Who is Satan and what is he doing in our presidential politics? The figure of Satan is popularly understood as the opposite of all that is godly and good. That’s the culturally held view of Satan, and one that GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, seems to share. It’s just not biblical.
But in Republican presidential politics, biblical views of Satan actually explain a lot.
Ironically enough, the biblical understandings of Satan show us the way human beings can become blinded by their own virtue and thus fail to recognize that temptation comes from within. This is the form of temptation that is tearing the Republican party apart, as was so evident in the Arizona debate. According to Matt Taibbi, what that debate showed is a Republican party turning its enemy paranoia even on itself. The Republicans have “run out of foreign enemies to point fingers at. They’ve already maxed out the rhetoric against us orgiastic, anarchy-loving pansexual liberal terrorists. The only possible remaining explanation for their troubles is that their own leaders have failed them. There is a stranger in the house!”
“There is a stranger in the house,” and even ?a stranger among me and mine,” is a deeply biblical way to understand the real figure of Satan. Elaine Pagels, in her book, “The Origin of Satan,” has aptly summed up what the biblical figure of Satan really challenges us to confront, “that this greatest and most dangerous enemy did not originate, as one might expect, as an outsider, an alien, or a stranger. Satan is not the distant enemy but the intimate enemy—one’s trusted colleague, close associate, brother…Whichever version of his origin one chooses, and there are many, all depict Satan as intimate enemy—the attribute that qualifies him so well to express conflict among Jewish groups. Those who asked, ‘How could God’s own angel become his enemy?’ were thus asking, in effect, ‘How could one of us become on of them?’” (p. 49)
This is, of course, also the question that is confronting the followers of Jesus who compose the gospels. In their struggle within and with the traditional Jewish teaching and practice of the time, these reformer Jews who were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the writers of the gospels (composed between 70 and 100 C.E.), are trying to figure out why their own religious fellows reject them, sometimes violently. Matthew shows Jesus in a titanic struggle with the Jewish religious leaders of his time, the scribes and Pharisees, whom Jesus denounces as “children of hell.”(Matt. 23:15). This struggle reaches its Gospel climax in John.
At the deepest level, the biblical figure of the Devil, as Pagels suggests, is not some transcendent figure of ultimate evil contending with God and goodness; no, the seemingly cosmic struggle with evil the popular Devil with a pitchfork image evokes actually masks what is always actually an incredibly intimate struggle. It is not the struggle with the enemy far off, but with the friend, the neighbor and ultimately with oneself. The Devil in the Bible is not pure evil; Satan is the temptation within, the human struggle to be good in a very broken and conflicted world. Finally the only way to really understand the Devil is to understand the very human temptation to fail to examine our own consciences, and our perhaps greatest human failing, our desire to project evil outward on to others.
Republican candidates are exhibiting this temptation to an alarming degree in their increasingly shrill and targeted attacks on one another, matching “fire with fire” as Santorum noted. All too true.
I cannot, like Matt Taibbi, rejoice in this spectacle, tempting as that may be for me. But when the entirety of our politics today becomes enslaved to passionate negativity, lies too numerous to count, whiplash hypocrisy, and aggrieved partisanship, all fueled by a cesspool of SuperPAC money, surely even the secular as well as the religious can hear the faint echo of Satan laughing.
Republican politicians have been tempted by their own alleged hyper-righteousness, and blinded by the glare of their presumed virtue. And so, they fell into tempation.
But this year, I fear they are taking democracy down with them.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is an On Faith panelist.