maybe Jim Gibson, president of the Colorado Democratic Leadership Council, was right when he said Salazar has decided to “throw political caution to the wind.” Whatever Salazar’s motives, one thing is clear: He’s determined to tackle James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based ministry and media empire, using its own terms.

The occasion was “Justice Sunday,” the church telecast meant to rally support for Bush’s judicial nominees by blocking Democrats’ use of the filibuster, in which Dobson played a leading role. The rhetoric on both sides grew increasingly heated and personal, with Dobson taking out ads in local papers denouncing Salazar. Picketers from a Denver church showed up at a Dairy Queen owned by Salazar’s wife, and Salazar, furious, accused Dobson of masterminding the demonstration. Finally, on KKTV in Colorado Springs, Salazar called Focus on the Family, “the Anti-Christ of the world.”

Backpedaling, Salazar later said, “I regret having used that term. I meant to say this approach was un-Christian, meaning self-serving and selfish” — keeping the spirit, if not the letter, of his statement intact.

We all know the antichrist is a bad thing — a really bad thing. Otherwise, Salazar wouldn’t have apologized. But what does it actually mean? Was Salazar calling Dobson the spawn of Satan, like that thing from The Omen? Many people who tuned into the story may have thought so. The antichrist got a huge boost in the secular imagination when the film opened in 1976.

But the antichrist is hardly an innovation of horror movies. Religious and political leaders have been slinging antichrist invective since Jesus’ time. Martin Luther called the pope the antichrist, a charge echoed for centuries by many Protestants. (For evangelicals to praise the pope is a recent phenomenon, as Christianity Today recently reported.) The notion is deeply embedded in American history from its inception; Christian colonists accused King George and the British of being antichrists. As an insult, it not only connotes a kind of ultimate evil, it can also have prophetic overtones. For some Christians, the antichrist is coming soon or is already here — as one of the signs of the apocalypse.

The ascent of Christian fundamentalism beginning in the early 20th century brought with it many variations of apocalyptic yearning, and an accompanying onslaught of antichrist name-calling. In the suceeding decades, not only the pope but the Soviet Union, the League of Nations and — of course — Jews were called antichrists. Jerry Falwell made headlines in 1999 with the claim that the antichrist was alive and well and was probably a Jewish man. There are numerous books that consider the war in Iraq a sign of the end-times, like The False Prophet, by Ellis H. Skofield, described by its publisher, Armageddon Books, with the words, “These anti-Christian Muslim states are the Leopard-Bear-Lion Beast we read about in Revelation 16:13 — and the malignant influence of that devilish trident can be felt over all the world as they gather the kings of the earth together ‘to the battle of the great day of God Almighty.’”

Perhaps the most popular conception of the antichrist today is Nicolae Carpathia, the Russian secretary-general of the U.N. in the blockbuster Left Behind series of thriller novels, one of whose authors, Tim LaHaye, is a close ally of Dobson’s.

Salazar, who attended St. Francis Seminary for two years while considering the priesthood, has a different understanding of the term’s theological implications. Salazar is a liberal Catholic who has built his political reputation on protecting the environment. As attorney general of Colorado, he was a vocal supporter of abortion rights. The antichrist as he understands it may have nothing to do with the eschatological beasts from the Book of Revelation. Revelation is not generally the favored Biblical book of liberals. It’s both poetic and violent, which makes those who don’t want to traffic in that sort of rhetoric try to avoid it.

And in scriptural terms, the word antichrist doesn’t appear in the Book of Revelation. It appears only in 1 John and 2 John, although references to a beast, false prophet and whore of Babylon in Revelation and 2 Thessalonians are often taken to mean the same thing. Matthew 24 also mentions “false prophets” and “false Christs.” A non-literal reading of this would be a religious hypocrite, some one claiming to be a godly man but who is in fact bent on power and ill-will. This is more likely what Salazar had in mind. Taken in context with Salazar’s other statements about the role of religion in public life and the dangers of theocracy, the antichrist statement begins to seem less of a crackpot insult and more of a political misfire.

But is it a political misfire? There’s been a great deal of talk recently about how the left can reclaim religion. Salazar’s antichrist comment seems a bizarre strategy, but on closer examination it’s not all that surprising. It’s a natural outgrowth of the left’s increasing frustration with how to penetrate the religious right’s impressive command of language and media. And while some editorials argued that Salazar’s comment forced him to cede the moral high ground, it may not have been a complete disaster. However slanderous or insane it may seem, at least it’s memorable — a lot more memorable than Focus on the Family’s tired rebuttal, accusing Salazar of “flip-flopping.” (They say Salazar promised to vote on Bush’s judges, and is now supporting the filibuster.)

Salazar may be adopting the spurious tactics of his opponents by introducing incendiary religious language into a political discussion. But at least he has so far only accused Christians of being un-Christian, which is very different than accusing, say, the Department of Education of being un-Christian — a typical refrain of Dobson, et al. In the realm of politics it really shouldn’t matter if anyone is un-Christian, but Salazar’s willingness to describe Dobson’s adherents by their own extremes smacks of fearlessness. For once, he’s not letting the right get its religious digs in first. However clumsily, he’s breaking up the false monolith of “people of faith” trotted out by the right to describe “Justice Sunday.” And despite Focus on the Family’s barrage of anti-Salazar advertisements, protests and phone calls, bringing out Dobson’s ire may not ultimately be so bad. By challenging Dobson, Salazar has cast himself as David to a Goliath few on the left have dared to challenge outright.

Kate Hawley is a graduate student in New York University’s department of journalism.