Progressive Revival

Progressive Revival

On Evil and the Election

In one of the most explicitly theological questions of Saturday night’s “Saddleback Civil Forum,” Pastor Rick Warren asked both candidates, “Does evil exist in the world today? If so, what should we do about it?” While both Obama and McCain affirmed their belief in the existence of evil, their responses revealed deeply different theological orientations in two major areas that have direct policy implications: human responsibility and the location of evil in the world. 



Obama began his answer by declaring that we have a clear responsibility to confront and resist evil, but that it is “God’s job” to ultimately defeat evil.  Obama went on to clarify that we can be “soldiers” in that effort but that we must have humility to realize that good intentions are not enough to guarantee good actions. McCain, on the other hand, interrupted Warren’s question to flatly state that we should and can “totally defeat evil” in the world. 



While McCain’s bravado garnered more applause among Saddleback’s evangelical audience, it is theologically problematic from a Christian point of view. If America is in charge of defeating evil in the world, this literally puts America in the role of God, a position that theologically speaking is blasphemy.  Despite McCain’s popularity at the evangelical Saddleback forum, it was ironically Obama’s worldview–where God guarantees the defeat of evil while we have faithful parts to play–that reflected not only the more orthodox Christian worldview but also the best of American public theology.  This more chastened position, which is rooted in a theological understanding of human finitude, reflects biblically based Christian thinking from St. Augustine through Martin Luther. This stance is also reflected in what is perhaps the greatest theological statement by an American President, Abraham Lincoln’s (a Republican) second inaugural address, where he declared at the end of a war where both sides had claimed divine favor that “the Almighty has his own purposes.”



Where the two candidates located evil in the world also revealed strikingly contrasting worldviews.  Obama declared that “we see evil” in a variety of places: terrorist acts, in the genocide in Darfur, on the streets of our cities where extreme poverty exists among extreme wealth, and even in American households where parents abuse their children.  McCain, on the other hand, located evil exclusively among “radical Islamic extremists,” which he called “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century.” He then jumped straight to Iraq (ignoring as he has on several occasions the fact that the Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was a secular regime, not an radical Islamic state), saying that evil was not just in Iraq but also “here in the U.S.” where al-Qaida cells are forming.



The central theological problem with McCain’s limitation of evil to radical Islamic extremists is that it locates evil safely among others; for most Americans, this reference conjures a distant other who is a different ethnicity and a different religion. When his gaze turned to America, it was only to focus on representatives of that foreign evil in our midst.  Obama, in contrast, did not exclude any human communities, including our own, from being susceptible to evil.



In the end, Warren’s question about the existence of evil was the most insightful question of the night, opening onto two different vistas for America’s future: a clash of civilizations model that sets us on a course for unlimited war against external evil with an Islamic face and another that aims more realistically at resisting evil both without and within, with humility about our own aims and abilities.



In a different age than our own, where the combination of fear and partisanship had not so regularly trumped theological integrity among so many evangelical congregations, there would be an immediate outcry at the blasphemous assertion that America is the guarantor of the total defeat of evil in the world. That objection was not immediately evident last night at Saddleback.


But the broader religious landscape has been changing since 2004. There are a growing number of religious voices, Republican and Democrat, from different religious traditions and across the Christian theological spectrum (including centrist and progressive evangelicals), whose voices have been more quiet but who are awakening to challenge this posture that has so damaged our reputation in the world.  At the heart of their critique is an embrace of human finitude and a rejection of hubris, which always fuels a dangerous temptation to overreach. These leaders will hold both candidates accountable to higher principles. They are the leaders of the new “values voters” to watch in the 2008 election.



Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., is the author of the new book, Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

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Paul, seeking wisdom

posted August 19, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Dr. Jones hit it on the nose, McCain’s approach to “evil” as only those whose ideology opposes America is very dangerous in my mind. Jesus said to cast the beam out of our eye before going after the speck in the eye of another, and Obama’s reply to evil addresses that very well.
People don’t understand that Bin Laden attacked America because he believes the it was God’s will. In his mind, he thought that he was doing the right thing. Just because you think you are right doesn’t mean that your actions are not evil.
Saddam Hussein was an evil man, truly an evil man. But he was no more evil than Papa Doc. Yet we did not find it evil enough to send thousands of troops to invade his country. No we as a nation wanted to see a religion as evil just as we wanted to see communism as evil. In fact didn’t we call the USSR the evil empire? McCain is still looking for evil empires, he thinks of himself as a Jedi knight, a super hero.
Obama is looking inward and saying we are inherently evil, but by the grace of God, we cam overcome evil and do good, and we need to start here at home first.

