Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole, Part 2

Today is the second installment of Baldblogger's interview with Scott Poole.....

Baldblogger (BB): One of the thoughts that came to mind as I read Satan in America was “fate” of God/gods according to the secularization thesis/narrative. Many of the foremost supporters of the secularization thesis have recanted in recent years (e.g., Peter Berger), writing about the endurance of religion and faith in the technological age. From one perspective, it seems that Satan “survived” the secularization thesis; few seemed to question the existence (and/or reality) of the Prince of Darkness even as many doubted the viability of belief in God/gods. Is this an accurate observation, and if so, what does this say about Satan in American religious history?

Scott Poole (SP): I don’t think the secularization thesis is at all tenable for American society. I actually make the case mushrooming beliefs about Satan from the 60s until today underscore the idea that not only is America not becoming more secular, its becoming more religious all the time. Berger has, as you note, recanted. Its as telling to note that the author of The Secular City, Harvey Cox, has published books on Pentecostalism and another called When Jesus Went to Harvard in the last few years.

Along these lines, part of my own intellectual background was a book that made a huge impression on me in the mid-90s called The Death of Satan. Written by the brilliant cultural historian and commentator Andrew Delbanco, the book argues that, as beliefs about Satan and the world of spiritual evil declined throughout American history (especially in the 20th with what he calls the birth of a “culture of irony”), Americans lost the ability to talk bout evil in meaningful terms

It’s a profound book but, in my mind, profoundly wrong in certain respects. Americans have not lost the language to talk about evil—they have a lurid, gaudy and intemperate language with which they do talk about it. What Americans have never been able to face, at least Americans who are white and of middle class and upper class status, is the way the national experiment is profoundly entangled with historical evil.

I hope that readers are struck, as I still am, by how frequently the Devil has been the ghost at the American banquet. My own experience as an author was to feel like I was on a guided tour of an American inferno, where beliefs about demonology seemed to be creating horrors at every turn. This didn’t cease in the 18th century, or the 19th century or t an point in the 20th. Indeed, one of my last chapters is entitled “Lucifer Rising” to convey the sense that , for specific historical reason, post-Vietnam, post-Nixon America became fertile ground for lurid beliefs about the Devil.

BB: Is has been interesting to read Satan in America during the opening months of President Obama’s tenure. As many are aware, some on the Right have presented the President as an incarnation of evil, with a few even claiming that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. This is a striking contrast to depictions of Obama as a messiah-like figure during the campaign. To what extent do these contemporary depictions relate to the arguments you make in Satan in America?
SP: I was completing the book in the final months of Bush presidency with the campaign well under way. Some bits were actually added during the revision/editing process after Election Day. I’m pleased you bring this up because, as an author, you always wonder if your book will be immediately dated, so much “of the moment” that it has little meaning once that moment passes. I, for example, wondered (and in some ways hoped) if the closing chapters of the book were so pessimistic and angry that it would seem very out of place in an America where hope seemed a the national sentiment.

I’m sorry to say that, if I were writing those final chapters today, I suspect that they might be even darker and angrier. The book argues throughout that the a desire to do violence to the Other has been one of the cycles hardwired into the structure of American historical experience, the process of demonization followed by an unleashing of terrible violence. In the last twelve months, the rhetoric of irresponsible individuals like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh , the pathological paranoia of the “tea baggers,” the fact that a recent poll of New Jersey Republics found almost forty percent of them saying that Obama was definitely or at least maybe the Antichrist points to a rising tide of darkness in American public life.

The book deals with the portrayals of Obama as the antichrist, as well as Sarah Palin’s connection to an exorcist who worries about the influence of Satan in the media and believes himself a witch-hunter. This is worth pondering: some of our fellow citizens believe the President to be a supernatural creature possessed by Satan and leading the world to the end-times. A recent vice presidential candidate has an exorcist as a spiritual mentor.

In 1836, Hawthorne wrote of Gallows Hill in Salem that it was overgrown and covered in weeds, just as the place “where superstition won its darkest triumph” should be. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Hawthorne was too optimistic. I don’t think that we have yet seen superstitions darkest triumph in our national history yet.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by some pointed and poignant comments you make in the closing paragraph in the Epilogue: “American historians have not, as of yet, been able to speak meaningfully about the reality of evil in national history . . .This is a failing in the profession. For too long, allegedly rejected notions of “American exceptionalism” and “American innocence” have blinded both the amateur public and the professional historian to the darker chapters of our history. . . Only when American historians reject the vestiges of national myth and equally acidic myths of “historical objectivity” can American historiography undergo a much needed exorcism.” I wonder if you can elaborate briefly on these thoughts?

SP: I think that American historians, especially those who deal with the American South, have dealt with individual evils and have been willing to discuss those in some detail. There is a powerful and moving historiography of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and treatment of the native peoples. What I was hinting at (it is not fully developed in the book) is that most Americans, historians and otherwise, do not have a sense of collective guilt over collective evil. We are all aware of the evils committed by the American nation-state throughout its history, we even are aware that the boundaries of the west were carved out by mass slaughter while prosperity was built in the east on the brutal subjugation of four million African Americans. And yet, we still have a major debate in the Texas school system over American history textbooks (and its thus a national debate since Texas purchase so many textbooks that it will effect what is published and what isn’t) with conservative leaders arguing that our schools should teach “American exceptionalism” and an optimistic notion of American achievement while avoiding any negative portrayals of American history.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction for many would be to write this off as the ranting of an “anti-American” That is also an example of the refusal to face our collective past. Don’t the American people have a deep well of moral and spiritual tradition that calls us to some degree of penitence or at least mourning over our national atrocities? If not, doesn’t that mean there is something rotten at our very center? Either we are morally clueless or like Satan himself, filled with a kind of Miltonic triumph over our war against the good.

I don’t believe in the Devil that so many of those I have studied believe in. But I do believe in massive, collective historical evil, trans-human in its ability to incite violence and then encourage apathy about the result of that violence. And I think it has us just where it wants us.

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