Radical Apocalypticism and Violence in American Political Rhetoric

On October 7, members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a self-styled militia, were arrested as conspirators in a plot to kidnap the democratic Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. The Wolverine Watchmen were concerned that the Governor was overstepping her role in the decision to place restrictions on many economic sectors due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. The group hoped to put Governer Whitmer “on trial” for her supposed crimes. The actions of the Wolverine Watchmen are not a simple case of classic partisan policy divisions, where multiple perspectives form checks and balances and contribute to a democratic consensus. Rather, these actions are only one of the most sensational of a recent trend toward a radical apocalyptic ideology that has poisoned the civic discourse and threatens to undue the United State’s national fabric.

Of course, the plans of the Wolverine Watchmen are not the first time that anti-government violence has been touted by extremists as a necessary means for enacting justice as they see it. In 2016, Ammon Bundy led a group of Latter-Day Saints sectarians and anti-government militia men into an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that lasted 41 days. The group did not set out to commit acts of violence against people, but they were intent on occupying government property through force of arms and defending their claim if necessary. Underneath the events at Malheur is an apocalyptic ideology that believes God had revealed a Constitutional form of government to the founders of the United States, but that this divinely given form of government has degenerated into tyranny. Ammon Bundy’s Mormon faith, like Christianity and many other religious traditions, is replete with apocalyptic themes: the revelation of a secret, God-given message to the faithful, opposition by evil forces, and a final victory over the forces of evil for the faithful who will enjoy God’s pleasure in eternity. In the case of the Bundy militia, religious apocalypticism has been wed to political apocalypticism. In this vision, a libertarian-styled interpretation of early United States’ constitutionalism coupled with religious nationalism support a framework in which the group could deem government ownership of lands as illegal, and any groups of people who oppose their own views (e.g. secularists, liberals, “city people”) as illegitimate voices degrading the nation in immorality. Several of the Malheur occupiers espoused anti-Semitic views, decrying a “synagogue of Satan” cabal and accusing the Federal Government of trying to set up a freedom-revoking “New World Order.” In their view, occupying federal property and threatening federal agents with violence was not only justified, it was a patriotic duty to return the nation to what they believed God had commanded.

The word “apocalypticism” literally means “unveiling” and it connotes a revelation of God’s secret plan for human destiny. In this case, the many militia groups who descended on Malheur in 2016 were united in their view that God had created the United States to occupy a special place in history through its political structures and its application of liberty as they understood it. But while apocalypticism is found in many religions, it can just as easily be non-religious. The Bundy militias’ occupation of Federal property was motivated by a particular interpretation of the US Constitution, which to them was obvious, non-negotiable, and revealed by God. Because the “unveiled” truth was a political structure, their actions show the political nature of apocalyptic thinking.

Contemporary depictions of the United States’ beginnings as a nation are often intertwined with explicitly religious language of divine providence and God-given purpose. Even for non-religious people, particular histories of the United States’ Founders and the Constitution become a type of sacred text that reveal ultimate truths about human organization and collective destiny. All of this is inherently apocalyptic. I am not here making a statement about the historical accuracy of these narratives that have formed American civic apocalypticism, rather I am using the lens of apocalypticism to draw out the ideologies that support extrajudicial violence against government agents and against political opponents. The actions of the Bundy militia were violence against property with the threat of violence against persons and it demonstrated a growing sentiment in some radical wings of the American political spectrum that democratically established policies could be legitimately overturned through the use of violent force. The kidnaping plot in Michigan show that these sentiments have only become more extreme.

How do these ideas develop? After all, there is nothing inherently violent about apocalyptic ideas. As I have already argued, apocalyptic frameworks are widespread across cultures and through history. Most of these frameworks do not support personal violence. Frances Flannery, a leading scholar in apocalyptic movements, has made an important distinction between the “Formula for Apocalypticism,” which is non-violent, and the “Formula for Radical Apocalypticism,” which supports violence.

According to Flannery, the “Formula for apocalypticism” contains three primary elements:

1) A secret about the nature of the world: the world is broken and influenced by evil

2) A secret about another higher or future world: there is a world in which justice and peace reign. The faithful will either go to that world someday or that world will come to the faithful, if the faithful persevere

3) A secret about the future: the current broken world cannot last; the future glorious world will one day become universal[1]

These elements do not entail violence, neither are they inherently religious. For example, Utopian societies and communes could be defined through these elements. Ideas about American exceptionalism and American manifest destiny form a type of American civic apocalypticism that, likewise, purports a golden ideal for society that is often described in redemptive language. Through American history, ideals, and institutions, the American civic apocalypticism corresponds to the criteria Flannery has laid out in the “Formula for apocalypticism.”

