Should We Not Give the Devil His Due?

John W. Whitehead

“The enemy that has come against our nation is a spiritual enemy. His name is Satan.”—Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, U.S. Army

These words, along with others recently spoken by Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, have caused a media tremor by those who believe his remarks to be overtly religious and, thus, highly inappropriate. It is possible that much of what he said may be construed as inappropriate because of his position in the military. However, in this chaotic world filled with war, torture and terrorism, Boykin is like many others who see something supernatural working behind the scenes of everyday events. This supernatural something, they believe, is evil, and it corrupts virtually everything and everyone.

I would venture to say that the repertoire of evil has never been richer than it is today. “Yet never have our responses been so weak,” writes Professor Andrew Delbanco in his insightful book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995).

We are bombarded by chaotic and murderously destructive images on a daily basis, but we have lost a way to articulate the nature of the evil that we see. Thus, when met with a shocking new cruelty, most Americans, anxious and amazed, simply shudder, wince and then switch the channel. It is easier to escape into entertainment and other distractions rather than face reality.

Serial killers and rapists; school shootings where children and teachers are murdered; corporate thievery and greed; terrorists murdering thousands of innocent people – there must be a better explanation for these acts of violence than the simple and oft-resorted-to belief that the perpetrators hate us, for whatever reason. In fact, 350 years ago, evil had a name, a face and an explanation, and it was grounded in our Judeo-Christian beliefs. As Delbanco writes, “It was called the Fall, it was personified by the devil, and it was attributed to an original sin committed in Eden and imputed by God to all mankind.”

To American settlers, the Devil was a presence in most people’s lives. He was a symbol and an explanation for both the cruelties one received and those perpetuated upon others. That concept has since been lost to a modern society steeped in the deadening embrace of science and materialism. Consequently, we are left without the moral markers we once depended on for knowing who, and where, we are.

Whatever position one takes on the question of evil, there was once a concept of sin. It may have been broad and somewhat capricious, but it was meaningful. And it has now faded into a sea of moral ambiguity. As Lionel Tiger writes in The Manufacture of Evil (1991): “Once upon a time, evil was personified. Evil was Mephistopheles or the Devil. Almost flavorful, altogether identifiable, a clarified being from another world.”

Most Americans once believed the world to be an emanation of the mind of God. And anything that happened in it – be it war, famine, pestilence – had punitive or admonitory meaning. As late as 1912, when the “unsinkable” Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, the press coverage of the disaster recounted it as a “lesson written in searing lines on ice-floe and curling wave-crest.” The lesson was scriptural and was most likely taken from Christ’s statement in Luke 14:11: “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Today, however, the world for most people is regarded as a place of unknown origin in which we find ourselves adrift for no known reason.

Unfortunately, “as we lose touch with the idea of evil,” Delbanco writes, “we seem to need more and more vivid representations of it – as if it were a drug whose potency diminishes with each use.” The vivid images out of horror films and books and the steady diet of death images on the never-ending news programs attest to this.

No matter how repugnant the idea of an evil being that corrupts our institutions and causes horrible catastrophes may be, most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they yearn for a world in which what they see happening can be explained. They cling to the idea of a world where responsibility for evil is clear, whether it be a supernatural force or the evil that somehow resides within each of us and is manipulated by that force or entity. They find comfort in a world where evil can still be recognized, have meaning and require a response.

Our flustered response to evil and the being that represents it is cogently summed up in Thomas Harris’ horror novel, The Silence of the Lambs (1988), in an exchange between Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist who bites his victims to death and then cannibalizes them, and the young female FBI agent who seeks his help in pursuing another serial killer. Peering from within his plexiglass prison, the madman poses the modern dilemma:

Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?

What is terrifying is not so much what the monster Lecter says. The horror is that we cannot seem to answer his question.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at

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Charlottesville, VA 22906-7482
Phone :: 434.978.3888 (8:30 AM - 5:00 PM Eastern)
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13 nov 2003