Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Satan in America by W. Scott Poole

Satan emerged in the ancient Near East as a minor character in Yahweh's heavenly court. Today, after a 4,000 year historical and literary transformation from God's envoy of disaster to God's archenemy, he enjoys a celebrity status. Horror films make us cringe at his power to corrupt the human personality, while best-selling books offer to tell his side of the story. Novelizations of Armageddon declare him a character of cosmic importance with an intricate and devious design on humanity. Tens of millions of America's evangelical Christians believe they are in constant daily combat with the same dark angel who has warred with God since the endless eons even before creation.

Most Americans do believe in Satan. A 2005 poll (Gallop and the Baylor Institute for the Study of Religion) found that 55 percent of Americans claimed they believe he is a literal being, a supernatural entity dedicated to evil and corruption and that he is active in the world today through a host of demonic minions. A 2007 Harris poll revealed that 62 percent believed Satan to be alive and well (while only 42% accepted the Darwinian theory of evolution). Belief in the devil among evangelical Christians is especially high but even a large percentage of Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants shared similar beliefs. In America, Satan has survived. He has more believers here than in any other country in the developed world.

The idea of satanic evil has been the progenitor of much mayhem in America's national history. Satan provided us a metaphor for what our culture hates and fears most in our history. The devil and our fascination with him has served as a blind for our society's darker moments, those times when the United States has renounced its collective moral obligations and acted out of its anxiety or lust for power. Puritans found Satan lurking in the “howling wilderness” (native peoples) and in marginal members of their own community. In the 1970s, more concerned seemed focused on discovering the “truth about exorcism” than facing the hard truths of the Pentagon Papers. In the 1980s, the absurd SRA (satanic ritual abuse) upheaval unleashed anxieties that seemed straight out of the peasant village politics of early modern Europe. During the same decade, millions of children in the United States did suffer, not from the actions of conspiratorial Satanists, but from poverty, poor schooling, the emerging crack epidemic and inadequate health care. Those religious traditions and leaders most interested in speaking of the devil remained the most silent on those grinding social problems, even as they created intricate demonologies. The inevitable exclusions, persecutions and violence followed.

A look at the American experience shows that we love the notion of evil. Moralists and social conservatives may insist that Americans have lost the sense of evil and the sense of sin. This is not the case. In the days immediately following 9/11 President Bush's deployment of the ideas of evil and evil-doers swept history clean of all ambiguity and focused the collective rage and sorrow to a sharpened spear tip. A chorus of voices soon joined him and soon we no longer faced a human tragedy or even human enemies. We were instead in a mythic battle with monsters. Exactly like those who murdered our fellow citizens, we were fighting the Great Satan, the Cults and Axis of Evil in a military operation deemed Infinite Justice.

The story of Satan in America reveals central truths about American culture. The religious history of America has been informed by the concept of spiritual warfare, combat with evil. The images that have shaped American misogyny, racism and imperial hubris are largely demonic images. We have seldom asked the more profound questions about evil and instead focused on the nature of evil using the mythical language of the apocalypse. This language has fed the thirst for power and violence while also allowing us a language of innocence.

Belief in a metaphysical Devil allows us to ignore the fact that America has been a fallen angel from the beginning. The rhetoric of religious declension, use by Puritan ministers and today by the religious right has an ahistorical diversion for powerful cultural forces that imagines a golden age destroyed by the growth of sexual freedom and secularization. But their golden age was one of segregation, disenfranchisement, the restriction of women's lives and bodies, and the birth of an imperialistic hubris that is still with us, that pretends to save a village by destroying it, that seeks to make the stars fall from heaven in pursuit of millennial dreams, and constructs Satan as the ultimate origin of any effort towards progressive political change.

The ideology of innocence has long informed the writing of American history: “Other nations may seek to fashion empire; America has always and only represented, and fought on behalf of, democracy and freedom.' Although this view has long been under attack and has no contemporary defenders among professional historians, it remains a popular folk belief and a handy rhetorical tool for politicians. There is some truth to the notion of American exceptionalism, but it is not a happy one. To rephrase Tony Judt's famous comment on postwar Germany, America is a nation uniquely unconscious of its crimes and unaware of the scale of its accountability. The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God's chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic process.

An America drunk on notions of its own innocence and goodness has easily identified the devil with its enemies and its enemies with the devil time and time again. At one time or another in American history, the most influential religious movements, the most powerful politicians, and the dominant trends in popular culture have identified marginalized women, native peoples, slaves, Roman Catholics, Muslims, social progressives, alienated young adults, immigrants and numerous other social and political groupings and identities as satanic, inspired by Satan, or even Satan himself.

“Tell the truth and shame the devil”, “don't paint the devil on the wall” are East European folk sayings that suggest a better path for dealing with the devil. The discourse of evil is comforting because it feeds our worst appetites, calling us to supine indifference or explosive violence but it betrays a lack of moral imagination. Our invocations of the devil become the worst kind of hubris, cynical legitimation of past error and a prologue for future mayhem. We imagine we are looking into the abyss , not realizing that it is looking into us. Individual and collective introspection is the more difficult choice. But with it comes the recognition that it is America whose name is legion. It is our dark history, not devils that must be cast out.


  1. Recent writing by biblical scholars has noted the profound irony that the New Testament language of 'the Beast” first emerged as a symbol of the 'godless' imperial society, the Roman Empire that persecuted the minority Christian faith. It was an image that offered a prophetic critique of the power of empire and its violent foundations. The politics of the devil were the politics of violence. Evil was not found lurking in the hearts of the marginalized whose struggles might upset the status quo but rather in the established order built on the massacre of the saints who had opposed it. Transposing contemporary evangelical assumptions about the apocalypse to the first century would have created a very different reading of politics and society. Indeed, if the politics of the Christian Right had been operative in 90 CE, John the Revelator would not have been challenging the presumptions of godless empire but instead writing symbolically about the need for Nero to extend his geopolitical influence, crush the heathen barbarian, and call all Roman citizens to a renewed commitment to imperial power in a war without mercy and a war without end.


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