However, in addition to the “Formula for apocalypticism,” Flannery shows how apocalyptic movements can become violent when another set of logically consistent but not inevitable elements are added to the generic formula. Flannery calls this the “Formula for radical apocalypticism,” adding four elements to the original three:

4) Authoritative Revelation/Interpretation: the revelation, or “unveiling,” of the secret meaning of history and ultimate truth is ongoing to the group’s leaders

5) Active Eschatology: the actions of the faithful can trigger the end of the current corrupt era and bring about events that usher in the age of God/Goodness

6) “Othering”/Concretized Evil: Those who do not agree with the faithful are evil. The radical apocalyptic group’s revelation identifies opponents as tyrants, inherently evil, and irredeemable

7) Redemptive Violence/Revenge: Violence is redemptive, and, in fact, it is necessary to bring the “Good” or the golden ideal into existence. God, or some set of mythic ideals of ultimate significance, have been transgressed and violence is demanded to eliminate evil and establish the good. Vengeance against evil forces serves a redemptive purpose.[2]

These additional four points are crucial to understanding how apocalyptic frameworks transition from relatively-mainstream ideologies to violent terrorism. We see these features at work in the attempted kidnapping of Governor Whitmer. 4) The accused plotters purportedly believed they could judge appropriate government action without waiting for the judicial system to work. In other words, their actions were extrajudicial because they believed they had the authoritative revelation. 5) Likewise, according to statements, they believed their actions would start a civil war that would lead to the overthrow of evil forces, 6) who were now concretized in the form of democratic, left-leaning political leaders such as those who issued restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The “others” were seen as treasonous and could be understood as enemies of the people, even though they were elected by the majority of the people. 7) In fact, the group could justify their actions because Democratic politicians and those who support them, even if the majority of voters, were illegitimate and evil forces who are to be hated. The results of the civil war would be a world more in line with their political ideology, which would be a type of golden age where Americans could fully inhabit the plotter’s view of the nation’s “true” social and political destiny.

Political and social violence, then, are seen as justified and necessary because they bring about a type of transcendent destiny that would be otherwise unavailable because of the base corruption of the entrenched evil forces. In the current American political moment, the threat of violence runs high. The four components of violent, radical apocalypticism are more pervasive in the civic discourse then they have been in recent history. Whether through radio talk shows, internet forums, cable news networks, or partisan rallies, groups with political agendas are inculcating narratives that become self-evident truth claims to adherents of that position.

As a meaning-making ideology, apocalypticism creates a powerful framework for understanding one’s role in world events and the significance of current events in the sweep of history. It can, also, solidify and exaggerate social and political differences, and it can magnify the power of confirmation bias. Apocalypticism, on the positive side, functions to motivate adherents in difficult situations. However, radical apocalypticism ultimately undercuts the ethical core of the adherent’s perspective because it romanticizes violence against opponents. That this radical view has become pronounced in the lead up to the election is a sign of the collapse of moral leadership at the highest levels of American politics. It is also a sign that a cold civil war is already underway, one where proxy groups like right-wing and left-wing militias enact violence on behalf of their cause and the more mainstream supporters of each side watch with satisfaction.

The truth is that violence committed against anybody, even political opponents, is violence committed against each of us. Whether perpetuating the radical apocalyptic perspective by direct acts of violence or through a feeling of satisfaction about the violence enacted on others, we are all implicated in the tone of our national political rhetoric. Politicians, religious leaders, media outlets, and, we, ourselves, enable social and political violence when we adopt a feeling of self-righteous satisfaction that violence is redemptive when it causes suffering for opponents. We, as a nation, can be better than this. We must become aware of the way our political rhetoric has fostered revenge-seeking and robbed us of our moral center. Not only will being aware of the way violent, uncritical, and vituperative ideas become ingrained help us challenge those thoughts as they arise, it can help us examine whether our political views, and the methods employed on behalf of those views, are consistent with our ethics and values. Self-reflection and self-examination are essential practices in the development of a moral and constructive society. These practices also lead to empathy. On the eve of the 2020 election, empathy must take a place in the pantheon of American values next to equality, liberty, and justice.

[1] Francis Flannery, Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset, (Taylor and Francis, 2016), 64.

[2] Flannery, Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism, 67–68.

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Jon R. Kershner

Jon R. Kershner

I am a theologian, father, husband and baseball lover. I like to think about living intentionally and well. about.me/JonRKershner