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Deward Bowles

posted August 19, 2008 at 1:28 pm

McCain is finished, this forum was the end for him.
Transcripts released of his aides blackberries show that McCain cheated extensively. His aides along with Lieberman fed him the questions and answers given to Obama before hand. They also chose answers for McCain designed to make Obama look bad.
The Cross story that McCain told has been exposed as a story he lifted from a Russian writer. The McCain website released a statement saying that Swindle, a long time campaign surrogate and Vietnam veteran buddy of his remembers McCain telling him that story in 1971.
Problem is Swindle gave an interview in April of this year to Politico where he was ask about the cross story. Swindle said he did not remember McCain telling him that story in the interview.
McCain is not telling the truth about the cross story and he cheated at the Saddleback forum.
All in an effort to convince Christians that he is a man of faith and Christan beliefs.

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MY Muslim

posted August 19, 2008 at 2:20 pm

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Jones’ assertions. McCain shows great hubris, self-deception, and arrogance in believing that he can pit Americans in an endless “us vs. them” global battle of wills. He attempts to continue marketing the warmongering Bush/Cheney fairytale that we must all join their dillusional fight of fantasy against their exaggerated threat of millions of violent Muslims worldwide. As Bush/Cheney/McCain & Co. collude to frighten us about who they allege as the greatest source of their snakeoil evil, the M.I.C. McCain camp continue to promote using our U.S. military as their personal mercenary force and sacrificial lambs in order to conquer Iraq’s oilfields for the cause of Bush/Cheney’s Big Oil interests.
This fear-driven outline for continuous war is in and of itself evil. It ensures that the decades-old good ol’ boy Pentagon club to which McCain belongs keeps it’s M.I.C. (military industrial complex) machine well-oiled and running at full tilt with no-bid contracts supporting more American imperialism. McCain finds war a “necessary evil” because he and his M.I.C. buddies profit from it’s global spread and persistence. It’s currently the dominating game forced upon other nations to be played unless they also want to be our next victim in our crosshairs as we play global bully. One only has to look at who’s profiting from the corruption of Bush/Cheney imperialism and gunboat diplomacy during the last 8 years to know how our country’s moral reputation worldwide has sunk to record depths (tops with record profits are defense contractors as well as oil companies).
Obama’s belief in a finite human response to evil shows his humility and sense of responsibility that we all have towards controlling evil in our shared world. The fact that he sees all of us personally accountable to some degree for either promoting or discouraging evil shows that he understands how the sum of all humanity’s parts equals the quality of the whole of humanity. This is a bottom up, grassroot approach to thinking as opposed to the maniacal, top down, lustful approach McCain would like to inherit from Bush/Cheney & Co. Obama has shown that he is a person who believes that it is God who ultimately has the power to decide our fates with his mercy and who is influenced by our good or bad deeds, whereas McCain dangerously believes that Commander in Chief is the equivalent to being Pharoah. He is anxious to start ruling “his” world, if we would only give him the opportunity to control the world and allow him access to potentially destructive millitary forces at his command!
Contrast that lunacy with Obama’s belief that diplomacy is God’s gift to humans. Diplomacy is there for those who choose a straight and moral path towards peace. His team of ambassadors for peace will use their spiritual senses and forces of intellect and compassion to restrain and hopefully undo the whisperings of the devil before more chaos rules the world. They will then build on the common ground of stability that peace provides to ensure more prosperity and blessings for all of God’s children. It will not just be more of the greedy minority who take what they want for immediate self-gratification in defiance of God’s will, only to be punished with God’s wrath in this life and in the next.
It’s not too hard to see who would be the calm, rational voice of reason we desparately need for control at the helm. The President will need to do his careful and thoughtful analysis of moral problems that lie ahead in the Oval Office. He may not be perfect, but at least he’s humble enough to realize where his limits are as a mortal as he puts his trust in God. It is only God whom we can pray guides Obama as the new captain of our ship to change course and make the right moral decisions for our country. He will need our prayers and support in the stormy years that lie ahead after we followed 8 disasterous years of listening to Satan. The first years may be the hardest as he will have to deprogram those Americans who took the Bush/Cheney fearmongering bait hook,line, and sinker. It will be a long educational challenge to restore America’s faith in our next leader.

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spaghetti cat

posted August 20, 2008 at 8:55 pm

As someone who is a non-believer, I have to say that this post and accompanying comments, were very objective and enlightened and quite frankly, i was surprised to see them posted on a blog devoted to the issue of belief and religion. Truly a breath of fresh air amid the much more vocal and pervasive fundamentals who call out to their brethren to “pray for rain at the Denver Democratic convention” and other counterproductive and hypocritical actions. This is the difference between a theological discussion and a mindless brainwashing. Keep up the good work.

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