Sunday, October 25, 2009

Satan and America

I recently connected with W. Scott Poole, an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He has written a book titled Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), and the following essay is adapted from that book. It originally appeared in The Post and Courier.

Is the president of the United States the Antichrist? Is there a powerful supernatural, and sinister supernatural, being who fights by the side of America's enemies? Will thousands of agents of Satan be active this Halloween, prowling the autumn night in search of victims?

While some might think ideas such as these belong in 15th-century Europe, they have played a significant role in the political rhetoric and cultural anxieties of contemporary America.

A September poll taken among New Jersey Republicans found that 35 percent believed either that Barack Obama was the Antichrist or were "not sure." In the Iraq War, during the assault on Fallujah in November 2004, Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl told the BBC that, "The enemy has got a face. He is called Satan and we are going to destroy him." And since the 1970s, rumors about "satanic covens" operating on All Hallows Eve have changed the nature of Halloween celebrations.

Americans have long held this fascination with the devil, so much so that understanding this shadow side to American history helps us understand much about American identity.

The Salem Witch Trials are perhaps the best known, though often misunderstood, examples of belief in Satan influencing public life. What is not generally known is that Salem was not the only outbreak of witch hunting in Colonial America. In the first 100 years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, close to 400 settlers faced accusations as witches. Witch hunts occurred in Virginia in 1706 and as late as 1779 in the newly opened Illinois territory.

Morality movements

In both 18th- and 19th-century America, successive religious revivals swept the nation under the guidance of leaders such as George Whitfield, Charles G. Finney and D.L. Moody. Preaching the central importance of a powerful conversion experience, these leaders also emphasized the dangers of the devil's snare.

By the 1830s and 1840s, the energy from these revivals helped generate numerous movements for reform. These movements, from temperance to abolition, used imagery associated with Satan to rally their troops in a moral crusade.

The Civil War itself became a moment when both sides saw the devil in the shape of their enemies. A pamphlet published by the Ladies Christian Commission, a Northern organization that helped provide support for the Union armies, described how the Union was "working for the downfall of the Antichrist." A writer in Upstate South Carolina called Satan "the first abolitionist."

In the 20th century, the birth and growth of new styles of the Christian faith placed the devil and his doings at the center of their faith and practice. Pentecostalism emerged in the early 20th century as a faith of the downtrodden, a belief that miraculous powers of healing and the language of angels could be alive and active in the modern Christian Church.

This belief in miracles, combined with a sense that these very miracles were signs of the end, also opened the door to the possibility that spiritual evil was alive and well in the world. By the 1970s, entire Pentecostal organizations were devoted to what became known as "deliverance ministries" that promised freedom from demonic powers.

Horror and fear

After America's tumultuous '60s, the popularity of the devil at the movies mirrored the growing religious fascination with his work.

Films such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" signaled a new kind of scary flick, the "religious horror movie" in which dark spiritual forces became the monster. The films often proved to be fascinating and unsettling to Americans in the unsettled times of the late '60s and early '70s. "The Exorcist" in particular triggered strong reactions, with theater patrons not only screaming but also vomiting, passing out and reporting weeks of sleepless nights.

The combination of religious anxiety and pop culture fascination had some frightening results in the real world. In the 1980s, what scholars are now calling "the satanic panic" seized portions of the population.

Evangelical leaders accused heavy metal musicians of including coded messages in their music that would lead teenagers toward Satan worship. Rumors of active satanic cults kidnapping children became so common that, in 1985, the popular television news magazine "20/20" did an "expose" by Geraldo Rivera called "The Devil Worshippers."

Although deeply flawed in its reporting, network television's willingness to make use of urban legends and rumors brought worries about "Satan worship" to a peak.

A wave of panic and fear mongering ruined the reputations of innocent people. In some cases, law enforcement took these claims seriously, sometimes even making use of so-called "repressed memories" as their primary evidence. So-called "rumor panics" became common at schools and day-care centers.

The "satanic panic" of the 1980s grew out of the nation's long fascination with the devil, the fear and anxiety many Americans had felt since the late '60s, and the era's political conservatism.

The devil inside?

By the mid-1990s, fascination with the devil in popular culture, and popular theology, had reached fever pitch. Horror films such as "Stigmata" and "Devil's Advocate" regularly borrowed religious imagery. The wildly popular "Left Behind" series, authored by Tim Lahaye and Paul Jenkins, portrayed Satan as masterminding a takeover of the world's religions and its political structure at the end of time.

Making sense of the role played by the devil in American history helps make sense of the nation's self-understanding, its sense of identity. At every moment in American history, the devil has been the nation's secret self, the inspiration for witch hunts from Salem to the McCarthy era, a rumor and a panic running through the culture.

The devil we know has been, too often, the devil we have found in our political and cultural enemies.

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