Progressive Revival

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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